Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday August 16, 2009
Sermon : Give Thanks
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text: Ephesians 5:15-20
Not long a ago I listened to someone explain that they had ended a long relationship because of the sheer negativity of their friend whose constant complaining had simply become too corrosive. Expectations run high in our culture. In fact, at times, I think that complaining is a national pastime. While I’m sure this description does not apply to you personally, I’m sure that you know a friend of a friend who is the most amazingly negative person you know. They can, it seems, find something to complain about in every situation. Nothing is quite good enough. The portions are too small, the price is to steep, the room I too hot, their grade was too low, the food too spicy, the crowds are too large, their taxes too high, the sermons too long, the politicians too greedy, the music to modern, the people too unfriendly, the parking lot too full, their partner too demanding, their children too smart, their cell phone too complicated, you name it. I’m also sure that you are aware of the incredible energy drain required by a culture of complaining. It can simply wear you out. I am not saying that there are no legitimate times to complain or become frustrated. However, I think you have experienced those well-intentioned dragons who have elevated complaining and whining to a kind of high-art form.
This culture of complaining and whining has become so pervasive in American life that at times it seems a miracle that anything actually gets done. The critical edge of our society sometimes paralyzes us in ways that only diminish and frustrate our all-too demanding lives. Take the current storms surrounding the health-care debate founded on so much misinformation and fear it puzzles those of us who see this as such a crucial issue of justice for the millions of poor Americans who lack adequate healthcare and for the millions of middle class Americans for whom healthcare has become such a debilitating financial strain. Cooperating on something so crucial seems so, so reasonable but still we snipe and bicker.
In the midst of our critical culture, our world of whining, and our overgrown sense of entitlement we encounter Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It is a letter addressed to a Gentile congregation that is in the midst of a transformation of their personal and social identity having come to faith in Christ from outside the tradition of Israel. It is a letter of basic teaching and admonishment to a holy life given to Christians long-ago and therefore to us as well. While we may have a hard time swallowing the entirety of Paul’s message to the Ephesians, given our vastly different cultural context and the enormous changes in our society, there is a call to wisdom in the midst of this letter that requires our best efforts. Without apology it gives us an amazingly counter-cultural challenge and one of the most difficult practices of the Christian life. It instructs us to, “give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I’m sure you’ve had times in your life when that idea of giving thanks has sounded downright absurd almost cruel. Returning after Hurricane Katrina to our home in New Orleans that had been steeping in 5 ½ feet of water for a month with temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s was one of those moments for me. I remember busting the storm soaked door open to find a think layer of mud on the floors, bookshelves collapsed, mold growing on the walls and ceilings, the rank smell of rotting food, and furniture jumbled all around wherever it had floated to and settled. Give thanks at all times and in all places, how?
You can insert your own life-example into this sermon: The time you found out that your job was ending without warning, the silence on the phone after you learned of your friends life-threatening illness, the sound of your child begging you not to send them back to that horrible school. We all know of times in our lives when the last thing, the very last thing we felt like doing was “giving thanks to God.”
What kind of crazy advice is Paul giving this emerging Christian community and us? Is Paul really telling us to give thanks in the worst of times? Is Paul telling us to deny the understandably and perfectly natural human reaction to complain, to cry out in despair? Is Paul telling us to be Pauliana? [Song: Always look on the bright side of life.]
There are to be sure times where you and I will find it almost impossible to be thankful for the circumstances we find ourselves in or the pain or suffering we are enduring. I don’t think Paul would deny that there are times when one is just in so much pain, enduring such struggle that it is hard to be filled with thankfulness or to have a posture of gratitude for what seems a perfectly awful circumstance.
However, Paul is challenging us with a kind of wisdom that does not come naturally. It is wisdom that is acquired only with the eyes and heart of faith nurtured by the wisdom of Christ. I am confident that Paul is saying that there is always something to be thankful for in our lives. Paul is reminding us that in our baptism we have embraced and welcomed the wisdom of God into our very lives. Paul is reminding the Christians at Ephesus that Christ is at work in them, that the lover of our souls and bodies is with us at all times and in all places even when we are least likely to feel it or to want to celebrate it.
Paul is not telling us just to give thanks but to give thanks to God in the name of Jesus Christ. He is exhorting us to see things through our relationship with God in Christ, through the love of God that has been poured into our hearts and lives. Paul is confident that even in the most dire of circumstances, the most depressing of relationships, the most shattering news: that there is an opportunity to be thankful for God’s very presence and work in your life. Paul does not say that you have to like what you are going through or that it is what you deserve or that if you are feeling pain and suffering you don’t really understand. He is simply saying that the light of the world, the wisdom of the universe is active and available to you at all times and in all places, for the making of your soul, for the healing of the world, for comforting you in your affliction.
When I spoke with a member of St. Michael’s about this challenging Christian practice of giving thanks at all times and in all places this last week they shared with me the well known story of Corrie Teen Boom the Dutch Holocaust survivor who wrote the book the Hiding Place. She and her sister Betsie were both at the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp. At one point in their captivity they were assigned to a barracks that everyone knew was horribly infested with lice and Corrie was complaining bitterly, her sister who later died in the camp, reminded here that they must give thanks at all times and for everything. It was of course tough advice to give and even tougher advice to follow. But as it turned out, the infestation of lice meant that even the guards refused to enter the barracks which enabled their ministry of prayer, study of the scriptures, and worship to go on unchecked giving many hope. There was in fact a reason to give thanks but it was not immediately apparent. Before Betsie died she told Corrie, "There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still."
I’m not sure if a dramatic example like this is helpful or not. Perhaps you have a story of God’ goodness and presence with you in the midst of great trial as well. But what I sense in this story and in the words of Paul is this great wisdom; there is never a time when the mystery of Christ is not at work in our lives, there is never a time when we cease to be God’s beloved, there is never a time when the power of God’s resurrection is not at work for our healing. In Paul’s words there is deep mystery and no easy illustration will capture it for us. This posture of thankfulness at all times and places is something we can only cultivate in our lives by great effort surrounded by a community of faith. It is why we come each week to this Holy Table: to be nourished and refreshed by the saving love of God in Christ, to be drenched in a hope-filled community. It is why each week we celebrate the Great Thanksgiving remembering with joy the love of God poured out for us in so many ways no matter what the circumstances of our lives are this week or will be next week.
Each week as we celebrate the Holy Eucharist or Great Thanksgiving we are in fact endeavoring to follow Paul’s advice. We sing and give thanks, lifting up our hearts to God who fills all in all, that we might have the strength and deep trust to know that there is good reason to give thanks at all times and in all places. In so doing we become a community of hope, a community built on giving thanks rather than on complaining and whining and this is deeply attractive. We can’t always feel it happening, we can’t always put our finger on just how God has touched us but by faith we experience God’s presence when we in fact most need and desire it, and for this we can most certainly give thanks.
There is poem by Mary Oliver that I would like to share as a fitting end to our time. It was a gift as I contemplated the meaning of Paul’s challenging wisdom of giving thanks. The poem is entitled “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist.”
Something has happened
to the bread
and the wine
They have been blessed.
The body leans forward
to receive the gift
from the priest’s hand,
then the chalice
They are something else now
From what they were
Before this began.
to see Jesus,
maybe in the clouds
or on the shore,
On the hard days
I ask myself
if I ever will.
Also there are times
my body whispers to me
that I have.
Give thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
*The poem The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist is from Mary Oliver’s book Thirst.