Scripture - Psalm 100
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Perhaps it's just me, but it seems there are more reasons than usual to suppress lavish expressions of thanks. The world has never been entirely in harmony with God's vision of justice and peace, but doesn't it feel as if mayhem dominates the day?
The conversions at gun-point and grisly beheadings by ISIL sound more like the Middle Ages than the 21st century. The outbreak of the Ebola virus triggers unnerving thoughts of the Black Plague. Russian troops in Ukraine and provocative actions by North Korea raise the prospect of numerous nations being dragged into war. The ongoing news from Ferguson, Missouri reminds us that our country is still far from becoming a color-blind society. The drug-related murders in Wilmington drain the hope out of crime-ridden neighborhoods. And who among us does not have a friend or family member who is critically ill or recently deceased?
The catalogue of afflictions cautions us to carefully parse our praise. Expressing thanks for the blessings of life rings hollow if we wall off our hearts from the suffering that stalks our world. And, yet, the Scriptures never coach us to withhold our thanks when life is bleak. The Biblical writers never suggest that God is only to be praised when life is beautiful.
The 100th Psalm is characteristic of dozens of psalms that express gratitude to God. The psalmist exhorts us to be joyful and to count our blessings because God is good and never stops loving us. It is essential to know that these psalms do not simply emerge from times when food was abundant, life was secure and the nation was strong. Many arose during times of exile or personal affliction or foreign domination.
The same can be said of the Apostle Paul's letters to the first Christian communities. He did not pen these while sipping wine on the shores of the Mediterranean. It is difficult to imagine anyone with more reasons to curse and complain than Paul. Whipped, beaten with rods, stoned, imprisoned and nearly drowned, Paul experienced five times the torment we would wish upon the worst scoundrels. And, yet, in letter after letter, he counsels followers of Jesus to maintain a grateful spirit and to continually give thanks to God. Reading First Thessalonians, we are quick to question Paul's reasoning because he wrote, "Rejoice ALWAYS, pray WITHOUT CEASING, give thanks in ALL circumstances."1 How is that possible?
Huston Smith, the distinguished scholar of world religions, published his latest book two years ago at the youthful age of 93. Near the end, a sentence leaps off the page when he writes: "the two categorical, unconditional virtues...are gratitude and empathy."
Empathy is no great surprise. It is what we witness when we study Jesus. His sensitivity to the needs of others prompted him to be compassionate and he called on his followers to do the same - "Love your neighbor as yourself... (even) Love your enemy." Compassion compels us to want justice for everyone, and justice lays the foundation for peace. Empathy is an essential virtue.
However, I suspect some find it surprising that Smith places gratitude on equal footing with empathy. We live in a culture that trumpets individual achievement. We heap praise on individuals who overcome adversity and post impressive accomplishments.
Let me be the first in line to praise people for worthy accomplishments. It spurs the rest of us to push ourselves further and to break new ground. However, gratitude is vital because it steers us clear of the naÃ¯ve notion that our successes are entirely the product of our own individual effort.
Gratitude reminds us that we did not create ourselves or nurture ourselves from birth. We did not choose our parents or select our genes. We had no say in which country we were born or our time in history. Individual responsibility is important, but how much of our lives are the result of other people and factors beyond our control?
Life is the most amazing gift and when we fully embrace this basic fact, we develop a grateful heart for the things we often take for granted: the ability to see a golden sunset, to hear Bach, to taste pumpkin pie, to feel joy, to fall in love.
Like most pastors, Scottish minister Tom Gordon has had the privilege of having end-of-life conversations with numerous men and women. However, one in particular stands out. It was a visit with an elderly man whose end was bearing down.
During their conversation, the man said he served as a sailor in the Second World War on ships in the North Sea. Through his tears, he shared an event that had haunted him throughout his life. He had been on shore-leave before his ship was due to sail. Two days before he was expected to join his ship in the Orkney Islands, he fell ill and was told by the doctor that he was unfit to travel. During his recuperation, word came that his ship had been sunk and only a handful of sailors survived.
In between wiping his eyes he asked two questions. First, he asked: Why was I spared when others died? He had wrestled with this question for years and concluded that it was random chance. God had not spared him while condemning others.
His second question was the one that still rocked his soul. He asked: Have I been thankful enough for the life I've been given?2
He knows that if not for a timely, microscopic virus, he most likely would have never survived his early twenties. He would have never experienced a million things he encountered over his long life. As the end approached, he wondered if he had sufficiently expressed his gratitude for the many extra years he had been given.
Do you live each day with a sense of gratitude for the gift of life? How do you express it? Through acts of kindness? Extending hospitality? Giving generously? Forgiving those who hurt you? Helping people who are hurting? Working for justice and peace?
Raising a child to be grateful is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give. There is actually a field of research on gratitude and it comes as no surprise to people of faith that concrete benefits come to children who take time to name their blessings.
"One study that examined over 1,000 high-school students found that those who showed high levels of gratitude - for instance thankfulness for the beauty of nature and strong appreciation for other people - had higher GPAs, less depression, less envy, and a more positive outlook than those teens who strongly connected buying and owning things with success and happiness."3 Acknowledging the good gifts of life lifts our spirits and the quality of our lives.
Author Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Slaughterhouse Five was written out of his experience as a POW in World War II. He was incarcerated in a miserable slaughterhouse five stories beneath street level during the Allied firebombing of Dresden. He and a few other prisoners emerged safely the next day to survey the utter devastation. That had a profound influence on his writing which expressed a deep appreciation for the gift of human life and the uniqueness of each person.
In his later years, Vonnegut often spoke on college campuses where he displayed an irreverent sense of humor and called himself an "unbelieving believer." In a presentation at the University of Wisconsin, he told the audience about his late Uncle Alex. He described his uncle as a graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in the Midwest. He was well-read and wise, and his principal complaint about people was that they so seldom noticed when they were happy. Vonnegut said, "So when we were doing something such as drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, and talking lazily about this and that, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt and exclaim, €˜If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"
Vonnegut said to the college students, "Please notice when you are happy and exclaim or murmur or at least think to yourself: "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
Then he asked the students if they ever had a teacher who made them happier to be alive than they previously believed possible. Nearly every student's hand shot up.
Vonnegut said, "Please say the name of that teacher out loud to someone sitting near you."
For a few moments the room was a cacophony of names. When the din of all those voices died down, he said, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."4
Many in our world are in search of a deeper spiritual life. They want to experience the serenity in their soul that comes from connecting with God. Do you know the quickest and best way to jump start a rich spiritual life? Cultivate a grateful heart.
I'm going to pause for 60 seconds and during that time, I want you to ponder at least three things for which you are grateful... [End of 60 seconds]: If you thought of any people for whom you are grateful, tell them. It will mean the world to them.
The Thanksgiving holiday provides a unique break from our normal routines. We have the opportunity to be together with family and friends, and the excuse to indulge in more food and drink than we need. I hope you will be with people you love and you will feel the stirring in your heart that comes from the ties that bind you together. I know you will give thanks for the precious gift of life and the many blessings that come your way. Despite the problems of our world and the difficulties of your life, I hope you will experience the internal peace and satisfaction that arises from a deep inner knowledge that life is good because God is good. And, I pray that this simple prayer of thanksgiving will emerge from your soul: God, if this isn't nice, I don't know what is.
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