“Give Thanks in ALL Circumstances???”

9 Dec

 

 

A sermon preached for the 105th Anniversary

of South Presbyterian Church of Yonkers, NY

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I Thessalonians 5:18

What a wonderful theme you have chosen to celebrate the 105th anniversary of this congregation –

 “Give thanks in all circumstances;

       for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

                              Who could argue with that?

 ……..   I have three stories!

(1)  The first true story happened many years ago, about 1970 –

in the first congregation I served as Pastor, a relatively small church like this one…the church was about a hundred and TEN years old at the time…

I found a wonderful poster that said something much like your theme today.

I put it on a bulletin board just inside the front door of the church,

             for folks to think about as they came and went.

It read:

      FOR ALL THAT HAS BEEN, THANKS!

      FOR ALL THAT WILL BE, YES!

To me, it was an affirmation of where the church had been,

   for all that God had accomplished through its ministry, already lasting

                                                               more than a century!

and it expressed our hope and faith that God would continue to bless us and lead us and use us for God’s glory and to serve God’s people in the future.

            One of the elders of the church, whose name was ED,

                                 was actually rather horrified.

             I CAN NOT AGREE WITH THAT, he said.

             I understood his objection.

    He had had a very unhappy childhood.  His father had abandoned his mother with four small boys.   He and one other brother had been put in an orphanage, because his mother was not able to provide for them all, even though she came to visit them when she could. 

     He was very bitter.

     He was a man who loved nature and worked to preserve it, even going regularly to a park that the Nature Conservancy took care of and picking up old cans and beer bottles and cleaning up the trash that thoughtless people had left after their picnicking. 

     He shook his head at what this world was coming to, with nobody taking responsibility.

     He was a man who took responsibility.  Every week all summer long, he came and mowed the HUGE lawn at the church, a HILLSIDE lawn, a VERY LARGE hill!  People would always ask me,

                 How do you mow that lawn?

     Well, I would say, we have a man with his left leg shorter than his right, who pushes the lawn mower one way around the hill, and we have another man with his right leg shorter than his left, and he pushes the lawn mower the other way.  (And people would laugh)

     But actually, we just had ED!   (who had two short legs…)  He mowed the lawn in summer, and shoveled the snow in winter, and cleaned the church every week, and who had a heart of gold, and who took responsibility.  

     But sadly, ED was unable to be thankful for the past.

 

     And he could not believe in the future enough to affirm what it might hold.  His bitterness would not let him be joyful and thankful.

 

(2)  My second story is one that I remember telling once before

from this pulpit…  in a sermon I preached the very first Thanksgiving I was here as your Pastor, 33 years ago, in 1979. 

A TRUE Thanksgiving Story

           that happened to me back in 1967 in New York City.

I was feeling VERY SORRY for myself. 

I had no job, no home, and I was sick… and it was Thanksgiving Day. 

It was during what I call “my time of unemployment while I was seeking to open up the Pastorate of the church to women”. 

           (That just means I was trying to get a job!)

I had been ordained for 9 years already, one of the first women in the Presbyterian Church, as you probably know.  I had been blessed with two great jobs working on the staff of large churches, had gone back to graduate school for an advanced theology degree, got my STM degree from Union Seminary in New York City, CUM LAUDE: “with honors”.

I was READY for a job as a pastor, and believed God was leading me in this direction, …..  but

I could NOT get an interview with a pastoral nominating committee. 

After I graduated, I had no place to live….

The organist in a little church where I substituted as a guest preacher, invited me home to stay with her and her musician roommates, who were all studying at the Manhattan School of Music.   I slept on their living room couch…. for several months.  As Thanksgiving neared, I  made plans to bake a pumpkin pie and take it on the train with me to visit my family in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving Dinner.  But I got sick a couple days before Thanksgiving.  One of my roommates let me sleep in her bed while I was sick, as she went away for the holiday.

     By Thanksgiving afternoon, I WAS REALLY FEELING SORRY FOR MYSELF, as miserable as I could be, when the phone rang.

     My friend, Chris, a former roommate of mine – was apparently having a mental breakdown.  A seminary faculty member had kindly invited her for Thanksgiving Dinner, and now he desperately needed someone who could help her.   Immediately I got out of bed, got dressed and took the bus.  It was a long and difficult afternoon, but

it was our friendship that allowed me to coax her, step by step, moment by moment, inch by inch, when each minute, in her fear, she wanted to back away…… one step at a time, step by step, I loved Chris and coaxed Chris all the way to the hospital for her to agree to admit herself.

It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

From this I gained a new understaning of what THANKSGIVING truly is…

I was so thankful for our friendship, our love, which is what enabled Chris to trust me enough, to let me help her, even when she was scared to death and almost out of touch with reality.

I was so thankful for getting sick, and NOT being away with my family, so that I could be there for my friend in her need.

I am even thankful for those three years of unemployment, and all the lessons I learned in them, as hard as they were, on the path where God was leading me all the time, although I did NOT always know it!  

What I learned about THANKFULNESS on that Thanksgiving Day in 1967 is just ONE of the MANY lessons God taught me through those very difficult times.

Friends, in the most difficult of circumstances, there is ALWAYS something to be thankful for, and it changes totally how you see the world and yourself and your church and your future.  When you are having a tough day (and we ALL have them), or a difficult month, or even a horrendous year, STOP and let yourself consider what there is for you to be thankful for!  Make a list! of what you’re thankful for!   Being thankful can change everything.  You cannot be angry or miserable or negative while you are being thankful.

 

(3)  The 3rd story is much older still.  It is a story that Jesus told in Luke chapter 18. 

Jesus pointed out a prayer of thanksgiving that is WRONG.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, (a)

  it is the prayer that the Pharisee prayed in the temple:

       “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”.

Luke tells us:  Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” 

What an indictment on the current discourse in our society… the hateful words of superiority and arrogance that we hear from those who condemn others FOR WHO THEY ARE.   Whether they are Muslim, or Gay, or speak a language other than English…..

Whole groups of people are despised, demeaned and judged …because of their religion or race,

their age or class,

their illness or physical ability,

their sexual identity or marital status, or for whom they love,

their nationality, language or accent,

their sex or marital status,

their poverty or their work,

their previous mistakes, alcoholism or addiction,

who their parents were or where they were born,

the color of their skin, how much they weigh, fat or thin,

and the list goes on and on,

here in our own country and around the world.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” said Jesus, “ one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 

    The Pharisees of course were regarded as the upstanding righteous

          spiritually correct religious leaders of their day.

     While tax collectors were generally despised, not just for greediness or lack of compassion, but also because they were considered traitors, working for the Romans who had occupied their country by military conquest.

Two men went up to the Temple to pray to God, said Jesus…. a pharisee and a tax collector…

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying proudly, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people:  thieves, scoundrels, adulterers, unjust, or even like this tax collector.

(I am so good.)  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

Thank you God, for making me better than others, so that I am deserving of your blessings

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’   I tell you,” said Jesus, “this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee; for allwho exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The WRONG thanksgiving (says Jesus)

   is the arrogance of feeling superior: 

whether it’s spiritual or religious superiority,

the arrogance of “privilege” and “entitlement”,

or some mistaken notion of racial superiority

       or ethnic superiority

            or class superiority

               or moral superiority,

                  anything that says, I AM BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE.  

                  Thank you, God, that I am not like them.

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in the New Testament speaks to a situation in the early church where some thought they were superior to others,  and St. Paul wrote to them,

     In Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, for ALL of you are ONE in Christ Jesus. 

                           You are ALL God’s people. (b)

Lest any of you see YOURSELVES as LESS THAN other people.

The church’s message, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is just as real today for those who have allowed themselves to be demeaned,

  who give in to thinking, “I guess I’m not good enough”.  If I’ve been treated with such disrespect, and told I’m inferior, maybe I’m not as good as other people.

Do we church people today “trust in ourselves that we are righteous and regard others with contempt”? 

    Yes, that is what Jesus was warning against in the thanksgiving prayer  of the Pharisee.

But Jesus’ whole life and ministry carry the message on the other side of this:  YOU who others think are undeserving:  I have come to let you know that God loves YOU.  God created you.  Black, brown, white, and every shade in between.  You are all beautiful.

God created you, Gay, straight, no matter whom you love. The wonderful thing is that God created you to love.

God created you, and your past mistakes, or your present reality, or your economic situation does not make you LESS than anyone else!

In God’s eyes you are precious and wonderful, with your own uniqueness, God loves you just the way you are.

In Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy, (c) he gives Timothy good advice:

“Let no one despise your youth.”  That’s what Timothy was – young.

And Paul was his mentor. 

          Let no one despise you for being who you are.

  Let no one tell you – you are less than God has created you to be.

   Let no one tell you that WHO YOU ARE means you cannot be a leader in the church, a helper, a teacher of others, one who shows the love of God in your life.

I am thankful today.

I am thankful today for what this congregation taught me in the 20 years I was with you.

As the pastor to a church full of people from many nationalities and cultures and various economic situations, of many colors and sizes and shapes, immigrants to this country and the children of other cultures…  I saw what was happening in your lives.  I learned much about white privilege, about racism and classism, and the arrogance of power….

You have a unique opportunity in this church to be a welcoming congregation, because God has welcomed you….to show the love of God to everyone, of every class and race and nationality and situation. l

(4)  ONE MORE STORY…. About the power of those whom others think are powerless…  in other words, for those who may be treated as inferior, the power they DO have.

All four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell us that WOMEN, who were not in that day qualified to be witnesses in court, were the ones God chose to be witnesses of what for us Christians is the central great fact of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (d)

    Have you thought about why it was the women who were at the crucifixion, while Jesus’ disciples ran away and went into hiding?  We’re told that one disciple, John, was at the cross for a while.  But it was the women who stayed at the cross.  And it was the women who saw where they laid Jesus in the tomb, so they could come back (after the Sabbath was past) to lovingly prepare Jesus body for a proper burial.

       The reason they could be there is that women were “nobody”.  They didn’t matter.  They were powerless, they were what we call “marginalized”, unimportant.  Nobody saw them as dangerous.  BUT GOD GAVE THEM A VOICE AND A MESSAGE.  God gave them a message to tell.  And we’re told they left the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples!  Yes, they were afraid.  But their fear was mixed with great joy!  And they RAN!  They ran to tell his disciples. 

Some accounts say that the women were afraid and didn’t tell anybody, or that they told them but nobody believed them.  How could such a preposterous thing be true?!

    But Matthew doesn’t say whether anybody believed them or not, just that they RAN to tell the disciples!  (e)  God had given them a voice! 

    Have you got your voice?  Do you recall when you got it?  Is there a message so important that you have to tell, that you are no longer shy, and you are not trying to fade into the background.  But God has given you a voice to say what you believe needs to be said!

     This is not just about women, but about all ordinary people.  Poor people, working class people, minority groups, people nobody considers important enough to listen to, powerless people.  But God can give them a voice, when there is a message that needs to be said.

            BELIEVE that YOU can have a voice, too!

        And while those women that first Easter were running to do what God had called them to do, the risen Christ appeared to them.  They were not alone. 

        And the presence of the risen Christ is with US as we are doing what God has called us to do.  As you are being the welcoming congregation who says to EVERYONE:  GOD LOVES YOU!  Christ is with you.

        As we approach Christmas, we hear once more that the Christ child’s name will be “Emmanuel”, which means “God is with us”.  (f)

The Easter story tells us the same message, that God is with us.

        The proof – the evidence – that GOD IS WITH US is not just the baby in the manger.  It is not just the empty tomb, nor his resurrection appearances to the women and to his disciples long ago.

        YOU are the evidence of THAT GOD IS WITH US, as God gives YOU new life.  YOU are the evidence of the living presence of Christ as God gives YOU a voice to tell to others the good news of God’s grace and love and forgiveness, of God’s power to give new life, of GOD’S WELCOME FOR ALL PEOPLE.  NO ONE EXCLUDED

YOU as a welcoming congregation

        are the evidence of the love of God that WELCOMES everyone of every class and race and station in life, black and brown and white, gay and straight, fat and thin, old and young, male and female.

God loves you.  Thank you, South Presbyterian Church, for the way in which you show that love of God in this community.

Give thanks to God in ALL circumstances, FOR THIS IS THE WILL OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS FOR YOU.

Amen.

+ + + +

Notes:

(a)  Luke 18:9-14

(b)  Galatians 3:28

(c)  I Timothy 4:12

(d)  Matthew 27:55-61; 28:1-10, Mark 15:40 – 16:11, Luke 23:49 – 24:12,22-24,   John 19:25-27;20:1-18

(e)  Matthew 18:8-10

(f)   Matthew 1:21-23

 

 

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