Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Rejoice. Really? We live with the threat of ISIS in the back of our minds every day. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are seeking asylum from the terrors of war in their own nation. We see Russia taking giant strides backward toward its Cold War philosophy of oppression. And on our own shores, we observe frightening gaps between blacks, whites, and Latinos, gaps of understanding being played out between people of color and law enforcement far too often. And over the course of this past week, we’ve witnessed acts of hatred and violence against Muslim Americans, the LGBT community, and hate-filled voices of junior high school children, chanting “build the wall” as the Hispanic children cowered and cried. There is an ever-increasing gap between the haves and the have nots in this country and around the globe. And beyond race or religion, we see widespread abuse of the vulnerable, both the very young and the very old. So, as enter this season of Thanksgiving, how in the world can I stand up here before you today and ask you to “rejoice”?
Well, I can answer that charge simply, with two names: Paul and Jesus. Paul and Jesus. You see, when Paul penned these words to the church in Philippi, he understood the kind of world we’re living in today. He knew that the Philippian church was facing division, persecution, they were at a crossroads, should we stand up to our oppressors or should we keep our head down and accept the status quo. Remember now, Paul wrote this letter while confined to a Roman prison cell under the sentence of death. He knew about bad times. But Paul was wise enough not to try and peddle empty hope or a Pollyannic type of religion to people who were too savvy to swallow it and too worn out and weary to waste time listening to fairy tales. Instead, in his dire situation, writing to people in their own, he said this: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” You have to understand, he was not writing about a sense of peace that denied the painful realities of life, but instead a peace that existed in the midst of them. It was a sense of peace that was not based on logic, but rather on relationship…not based on the environment around you, but rather on the friend beside you: a peace “that passes understanding–guarding your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” who has been born to us, for us, to be with us in our difficult times.
Certainly, the principles of our Christian Faith do have the potential, if heard and embraced, to change the world. But, until the world begins to hear and embrace these truths and until it changes, there remains another kind of peace, one that surpasses understanding, one that is more personal than chaos or hatred or political division; one that gives us the strength to survive whatever the world throws our way.[i]
And it’s this type of peace that brings us back to the example of Paul. He lived into the peace that he preached. Being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord Always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “…with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “…whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “I press on… I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”
You see, we are not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens. Let me say that again because in order to find a sense of peace in a chaotic world, we must understand that we have a choice. We are free to choose how we will respond to adversity. And on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I think it’s appropriate to look at another group of people who chose joy over lament. The Pilgrims.
It was winter. It was a horrible time. The weather was cold and damp; the work was hard; the food supply was inadequate. We are told that at one time there were only five grains of corn per person per meal. It was called the “starving time,” with sickness and death all around them. Almost half the colony died during that first winter. I am sure many of them became demoralized and depressed and resentful, but some of them chose to focus on making the most of what they still had, rather than on all they had lost. They concentrated on the positives rather than the negatives, and that helped them make it through the bitter winter to better times.[ii]
My friends, we all have the choice of what we will maximize and what we will minimize, and the person who has learned to choose gratitude for the positive in the midst of the negative is far better equipped to cope with whatever comes, and to make the best of things in the worst of times.
But there is another situation in which we have to make a choice. We have to make a choice not only when we go through those difficult days, but also when we go through the good ones, when the harvest is bountiful.
After working long and hard on their farms during the Spring and Summer of that first year, the Pilgrims experienced a bountiful harvest with plenty of food. And once more, they had a choice to make. They could have said, “we’ve worked hard for it, and we deserve it.” But instead they chose to be grateful, and gathered on that first Thanksgiving to give thanks to God for the rich harvest.
And that choice is ours too. Today is Stewardship Sunday. That uncomfortable time when we talk about the finances of the church. The time when I stand up here and invite you to challenge yourself to increase your giving by 1, 2, or 3.6%. 3.6 because that’s the increase in our budget this year. But I’m not going to do that… wait… I guess I already did. Sorry. But anyway, instead of browbeating you about giving, I want to take a little different tact today. I want to talk about “gratitude” instead of “stewardship.” Maybe we should call this day “Gratitude Sunday.” Because isn’t that really what we’re talking about here, gratitude? Isn’t our giving to the church, the giving of our time and our talent, of our presence and our prayers, along with our financial gifts, come from a place of gratitude? A gratitude that is lived out in the presence of the Living and Still-Speaking God.
And in that same realm, we have so much to be grateful for and celebrate today! We as a congregation are doing a wonderful job of both meeting our budget and participating in the mission and ministry of Christ. We do this by reaching into our local community using our time, talent, and treasure to improve the lives of people who live near us and by reaching out with a hand of compassion across the globe touching the lives of people we will never know personally. That’s our calling. That’s what it means to BE church! And that’s what lies at the very core, the very heart, it’s the very essence of Paul’s Joy! He said to the ancient church “let your gentleness be known to everyone. God is near. Don’t worry about anything but instead be grateful. My friends, these words ring just as true today as they did all those many years ago. Even in these difficult times, God is near! And God’s peace, a peace that Paul says “surpasses all understanding”, will guard our heart and our minds in Christ Jesus. And he implores us, he appeals to us, to continue this positive wave we are riding. He says, “keep on doing the things you have learned and have received and heard and seen in me!” and here’s the best part, here’s the goodie… “the God of Peace will be with you.”
My friends, we can face this winter of discontent with rejoicing in our hears because God is with us. And we can respond to God’s unceasing presence by continuing to show our gratitude by loving God, by loving our neighbor, by loving our enemy, by loving the one whose different, by loving all of creation, the land, trees, and animals. On this Thanksgiving Sunday, this Gratitude Sunday, and on into the weeks and months to come, may we all experience the God of Peace. And may a prayer cross our lips, a prayer that echoes across this land and resonates deep within our hearts; a prayer that says:”Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” May it be so. Amen & amen.
[i] Rev. Dr. Michel Brown. Peace Amid Bedlam. DayOne.org 2015
[ii] The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg. It’s your Choice. DayOne.org 1996