"Always give thanks to God": A Sermon for Proper 26-II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
I want to share a story to begin my sermon today…a story I like to tell about my grandmother, Carrie Lou, and perhaps have before. Carrie Lou now resides in the everlasting arms of love among the Saints of God and in many ways she is indeed a saint to me…and as we are on the cusp of All Saints’ day, which is November st, this seems a perfect time for me to remember Carrie Lou, as I hope you might be remembering the saints in your own lives this week. So the story is about a time in Carrie Lou’s life when things were not going particularly well…or particularly easy. She was already in her late 70’s and, in addition, had a whole lot of heavy stuff on her plate, if you will. Her sister in law Nettie, my great aunt, was nearing the end of her life and Carrie Lou was her primary care giver. As those of you who have walked with someone at the end of their life know, this is good…but hard, emotional work. Additionally, Carrie Lou was caring or Nettie while recovering from surgery and treatment for Breast Cancer…so she was already weaker and in more pain than usual. Moreover, my father, her son, was not doing well. He was in the throes of profound addiction and in many ways Carrie Lou was also her son’s caregiver in this time of his life…so again, perhaps it goes without saying…she had a lot of heavy stuff on her plate. And though Carrie Lou was naturally a positive and upbeat person…she was feeling really sad…afraid she didn’t have what was required to meet the demands before her…the strength she needed to care for those she loved in the ways they needed caring for. She literally wondered if she would make it through each day. She wondered if God was with her in her struggle and travail…and again it all made her real sad…all the way down to her toes.
Well, as typical for her, she made a good decision, one we might all keep in mind, before she was utterly overwhelmed by the life she was living and the challenges she was facing…she reached out for help. Something that is easier said than done in our success driven…independent minded…pick yourself up by your boot straps sort of world. She called my mom and confided in her. Though my parents had long before been divorced…the two remained close…almost like mother/daughter. Carrie Lou shared with my mom her sadness and frustration and sense of not being and having enough of what was required to keep pushing forward…keep putting one foot in front of another…and my mother…another saint from my own life…sent her a little book called “31 Days of Praise”. And at the heart of this little book was the idea of gratitude…the simple insight of counting our blessings, expressing gratitude to God for all we do have, seeking and seeing God’s provision and faithful presence in both the little and large moments of life. So each of the 31 days as Carrie Lou worked through the book, she kept a journal…a gratitude journal…in which she recalled, in an act of thanksgiving to God, all for which she was indeed grateful…and she found there was much too indeed be grateful for.
Among many other things and people, Carrie Lou gave thanks to God for the life she shared with Nettie over many years. She gave thanks for getting to participate in the holiness of ushering Nettie from this life to the next in dignity. She gave thanks that she was in remission from her bout with breast cancer. She gave thanks for her son, my father, for the love and life they shared and for the fact that he was aware of his addiction and wanted help…if struggling mightily to find it. She gave thanks for her friends and family, for her life long relationship with God nurtured in the Baptist church she loved, and she gave thanks for her two grandchildren…Ross, my brother, and, yes, me. She told me at a later date that Ross and I made the list everyday she journaled. She gave thanks to God…each and every day…she named the blessings God had showered on her long life. She began to see God’s presence among her even when things were difficult…even very difficult. She found the ability to see grace and express thanks in the little moments of each day, and she was indeed able to put one foot in front of the other. She cared faithfully for sister in law and son. She continued to heal in body, mind and spirit. And she confided in me that in doing so…living each day deeply rooted in gratitude to God…she believed with all of her heart…that it literally saved her life…a faithful life…a meaningful life…a life that made a tremendous difference for those she cared for…and indeed the name of our Lord Jesus Christ was glorified in her…in the grateful life she lived. So echoing Paul in our New Testament reading from II Thessalonians today, “Therefore, I, myself, can boast of Carrie Lou among this church of God of her steadfastness and faith during all of her persecutions and afflictions that she indeed endured.” Thus I give thanks to God for her, as is right, for her faith that shined abundantly in the love she demonstrated toward many…including me.
Next week in church, we will celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, and one of the wonderful traditions that has grown up organically and uniquely at St. Julian’s is to bring pictures and place them on our altar of the saints from our own lives who have passed into the nearer presence of our Lord who we remember…who we seek to emulate in our own lives…and for whom we give thanks to God…for the life they lived and the journey we share…even beyond the grave and gate of death…and Carrie Lou’s picture will surely be among them. And, in particular, from Carrie Lou’s life today, again, I recall her gratitude…her thanksgiving to God.
Now I think it is no mere accident, no attempt at flattery, no sense of following polite protocol or impeccable etiquette, that leads Paul to begin this letter to the church in Thessalonica with expressions of thanks and gratitude for the people, the family of faith, who make up this early Christian community that he has helped God form. Nor do I believe Paul is just grateful for what they have accomplished, what they have done…successes they have notched in their collective belt. Perhaps the community has grown in number and spiritual depth…perhaps they have developed meaningful ministries that serve those in need, and programs that effectively teach the faith to those just learning about the love of God poured into our world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, it seems they have endured through their own significant trails and travails…real persecution by Roman authorities who are wary of this new faith tradition…seeing it as a threat to the Roman Emperor who in their estimation is the only true living God on earth…not some treasonous Jewish peasant who lived and died in some inconsequential corner of the empire. In other words, perhaps the Thessalonians have overcome much and accomplished much in their young life…and indeed this is applause worthy…something for which to indeed express gratitude. Yet I still think these are not the reasons, or the only reasons, Paul begins his letter with expressions of gratitude. I don’t think Paul is grateful, at least only for, what has been done or endured. Instead, his gratitude is directed first and foremost towards God. Paul is giving thanks to God…for who God has made and is forming the Thessalonians to be…for where God is leading them…for God’s call, faithfulness, and provision in and for their very lives. As he writes, “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right…”. And in doing so, Paul is pointing all among the Thessalonians and each of us to direct our own gratitude toward God. For the empowerment to do all the things we do…the strength to accomplish every good thing we do…the very ground of our being…flows from the life and love of God…our creator and first and forever lover.
As many theologians express so beautifully, everything that is, everything that exist…from the very beginning of time and space till now…even you, even me…is created from the overflowing love of God. God’s love is so huge, so awesome that it could not even be contained within God…it had to overflow…making everything that is…again even you, even me…through and for loves sake. So just as we call this sacramental worship service we participate in each week, the Great Thanksgiving, the life of every follower of Jesus…all who bear Jesus’ name, Christians, rightly find our center, our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and end, in thanksgiving. That is giving thanks to God, not only for the things we do and the things we have, but for who we are…our very lives…and indeed then everything that flows from them…the meaning we make…the love we share…the friendships we forge…all of life is properly understood as a gift from God…as it all begins from God’s overflowing love…for which we are and always should be eternally grateful.
And herein lies further wisdom in rooting ourselves in thanksgiving to God at the center of our worship, as our primary spiritual discipline, in the very center of our personhood…and that is that a life profoundly rooted in gratitude empowers us to be and become more and more the people God has made us to be. There is real power in gratitude…as my grandmother learned…it can literally save our lives. Like God in the very act of creation, our gratitude must overflow…it always overflows…in acts of love poured into our world and into the lives of others that point all gratefully to God…every prayer, handshake, smile, hug, act of service, even every financial gift given…engenders a more gracious, love-filled, generous and gratitude suffused world that resembles something of character and nature of God…from whom all blessings, especially the blessing of our very lives, flows.
I have often said that I hope we will be really, really good at expressions of gratitude at St. Julian’s. I don’t know that we can say “thank you” or “I appreciate you” too much. For in doing so, in each expression of gratitude, we are really saying so much more than “thanks for doing something”. Instead, I believe we are saying I thank God for you…who you are…for the ways I experience God’s generosity and love so powerfully through you. This can be lifesaving work…it reminds people who they really are…God’s beloved, created in God’s own image, breathtakingly beautiful and capable of tremendous good. Expressing gratitude, being full of gratitude, and the two little words “thank you” are no little things. They rightly orient all of our life, and can even help orient the lives of others, back toward our creator, the one who made us, our first and forever lover. Thus gratitude indeed is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the primary spiritual disciple, the center of worship, the fulcrum point on which we balance our lives, as people who bear the name of Christ…as Christians. Amen.