(1 Thessalonians 5: 12-24)
On this Sunday after the Fourth of July, there is another national holiday I have on my mind. Thanksgiving, of all things. A particular Thanksgiving. The family is all gathered around the table; four generations strong. It is a big table with chairs scrunched together. And on that table, a most wonderful spread: turkey and green beans and mashed potatoes, stuffing and crescent rolls. Apple and pumpkin pies. It is magnificent.
The time has come. The family patriarch rises from his seat – the great-grandfather, affectionately known as “G.G.” Like a king standing before his subjects, his mere presence quiets them. It is time for the Thanksgiving prayer. He asks everyone to bow their heads. And he prays. And he prays some more. And he keeps praying.
It is the longest prayer one four-year old boy at the table has ever heard – a boy who has precious little experience with the concept of “patience,” who sort of understands God but has no idea why anyone would want to talk to them so much, whose favorite meal of the entire year is spread out right before him. And so is that four-year old boy who takes a deep breath and shouts at the top of his little lungs, “Amen, G.G., Amen!”
You might be able to guess who that boy was. Granted, it was not my finest moment. I like to think I’ve matured a bit since then; a little more tuned in to thankfulness nowadays. I like to think my understanding of gratitude and appreciativeness and empathy have evolved over the decades.
But I wonder sometimes if I really know, or any of us knows, what it means to live thankfully. Beyond how hard it can be; beyond our tendency to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do; beyond the inherent challenges that come with practicing gratitude in a world that seems to know so little of it.
Back last summer I preached a few sermons on this book: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” Author A.J. Jacobs chronicles his experience of trying to follow the Bible’s some 613 laws for an entire year. As you might recall, this leads to some pretty funny stories, as well as some insightful ones. In the story I’m sharing today, A.J. recounts one of many conversations he had with Yossi, an ordained Orthodox rabbi who serves as a sort of guide to A.J. throughout his quest. Listen:
Day 191. Yossi, my mentor, gave me a stern talking-to today. I was over at his house on the Upper West Side. I tell him, “I love saying prayers of thanksgiving, because it makes me more grateful for life. But I still have trouble with the prayers where you are glorifying God . . .”
Yossi frowns in my general direction. “You’re on thin ice there,” he says. He tells me to stop looking at the Bible as a self-help book. That is the way I view it a lot of the time, actually. I ask myself, “How can religion make me more joyous? How can it give my life more meaning? How can it help me raise my son so he won’t end up an embezzler or a racketeer?”
But religion is more than that, Yossi says. It’s about serving God.
Yossi tells me this story: Two men do their daily prayers of thanksgiving while at work. One spends twenty minutes in his office behind a closed door and afterward feels refreshed and uplifted, like he just had a therapy session. The other is so busy, he can only squeeze in a quick five-minute prayer session between phone calls. He recites his prayers of thanksgiving superfast in a broom closet, racing just to get it done.
Yossi then asks me: who has done the better thing?
So I’m going to stop here for a moment and take an informal poll: if you think the first guy did the better thing – twenty minutes in the office, every day, refreshed and renewed, raise your hand……. Okay, now raise your hand if you think the second guy did better – five minutes tops, cramming it in when he can, broom closet?
Alright, let’s see what Yossi says:
Yossi asks: who has done the better thing?
“The first,” I say.
Yossi smiles and shakes his head. “No, it was the second.”
I didn’t understand. “The second? How could it be the second? He was racing through his prayers of thanksgiving. Only five minutes. In a broom closet! The other guy took more time, was relaxed.”
“Ah,” Yossi says in his mentor-like way, “that is true. But the first guy was doing it for himself. So he would feel better. The second guy? He was doing it only for God. He was sacrificing his time. In a broom closet, for crying out loud! There was no benefit to himself in those prayers. None at all. That is when you know that you are truly thankful.”
It’s interesting when you look at it that way, isn’t it?” And you know what sticks out at me most when I read this story; in a comforting sort of way? Honestly – that second guy looks an awful lot like me! And I suspect like most of you, perhaps. We are busy people. Maybe not as much in the middle of a pandemic, but we are still busy people! We have schedules to keep, agendas to follow, check lists that get things added a lot faster than they get crossed off. We’d love nothing more than to go up and sit on a mountain somewhere, soak in enlightenment, be at peace with ourselves and with nature and with God. But so often, when it comes to our faith and our faith journey, all we’ve got to give is five minutes and a broom closet.
And the thing is, I don’t know that we should feel bad about that. According to Yossi, it’s not as much about “being thankful” as it is “living thankfully.” And the two are not the same. Living thankfully isn’t something we have to make a bunch of time for. Living thankfully is simply choosing to live our life in a certain way. Reorienting ourselves around something – or someone – that is not us, so that our gratefulness and gratitude is reflected not in soundbytes and sayings and what we post on Facebook, but reflected in the way we move and think and act in the world.
Our whole lives become a prayer of thanksgiving to God! I think that’s what the Psalmist is getting at when they say:
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good,
for God’s steadfast love endures for ever.
O give thanks to the God of gods.
for God’s steadfast love endures for ever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords.
for God’s steadfast love endures for ever!
And I think that’s what A.J. discovered in his living-biblically quest – not a conversion experience or some higher sense of calling. What he found – what he said he gained most from his endeavor– was a desire to live thankfully with his whole life. What Paul means in his letter to those Christians in Thessalonica when he says, Give thanks in all circumstances. Or, as The Message translation puts it, Thank God, no matter what.
That’s a hard thing to do, no doubt. In fact, it could even seem out-of-touch to say we should give thanks to God no matter what. No matter what – really? There is a virus raging, there is racial unrest stirring. There are things we need to face in our communities, our country, our world. What if there doesn’t seem to be much to be thankful for? How does one live thankfully in the midst of all that?
I love the story of two German sisters imprisoned during World War II for harboring Jewish families in their home. The barrack where Corrie and Betsi were kept was extremely crowded and infested with fleas; tons of fleas everywhere. One morning they read 1 Thessalonians 5 from their tattered Bible and the reminder to “thank God, no matter what.” Betsie said to her sister, “Corrie, we’ve got to give thanks for these barracks and even these fleas.” Corrie replied, “No way am I going to thank God for fleas.”
But Betsie was persistent, and so they wound up thanking God for everything, including the fleas. And something interesting happened in the months that followed – their barrack, unlike the others, was left relatively free from the soldiers; and they could do Bible studies there, talk openly there, and even pray there. It was the only place of refuge they had in the entire camp. And they later found out why. Several months afterwards, they learned that the guards never entered their barrack because there were too many fleas!
Thanking God, no matter what. Even when our barrack is full of fleas; even when all we’ve got is five minutes and a broom closet. Cause even then, God is good; and even then, God’s steadfast love endures forever. Call it a refrain for thankful living – an exhale following every inhalation of gratefulness. Living thankfully, as natural as breathing!
It is true that these are hard times we are in; of that there is no doubt. A virus raging; a racial unrest stirring, things we need to face in our communities, our country, our world. We have work to do. And yet I have to wonder, amidst the fleas and holed up in our broom closets, if living thankfully is what it will take for us to move forward. Moving us from where we are to where we long to be; a church that embodies hope and a world full of healing, heartfelt love…
More and more I think that just may be the case. All that God is doing in our lives; all that the love of Jesus Christ does within us. It’s not always easy, being thankful. But clichés aside, we really do have a lot to be thankful for. More importantly, perhaps,. we have so much to live thankfully for.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Psalm 136: 1-3.