A Message of Thanksgiving

November 16, 2009

Back during the dark days of 1929, a group of ministers in the Northeast, all graduates of the Boston School of Theology, gathered to discuss how they should conduct their Thanksgiving Sunday services. Things were about as bad as they could get, with no sign of relief. The bread lines were depressingly long, the stock market had plummeted, and the term Great Depression seemed an apt description for the mood of the country. Similar to the circumstances and conditions we face today. The ministers thought they should only lightly touch upon the subject of Thanksgiving in deference to the human misery all about them. After all, what was there to be thankful for? But it was Dr. William L. Stiger, pastor of a large congregation in the city that rallied the group. This was not the time, he suggested, to give mere passing mention to Thanksgiving, just the opposite. This was the time for the nation to get matters in perspective and thank God for blessings always present, but perhaps suppressed due to intense hardship.

I suggest to you the ministers struck upon something. The most intense moments of thankfulness are not found in times of plenty, but when difficulties abound. Think of the Pilgrims that first Thanksgiving. Half their number dead, men without a country, but still there was thanksgiving to God. Their gratitude was not for something but in something. It was that same sense of gratitude that lead Abraham Lincoln to formally establish the first Thanksgiving Day in the midst of national civil war, when the butcher’s list of casualties seemed to have no end and the very nation struggled for survival.

Perhaps in your own life, right now, there is intense hardship. You are experiencing your own personal Great Depression. Why should you be thankful this day? May I suggest three things?

I

We must learn to be thankful or we will become bitter. Even the mention of the word conjures up a particular look upon the face of a bitter person. This is a person who is constantly unsatisfied with their life. Nothing makes them happy and they purposely make life miserable not only for themselves, but also for those who have the misfortune of being around them. The bitter person becomes absorbed with the question of “why me.” He or She feels that they have been short-changed.

Dr. Jim Moore, a Christian author and pastor of the 12,000 member St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. Several years ago he wrote a little book that perhaps some of you have seen entitled “You Can Get Bitter or You Can Get Better.” He told the story of a twenty-six-year-old woman in his congregation, whose husband died in a blizzard. The man’s tractor brushed up against a hot electric wire and killed him instantly. Now here she was, with three children, insufficient money, and hopes dashed. “I don’t know what I am going to do without him,” she sobbed. “But I do know what my choices are. I can get bitter or I can get better. I am turning to the church so that I can get better.” She underscored a universal truth. When trouble slams us, we do have choices.

Ralph Sockman, a renowned minister of a generation ago used to express it this way. He said, “A grief is a sorrow we carry in our heart. A grievance is a chip we carry on our shoulder.” All of us must face trouble. None are immune. Indeed, I stand before you during this thanksgiving season as one whose clerical robe provides no shelter from misfortune. At one time or another trouble will come up to all of us and place its hand on our shoulder, speak our name, and say to us: “Come and walk with me a while.”

Why is it that nine of the ten lepers as told in the Gospel of Luke 17:11-19, never returned to give thanks to Jesus? We are not told. I suspect that they had become so embittered that they had all of the thankfulness squeezed out of them. There is only one anecdote for the embittered mind. It is a thankful heart. When we do this it becomes a witness to others that they also can take heart, rather than become sour disciples. Don’t become self-absorbed with the issue of “why me?” For a season it might offer some comfort but it does no good in the end. Do we ever ask that question when some joy comes into our life? Not really. We must learn to become thankful or we shall surly become bitter.

II

Secondly, we must learn to be thankful or we will become discouraged. It is an inescapable tenant of Christianity that hardship will come. No one is immune, from the greatest to the least of us. But there is another inescapable tenant of our faith; we are not to become discouraged. The Bible, the Logos or Word of God, is our encouraging source.

Jesus said, Let not your heart be troubled.
At another time he said, Fear not, for lo, I am with you always.
Paul encouraged the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always.

As you reflect upon some of the events of your life this Thanksgiving, I challenge you to ask yourself this question “if it had not been for God?” That’s the question I would like you to focus on for the next few days leading up to Thanksgiving. Where would you be right now, if it were not for God? Where would you be? Would you be: Isolated? Mentally broken? Financially ruined? Physically destroyed? God has not let you down. So, be of good cheer!

As you sit down with family look around at them and ask yourself, where would I be without her? Where would I be without him? And then consider where would I be if it were not for God?

The Apostle Paul wrote: “In everything give thanks.” It is not the test of faith to give thanks when the sun is shining. It is not the test of character when everything you touch turns to gold. It is not the test of our metal when we have won the election. The test comes when we have been knocked down.

We must learn to give thanks to God with whom we plan to spend eternity. Over and over again scripture makes it clear that God delights in a grateful heart. Therefore, may our prayer in times of trial be “O God, who has given me so much, I pray that you grant me one thing more, a grateful heart.” We must learn to become thankful so that we do not become discouraged.

III

We must learn to become thankful or we shall surly grow arrogant and self-satisfied. Mankind is certain that whatever he has achieved is of his own doing. But the truth teaches us that none of us are independent of one another. When we give thanks, we reach beyond ourselves. I was always taken with the scene in the Jimmy Stewart movie “Shenandoah.” The time frame is the Civil War and Stewart is the father of a very large family. Each meal time they gather around the table and he gives the exact same blessing: “O Lord, we planted the seed, then harvested the crop. If we had not put the food on the table it wouldn’t be sitting there. But Lord, we give you thanks anyway.” This is the problem with the thankless heart. We end up giving credit where credit is not due.

When we give ourselves to self-congratulation, then we inevitably set ourselves up for disaster, forgetting the law of nature that says what goes up can also come down. How quickly trouble can come. A telephone call and our life is turned upside down. A national crisis and the Dow takes a dive, retirements are gone, and jobs are lost. How quickly our lives can change.

There are many things that confound me in life, but the one anchor of my soul has always been that God is good and His mercies and grace endures forever!

Martin Rinkert was a minister in the little town of Eilenburg in Germany some 350 years ago. He was the son of a poor coppersmith, but somehow, he managed to work his way through an education. Finally, in the year 1617, he was offered the post of Archdeacon in his hometown parish. A year later, what has come to be known as the Thirty-Years-War broke out. His town was caught right in the middle. In 1637, the massive plague that swept across the continent hit Eilenburg… people died at the rate of fifty a day and the man called upon to bury most of them was Martin Rinkert. In all, over 8,000 people died, including Martin’s own wife. His labors finally came to an end about 11 years later, just one year after the conclusion of the war. His ministry spanned 32 years, all but the first and the last overwhelmed by the great conflict that engulfed his town, tough circumstances in which to be thankful. But he managed. And he wrote these words:

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom his world rejoices.

It takes a magnificent spirit to come through such hardship and express gratitude. Here is a great lesson. Surrounded by tremendous adversity, thanksgiving will always deliver you…with heart and hand and voices. Amen