With Gratitude I Will…
Matthew 25: 31-40, Psalm 100
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard, 11-24-13
On the way to the church this past Monday I saw a church sign with this message: “Thank God the Air We Breathe is Free!” One can certainly speculate what that Pastor is planning to talk about in his or her sermon today. Sorting through the possible scenarios, reasoning suggests the pastor is planning to lift up a list of things we all ought to be thankful for. At least that’s where I ‘hope’ the preacher was headed with that sermon title!
With this in mind we can take a look at the message that the Psalmist of old intended with this morning’s Psalm. “Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks!” It is with this feeling of gratitude by which we ought to enter into the spirit of our annual Thanksgiving holiday. Let us go forth singing and praising God for all that has been given to us, and much of it like air, is free! Thanks be to God!
I am grateful that Psalm 100 seems to have been written with us in mind. The wholeness, the completeness, the oneness of our Thanksgiving holiday is based on our ability to agree fully on one aspect of our relationship to God without conflict or disagreement. Considering our individuality this is quite an accomplishment. Considering the state of human relationships this is quite a feat indeed. Let us be grateful for these words as this time of celebration and feasting begins.
Thanksgiving is an important part of our faith, and by this I do not mean the time of year called thanksgiving – though that is blessed, but the act of thanksgiving, being grateful and expressing it is what I refer to. Indeed I believe that gratitude, the root of thanksgiving is a necessary attitude, an attitude that is needed by us if we are to experience the fullness of the salvation that God has planned for us.
So as we prepare to celebrate this National rite of thankfulness we might want to consider all that we have to be thankful for. Each of us has of course received the precious gift of life. We all have cloths on our backs. Hopefully, we all can be grateful we have had a meal today. These are basic things to be thankful for. On this Thanksgiving Day, everyone ought to shout with joy, and sing out with gladness; this needs to be done in every corner of Palm Bay, Brevard County and Indian River County as well! This joyfulness, our gratitude, ought to be carried to every corner of these United States and throughout the world.
Through our oneness in Christ, even in our diversity as a community we are striving to help others know about God, and we are striving to serve our neighbors, the people of God. We do this acknowledging that every living person is a child of God. Let me say that again “every living person is a child of God.” This is something that many folks, throughout the world, have forgotten. If any among us has forgotten this, let us now correct any misunderstanding that we are having about our neighbors, and once again be reminded that ‘all’ are children of God.
I am pleased to see that it is the custom of this congregation to get involved in helping to feed the needy. The Daily Bread, a local soup kitchen, serves a meal to the needy in this area everyday; and once a month we send volunteers to help serve that meal. I have not fully learned all the ways we do this in our local community, but over time I will. Therefore, for this conversation, let me lift up some of the various ways my wife and I have been involved with churches in this regard. We have participated in walks for hunger in many communities; Middletown New York, Delray Beach, and Sebastian. I even did a twenty mile walk for hunger in Boston while I was in Seminary! On this Thanksgiving Day my wife Lois and I will be helping to serve a meal to families from a local charity called the ‘Source’ at our home church in Vero Beach. The Daily Bread, the Source, Walks for Hunger, these are active ways to help the needy; these examples are gratitude in Action! Many churches collect food items that are then taken to a local food pantry for distribution. I suspect, after this service is over, you will tell me more about the various activities being utilized here, in this community, to give assistance to the needy. I look forward to continuing those local efforts with you. Knowing how to be grateful is essential if you are to be good examples of God’s mercy and love. Continue to support these very worthwhile causes. And don’t get discouraged when you are unable to take care of all the needs of ‘all’ the hungry, homeless and naked.
Sometimes, I think we get lost thinking that we must do it all. Sometimes, it seems, our pride or our ego causes us to feel that unless we can make a really ‘big’ difference it simply… is not worthy of the effort. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marian Wright Edelman, says it so well: “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.” There is an old story I have heard many times about a man that comes upon a multitude of beached star fish, after a large storm had pushed them ashore. He stops and begins to throw them back into the ocean, one by one. Another passerby stops and seeing what the man is doing stops and yells out to the first man: “It’s hopeless you will never make a difference with so many stranded upon the beach.” The first man reaches down and picks up another stare fish and throws it back into the ocean, “Made a difference to that one.”
We have a great gift and we also have a great obligation. We express our thankfulness through our actions. Just cooking a turkey, or preparing a festive meal this Thursday is not enough, not if it is done in isolation and with no acts of kindness or charity to accompany it. Don’t give in to temptation by slacking off from expressing your gratitude in action! In the same spirit, do not be hard on yourself for not helping everyone… for your efforts have and will continue to make a difference to those you do feed, for those you do cloth and provide shelter for!
This morning, as we focus on Thanksgiving, we can try to block out the beginning of the holiday shopping season, we can avoid that temptation! Yet, many of us will not do so successfully, and retailers throughout the country will be delighted. However, we can rejoice knowing this big push for us to ‘shop till we drop’ will not deter us from approaching our most sacred Christian celebration: the birth of the baby Jesus, the Christ Child. I am not going to urge you to shop or not to shop. I will urge you to hold off though until we all have had a chance to digest a bit of Thanksgiving turkey or ham or whatever it is you choose to feast upon; whether it is with friends or family or possibly by yourself.
Our Thanksgiving celebration does quickly take us into Advent and thus Christmas! The temptation that lurks for us all is to confuse Christmas with the ‘shopping frenzy mentality’ that shall surely come into our society; that frenzy will ‘once again’ threaten to blur the uplifting story of God’s gift; the gift of the baby named Jesus. It is so easy to give into the trappings of the tinsel and lights that we see in our society at Christmas. Somehow, focusing on shopping and Christmas parties reinforces our temptation to deny life’s realities and we allow ourselves to get caught up in the commercial side of the holiday that surrounds our annual Christmas celebration.
This season of advent, upon which we are entering, is a time when we can retreat into the desert with Jesus. Joining him as we face our temptations, head on, just as Jesus did. God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, gave Jesus the strength he needed to avoid giving in to worldly temptations. We can turn to that same Spirit to do the same for ourselves. Do not stay in the commercial side of the season too long! Do not allow the ‘trappings’ of the festivities to come between you and God. Rather, reach out your hand to the ‘One’ who has stretched out his hands for you. Likewise, reach out to others around you with gratitude in your hearts. Let them know that there is a better life to be had, a life that is given freely to all that desire it.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” This one sentence is the heart of our message this morning and it fits nicely into all that Jesus is saying to us this week. Jesus lifts up for us ‘the importance’ of remembering those in need and striving to do something about it. Let me caution you and clarify that: Jesus does say… we ‘shall be judged’ for our ‘lack of action’ in this regard. So let us keep alive this whole concept of thanksgiving; let us be led to new ways of expressing our gratitude. Clearly, the actions we do take will and have made a difference to those we touch with our expressions of love.
From this moment forward; let us cling to that attitude of gratitude lifted up from our Psalmist this morning! Enjoy the moment and have a very “Happy Thanksgiving! Then move from there into the season of Advent, together we will have four wonderful weeks to embrace our traditions that shall lead us to Christmas. Avoid the temptations as much as you can, yet when you need to, ask God for help, then with gratitude pass the gift of ‘God’s love’ to another!