Sunday, November 27, 2011

November 20, 2011

A Grateful, Courageous heart
Psalm 66
            Thanksgiving Day is coming. There are some who will complain that we have nothing to be thankful for this year.
+The Stock Market is down.
+Groceries are high.
+Folks are out of jobs.
+There is no end in sight!
How can we give thanks on Thanksgiving when this year has been harder than the last year, and recent years have been harder than years in the not-so-recent past?
            If giving thanks requires that every year be bigger and richer than the year before, then the complainers are right. We should only give thanks when every THIS year is bigger than every LAST year. But if giving thanks has a different source, then you’d better get to the store to buy food for a feast. Thanksgiving Day is almost upon us.

[Illus: Have You Taken Inventory Lately?]
            Author David McLennon tells a story of his very first job in a small town general store. This was in the day before mails and supermarket chains. At age thirteen he was hired as a handy boy. He would sweep the floor, bag items for customers, and put up stock.
            On one particular Saturday, he heard the owner say to one of the clerks: “It’s that time of the year again: Inventory Season." Dr. McLennon confessed that this was a word that had not yet entered into his vocabulary. When an opportune moment arrived, he went to the store owner and asked, “Sir, what is Inventory Season?” Patiently the owner explained that it was a time when you made a list of everything that you had -- from groceries on the shelves to wrapping paper and string.”
            Still somewhat puzzled, the young McLennon then asked, “Why?”
            “Well,” responded the owner, “We need to count the stock we have at the end of the year. Every now and then we have to take inventory just to see what we have.”
            That little story, to me, provides an important aspect of what Thanksgiving is about. It is a time when each of us needs to ask ourselves the question:  “Have I taken inventory of my life lately? Have I made an effort to count all the things that I do have in life instead of complaining about the things that I don’t have? It is a good exercise especially when we are of a mind to brood or worry. Have you taken inventory lately?

            What I am suggesting here is that from time to time, we should sit down and do some talking to ourselves about all of the gifts and opportunities and challenges that God has given each one of us. This is a simple and gracious attitude toward life.
            Now, one step further: Is this attitude of taking inventory of our blessings harder this year than it was in years past? After all, if we have suffered losses and setbacks in this year, should we be expected to give thanks? In good years, “Yes;” in bad years, is our answer, “No”? The core of the matter is this: What is the source of our gratitude? Is the source of our thanksgiving spirit an ever-growing abundance of blessings and upward mobility? Or does a thanksgiving spirit have a different source?
            A young boy had only heard his Grandfather offer the blessing before the meal at Thanksgiving, Easter, and other special occasions; when he, typically, said a long prayer over the food.
            One night, after a fun campout and fishing trip, the Grandfather (to the boy’s surprise) asked a very brief blessing on the food. With a gleam in his eye, the boy grinned at his Grandfather and said, "You don't pray so long when you're hungry, do you Grandpa?"

The young boy caught the question that I am raising this Sunday before Thanksgiving. Are we more grateful when we are well-fed and life is filled with promise than when we are not-so-well fed and maybe even worried about our future?
            I contend that the source of our gratitude is not the measure of the blessings we pile around us on Thanksgiving or any other day. Instead, the source of our gratitude is our confidence in the goodness and constancy of God. You see, if our gratitude depends on the measured pile of our blessings, then that measure can vary from day to day and year to year. Some years are better than others. Some days are better than others. Some days I just feel more able to take on the challenges than I do on other days.
            As a nation, we measure our readiness to take on the challenges with something called “The Consumer Confidence Index.” I’m not sure how they come up with it, but we hear it reported from time to time on the news. But, what does it measure? Is it only focused on our readiness to buy things? Or does it measure other areas of confidence and worry?
            Certainly, our confidence that the future looks bright enough to make a major purchase is a kind of measure. Still, I contend that it is not a worthy basis for deciding our thankfulness on this Thanksgiving Day.
[ILLUS: Grinch who stole Christmas]
            Remember that wonderful Children's holiday classic "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?" It was will be on TV again this Christmas. You'll recall in the story how the Grinch, disguised as Santa Claus, enters all the homes by way of the chimneys. He takes all the presents and ornaments, the trees and stockings, and even their food down to the last morsel. He drags his loot up to his mountain and then looks down upon Whoville with a sinister grin. He is listening for the cries and wailings of the people to start as they wake up on Christmas morning to discover a Christmas lost. What he hears instead surprises him. Up from the town of the Whos comes a joyful Christmas carol. They are singing.
            "Why?" he asks. It is because, he learns, Christmas resides not in things but in the heart which is thankful. He could not steal their gratitude (3).

While the movie does teach us that gratitude is in the heart, not in presents and things, it does not explore the deeper source of that gratitude. I want to explore that well-spring of gratitude now with you.

II. The source of our gratitude is plain to see in our scripture this morning from the Psalms. The source is our confidence in the goodness and constancy of God.
            TEXT: The Psalm we read this morning reaches back into Israel’s past to tell the story of God’s faithfulness. It reaches back to tell the defining story of God’s love for his people:
5 Come and see what God has done,
His wonderful acts among people.
 6 He changed the sea into dry land;
      our ancestors crossed the river on foot.
   There we rejoiced because of what he did.
 7 He rules forever by his might
      and keeps his eyes on the nations.
      Let no rebels rise against him. (Psalm 66.5-7).

            [A.] This Psalm reminds Israel that God led Israel out of Egypt and slavery, to form them as a distinct people and then brought them to the Land of Promise. Every time Israel told this story, they were reminded of that defining moment in their history. Even though we do not cherish this story as ancient Israel did, this story reminds Christians of God’s mighty deeds, too. And this story prepares us to hear how God acted again in the person of Jesus Christ to call the world out of sin and into righteousness. You see it in our Christian story, the Gospel, too.
            [B.]  There is something more about the Exodus story that hits us who are Americans in a distinct way. The Exodus story is not just about geography – as if moving from Egypt to Israel was the whole story. This story tells us that God’s great defining act was leading Israel out of slavery into freedom. Some might claim that this is the power of liberation over the power of oppression. But, I read this as more personal than the triumph of one concept over another. This is God, who moved by love, called Israel out of slavery in Egypt into freedom in the Land of Promise. Not finished, God, in that same love, would extend such freedom to all the peoples of the earth. This is the God, who fully revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ, would extend such grace and hope and freedom to whosoever would believe in Him. It is not just about geography; it also about God’s gift of freedom from oppression.
            [C.]  So, the Psalmist called Israel, in every year following that defining moment of freedom and love, to give thanks to God, knowing that this is the constant character of God. Now, as Christians, we freely add to that story of Israel’s liberation, the Christian story of the gracious gift of the Christ.
            [D.]  And one further step: as Americans on Thanksgiving Day, we now add to this faith story our nation’s story which has been a blessing to each and every one of us. Almost from our nation’s beginnings, we have heard the call for a day of national Thanksgiving for God’s gift of this good land, its people, and its vision of freedom with opportunity.
            So regardless of the current economic indicators, we reach back for the great stories of our history to find evidence of God’s goodness and God’s love. In the conviction that God’s love and goodness do not waver, we rise up to give thanks for God and God’s many blessings.
            Last year, the Thanksgiving Proclamation from the President of the United States included this thought when he said:
      Thanksgiving Day is a time each year, dating back to our founding, when we lay aside the troubles and disagreements of the day and bow our heads in humble recognition of the Providence bestowed upon our Nation.  Amidst the uncertainty of a fledgling experiment in democracy, President George Washington declared the first Thanksgiving in America, recounting the blessings of tranquility, union, and plenty that shined upon our young country.  In the dark days of the Civil War when the fate of our Union was in doubt, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day, calling for "the Almighty hand" to heal and restore our Nation.
      In confronting the challenges of our day, we must draw strength from the resolve of previous generations who faced their own struggles and take comfort in knowing a brighter day has always dawned on our great land.  As we stand at the close of one year and look to the promise of the next, we lift up our hearts in gratitude to God for our many blessings, for one another, and for our Nation (1).
Thankfulness comes, not from our piled up trophies; instead, it rises out of a grateful, courageous heart. It comes from the great story of God’s faithfulness which does not waver and our confidence in God’s loving-kindness. The fortunes of each passing year will vary; some years are better than others. But, each time we recall the great story of God’s mighty acts by which we have been brought to freedom, we return to our foundation of gratitude.

III. Take this thought one step further. Thankful is not merely our response to our God who is good and constant in love. I believe that thankfulness shapes us into the people we become.
            Do you remember the poem by Dorothy Nolte, “Children Learn What they Live”? While is focuses on children, it actually speaks about the way our environment shapes the people we become.

The poem begins with words of caution:
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

It ends with more positive thoughts:
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live (2).

If I could add one more line to the poem, it would say: “If people live with thankfulness, then they learn to receive the world with gratitude.” Of course, the opposite is true, too. We are shaped by what we live with. On Thanksgiving Day, we are learning to receive the world with gratitude by gathering with family and friends to share the feast of Thanksgiving.
            On Thursday, all across this nation, we share a feast. Let it be a feast of gratitude, a feast of retelling the great story of this nation with its freedom and its opportunity, a feast of remembering the goodness and faithfulness of God.

1. President Barak Obama, The Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, 2010
2. Nolte, Dorothy Law. “Children Learn What They Live,” Copyright 1972.
3. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” written by Dr. Seuss, published as a book by Random House in 1957. Chuck Jones adapted the story as an animated special for TV in 1966. (Source Wikopedia.)

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