Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Thanksgiving Message

As some of you know I was privileged to preach at St Paul's Cathedral today for the American Thanksgiving service. There were more than 2000 people there, and it was an amazing occasion. The text for today was 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. Here's the message with the text first:

6The point is this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9As it is written: "He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever."[a] 10Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

My son and I like to watch animal documentaries—before we moved here last year we were hooked on Animal Planet, an American cable channel with all animals all the time. Now we watch them here—usually they’re on BBC2. Someone with a very serious voice narrates the action. The focus is usually on three things: The habitat of the animal, the animal’s natural predators, and mating habits. Now, I think we’ll leave the mating habits out for the moment . . . but today it’s appropriate to think about the way we live—the way our lives are supposed to be—and also what it means to be—and to have— natural predators.

Today we represent the largest gathering anywhere of the natural predators of the noble Thanksgiving turkey. You know how the last few weeks have been: A BBC presenter might follow you as you stalked your prey in Tesco, or Sainsbury’s, or Morisons, or possibly even into the exclusive prime hunting grounds known only as Whole Foods. From Surrey to St Johns Wood, from Hampstead to Kensington, Americans in the London area have been hunting turkeys to prepare for the family feast.

But preparing that turkey isn’t always easy.

In the States the Turkey Hotline is a number you call when you have a question about preparing a turkey for your holiday meal. As you might imagine, they get some interesting calls from time to time. Last year dozens of people called wanting to know if they could cook their birds by wrapping them in aluminum foil and leaving them in their cars.

An auto mechanic called once to see if he could use motor oil to baste the turkey.

In 1993 a call came in that is still famous among turkey experts: a woman called in a panic to ask how she could rescue her Chihuahua, which had climbed into the turkey to eat the stuffing, and was now so plump and so stuck that she couldn’t get him out.

Clearly, being a natural predator isn’t always an easy task. And yet the holiday meal has come to represent the good life for many of us—the life of abundance—the way our lives are supposed to be. Even the symbol of Thanksgiving—the Horn of Plenty—reminds us that what we celebrate on this day are the abundant blessings of God. The message of Thanksgiving, if we think about it, is about being thankful for what we have. In our text this morning the Apostle Paul is proposing a deeper understanding of what it means to be thankful.

Our passage today comes as a part of a letter to the people of Corinth. Corinth had been a wealthy Greek city until it was conquered by Rome. But it was still a major trading center, and was envied for its wealth and economic power. As a port city for the entire region, Corinth was known for its diversity of language, ethnicities, religions and cultures.

In so many ways Corinth was a lot like London, and its people struggled with many of the issues facing us today. Diverse cultures and religions and value systems all crowded into a fairly small area—London can be a rough place to live and thrive. It can be a challenge here to find happiness and contentment, when so much time and energy is spent just hoping to survive. Paul writes his letter to a group of people facing similar issues, and so it has a message for us today.

I like that this text begins with ‘The point is this...’. It’s that part of every good conversation, after the pleasantries and discussion of the weather are over with—it’s that part of every good conversation where we start to say something really important, something we want the listener to hear and understand. Paul gets to this part of his letter to the Corinthians and says: OK, so here’s the point, this is what I want you to know.

Paul wants his readers to know that there is a connection—an unbreakable link—between being thankful and generous and being happy and fulfilled—between being a cheerful giver and the good life. That might sound pretty simple, and yet we all know that it’s not easy or simple at all. Somehow, in spite of all our wealth and freedom and security, we manage to feel poor and trapped and unsafe. Life is hard, but in this passage the Apostle Paul is trying to explain the key to living as we were intended to live— the key to understanding and enjoying and living our lives to the fullest.

This gospel that Paul is talking about, it offers something to everyone—something unique and important to each life it touches. For our purposes today, the gospel of Jesus Christ is an emergency service, a rescue operation, a defense against the natural predators that stalk us all. If the BBC were to present a documentary on the natural predators of humans living in contemporary London, they would have a long list to work with—the hard part might actually be narrowing it down to a representative few: Loneliness might top the list, but it would have strong competition from cynicism, selfishness, lack of faith, alienation, fear and greed. We may never face the danger of being gobbled up when we step out of our flats and houses, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be devoured by any one of the natural predators of comfortable, educated, sophisticated citizens of this wonderful city.

You can trace the point of this text through several key words and phrases that Paul uses: abundance, blessing, generosity, obedience, being a cheerful giver, and Thanksgiving. Recognizing in large and small ways how God loves us and blesses us. Sharing those gifts freely and cheerfully—and learning to be both obedient and thankful in the process.

What we’re offered here is a path to a natural life, to real life—life the way it was meant to be lived. There are a handful of nutshell passages in the Scriptures that give us clear direction on how God wants us to live. Our text today is one of them. In another God asks us simply to love mercy—to love being merciful and caring toward each other.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said this about loving mercy: ‘When we love mercy’, he said, ‘we find a place for the poor, the victimised, the child in distress and those marginalised in all societies. Mercy implies that the strong have a particular obligation to the weak, and that the powerful have a particular responsibility toward the powerless.’

The line that runs between abundance and obedience and cheerful giving and thanksgiving—that line leads directly to showing mercy—living out our obligation to be strong on behalf of the weak—to use our influence on behalf of those who don’t have any standing. In the end, being thankful is as much about what we do with what we’ve been given, as it is about feeling grateful for the things we’ve received. That’s why we chose the International Justice Mission to be the recipient of today’s offering. Remembering the weak and powerless as we celebrate our abundant blessings is precisely the point of today’s message.

In the end, that’s one of the traits that makes us different from animals in the wild—it’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God. In those wildlife programs you rarely see the strong protecting the weak, but that’s exactly what it means for us to live life as God intended for us. True thankfulness is expressed in the way we share what we’ve been given—in the way we give cheerfully to those who lack what we have in abundance. From the animal kingdom we move into a place where we get a glimpse at the Kingdom of God, a place where God reigns and his people live justly and share freely. That may sound like a dreamworld—a place that could never really exist, but wouldn’t it be amazing? Wouldn’t it be wild?

And so just as Paul began this text: Here’s the point: Whoever you think Jesus was and is—a prophet, a fictional character, a cool guy or the Lord and Savior of the Universe—whoever you think Jesus is, the gospel he taught gives us a roadmap for living, a way of relating to each other, a pattern for surviving and thriving in our own natural habitat. On this day, in this great place, surrounded by this history and these wonderful people—On this Thanksgiving Day, take a moment to decide if this way of life is appealing to you—this way of blessings and abundance, of generosity and cheerful giving, of obedience and thankfulness.

This sermon ends with the same words Paul uses to end our text: After the promise of abundance and blessing, the call to generosity and obedience, and the reminder that we share with others and with God because of what God has first done for us through Jesus Christ. After all that Paul says with an exclamation point: Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Say that with me out loud just one time: Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Amen, and Happy Thanksgiving.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:09 AM

    Thanks be to God for you, your family and your commitment to preaching the gospel! And thanks be to God that we get to see you soon.
    We love you all!

    Cameron and Jannette


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