November 25, 2010
Sermon for Thanksgiving Day
November 25, 2010
The Rev. Bradford A. Rundlett
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi urging them to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” And it strikes me as an odd thing to say for one who sits in a Roman jail. Paul would never be free again; he would never see the light of day again. He would soon be executed.
We barely hear the Epistles, the various Letters of the New Testament. Their run on sentences, lofty proclamations, and vague allusions, put us to sleep. We don’t get how amazing they are, because we don’t understand the time and circumstances in which they were composed. When Paul wrote this Letter his mission as a Christian witness was about to come to an end; and he knew it. He would soon be beheaded. Even so, he urged the Philippian believers to “Rejoice,” to praise God, give thanks; celebrate God’s all-sufficient transforming grace.
“Don’t worry about anything” he wrote; “Present your requests and thanks to God. And focus on all that is true, honorable, and just; pure, pleasing, and commendable; all that is excellent and praiseworthy.” And let God’s peace, the peace that is beyond human comprehension, overtake and fill you to overflowing.
How extraordinary! How could a man on “death row” do that?
And, have you ever known anyone like that?
I met Rachel in 1978 when I moved to Sewanee Tennessee to begin Seminary. Rachel was one of the faculty, and one of the first female priests of the Episcopal Church. I remember the first time I saw her. She walked with slow measured care, gently and gracefully. To my eyes there was an aura of holiness about her, an aura of timeless and invincible beauty. She was 72 years old. She had spent all her adult life working as an Episcopal missionary nun in Africa. She was very familiar with disease, despair, and death.
When it was announced that she would accept four students for a contemplative prayer group I signed up, and was fortunate enough to be one of the four. We meet in her office – a quiet sacred space – every week for two hours.
I had a lot of questions, big “Why?” questions about God and the terrible inequities between the Gospel miracles and the harsh realities of life. So I asked Rachel, “Why doesn’t God respond to the prayers of people who suffer?” “How are we supposed to believe in a God of love, when so many terrible things happen?”
She was so patient. And so wise.
“Heaven is silent” she offered, “because there are no answers that will make things feel right.” So I asked “Then what do you say to God, what do you pray for when you or someone you love is in great agony, when someone you love is dying?”
I will never forget her response. She let out a deep sigh, looked at me as one who understood on the one had the terrible predicament we humans are in with all of our desperate demands, and on the other hand things that are way beyond human comprehension. She said “Brad, I ask God once for what I want. And thereafter I ask God for the grace to accept what God gives.”
I didn’t understand. So she explained. “I believe God gives us more than we want. We want immediate relief from pain; we ask God to fix us and our loved ones when we’re sick. But God wants to give us so much more. And that’s hard for us to accept.”
I discovered sometime later that Rachel had severe arthritis in her spine and was in great pain all the time - though no one would ever know to look at her. Just as no one would know about all the people she loved, all the friends she had in Africa, who had suffered and died so tragically. Somehow Rachel had developed a kind of quiet, calm joy that eclipsed sorrow and despair. She didn’t rail against suffering; she embraced it – and the God of love - and her pain was transformed. With great dignity and solemnity she rejoiced always, even in the midst of her own intense and chronic discomfort.
In the Holy Eucharist we acknowledge “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth.”
We should always and everywhere give God thanks and praise?
In no uncertain terms we understand that we are called to rejoice, always, as the saints and martyrs before us did while marching to their death. We realize that for Christians Thanksgiving is much more than an event, much more than a song or prayer of gratitude for things that turn out the way we want them to. Thanksgiving is a great deal more than the one day in a year that we stop and say “Thank you God for the good stuff in our lives.” Thanksgiving is a way of life, a way of seeing the grace of God in everything! It is believing that no matter how bad things feel, no matter how dismal or painful life may be, we and the whole world are destined for greater things than we can ask or imagine, and which is, in fact, already evident if we will only open our eyes to see it.
It’s an indomitable “attitude of gratitude” as people in recovery call it. It’s being so full of thanks that we can’t help but sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” from the moment we wake up, until we fall asleep again, and every moment in between.
From Rachel, and people like her, I have learned – though not mastered mind you – that becoming thankful is simply a matter of prayer, practice, and persistence.
Rachel had us in the contemplative prayer group practice being in the presence of God. She taught us that we have to connect with God regularly, connect to the well-spring of grace, and let God fill our hearts and minds and spirits with thanks for the innumerable and immeasurable gifts we are continuously given. We have to sit quietly with God – often - and receive what God gives. With God’s grace then we start to notice, more and more, the subtle and remarkable things that happen all around us, all of the time - the “God things” as one of my dear friends calls them. Some people record these in a journal; some people incorporate them in their prayers and discover that in time their prayers are all praise and thanksgiving.
Becoming thankful people involves prayer, practice, and persistence.
It’s so easy to focus on the pain, the want, the failure. We are quite adept at noticing what’s broken and wrong. Becoming aware of the grace and goodness that permeates and envelopes everything and everyone is not more difficult; it just takes some intention, discipline, and effort.
Consider the little piece of bread we’ll have in a few minutes Most of us would say it’s not very big, not very filling, and certainly has very little nutritional value. A steady diet of it won’t keep us alive for very long.
But with prayer, practice, and persistence, that little bit of baked dough becomes the bread of life, the Body of Christ; that will keep us alive in ways that nothing else can. We find a grace in it that is both life-giving and life-changing. It opens our eyes to the glory of God in the Holy Eucharist, and ultimately in all of the ups and downs of the human journey. The grace and goodness of God is in that morsel, but certainly not limited to it.
Practice. Paul said, “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, or excellent . . . anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Persistently. Make it a habit.
Try creating a list of the good things in your life - you know family, friends, home, food in great variety and abundance, good health, music, beautiful landscapes, work that challenges you and satisfies your need to be productive, having enough money to pay for the things you need – for comforts and luxuries too - and so forth. Start with general stuff like that and then work on the particulars, the specifics. Take note of the fact that you woke up in a secure home to a beautiful day, that there are individuals you love who love you back, that you have the strength and ability to work and play. You probably had a nutritious and delicious breakfast, produced with little effort, you have nice clothing, a good car or public transportation, and freedom the likes of which few people can even dream. There is great beauty and wonder in each night and day, in each season. Notice all of the amazing great and small miracles of your life, most of which go completely unnoticed and therefore are taken for granted.
And notice, they never end. The goodness and grace that flows through our lives is beyond measure!
Make a habit of noticing these gifts. And understand that there is far more ahead of us than there is behind us, as we will discover when we see God face to face.
“Rejoice always” Paul said. And we acknowledge “It is right and good to give thanks always and everywhere.”