Daily Archives: December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving Eve 2013 – Thanks and Praise

For the past couple of years, I have seen a lot of gratitude postings on Facebook during the month of November, as many of my friends participate in 30 Days of Thanks.[1]  You may have seen this, or even participated yourself in the practice of consciously engaging in (at least) one moment of thankfulness every day during the month of November.  It’s a great exercise, and it warms my heart to see so much gratitude being expressed.  But something also bothers me about this little internet meme, and it took me a while to put my finger on it.

At first, I thought it was the limitation of thirty days.  What, you aren’t grateful the other 335 days of the year? You have to save up your gratitude for the month of November, only? But that wasn’t it.

I pondered that it might seem just a bit self-congratulatory to announce to the world how wonderful one’s life is every day. “I’m so thankful that I’ve been blessed with the best husband ever” or “the most amazing children” or even  “the ability to do so much for others who are less fortunate.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” ? But that wasn’t really what bothered me, either.

Then it hit me as I read the Psalm for the day, which happened to be Psalm 106 that particular day, but really, almost every psalm has at least one verse in it that expresses this same idea. I realized that all this “I’m thankful for…blah, blah, blah…” floating around Facebook was missing something really important.

Who is getting thanked? Who is receiving all this gratitude?

Being thankful all the time is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It helps us stay humble as we recognize the many blessings we experience in life, blessings for which we can take no credit whatsoever. That is important.

But even more important, I think, is remembering that just being grateful isn’t really going to change us into Christ-like people. Because being grateful is all about me and how feel. But giving thanks is all about the One to whom I owe gratitude. Actively thanking God puts the focus on God, where it belongs.

And that’s how our thanksgiving becomes praise.

The Psalm for today, Psalm 100 gets it in verse four, and to make it even clearer, I’m going to replace the pronouns with the proper noun to which they refer: “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless his name …”

Thanks and praise go hand in hand. Thanking God is an act of worship. Psalm 100 goes on to tell us why we should thank and praise God: “for the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” We thank God for what he has done, and we praise God for who God is. We worship God in both our thanks and our praise. For, when we thank God for his goodness to us, how can we not praise him? And when we praise God for his mighty work, how can we be ungrateful?

Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes: “Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give.” But Brueggemann adds a warning: “While God’s gifts are welcome, in fact they do disrupt.”[2]  Brueggemann goes on to explain how God’s gift of truth disrupts the dishonesty that finds its way into every corner of our culture. God’s gift of generosity contradicts our stingy selfishness that puts our own interests ahead of others. God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference to the many needs around us, needs that would break our hearts if we really paid attention to them. God’s gift of justice exposes the injustice of our social structures. God’s gifts amount to an inconvenient reality among us; they remind us that what we have come to regard as “normal” actually promotes a deep abnormality in God’s design for the world he made and loves. What a different world that might be if God were truly at the center of it, if God were truly the focus of our thanksgiving and praise!

In our various congregations, as we celebrate Holy Communion, which might also be called Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, depending on which church you attend, we draw on ancient words that Christians have repeated through the centuries in one form or another, in what we call The Great Thanksgiving. In fact, the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word that means “to give thanks.” As we celebrate our life together as the Body of Christ, we may say something like this:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

These ancient words, spoken over countless Tables for countless centuries, introduce the Sacrament of Communion to Christians throughout the world. They serve as a universal reminder that we commune not only with Christ, who welcomes us to his Table, but also with one another, and with Christians we have never seen nor will ever meet. We are one in Christ’s Body. As we join together to remember Christ’s sacrifice for us, it is right to give God thanks and praise. It is right and a good thing to remember that God has provided for us, and will continue to provide for us. We give God thanks and praise, not because God needs to hear it, but because directing our thanks and our praise toward our Creator changes us, making us into better human beings, making us more and more like Christ.

And it is good to do this together, being Christ to one another as we offer bread and cup. You see, giving God our thanks and praise works best when we do it in community with others, multiplying our gratitude and our praise exponentially by offering our worship as part of the family of God.

If we look back to the origins of Thanksgiving – and I mean way back, past the Norman Rockwell image, past the post-Civil War declaration of a national day of Thanksgiving, even past the Pilgrims and Indigenous People who gathered for that first multicultural feast – we hear the words of Deuteronomy calling us to worship, calling us to give thanks and praise to the Lord.

Every single year, when people gathered in their crops, they took the first fruits of those crops to the temple, offered them up, and then they did a powerful thing: instead of gobbling up the good food they had just brought in from the fields, they took some time to think about their history. They remembered, together, a time when they couldn’t grow crops, a time when they couldn’t live in their own places, freely and peacefully. They remembered what it was like to be torn out by the roots, denied the rights of citizenship, treated like slaves. And they remembered, there in the temple, surrounded by the fresh produce of their own precious fields, that their freedom and their land and their harvest were all gifts from God.[3]

In this passage, we find a curious detail that deserves our attention. Seven times in these eleven verses the author uses the word “to give” (nātan). In verses 1, 2, and 3, the verb refers to God’s giving of the land and in verses 9, 10, and 11, the reference is to the good gifts provided by God. The seventh use of the verb “to give” occurs in verse 6, and our English translations might make it difficult for us to recognize that the same word is being used. The text reads, “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing (nātan) hard labor on us.” Literally, that might read as “by giving us hard labor.” In the six other usages, God is clearly the subject of the verb, yet in verse 6, the subject changes. Israel remains the recipient, but it is Egypt who carries out the action.  Instead of land or good gifts, Egypt “gives” Israel hard labor and oppression. These two very different uses of the word “give” offer us a fuller understanding of gratitude. The gratitude for the land being given by God can never be understood apart from the hard labor “given” to the entire community while they were slaves. The One who delivered them out of Egypt with a “mighty arm” is the same One who has delivered them safely into the land flowing with milk and honey. The produce harvested and brought as first fruits is never offered apart from the remembering of deliverance.

Maybe that’s why those 30 Days of Thanks comments rub me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because I don’t get a sense that the gratitude being expressed has any element of what we’ve been delivered from, as well as what we are being delivered to. We don’t like to dwell on the past, especially if our memories are painful ones. We don’t like to remember the struggles and hard times we have experienced, the times we have doubted God’s goodness, or suffered unbearable pain. And yet, it is those harsh memories that anchor our remembrance of blessings and give them a sharper focus. It is the backdrop of our pain that highlights our joy.

So, as the children of Israel brought their first fruits to the temple, they did a remarkable thing. They sat down, “together with the Levites and the aliens” who lived among them, and they celebrated with all the bounty that the Lord God had given to them. They sat down together. They sat down with Levites, who had no land of their own, who depended completely on the other tribes for food, as they ministered in the temple. They sat down with aliens, or foreigners, who had no land of their own, and who were completely dependent on the generosity of the children of Israel as they lived and worked among them. They sat down together and feasted on the bounty the Lord had provided to them.

Maybe thirty days of thanks isn’t such a bad idea. If that seems too much, perhaps you will consider the 24 days of Advent, the season of expectation that will begin this Sunday. As we wait expectantly for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, perhaps we can contribute something toward making that a reality. Perhaps we can offer our daily thanks to God for what he has done, and our praise to God for who God is. Maybe remembering that God has delivered us from slavery to our own desires can help us remember to give God thanks and praise. But be warned: this daily practice of praise and thanksgiving may change you!  Taking time every day to offer God thanks might turn you into a person who finds more goodness around you, a person who praises God more and more. You might even become more and more like Christ. Thanks be to God. Praise the Lord! Amen.

[3] Paraphrased from Sermon for Nov. 24th 2013 (Thanksgiving C) “Milk and Honey & Zombies and Aliens” – the copyrighted work of Rev. Holly Morrison and used with permission of the author.

Keep Awake – Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 – Advent 1, 2013

When my older brother, David, first moved out of the house and was living on his own, we looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, in the hope that he would come home for a day or two, and our family would be together for the holiday. To understand how much this meant to us, you need to have a little background. My brother is the eldest child in our family. He is my only brother. We four girls have always adored him. As a young, single adult, David enjoyed driving the latest, fanciest car he could afford. I remember well his first Corvette, a white 1959 model with a removable hard top. Then he moved up to a midnight blue 1963 Stingray with the fiberglass body and the headlamps that rotated out of sight when not in use. By 1972, he was driving a Porsche. So, whenever David came home to visit, part of the excitement was discovering what he was driving, and arguing over who would get the first ride in his new car.

But the real excitement came with trying to figure out just when David would arrive. You see, David liked to play tricks on our mom. He would call a day or two before we expected him, and sadly explain that he just couldn’t come this year. He was really sorry, and he wished he could get away, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Then, he’d pull into the driveway the next day, and we’d run out to meet him with shrieks and squeals, our disappointment turned to instant joy.

One year, he called on Christmas Eve, and mom started the conversation with, “Don’t tell me you can’t come home for Christmas!” He assured her that he would be there, but he was still about an eight-hour drive away. Five minutes later, he was walking in the door. He had called from a gas station less than eight blocks away.

One of the reasons this ruse worked so many times, however, was that sometimes, David really didn’t show up. Some years, he didn’t even call. So we never knew. Is he coming this year, or not?  And if he comes, when will he arrive?  We just never knew.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard Luke’s take on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples, as they asked him “When will these things happen?  What will be the sign that the end is near?”  As we begin a new church year with this, the first Sunday in Advent, we move from Luke’s gospel to Matthew’s, and his version of the story asks the same question. How will we know, Lord?  What will be the sign?  When will your Kingdom arrive?  Jesus answers that we must stay alert, because we just never know when the Lord will return.

Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 36-44.

 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

In music, we call the form this passage takes a “rondo” – the main theme keeps coming around again. There may be other ideas tucked in between repetitions, but the main theme keeps coming back over and over. It becomes very familiar. You’ve probably figured out by now that the main theme in this passage is:

No one knows when the Son of Man will come again.

It must have been difficult for the disciples to understand that even Jesus didn’t know when the second coming would take place. They knew that Jesus was certainly the Messiah, the Christ that God had promised to redeem Israel. They had seen God’s power working through Jesus as he healed and performed miracles before their very eyes. They had just begun to grasp what it meant to be following the Son of God, and they believed with their whole hearts that Jesus could do absolutely anything. So, why couldn’t he tell them when the end would come?  How could he possibly not know?

Jesus tells them that the day and the hour cannot be known, but there will certainly be signs that point to the time as it draws near. For example:

Just as in Noah’s time, people were carrying on their daily business and were surprised by the flood, so the coming of the Son of Man will be a sudden surprise.

The reference to Noah hints at the work of God in the baptismal waters we have just witnessed today, as we baptized Savannah Leigh into the family of God. The same water that held up the ark, saving Noah and his family, also destroyed those who were unprepared for the disaster of the flood. Remember that Noah had been building that ark for many years when the flood finally came. Though he had been faithfully telling them to get ready for it, people ignored him. Then the floods came, and there was no time for the people of Noah’s day to change their minds, to repent and turn to God. As they went about their daily business, they failed to notice that the ark was getting finished, that the animals were gathering two by two, that dark rain clouds were forming in the sky. The signs were all there, but the people didn’t see them. They weren’t prepared.

No one can know the day or the hour, but there will certainly be signs that point to the time of Christ’s coming as it draws near. For example:

Whether working in the field or the kitchen, those who belong to Christ will be separated from those who do not, and there will be no time to change camps then.

Just as the people in Noah’s time carried out their daily routines, so people will be going about their regular tasks when the Son of Man comes. Jesus gives examples of men working in fields and women grinding grain, so we know there is no gender advantage at play here. We will all be about our daily work when the time comes.

A lot of attention in this passage has been given to “one taken and the other left” but we must be careful about how we interpret this example. I don’t think Jesus meant that exactly half of the world would be saved, and half of the people would perish. I also don’t think that the “Left Behind” series of books and movies, with their focus on a “rapture” of believers and a frightening portrayal of life on earth after that event, did much to help us understand the point Jesus is trying to make. We must recognize that Jesus is speaking, once again, in parables, to help his listeners understand a deeper truth about the coming of the Son of Man. The point is not to speculate about a final day of judgment some time in the future, “but to confront us with God’s radical claim on us here and now. Each day is a day of judgment, so I should always be asking myself, “Am I living in the way of Christ?  Am I trusting in him alone?”[1]

Whatever you are doing when the time comes, you won’t have a chance to change your mind about Jesus then. It will be sudden, and it will be final. Since we have no idea when it will occur, we need to start living our lives right now for the possibility of that moment. We need to make sure that the daily tasks we are performing when Christ comes again are the sort of tasks that will prepare us for that time. As we work our fields and grind our grain, we need to be doing it as faithful followers of Jesus who are eager for him to come again. As we go about our daily routines, those routines should reflect our hunger for God, and our desire for his Kingdom to come in its fullness.

Jesus warns us to be alert and faithful, so that we will be ready when it happens, because – here comes that main theme again – “you don’t know when that day will be.”

In case we still haven’t understood the message, Jesus gives one more example:

Just as a person’s constant vigilance protects his home from a break-in, you must be vigilant, for the Son of Man will come at an unexpected time.

While the homeowner’s vigilance may be born out of fear of being robbed, our vigilance is more like a young couple expecting their first child. They don’t know exactly when their lives are going to abruptly change, but they look forward with joy, watching with care as they prepare the nursery. Even when the house is ready to welcome the new baby, they wait in anticipation of those first labor pangs, the sign that birth is about to begin.

So, how do we get prepared?  How do we stay awake?  How do we watch for the Lord to come again?

We go about our daily work, filled with expectation. We do not live in anxiety, afraid of being left behind, but we live in a state of joyful preparation, as we anticipate Christ’s coming. We do not wait passively, but we are actively engaged in the work of the Kingdom, our hearts and lives reconciled to God, living out our faith in expectant hope. We trust in the future, not controlling or even knowing the details of what is yet to come, because all our hope is founded in God alone. Just as the lesson from Romans 13, which we heard earlier today, describes:

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14

We are expectant and hopeful – this first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of hope, after all. We live into the hope that God will keep his promise, just as God has always kept his promise. We develop the art of watchful living, as we faithfully pursue the purpose to which God has called us here and now. It is from this here and this now that we remember the history of God’s promises kept, even as we look ahead toward the time beyond time, when Christ will come again in glory and all things will be made new.

In the meantime, we are being made new. Hope is bubbling up here at 1st UMC. We are beginning to find a renewed hope that God has something in mind for us. We must live into that hope, as we look expectantly for what that something might be.

We need to stay alert, hoping and faithfully living into the future of God’s kingdom. We must be ready, prepared to meet Christ when he comes, because we don’t know when that will be. Jesus tells us three times in this passage that the burning question isn’t “when?” but rather, “are you ready?”

Are you ready to let him change you into a new person?  Are you ready to give up quarreling and jealousy, greed and anger, gratifying your own desires?  Are you ready to give up the habits that keep you from living a life that is rich and full of hope and promise?  Are you ready to give up everything that keeps you from giving your life to Jesus?  Are you ready to do that every day, and every hour of every day?  If not, if you aren’t ready to turn over your life to Christ, what’s keeping you from it?  I invite you to examine your heart, and to surrender to God anything that is causing you to live in fear instead of hope.

Because this is the good news, people! God loves us so much, he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes on him will not perish, but will have eternal life (Jn 3:16). Eternal life isn’t something you have to wait for. It doesn’t start the instant you die, or when Christ comes again, whatever day and hour that might be. Eternal, abundant life can begin right now, right here.

For “you know what time it is,” the Apostle Paul writes, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we [first believed]; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

No one knows when Christ will come again, but he’s coming. We can wait in fear. We can ignore the signs that tell us the time is near. Or we can wait, faithfully prepared and expectantly ready, living into the hope that God will, once again, keep his promise. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

[1] John P Burgess, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, 24.