By Pastor Tracey Leslie
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Philippians 4:4-7
There were two farmers – neighbors – one was an optimist and the other was a pessimist. One summer morning when they got up the sun was shining brightly, as it had for several days. The optimist said to the pessimist, “What a beautiful day. All this sun will help our crops to grow.” “Are you kidding?” said the pessimist. “Our crops are going to get scorched and wither up and die.” The next day when they woke up, it was raining hard. The optimist said to his neighbor, “Isn’t this great. Here’s the rain we’ve been needing.” “If it keeps pouring like this,” said the pessimist, “that rain will rot the roots.” Sometime later the optimist got a new hunting dog, a retriever. It was a great dog, well-trained and obedient and the optimist spoke of his dog in glowing terms each time he saw his neighbor. One day the two men decided to go duck hunting. They put their boat out on the lake and soon the optimist spied a duck. “Watch this,” he said to his neighbor. He took his shot and as soon as the duck went down, without the farmer even giving a command, his dog leapt from the boat, ran across the water, retrieved the duck, ran back across the water and hopped back into the boat. The optimist looked at his neighbor, beaming with pride. And the pessimist said, “I knew there was something wrong with that dog. That dog can’t even swim.”
In life, I suppose, there are those who see the glass half full and those who see it half empty. We’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving; but scriptures, such as this morning’s from Philippians, remind us that thanksgiving is more than a national holiday. Thanksgiving is a chosen way of life for those of us who name ourselves Christian.
Let me say briefly, however, what thanksgiving, for a Christian, is not. It is not a kind of self-deluding designed to distort or ignore reality. Being a Christian does not mean naively overlooking the reality that our world is in turmoil – that racism and nativism is on the rise, that gun violence has become a weekly event, that record-breaking numbers of refugees are being subjected to violence and starvation. It does not mean burying our heads in the sand over an opioid epidemic that has become a national health crisis. Nor does it mean that we forget about the devastation from this fall’s hurricane season or that half the island of Puerto Rico is still without power.
That being said by me… it is the apostle Paul who teaches us about the real basis of Christian thanksgiving. None of Paul’s biblical letters have a greater focus on thanksgiving than Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Forms of the Greek words for joy and thanks are found 14 times in this tiny little letter that takes up less than four pages in most bibles. And what ought to make that even more striking is the fact that Paul writes this letter from behind bars. Paul is imprisoned, facing trial with a potential death sentence. And, let me tell you, as bad as prison can be today, 1st century Roman prison conditions would have made today’s American penitentiaries seem like a Park Avenue penthouse. Furthermore, life was no bowl of cherries for the Christians in Philippi either.
You see, it wouldn’t have been very easy to be a Christian in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman city. A significant chunk of its population was comprised of war veterans who, as a result of their faithful service to Caesar, had received Roman citizenship. Now Roman citizenship was a pretty good deal. It had some pretty sweet perks attached to it. Roman citizens were exempt from poll or head tax – that meant they taxed you just to be breathe the air more or less. They were also exempt from property tax. That was the upside. Citizenship did, however, have its downside. For one thing, Roman citizens were obliged to pledge their loyalty to Rome and to worship the Caesar as a god. Which wasn’t such a big deal for some folks, but it presented a serious problem if you were a Jew or a Christian who believed in one God. And it was even worse for Christians than for Jews. After all, Judaism had been around for a while and Jews were actually exempt from bowing down to Caesar. They were still expected to pledge their political loyalty; but they didn’t have to acknowledge Caesar as their god. But, Christianity was a new religion. There weren’t yet any special exemptions on the Roman books for Christians.
Now those who didn’t participate in emperor worship, whether Jew or Christian, paid a steep price. You see, various festivals and feasts to honor Caesar were where people went to cement friendships and business deals. Participation in those events served to reinforce, even guarantee, your place in the social pecking order – which was and still is very important in an Eastern culture. Worse yet, Christians who “bowed out” were held suspect by their neighbors. They suspected them of being rebels, traitors against the Empire; a threat to national security.
So, all things considered, we’d want to know why Paul thinks that he and the Philippian Christians have grounds for rejoicing. On the surface, it doesn’t sound as if they have much to be thankful for. But the crux of the answer is found in verse five of this morning’s passage when Paul tells the Philippians that “the Lord is near.” Now, that word for “near” can describe a temporal nearness (for example, Christmas is drawing near) or it can describe a spatial nearness (standing in this spot, I can say that the choir is near). So Paul wants the Christians in Philippi to remember the good news that Jesus Christ their Lord is near to them, both in time and space. Jesus Christ is near to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was the source of all power and boldness for the early Christian Church. The Roman citizens of Philippi have Caesar as their lord. But, Caesar’s not near to them. He’s way off in Rome. But the one true God is always near to his people. Even in the Old Testament, we read the assurances of God’s nearness to his people in their time of need. Psalm 145 declares “the Lord is near to all who call upon him.”[i] Psalm 34 assures us “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”[ii]
Our God is not some impersonal deity looking down on us from a distance. Our Lord is near. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome he writes at great length about how Christians experience God’s nearness through the Spirit. When what we see around us is not what we are longing for in the world, we need to be able to see through the lens of the Spirit.
If you were in worship last week, you might remember me talking about how what we see is what we get. When we overlook (or disregard) the mercy of God, we wind up seeing shortage and we see others as a threat to our own security and our lives are filled with fear and anxiety… and there’s certainly plenty of that in the world today. But when we choose to focus on the abundant grace and mercy of God, we see and receive so much more. Paul acknowledges to the Romans that it is tough to live with the reality of sin and suffering still around us while knowing that, ultimately, God will redeem all of creation.[iii] But if we can pray from a place of trust and thanksgiving, God’s Spirit draws near – in our minds and hearts – helping us to pray differently, to see things differently, (and ultimately) to live differently. In fact, to live in ways that bring the reality of God’s nearness and God’s redemption to bear on our world right here and right now. In other words, how we pray, how we see things, how we live can allow others around us to truly experience the nearness of the Lord through us.
We worship and give thanks because our God is one who is near us. Brothers and sisters, we stand on the threshold of Advent, that four week long season that prepares us to celebrate the birth of Jesus; to celebrate the good news of the ultimate experience of our Lord’s “nearness” when God took on human flesh in the infant Jesus who would grow to live and walk and teach and ministry among us and die and rise for us.
Friends, as Paul points out, prayer is not so much about our wish list for God as it is simply a practiced awareness of God’s presence; God’s indwelling Spirit that transforms the way we see and engage with the world. Prayer is not so much about getting the stuff we want from God as it is about noticing/comprehending the nearness of God so that we can see and prayer and live differently. When we learn to live in the present presence of God, we can live from a place of gratitude, of rejoicing and thanksgiving; we can live in peace and gentleness, rather than anxiety and fear.
Did you know that Buddhist monks make an entire ceremony out of drinking tea? They advise that one must be fully present, in the moment, to enjoy the tea – to savor its taste, relish its aroma, the sensation of the warm cup in one’s hand.
Famous monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
If you are ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea.
You will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone.
Life is like that.
If you are not fully present, you will look around and it will be gone.
You will have missed the feel, the aroma, the delicacy and beauty of life.
It will seem to be speeding past you. The past is finished.
Learn from it and let it go.
The future is not even here yet. Plan for it, but do not waste your time worrying about it. Worrying is worthless.
When you stop ruminating about what has already happened, when you stop worrying about what might never happen, then you will be in the present moment.
Then you will begin to experience joy in life.[iv]
I think those are words the apostle Paul would appreciate as he calls us to rejoice and to give thanks.
As I close my sermon this morning, I want to invite you to open your program. Throughout this holiday season, we’ll be creating a Gift Board. Each week, there will be a piece of holiday gift wrap in your program. This morning, I invite you to take out that gift wrap and write on it something for which you are especially thankful that begins with one of the letters in the word “thanksgiving.” Now, you might make this a pretty simple exercise; like, “ah, the letter ‘h;’ I’m grateful for a holiday honey ham.” Or, you might want to go a little deeper. Using the letter ‘h,’ I’m grateful for my dog, Hope. Most of you have heard about Hope; she’s our dog with seizures and inflammatory bowel disease. Sometimes I catch myself feeling annoyed by the cost of her medications, the extra time required for her care, the number of hours we spend at Purdue with her. But I’m also thankful that God entrusted her to Britt and me. She’s a wonderful and loving dog and we’re blessed to live in a time and place where she can receive such remarkable medical care. She’s a really good dog and – though she might not be able to walk on water – she adds a lot of joy to our family. So use that gift wrap in your program to write down something for which you are thankful this holiday season.
Also through this season, I encourage you to check out the Trinity Voices blogpost.[v] The info is right there in your program. Each week it will include a new post and ways you can engage with each week’s theme. Those ways to engage are also going to be printed in the program (in case you don’t have easy internet access).
To cultivate the gift of Gratitude, this week consider engaging in one or more of the following practices:
I want to especially encourage you to try out that last suggestion. You might be amazed to discover – as I sometimes am about myself – how often I catch myself thinking and comparing my circumstances to those of others. And friends, nothing steals our joy faster than comparisons. There will always be someone who is richer, healthier, more appreciated at their job, has a more comfortable home, a more affirming, supportive family, more obedient children, more reliable transportation… need I go on? But when we catch ourselves being resentful or envious, we need to simply breathe deep, tune in to the nearness of God’s presence, and give thanks for an opportunity, experience or relationship for which we are grateful.
Rejoice in the Lord, my friends. Rejoice today and always. Rejoice especially because our Lord is near. Amen.
[i] Psalm 145:18. NRSV
[ii] Psalm 34:18. NRSV
[iii] See Romans 8:18-27
[iv] From Father Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation; online daily meditation for November 23, 2017.
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