Give Thanks in All Circumstances

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24.

 

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  

Let me tell you something I give thanks for today: I give thanks for being here. I give thanks to be back at Trinity, celebrating again the Holy Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, with this wonderful church community. 

I am also grateful for the sabbatical I’ve had. I’m grateful that Lee and I were able to travel, to spend time with family, to spend time with each other. I’m grateful for the time and the space that allowed me to read and to pray and to ponder and to write. And I have a deep gratitude to you, to the people of this congregation, for making this sabbatical possible. I know that not all parish clergy get sabbaticals, and I really appreciate what a gift you all have given me in these last four months. I am profoundly grateful.  

Which makes it kind wonderful that I should be back in the pulpit today, when the message from our scriptures instructs us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Of all the Sundays when the scriptures seem to speak directly to me, this is a good one. The message of gratitude really strikes a chord today.  

In fact, gratitude was one of the themes I kept coming back to in my pondering and praying and writing all through my sabbatical. I’ve written pages and pages about it. Now don’t worry: I am not going to read all those pages for you this morning. But I would like to share with you a couple of thoughts.  

Gratitude, I am convinced, is very near the heart of being Christian. Giving thanks is a core Christian practice. And it is a practice – it’s not just a feeling, although it certainly has an emotional component; it doesn’t just happen to you, although it can arise at any moment – gratitude is fundamentally a choice you make about how you respond to what life gives you. Gratitude is a habit; gratitude is a disposition; or as a book I once read put it, gratitude is an attitude (and although that rhyme sounds kind of silly, I have to admit it is memorable). Gratitude is an openness of heart that we can learn how to practice, and that we get better at the more we practice it.  

Gratitude is in the first place a willingness to receive. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? — you can’t give thanks for a gift until you’ve received a gift. To be grateful is to accept. And importantly, to be grateful for something means to accept it as it is. Not as you want it to be; not as you project your own needs or fantasies or desires on it; not as you would make it if you had your ’druthers; but as it really is.  

When Lee and I were traveling in Canada, around the north shore of Lake Superior, we planned to make a stop at Ouimet Canyon, where sheer basalt cliffs drop about 300 feet down an old volcanic fault. We had one day we could go, and that day dawned gray and foggy and chilly and not at all the bright sunny day I wanted to go sightseeing and take pictures. I was all set to be disappointed and grumpy – until I began to notice how beautiful the fog was, how the mist made everything look mysterious and mystical, how the big pine trees looming out of the fog as we walked the trail to the canyon rim made me think of guardian spirits and angels – and how when we got to the canyon the fog had lifted enough that we could see the entire length of the gorge and yet it still looked like it was all enclosed in its own ancient world. Our morning at the canyon was intensely beautiful, and I was very grateful to experience it – and I would have missed it if I hadn’t set aside my own projections and accepted the weather for what it was. Gratitude means acceptance.  

And the more you learn to practice that sort of grateful acceptance of things, the more you begin to discover that you are not only grateful for things, but you are grateful to the giver of things as well. The more you give thanks for what is, the more you find yourself giving thanks to God.  

One night in Michigan Lee and I went to a dark-sky park, where we could look at stars without interference from surface lights. We saw Cassiopeia and Andromeda and Cygnus and the Milky Way spread across the sky – and because it was so dark, the stars looked more brilliant than I have seen them for many years. And I kept thinking, “Thank you God, thank you God, thank you God for these stars.” The more grateful I was for the good of seeing those stars, the more deeply aware I became of the goodness of God that is the source of all good. My thanksgiving for the stars became more and more a prayer to God. The more you give thanks, the more you pray your thanksgiving.  

And something else about gratitude: the more you practice it, the more you anticipate it. As you learn to give thanks for this person or that object or this experience – whatever the person or object or experience may be – you find you also begin to look forward to giving thanks. You find more and more that you enter into circumstances actively expecting that you will find gratitude in them. This is something I have read about in the reflections of spiritual teachers; and it is something I have experienced myself a little bit, from time to time. Like when we were taking the tour around Lake Superior and I’d wake up each day thinking “I wonder what beautiful scenery I’ll give thanks to God for today!” And when you enter into situations expecting to find gratitude there, you begin to enjoy those situations so much more. Everything becomes a potential source of joy. Everything becomes some sort of invitation to rejoice and rejoice always. And it all begins with gratitude.  

And that is why Paul tells the Thessalonians that the will of God in Christ for them is that they should “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances”: these are not three separate things, three different tasks Paul commands them: but they are three aspects of a single reality, they are three movements of a single spirit. To practice gratitude is to pray in God’s gifts is to rejoice in God’s goodness everywhere. The movement of thanksgiving and praise and joy is the movement of Christ’s Spirit in us.  

Or, as Br. Curtis Almquist of the Society of St John the Evangelist puts it, “Gratitude consecrates life, with as much transforming power as our prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and wine at the altar. The embracing and expressing of gratitude is the most powerful thing we can do in life.”  

And I think one of the most important things we can do in life is to share that power of gratitude in the world around us. I think in some ways we live in a profoundly ungrateful cultural moment right now. News media, social media, popular entertainment – everywhere I look I see anger, fear, bargaining, tit-for-tat, ego-projection – sometimes it seems it’s anything but the kind of receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude that God really wants for us. Even at Christmas time, when we as Christians look to the birth of Jesus as a sign of hope, the culture around us is whipped up into a frenzy of buying and selling and forced jollity while underneath it all people seem lonely and frightened and tense and just wishing it would all go away. Do you ever get that feeling around this time of year? Any time of year?  

But God in Jesus calls us to live in a different way. Not running around anxiously trying to make everything some imaginary sort of perfect – but practicing gratitude, offering prayers of praise and thanksgiving, rejoicing in what really is and helping others find joy too. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” writes Paul to the Thessalonians, and to all of us. That’s what preparing the way for Christ can mean for us.  

So as Advent turns to Christmas, how will you practice gratitude this week? And with whom will you share that gratitude in the Way of Christ?  

 

Comments

  1. Good sermon! And the discussion at 8:45 Sunday was inspiring too. Thank you and Merry Christmas!