"Give Thanks in All Circumstances"
Scripture - 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, November 24, 2013

When you lift your head off the pillow, glance at the clock and climb out of bed, what is the first thought that emerges? For many, it is "Not enough sleep."

After you dress and begin to ponder all that you need to accomplish in the day, what comes to mind? For many, it is "Not enough time."

When we measure our financial savings against what we believe we need, many of us think, "Not enough money."

Whether it is true or not, many of us automatically conclude that we do not have enough of whatever we think we need. We spend a great deal of energy worrying or complaining about what is in short supply. This mind-set of scarcity1 can take up residence in our psyche where it will shape our attitude, skew our vision and sculpt our basic approach toward life.

The irony ought not to escape us. We who live in the most prosperous country in the history of the world; we who can simply flip a switch to heat our homes on cold days like today; we who carry around in our pockets, phones smart enough to tell us the population of Istanbul or the name of the 14th President of the United States, or virtually any fact you want in a matter of seconds, or can navigate us to our destination or send messages or take photographs or show videos. We, who have so much, go through life with a mindset of scarcity.

It is absurd, but it is not an accident. We live in a culture that breeds discontent by constantly telling us that we do not have enough. Like a leaky faucet with a steady drip, drip, drip, we are assailed by a constant trickle that declares: You need more. You need newer. You need grander.

We live in a culture that says the bronze medal is simply not good enough. If you achieve the bronze, you need to obtain the silver. If you obtain the silver, you need to strive for the gold. If by chance you obtain the gold, a voice will surely declare, "You lack the platinum."

We live and move and have our being in a culture that preaches: "Happiness is just a purchase away!" However, the feeling of satisfaction eludes us like the finish line of a race that keeps receding as we near it.

Lest we place all the blame on our 21st century western civilization, our culture is not the only culprit to engender in us the feeling that we lack what we need. There is another adversary keen to prevent us from developing a sense that we already possess all we need. We can be easily ambushed by an internal enemy. Like a prowler lurking in the shadows, we overlook its presence, but it is poised to attack when our guard is down. It goes by the name of ENVY and it springs into action when we covet what others have. Envy wreaks havoc with a feeling of contentment when we resent someone's better job, larger house, successful children or prestigious position. Envy of what others have creates a feeling that we are lacking something and "We, by golly, deserve more!"

Is there a way to break this mindset of scarcity, to eradicate the cravings that consume us and to wash away the feeling of dissatisfaction? This morning's reading from 1 Thessalonians contains the antidote powerful enough to liberate us.

Most biblical scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest document in the New Testament. Written about the year 50, it precedes the four gospels, Paul's other letters and the other writings that comprise the New Testament.

The ancient city of Thessalonica, upon which the modern city of Thessaloniki is built, was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. It was a center for worship of both Greek and Roman gods, including the imperial cult which named the Roman Emperor as "Lord" and "Son of God." Rome adopted a policy of religious tolerance. Citizens could worship the deity of their choosing, as long as they also bowed down to the emperor.2

Paul's letter to these early Christians is a letter of encouragement to lead lives that are pleasing to God and to give ultimate allegiance not to the Roman emperor, but to Christ. Thus, he was encouraging the followers of Jesus to remain faithful despite the possibility of persecution.

Understanding the dangerous context within which these Christians lived, it is all the more remarkable to read Paul's words to them. He writes, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." Most early Christians came from the ranks of the poor and many faced persecution. Paul makes it clear that to be a follower of Jesus requires both courage and determination.

Paul also understands that our basic orientation toward life is more important than the actual circumstances of our lives. Developing a grateful heart is not predicated on good fortune. Some people have things fall their way continuously, yet are never satisfied; others rarely catch a break, yet remain grateful for the gift of life.

Meister Eckhart, 13th century theologian, said, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. For many people, their initial prayer is "Help!" Or "Please give me." But reaching the point where "Thank you, God" are the first words that tumble off your lips, not only enriches your relationship with God, but it elevates your experience of life because gratitude is the antidote to both envy and the mindset of scarcity.

Author Mary Jo Leddy writes that she saw her backyard as if for the first time during a conversation with a teenage girl from Africa. The youth was a refugee fleeing a country in the chaos of war. She landed on Mary Jo's doorstep with nothing more than an overnight bag. After showing the youth the bedroom where she would stay, the two went into the kitchen for a cup of tea. The teenager knew enough English to carry on a spotty conversation, but at one point she set her cup down and stared out the window toward the backyard. She asked, "Who lives there?"

Mary Jo responded, "No one lives there. It's the backyard."

"No," the young girl persisted and pointed. "Person there. House there."

It was then that Mary Jo saw her garage as if for the first time and the words slowly stumbled out of her mouth. "It. Is. A. House. For. A. Car." The teenager could not imagine a house for a car.

It weighed heavily on Mary Jo's mind and, given the housing shortage in her city, she decided to turn the house for a car into a room for a person. She went to the city for a building permit and found herself caught in a bureaucratic maze at City Hall. There were countless conversations that she sums up as follows.

"I want to turn the house for a car into a room for a person."
"You cannot do that."
"Because why?"
"Because then everyone would do it."
"Wouldn't that be great?"

A look of terror covers the face of the bureaucrat who says, "But then there would be no room for the cars. Permission denied."

Eventually, Mary Jo decided to turn the house for a car into a house for God, a meditation room. But this time she did not bother attempting to get a building permit.3

It all started when she began to view what she had from a new perspective. Developing a grateful heart comes from gaining a very different perspective than the consumer perspective of our culture or feeling envious of what others have.

For the past six months, Kate (not her real name) has been battling cancer for the second time in three years. With her permission, her pastor shared some of the thoughts she posted on her CaringBridge website.

Recently, she reflected on a concert she attended. She wrote, "More and more I am convinced that it is this oneness, or experience of transcendence, that heals all pain. In her performance tonight, Young Jean Lee spoke of different moments, words, and gestures of comfort that ease the pain...(associated with) the fear of aging, the terror of invasive medical care, and the loss of loved ones. She and her band members ended their performance singing "We're gonna die, and it will be okay." (By the end of the song), the audience was singing with them, all of us belting out in unison the truth of our lives. And in that oneness, I was no longer aware of pain. This has happened before . . . in meditation, in the near sleep state of yoga nidra, when singing or praying. The feeling of oneness envelops and eases distress. We're gonna die, but it will be okay. It's what Jesus said to Mary Magdalene. It's what he taught his disciples. It's what the Buddha, Mohammed, and Krishna taught. Oneness eases suffering. And that oneness is love."

"Now on another note . . . Speaking of smallness . . .my eyebrows are falling out... Sometimes I think cancer is the universe's way of opening the door to spiritual awakenings. We are stripped down to our smallness. So we either walk through the door, or we become lost in the disappearance of our personal details like eyelashes, hair... eyebrows. More and more, I think we wake up to "We're gonna die, but it will be okay." That is, if we choose to cross the threshold set before us."

Kate "gets up each day, gives thanks to God for love, friends, flowers that last longer than the challenges of cancer treatments and for her most precious gift, her daughter."4

At Westminster, we have had - and do have - people in our own church family who take my breath away by the grace-filled way they approach the end of their lives which is in the near, not the distant, future. They are capable of talking about their death without resorting to bitter diatribes because they know in their bones that life is a gift and they are grateful for the time they have been given.

Are they sad that life is ending earlier than they had hoped? You bet they are. But their predominant attitude is not sadness or anger or despair. Their core conviction is gratefulness for the gift of life they have been given. They comprehend mentally and intuit viscerally that they might never have lived, might never have laughed, might never have loved and so they are grateful. They are thankful for the deep bonds of love they have cherished, the work they have accomplished, the challenges they have tackled, the sights they have seen, the celebrations they have enjoyed, the dark days they have survived and their faith that has carried them, inspired them and assured them that everything will be okay.

In whatever way you spend this Thanksgiving, I hope you will be mindful of the voices of our culture that tell you that you are lacking something and that voice within that wants you to envy what others have. Then, sharply silence both of them with a grateful heart that thanks God for the amazing gift of your life.


  1. Lynn Twist, The Soul of Money: Reclaiming the Wealth of Our Inner Resources, (New York: W. W. Norton Co., 2003), p.44.
  2. The Discipleship Study Bible, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p.2010.
  3. Mary Jo Leddy, Radical Gratitude, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002), p. 14-16.
  4. Timothy C. Ahrens, October 13, 2013, "Return and Say €˜Thanks!"

Prayers of the People ~ Rev. Thomas R. Stout

Holy and gracious God, you continue your presence and work through us, each and all. As we remember that goodness, we bring you our prayers of this day.

O God, make us generous in sharing your many and gracious gifts. Hear our prayer.

Bestow your love and peace on those who are separated - for whatever reasons - from family and loved one. Hear our prayer.

And during this week, as we remember those who first journeyed to this land, and gave you thanks for preservation through those trying times, so we pray that you would lead us and those who govern us to act justly toward all who still journey here for work and freedom and peace. Guide us in your love, O God. Amen.