In all circumstances
Hespeler, October 9, 2016 © Scott McAndless – Thanksgiving
Ephesians 5:15-20, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-25, Psalm 92
was at the store the other day and there was, up in the checkout line ahead of me, one of those customers. You know the type I’m talking about. He was complaining about everything. The cashier was moving too slow. He was pretty sure that the item he was buying had been advertised at a lower price. The stock was old, the people who worked there used to be nicer and the lines moved too slow because people spent too much time talking to the cashiers. This went on for a while until he finally they arrived at his real issue. The store didn’t have his favourite brand of something. Here he was being forced – forced, I tell you! – to purchase an inferior brand and, adding insult to injury, to pay full price for it.
“Oh how retail service has declined in Canada,” he exclaimed, “that I cannot get exactly what I want. If you people were at all a decent enterprise, you wouldn’t charge me for this item at all.” So he spoke and continued on in much the same vein while we, who stood behind him, waited with varying degrees of patience. The poor cashier who, I would note, had absolutely nothing to do with the things that had displeased him, dealt with him as much grace as any human could muster, but there was nothing that was in her power to please him. His demands were eventually escalated to a manager.
The manager, when she came, knew very well that the man was being unreasonable. You could see it in her face. But she also had little time and no appetite for conflict. So in short order, and much to the chagrin of everyone who stood behind him, the man had been given pretty much what he had wanted and, at the very least, he finally left us in peace.
But that is how it works, doesn’t it? The squeaky wheel is always the one that gets the grease. The person who raises their voice to complain is the most likely to get what they want. Many have concluded, therefore, that, if you do get a chance to complain about something, you better just go ahead and do it and get as much out of the situation as you possibly can.
After all, isn’t that what we are all here for – we’re supposed to get whatever we can out of this life. Money, possessions, satisfaction, enjoyment, affection – it’s only what I deserve. And if I’m not getting enough of that, well, it must be somebody’s fault and it is only natural that I should point that out and get them straightened out.
In such a world is there a place for thanksgiving? Well of course there is. We’ll all get together sometime later today (or maybe tomorrow) with the people that we are closest to us and we’ll probably eat too much food but it will be delicious. And then, as we sit around the table afterwards, in a turkey-induced semi-coma, we will talk about the things that we have purchased, the films and television shows we have watched and the experiences that we have collected since we last met. We may even recount those times where things didn’t quite go our way and how we complained and got satisfaction for our pains. (And, of course, if we didn’t get everything we wanted, it can also be satisfying to complain about that and get some sympathy.)
And yes, somewhere in the midst of all this we may remember to bow our heads for a few moments and saw some words of thanks for all this bounty. That’s what thanksgiving is, isn’t it?
Well, apparently not if you listen to the Apostle Paul and the people of the early church. In our two readings this morning, from the letters to the Ephesians and to the Thessalonians, we find the apostle closing his correspondence by giving a little bit of last minute advice. Think of these words as Christian life hacks – little things that you can do that make your Christian life better and easier to live out. These are not intended to be deep theological reflections so much as practical tips. So we have advice like do not get drunk on wine and instead to be filled with the Spirit, and to be patient with people especially if they are idlers, fainthearted or weak.
But there is one piece of advice that is common to both of these texts that particularly interests me today and it concerns, of course, thanksgiving. “Give thanks,” believers are admonished in Thessalonians while the Christians in Ephesus are told that it is all about “giving thanks to God the Father.” And I think that we would all agree that that is pretty good advice.
It reminds me of the lesson that were all taught by our mothers and our fathers. I think I can almost still hear my mother’s voice to this very day every time somebody offers me something that I would really like to receive. “Now, what do we say?” she would say as she held out the piece of candy and I would not get it until I managed to mumble a few words of thanks.
I know, I know, and I remember thinking it too at the time. “How can I be thankful for the candy if I haven’t actually received it yet – and won’t actually receive it at all unless I say thank you.” Is that a lesson about being truly thankful or actually a lesson in how to obtain candy? But I get why parents teach the lesson in that way and you probably could have caught me doing it with my own kids too.
The lesson, as our parents tried to teach it to us as kids at least, seemed to be that you actually will get more from people as you make your way through this world by being polite with them than you will by being rude and demanding. And that is a pretty good lesson for people to learn. If more people learned it (rather than the lesson of the checkout line which is that the best way to get what you want in this world is to complain and be insufferable until someone gives it to you) it seems to me that the world would be a nicer place to live in. But do note that it is still a lesson about getting things for yourself – really just another strategy for getting what you want. As life tips go, it is a good one but it still seems to be focussed on meeting your own individualistic needs at the heart just as so many things in our society are.
But is that the same lesson that we encounter in the advice that is offered at the end of these New Testament letters? Is Paul suggesting that these Christians ought to be thankful in order to get good stuff from God or from other people? I’m not so sure because, in both cases, he doesn’t just say, “give thanks.” In Ephesians it is, “giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything.” In Thessalonians it is, “give thanks in all circumstances.”
That, my friends, is a whole different kind of thanksgiving than most of us practice most of the time – a very different kind from the kind that your parents taught you. It is, in fact, a kind of thanksgiving that makes no sense at all in the world that is so focussed on individualistic needs that we live in.
What does it mean? It means being thankful when you get what you need but also when you don’t get it. It means showing appreciation to people who have pleased you but also going out of your way to find things that you appreciate about people who don’t please you. Above all it means an attitude with which you approach the whole of life – an attitude which is the very opposite of this present world’s spirit which makes people focus on getting what they desire for themselves.
In fact, according to this world’s way of thinking, it is absolutely impossible to be thankful in all circumstances. I mean, sure, we can do it when all is going well or when we get at least some of what we want or need, but there is a long list of circumstances when thanks is definitely not in order. If you were a Syrian in Aleppo, would you be thankful for terrorists and bombs? If you were an abused person in a bad relationship, would you be thankful for the blows and bruises? If you were a Jew in Auschwitz, would you be thankful for Nazi propaganda and gas chambers? Of course not! There are some things in this world that we don’t just need to refuse to be thankful for but that we must reject and rage against and complain of!
So how are we supposed to apply this good advice to be thankful in all circumstances to circumstances like bombs, blows and gas chambers? Whatever we mean by being thankful in those kinds of circumstances it cannot mean that we let the terrorists or the abusers or the Nazis off the hook for the evil that they do. They must face the consequences of their crimes and we must do whatever we can to make sure that people are safe from the evil that they do.
But thanksgiving – biblical thanksgiving – isn’t about other people so much as it is about ourselves and about how we approach the world. Think about it. When we give thanks to God, for example, do we do it because God needs to hear our thanks in order to build up his own confidence and feel good about Godself? Of course not! I’m sure that God always appreciates the thanks that we offer, but God doesn’t need it and certainly doesn’t need it to know that he has done good; God is good. We offer thanks to God because we need it more than God does. We offer it because it changes us and how we interact with the world and with each other.
So, yes, when you encounter actual evil in this world, you must resist it and you are entirely permitted to complain about it because there is nothing wrong with expressing how you feel and if you don’t say anything, nothing may ever change. But being thankful in every circumstance means that you don’t need to get stuck there in the moment of the evil and you don’t need to let any resentment burn. You may have been victimized but learning to be thankful means that your identity is not limited to being a victim as can so often happen.
When, through these scriptures, God instructs you to be thankful in all circumstances, you should not think of it as another commandment to be obeyed. It is not a burden that is intended to weigh you down with responsibility. It doesn’t mean that you have to pretend to be thankful when you really don’t feel that way.
Take a good look at the people who cross your path who are the complainers – who look at everything that happens to them as another reason to complain and to demand that someone do something to satisfy them. Look at those who will take any excuse to cast themselves as the victim and who make that victimhood a part of their identity. Oh, I’ll admit it, they may sometimes get the things that they are looking for when they complain, but, over time, they also become entrapped within that identity. Victimhood becomes part of who they are. The experience of satisfaction becomes limited to them getting the things that they desire and so they become robbed of true satisfaction.
By teaching you to be thankful in all circumstances, what your God and Father wants to do for you is to set you free from that. God wants you to experience joy and a spirit of gratefulness that is not limited by the circumstances that you might encounter in life. By choosing to be thankful in all circumstances, you no longer need to be controlled by those circumstances. You are free.
I invite you, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, to experiment with this very powerful thing called thanksgiving. It may not happen today, but it will probably happen soon enough that something will not work out as you may have hoped. There will be some hiccup, some problem in your well laid plans. You will have two choices, you can seek to get whatever you can out of the situation by complaining or being miserable enough to other people to make them do what you want, or you can choose to practice a kind of thanksgiving you can make in any circumstance – the kind that sets you free from the circumstances of life by saying that they have no control over you. On this Thanksgiving Sunday, I encourage you to choose thanksgiving.
#140CharacterSermon Being thankful in all circumstances sets us free from the power of our circumstances 2 control us & define us as victims