Take Things with Gratitude instead of for Granted

November 20, 2016

a sermon based upon I Thessalonians 5:11-18  (page 1031 in the pew Bible)

by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister

First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707

Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brethren: admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the Will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

(I Thessalonians 5:11-18 )

 

Those words from the Apostle Paul were said to me twice in this church, on these very steps. The first time was in September 1983 (33 years ago) by the Rev. Bob Case. Bob, at that time, was the minister of the Lewiston Congregational Church, serving as Moderator of the United Northern Association. It was his task as Moderator — alongside the Rev. Jack Fitzgerald, our Minister — to say those words to me when I was ordained here in this sanctuary: my home church.

 

31 years later, in January of 2014, I heard those same words from the Rev’s Ginny & Keith Titus… as they brought the exhortation to the congregation and the charge to me as your newly-installed minister.

 

First, it is to the congregation– to you — these words are directed:

 

Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. But we beseech you… to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord… and admonish you to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

 

I felt then, and I still feel now, that I am respected in the role of your minister… first, because you (and those who were in these pews before you) pledged to do so 33 years ago, and then you pledged to do so again when you called me here three years ago. I thank you for that respect — that esteem that you promised toward me in advance — and I intend to continue to earn it in this (my) fourth year at the helm.

 

The Apostle’s words then shift from the congregation to their leaders (us ministers) saying: “We exhort you, brethren: admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”    That’s the earliest New Testament written “code of clergy conduct”: admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, (and) be patient with them all.” To do so with respect and tenderness, regardless of one’s mood, goes without saying. We clergy shouldn’t be snippy about it, or catty, or cutting.  We are encouragers!

 

Then Saint Paul raises his sights to all of us together — the members and the ministers alike, clergy & laity, Christians all — when he says: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, [and] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the Will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

 

“See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” That part sounds a bit like Jesus’ Golden Rule (doesn’t it?): “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or as we said last Sunday: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Most of us do our best to live by that basic ethical principle: do no harm.  Do not repay evil for evil; seek to do good… if we can.

But then comes this little three-fold proposal: (1) Rejoice always (says Paul). (2) Pray constantly, & (3) give thanks in all circumstances.

Frankly, we like to rejoice (that’s being happy, after all). Don’t worry; be happy! Rejoicing feels good! (“Grey skies are going to clear up! Put on a happy face. Take off that gloomy mask of tragedy; it’s not your style.  You can be sure that you’ll be glad you decided to smile!”) Right??

 

Rejoice always! (I like that kind of advice.) Second, St. Paul says we should “pray constantly.”  Well, most of us generally find comfort in prayer, so to pray “constantly” simply adds more hours of on-going conversational relationship with God engaging the world God loves through Jesus Christ and the Spirit that dwells within us. Prayer rejuvenates our spirit and links us together with invisible bonds. OK!

 

And, third, we know it’s good to give thanks. This week leads us up to Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday in which people stop for a moment and are reminded to “give thanks”. Right? My sermon title suggests that we take things with gratitude instead of taking them for granted. I am all in favor of approaching life with an “Attitude of Gratitude”, saying “Thank you” whenever an occasion arises…such as these gifted young musicians sharing their talents with us this morning! Thank you!

 

It doesn’t cost us a thing to express gratitude — to say “thanks” — and it might even lift someone’s spirits… shine some light into their otherwise cloudy day.  It’s surprising we have to be reminded to do it!

 

I have always thought that gratitude – a simple, “Thank you”, or a heartfelt “I sure appreciate…”, or a thoughtful “I’m so grateful…” – brings pleasure both to the people who give it and those who receive it.  Expressions of gratitude, in their own humble yet gracious way, can make any relationship more lively and more loving. 2,000 years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero (Roman poet, orator, and statesman) wrote: “A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.”  To take life with gratitude makes it more enjoyable.

 

Now, if it’s true that we can actually feel better – happier, more connected, maybe more hopeful, more optimistic, more joyful – through simple expressions of gratitude (words of appreciation), it’s amazing to me how rarely we communicate our gratitude; and it’s remarkable that, in fact, we need an annual reminder like a national Day of Thanksgiving to instruct us to do so!  (Why not just do it!)

 

Getting back to the Apostle Paul’s advice: it strikes me that none of those three verbs — the actions themselves, the behaviors of: (1) rejoicing, (2) praying, & (3) giving thanks — cause us any pause. But then come those pesky adverbs and prepositional phrases… “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.” There’s the rub!  There’s the fly in the ointment.

Gratitude comes easy when things are going well in our lives — when we enjoy our work, our health is good, we’ve got enough money to pay our bills, there’s food in the kitchen, and a roof over our heads. Rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks are easy attitudes to express when our families are fine and our friendships are strong.

But what happens when things in our lives go wrong? The Stock Market goes through a steep “correction” and our portfolio loses 20% of its value; the other ball-team wins the game; our candidate loses; a pet dies; one of our members is hospitalized; some friends move away. Okay, they are not all equally serious set-backs… but what happens?

 

For many people, gratitude goes right out the window when life doesn’t show up the way they want it to. And so they replace their rejoicing and their attitude of gratitude with feelings of disappointment, anger, perhaps fear of the future, or resentment of the past. Some changes may register shock, or anxiety, or maybe a little hopelessness. If the news media is to be believed, about half of the American public (and a great many other countries with whom we are allied around the world) have become upset, agitated, and worried because of who we elected to be our next President.  Where’s the rejoicing, the gratitude?

 

Sometimes our faith is shaken by a sudden loss — because of a storm, a fire, or the death of a loved one. Sometimes it may be a big career disappointment, such as when one’s preferred candidate loses an election, or the end of a cherished relationship when she says: “I don’t love you anymore” or he says: “Sweetheart, I can’t take it anymore.”

 

“How could God have let this happen?” they lament.

 

“Life just isn’t fair!” they complain.

“Why do bad things have to happen to good people?” they ask.

 

These are all good questions. These feelings are normal human reactions, when circumstances change for the worse.

 

Everyone has felt that way at one time or another. Some of you may be feeling that way right today! If you haven’t yet, thank your lucky stars, but get ready anyway… because life happens on its own timeframe and processes. When the storm hits, don’t take it personally.

 

Because “in every life some rain must fall”, motivational speaker Mac Anderson says something that I find helpful: “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass… it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” It’s a decision to not let changing circumstances dictate your mood. It takes seriously St. Paul’s challenge to “Rejoice always, pray constantly, [and to] give thanks in all circumstances.

 

William Arthur Ward says: “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The realist adjusts the sails.” Being grateful no matter what is going on around you puts you in position to keep your life moving forward, in the best direction possible, given your current circumstances.

 

We all face adversity in our lives. No one likes it when things go wrong… But it’s not the adversity, but rather the way we react to it that determines the joy or happiness in our lives. During tough times, it’s easy to spend a lot of time worrying or feeling sorry about ourselves.

How does one change one’s attitude toward “gratitude” in the midst of bad news?

 

Sarah Breathnach suggests: “When we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives, but are grateful for the abundance that is present… we experience heaven on earth.” In other words, don’t let the part that’s missing overwhelm the rest of your experience… think of what you’ve got!

 

It’s like we sang in the middle hymn: “Count your blessings: name them one by one. Count your many blessings: see what God has done.” Or, as the old coffee shop poster put it: “As you wander through life, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole.”

English novelist G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted, or take them with gratitude.” (I must credit him for the title to today’s sermon.)

I’m thankful to have a lawn… even though it needed raking this past week, and I’m grateful that my neighbor Mike Mack stopped by to help me get it done. I am thankful for the high-vaulted eves and the gingerbread trim of our old Victorian house, even though it cost us

$5,000 to have it painted last year. I am thankful for windows that need cleaning and rugs that need sweeping and gutters that need fixing… because it means that Patty & I have a home… of our own.

Gratitude, I believe, is the key to a happy life. I think that is because if we are not grateful for the abundance of blessings in our lives already present, then no matter how much we have, we will not be satisfied… because we will always want to have something else or something more. (Olivia Newton John used to sing: “There is never enough; never, never enough. Why is all that I have simply never enough?”)

 

The trick to being happy is to look at what you DO have instead of what you DON’T have. You can make yourself unhappy by looking up at the few who have more than you do, instead of around at all those who have pretty-much the same as you, and many more who have less.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows, and look out upon the beautiful world, I thank God I am alive.” B. J. Gallagher put it like this: “Any day I’m vertical is a good day”… that’s what I always say, and I give thanks for my health. She goes on, in her poem “Weather Report” to say the following:

 

“When life gives me dark clouds and rain,

I appreciate the moisture that brings a soft curl to my hair.

When life gives me sunshine, I gratefully turn my face up to feel its warmth on my cheeks.

When life brings me fog, I hug my sweater around me

and give thanks for the cool shroud of mystery that makes the familiar seem different and intriguing.

When life brings me snow, I dash outside to catch the first flakes on my tongue, relishing the icy miracle that is a snowflake.

Life’s events and experiences are like the weather —

they come and go, no matter what my preference.

So, what the heck?!  I might as well decide to enjoy them.

For, indeed, there IS a time for every purpose under heaven.

And each season brings its own unique blessings…

and I give thanks.”

(“Learning to Dance in the Rain: The Power of Gratitude” © 2009 by Mac Anderson & B. J. Gallagher, Simple Truths: Naperville, IL, 18-19)

 

There is no way to avoid Life’s storms — they come and go like the weather, whether we want them or not. The best thing each of us can do is, as Mac Anderson says: “Learn how to dance in the rain.”

Let’s give thanks that we can choose our attitude. When you are out running errands, see if you can notice 3 or 4 things you are grateful for along the way.  Don’t take anything around you for granted.  See it!

When you’re doing chores, see if you can be grateful for one or two things in the process: for example, the cat that you are cleaning-up after (aren’t you lucky!?), or the furniture that you are dusting. The more we start to train our mind to look for what’s RIGHT — rather than what’s wrong — the more gratitude we’ll feel throughout the day.

Let’s decide to put into practice what Saint Paul suggests: Rejoice always, pray constantly, [and] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the Will of God in Christ Jesus for you. And it is in this way also, I believe, that we can “let our light shine” in the fog and confusion and darkness of the world so that others may “see our good works” — our attitude of gratitude — and give glory to our Father which is in heaven.

 

People need good news in bad times. So these ancient words from St. Paul to the Christians of Thessalonica not only apply to the likes of us, in some ways it depends on the likes of us to carry that attitude out and make it real in the world. If there is to be light, we are it!  So, shine as best you can… regardless of the circumstances.

 

Have a blessed Thanksgiving! And praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

Amen.

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