Sermon – So for What Am I Running?

Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 1:3-11

Farmville Presbyterian Church

November 12, 2023

– The greatness of gratitude


My favorite holiday is coming up.  That’s my anniversary.  My second favorite holiday is also just around the corner – Thanksgiving.  Diwali is actually today and gets an honorable mention.  I will not be with you next Sunday because I am taking Thanksgiving week off.  Not to fear, however, for Mark Flores will be with you, so you will be in good hands.  Since I am missing the Sunday before my second favorite holiday, I wanted to make this week aimed in that direction because giving thanks is one of the most important things to do.  We simply cannot appreciate the act of gratitude enough.  In other words, we cannot be grateful enough for gratitude.  It’s just too good.

Last week, I confessed that I would never want the job of U.S. President.  You will never find me running for that, but here we go with what is worth the running.  Pursue gratitude.  Chase thankfulness.  Run relentlessly after thanksgiving.  Like forgiveness last week, this week is one of the most important things to do in life.  And also like forgiveness, gratitude is not always the easiest thing to do.   Like forgiveness, being grateful is entirely in our power.  No one can prevent us from being thankful.  You and I can literally be grateful anytime, anywhere, and in any situation, but it is also difficult to actually be thankful sometimes, and we all know that truth in this day and age.  While we can all probably easily think of things for which we are grateful or should be grateful, we may not carry grateful spirits very often.  If you are like I am, you need as many reminders as possible.  Consider this a reminder.

Pursue gratitude.  I need to let you in on a little secret.  I myself have earned nothing that I have ever achieved.  But before you run me out as a fraud, let me explain: everything I have ever accomplished has come with the helping hands of someone else.  School degrees, grades, awards, and recognitions all are marks given to us by someone else.  Giving myself success was not an option.  I have always been hired by others (this congregation had to all take a vote on me being here) and am still allowed to stay in my employment by others.  By the way, thank you for not firing me after last week.  As pastors, we are supposed to stoke a bit of fire every now and then.  Challenging people to think is part of the job, but if you all wanted to, you could press me to find employment elsewhere.  Other kinds of employment also largely depend on being hired by others.  I did not earn nor do I deserve my children, my wife, or my family.  Our special people are a gift, and relationships all depend on multiple people to happen.  Each day that I wake up is also a gift of grace.  You might even argue each breath is grace.  What have I achieved that is entirely the work of my own hand?  Some have built houses entirely by themselves, but they did not grow or create all of the materials or even the space suitable for a home.  Farmers toil endlessly by the work of their hands, but we know they depend entirely on God’s natural resources for success.  Maybe some artists or some others who are self-employed can feel a measure of self-accomplishment, but the value of their work often comes from others.  The success of making a living by one’s work certainly comes from others.  Help me out here, friends.  What am I missing?  Even if I write my own story by myself, that story is never just about me.  My story cannot exist without you and others, and I owe what I have or what I have accomplished to so many people along my way who helped.  I could not have done any of this by myself.

And this is not a bad thing at all.  Life is a team sport; it is a group effort.  We are in this life together and only together can we have success.  If you have had any success in life, then it is thanks to the help of others.  Others along your journey believed enough in you to give you that chance, to give you that recognition, to give you that relationship, to give you that value, to give you the very day in which we stand, even life itself.  Yes, God believes enough in us to give us this life, this moment, this community, and so much more.  There is great gratitude to recognize in that.  It is humbling to receive such goodness in all the many ways we have.

Chase thankfulness.  The Bible is a book of abounding thankfulness.  People who are nobodies become precious somebodies.  The lost receive a way and hope.  The childless receive children.  The poor become rich.  Scoundrels become princes.  The lowly become kings. The dead come back to life!  David’s thankfulness is proclaimed in Psalm 103 in which he is overflowing with fullness of heart to God.  The people are given holidays to remember God’s faithfulness.  Our directions are clear though daunting to be thankful constantly and to give thanks in all circumstances.  Jesus gives thanks to God as he presents is body broken and blood poured at his last meal.  He gave a lot of thanks throughout his life.  Even though he was living the hard, difficult, tortured life of a human on this great dust ball of a planet, he was truly thankful to be here with us.  He would have had it no other way.

I love Paul’s introduction to the followers of Christ at Corinth here in his second letter to them because he is not sugarcoating anything.  He is adamant that we are in this life of faith together.  We celebrate together, and we suffer together.  We are comforted together, and we grieve together.  We grow together, and we work together, and God is the source of comfort or consolation through it all.  Do not be confused, friends.  Comfort here is not a comfy seat or luxurious bedding.  Consolation is not someone patting you on the back when you are feeling low.  This is God’s strong, passionate, helping presence, and the word for that help is connected to the word Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit.  This is powerful love.  This is powerful mercy.  This is powerful help.  God is a source of strength for us that we have not begun to truly see.  As much as God has done for us, that just scratches the surface of what is coming and what is happening.

Run relentlessly after thanksgiving.  The strong help of God is why some people are truly grateful in the most unusual ways.  I will never forget that early childhood birthday when someone brought me socks as a gift.  It might have been a family member, like an aunt or something.  All I can remember is how infuriated I was to receive something so non-fun as socks.  I was anything but grateful then, and I’m pretty sure I even cried over it, but since then, I have grown to have great fondness for socks and always ask for socks for gifts from my family.  That story sparks humor and appreciation and thankfulness for how God grows us over the years.  Yes, I ask for socks every year, now.  Many others, though, have had to discover gratitude in much more serious situations with God’s strong help.

How many of us would be able to be grateful in poverty?  Some of us are.

How many of us would be able to be grateful in illness? Some of us are.

How many of us would be able to be grateful in job loss, in the middle of conflict, in the loss of loved ones, in the failure of our loved ones, in times of injustice, in the stress of eldercare, in the weakness of human frailty?  In truth, some of us are thankful in God’s strong help.

Plenty of people out there learn how precious the heart of thankfulness is in truly difficult situations and are able to find spirits of gratitude in the middle of their distress, similar to as Paul described.  He admits to be pressed to utter despair, but even then, he found reason for gratitude because God was still with him.  The God who gives life to the lifeless can hold us in love no matter what.

This is important because things are always more difficult than we know.  I just heard reporting from a study that showed the vast majority of Americans will at some point in their lives be near or below poverty.  For some, it will be in childhood, after a separation, during old age, in a devasting illness, after a loss of employment, or after a bad accident.  Life is always harder than we want to admit.  The pandemic pressed us in this way and many others.  Our hearts are heavy with division and conflict and fear and insecurity.  There are times that truly challenge our thankfulness.  God’s strength remains and endures.

Gratefulness is as gratefulness does.  This is that season to call to mind the importance of thanksgiving.  We all know we need to remember reasons for gratitude more than once a year.  If we actually carried thankful spirits in our day to day living, our lives would have a light that this world struggles to know or believe.  Let me be clear, enduring thankful hearts will change us and change the world.  I am mindful of Barbara and Carolyn right now as many of you are.  It has been precious to walk with them in these weeks of change.  I have seen moments of sadness and moments of tenderness, but what is clear is gratitude for having shared life together.  Neither one is grateful for what is happening, but both are thankful for each other, no matter what.

This is our day to also be thankful in our hearts and to carry that thankfulness with us with whatever is going on in our lives.  In this way, we will give God our glory.  Amen.