11.23.2014 Preaching Text: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” (Ephesians 1:16)
Every few months I meet my friend Phil Mitchell for lunch at a nearby Thai restaurant. I first met Phil, a retired U.C.C. pastor living in Orleans, soon after I came here in 2006 and we’ve been good friends ever since.
Just this past week, over my red curry chicken and his #7 with pork (whatever that is!), we discussed all manner of things.
Phil happened to mention that he was going to preach today, something he does only rarely these days. When asked about what, he said, none too surprisingly, thanksgiving.
His plan was to begin his talk with a story from some years ago. While living in Binghamton, NY, his neighbor called one day saying he was in a bit of a pickle. He and his wife had just brought home two new twins from the hospital, expanding their brood to four.
With his house now packed to the gills with clamoring, expectant needs, his indoor plumbing suddenly stopped working. So he asked Phil to help. (By the way, don’t any of you get any ideas! I barely know how to turn on a faucet!)
In any event, Phil went over and the two of them crawled under the baseboards, Phil holding the flashlight as his frantic neighbor went about his work. After some time, the neighbor finally touched one of the pipes and could feel the water flowing through it once again.
At that, Phil says, his neighbor dropped his head onto his left arm in exhaustion and relief and said emphatically, “I feel like I need to thank someone.”
Phil stressed, paradoxically, that it was the neighbor who had done all the work. He nonetheless felt the need to thank someone else!
This need to express gratitude, Phil concluded, is basic to all human beings. It is at the core of who we are, whether we know it or not. Consciously or unconsciously (it doesn’t matter which), Phil’s neighbor expressed this same primal need all humans beings have to be grateful, to be thankful.
Phil then got to the main point of his sermon: gratitude, whether vestigial or not, is premised on the fact that we are not alone; God is with us always.
This comment led Phil and me into an expanded conversation on the power of relationships, with God and others. I cited the Presbyterian Church’s Westminster Catechism as getting things right.
“What is the chief aim of man?” the catechism begins.
“Man’s chief end,” it answers, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
This, as I say, is the essence of all human life: that we are made by God for God. We are born with a God-shaped hole inside of us which only God can fill. If we try to fill it with other things, we are left unendingly dissatisfied and anxious. Only God’s love can effect within us the sense of well-being and peace for which every heart yearns.
Thus, logic suggests, every single human being, deep down, possesses a primal need for the one basic thing the catechism prioritizes rightly: the knowledge that God is with us (“Immanuel”).
As we continued to talk, my cup of jasmine tea now emptied, I went on to say that we human beings can handle anything – and I mean absolutely anything – as long as we know we are not alone, as long as we know we are loved.
Now I must tell you, Phil had begun this conversation by asking me what I was preaching about today. And I had to admit that I wasn’t sure. I knew that today is Thanksgiving Sunday here in the United States, yet it also happens to be Christ the King Sunday throughout the church universal. How to combine the two themes left me a bit perplexed.
But as we talked about the central place of relationships in life, we also talked about how central this is to gospel, the “Good News.”
And this is the good news: that God in Christ has overcome the separation between God and us. No longer are human beings forced to live set apart, alienated from God or one another. It is love that is on offer, a love that overcomes any and all separation or alienation.
On Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we celebrate the reign of Christ, along with the fact that the particular values born of God’s love are preeminent, and shall prevail – ultimately – in spite of whatever seeks to rule our lives, or in the world in the here-and-now.
That, for Paul, is the church’s gift to humanity. And for this, in Ephesians, he expresses unending gratitude for the “saints,” the church.
As I said last week, the lectionary readings over the last weeks speak of “end times” of judgment and salvation, together comprising good news. They announce the end of all that brings suffering and hardship to God’s creatures. Such is the eagerly anticipated moment of the defeat of sin and evil, and the consequent celebration among the saints.
In a very real sense, then, our Thanksgiving celebration is deepened by this awareness, that not only is God always with us, but that this same God has saved us and destined us to know the greatest joy there can be: to live eternally, in perfect love, with no possibility of suffering, pain, or loss. It is this hidden truth that wells up in Paul’s heart, overflowing in gratitude and praise.
I told Linda recently that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – something I decided just the other day. Why, she wondered? Because it is a quiet day, a thoughtful day, a day of simplicity, a day of humble gratitude.
It’s a day to take stock of our lives, away from the push-and-pull of the “daily grind” to consider our lives holistically, from the widest possible expanse. If done earnestly, I submit, is to succumb to the most primal need we have: to thank someone. Amen.