Back in October when Luke and Clint and I met to make plans for this Community Thanksgiving service, Luke informed us that, due to safety guidelines, attendance would be limited to 100. Several weeks later he informed us that new restrictions now set maximum attendance at 25. Then just last week the recent spike in infections reduced participation to 10. So today I find myself in the now familiar position of preaching not to a congregation, but to a camera. I do trust, however, that many are watching and listening. This service has a rich and wonderful tradition. I was a participant for the first time back in 2001 – right here at Church of the Holy Spirit. Between my arrival at St. James in July of that year and the Thanksgiving Service – we endured the shocking outrage of the attacks on 9-11. In late November we were still feeling the repercussions of that catastrophe – yet we gathered together in this place to offer thanks to God. Today marks my 20th opportunity to come together with fellow Christians to express our gratitude for God’s abundant grace. Over the years I have become familiar with many friendly Episcopal and Presbyterian faces who regularly attend this service. I miss being with you in person today. The past two decades have included good times and hard times, joys and griefs. Yet every year at Thanksgiving, this service has been a source of genuine warmth, hope and good will. Despite the restrictions imposed by present circumstances, this rich tradition continues. And I pray that next year we will again be together in person on Thanksgiving Day.
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In the year 1617, Martin Rinkart was appointed was appointed to serve as the pastor of the Lutheran Church in his home town of Eilenberg in Saxony. One year later the deadly conflict known as the Thirty Years’ War broke out. For more than a decade, Eilenberg avoided direct involvement in the war. But eventually the ravages of war engulfed the surrounding countryside. Thousands fled for safety inside the city walls of Eilenberg. By the year 1637, the devastation of war brought both famine and plague to the city. During that year alone 8,000 people died. At the beginning of that year there were four pastors in Eilenberg. Early on, one of those four fled for safety. Pastor Rinkart and the other two clergymen conducted as many as 40-50 funerals in a single day. Then the two other pastors perished from the plague, leaving Rinkart alone to deal with the mounting death toll. By year’s end he had conducted more than 4,000 funerals. Then his wife died. It is hard to conceive the staggering weight of so much suffering and grief. The current pandemic has inflicted serious pain and loss. Many are in grief this Thanksgiving. Yet what Martin Rinkart endured during that terrible year of 1637 is beyond imagination. It was during that tumultuous period of war and pestilence that Rinkart wrote the words to a hymn that is often sung at Thanksgiving: Now Thank We All Our God (You know it well enough to sing it at home.)
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son, and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
In a time of catastrophic loss and overwhelming stress, Martin Rinkart still found reason to give thanks to God. He served his congregation for another ten years, living long enough to see the end of the dreadful war in 1648. He died in 1649.
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Rinkart’s life vividly demonstrates that we cannot control what happens in this world, but we can choose how we will respond. When others chose to give up or to flee – Rinkart chose to stay and to serve. And, amazingly, he was also able to choose to be grateful – in spite of everything. Gratitude is a choice (and not always an obvious choice). We choose how we will respond to life’s circumstances.
We can choose to be bitter or resentful.
We can decide to take things for granted.
We can determine to be bored.
We can choose to despair.
We can settle for being frustrated.
To be grateful is to acknowledge that grace is not an occasional or temporary feature in our lives. God’s grace is constant: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22)
Gratitude grows by practicing it consistently. No one is born loving or hopeful or faithful or grateful. We acquire these virtues, bit by bit – and over time they grow into habits. Gratitude grows from the faith that God is always with us – even when we feel far from God.
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My mother lived a vibrant and active life into her early eighties. Then over her last seven or eight years she suffered the slow but increasing debilitation of Alzheimer’s disease. It was heartbreaking to lose such a wonderful soul, a little at a time. Toward the end she no longer remembered who we were. I will always remember what my brother said the day she died: “What I feel most of all is grateful,” he said. Despite years of sadness and loss, he chose to be grateful.
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The familiar story of Jesus and the ten lepers is a lesson in both grace and gratitude – it tells of great mercy and profound thanks. In these times of social distancing and isolating and quarantining we can have a bit more empathy for the status of those ten lepers. Their disease made them pariahs – forced to live apart from their families and communities. Their only fellowship was with other lepers. The disease brought social and psychological consequences along with the physical deterioration. Even as they kept their distance from Jesus, we can imagine the desperation in their voices as they cried out together: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus did. He showed them great and abundant mercy. Even as they made their way to show themselves to the priests, they were healed, made clean. Not only were they restored to health, they were restored to home and community. A great and miraculous blessing. This experience of grace stopped one leper in his tracks. He did an immediate about face and headed back to Jesus, “Praising God with a loud voice.” He fell down on the ground at the feet of Jesus (no longer needing to social distance) and thanked him profusely. He chose to be grateful. Jesus commended the Samaritan leper, saying “Get up and go on your way (you have a life to live) – your faith (and gratitude) have made you well and whole.”
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Are we grateful when things go well? Or is it more the case that we are well and whole when we choose to be grateful? Like most of you, I am a work in progress. I know that God is good all the time – and I am not. So I depend on God’s grace. And I do better when I live in gratitude.
I am grateful for this tradition of coming together as a community to lift our voices in thanksgiving to God.
I am grateful to all of you for your part in keeping this tradition alive.
I am grateful for all the essential workers – from doctors and nurses to grocery checkout clerks – who have served bravely and faithfully over the past many months.
I am grateful for those who developed the vaccines which promise an end to this pandemic.
And I am most grateful for the grace of God, grace that is sufficient for this moment, and for every moment.
Thanks be to God!