(The American community in London hosts a service of worship at St. Paul's Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day each year. It was my privilege and honor to give the sermon for the service today.)
First Thessalonians 5:12-22
For many Americans this is the favorite holiday of all: No presents to buy—it’s not a day that suffers from being too commercialized. It has all the best food and most of the best sports (if they would play just one baseball game on Thanksgiving Day it would be the most perfect holiday ever).
Now this is the part of the service where the preacher usually tells some kind of turkey-related joke. I confess that I started looking for a good joke months ago, but never found one that would work for today.
I did, though, discover that there are a lot of sayings or phrases out there that use the word turkey in them. In the States, when you’re having a serious conversation about something we say you’re ‘talking turkey’.
Here in Britain when someone chooses to accept a situation that isn’t going to go well for them we say it’s ‘like turkeys voting for an early Christmas’.
A ‘turkey shoot’ is a way to describe an easy victory, while going ‘cold turkey’ describes the very difficult process of shaking an addiction or habit.
For those of us who grew up watching American crime shows, we can all remember watching police officers chasing suspects through alleys and around corners—the officer would climb fences and jump over walls in pursuit of the suspect—we knew that in TV-speak he was called the ‘perp’—and the chase would end when the officer drew his pistol and aimed it at the perp and said: ‘Freeze, turkey.’
Well, there are a lot of frozen turkeys giving their all for us today, and we’ll all be thankful for that later on today. (I told you there weren’t any good turkey jokes this year.)
Last month an 81-year-old Australian man confirmed one of the classic stereotypes about men. He got up one morning and got into his car to go and buy himself a newspaper. Along the way he got turned around and ended up hopelessly lost, almost 400 miles out of his way. When he finally stopped, a policeman asked him how he’d allowed himself to get so far off course, and the man simply said that he liked driving, and that he had a full tank of gas.
Now we all know the real answer here, right? He didn’t want to stop and ask for directions—I’ll pause as the wives glare at the husbands here today. He didn’t ask for directions and in the end found himself almost 400 miles away from home—a long way from where he was supposed to be.
Our text today comes near the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. It reads:
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.
This passage is about a lot of things. It’s focused on the life of Christian churches—about how the early communities built around the Christian faith could grow and thrive and hold together. But the teachings in this passage aren’t limited to the house churches of the 1st century.
Our text has a lot to teach us today about learning to live and work together in healthy ways—about being productive and honorable and generous as we press on with the tasks that get us out of bed each morning. There’s a strong message here about what it means to live and work in community—about the ways we interact personally and professionally.
There’s also a lesson here about learning from challenges, or even mistakes—about being disciplined in the way that we work and serve and love. There’s some very practical advice in this passage that fits with what we’re celebrating today—that helps us see thankfulness as an important part of our lives.
Thanksgiving is one of those rare holidays that asks us to reflect on our own lives—to look around and take stock of what we can be thankful for. It’s a holiday that calls each one of us to do something that might not be a normal part of our lives, no matter what our faith tradition might be. Thanksgiving Day is a reminder to each one of us that thankfulness is important—being grateful to each other, and also being grateful to God for his blessings in our lives.
When George Washington declared the first National Day of Thanksgiving on this date in 1789, he said it was ‘the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits.’
That’s why we’re here today. That’s what we gather to remember and celebrate on this special day.
Well, no American holiday is complete without some reference to one of the most important American philosophers of all. Someone who each year manages to articulate our feelings and focus our attention on the true meanings behind most of our special days. Of course you all know that I’m talking about … Charlie Brown. In the States, for most of the last 50 years or so, there has been a Charlie Brown special produced and televised on each major holiday.
Who can forget ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’, with the classic menu of two slices of buttered toast, some pretzel sticks, a handful of popcorn, and some jelly beans.
There were more of these programs:
A Charlie Brown Christmas
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown
It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown
Or maybe the classic: It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown
There are others.
You’re in Love, Charlie Brown
You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown
And finally, for those of us nearing or looking back on middle age:
You Don’t Look 40, Charlie Brown
In 1983, the gang from Peanuts traveled to Europe and visited some of the battle sites from the First and Second World Wars. They saw and talked about the horrors of war and the sacrifices of those who had to fight. That story was told in one of the most reflective specials in the series. The title was: ‘What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?’
As we pause to be thankful and to reflect and celebrate this week—we can ask ourselves the same question that gave the title to that Charlie Brown special:
What have we learned in the past year?
It’s been quite a year. When we last saw each other there were many people in this gathering who were unsure—unsure about their jobs, unsure about their savings and families, even unsure of where they might be living in a few weeks or months. When we met here last year the banking crisis had gathered up so much momentum that all of us—and millions of others around the world—all of us were wondering just how far the collapse would take us.
Many of us saw friends move away too soon as casualties of the financial crisis. People in this room today took demotions or transfers they didn’t want—they had to scramble to live in the same houses or keep their kids in the same schools. Some people had to move back to the States and still haven’t found new jobs.
It’s been quite a year.
And so Charlie Brown’s question is a good one: What have we learned?
Maybe one thing we’ve learned is that every once in a while, it’s a good idea to stop and ask for directions. Otherwise we run the risk of ending up far from where we meant to go—we end up lost, with no clear way back home.
Certainly we’ve learned the hard way that we’re far more connected than we ever imagined, so Paul’s teaching on what it means to live in community can offer us some lessons as well. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians can help us as we look back on the past year.
What can we learn from our passage of Scripture today?
Some of what we learn is personal—it’s about how we think and what we value and how we want to be. Some of what we learn is personal, and some of what we learn is more public—it’s about how we work and make decisions that impact other people.
On the personal side, Paul instructs his readers to keep their eyes fixed on God no matter what happens. Paul’s readers were people who had heard the Christian gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation through the Cross of Jesus and thrown their whole weight on it—given their whole lives to it. Now they were trying to figure out how they could demonstrate that faith as they lived each day.
‘Be joyful always’, Paul says. That doesn’t mean walking around with silly grins on our faces. Being joyful is being willing to trust that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he said he would do.
Paul continues, saying: ‘Pray continually’. That’s about sharing our deepest thoughts with God—and also about waiting around to listen for an answer.
Then Paul says we should ‘Give thanks in all circumstances.’ Challenging times make it difficult to experience the joy that springs from feeling thankful, but forgetting to be thankful altogether doesn’t really work either. Challenging times, more than any other, remind us that thankfulness is a discipline and not a feeling—it’s something we have to remember to do, even when we don’t feel like it. Especially when we don’t feel like it.
Things over the last few years may or may not have gone differently if we’d practiced joy…or constant prayer…or if we’d disciplined ourselves to be thankful in all circumstances. Maybe we can debate whether or not the world would have been a better place if more of us spent more time being joyful and praying and being thankful. I can live with that.
What isn’t really up for debate is this: The world would be in much better shape—many of the people in this room today would have had a much better year if we’d followed the advice in the second part of our text.
Hold on to the good.
Avoid every kind of evil.
What do you think about that? Whether you think of yourself as a Christian or a person of faith or not, it’s good advice, isn’t it?
Whether you think Jesus was a crazy man or a wise teacher or the Lord and Savior of the universe, we can agree that learning to be joyful, to acknowledging a power beyond ourselves, and developing the discipline of thankfulness—we can agree that these are good things, right?
Beyond that though, and in light of what we’ve learned about business practices and banking strategies—and also about being borrowers and customers—in light of what we understand now about how we got into this mess—in light of all that, we can agree that there’s something important for all of us to take away from this ancient Christian text as we celebrate Thanksgiving.
Hold on to the good.
Avoid every kind of evil.
In our personal lives and professional behavior, this is more than just good advice. This is a call to faithful living. This is a challenge to be honorable and decent in every area of our lives. This is a call to integrity and discernment and wisdom, and if we answer that call it will quite simply change the way the world works.
On this Thanksgiving Day, as we consider just how much there is in our lives to make us truly thankful, this is an important lesson for us to remember.
As we celebrate a holiday that has become synonymous with overloaded tables and overstuffed guests, let’s not forget where we were a year ago today.
Maybe the question isn’t: ‘what have we learned?’ Maybe we just need to be reminded that it’s wise to stop sometimes and ask for direction. Maybe the best question for all of us to ask as we celebrate Thanksgiving is this:
‘What can we still learn?’
That’s where we come back to this strange little text, tucked away at the end of a letter in the Christian Bible.
Be joyful always.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Hold on to the good.
Avoid every kind of evil.
May God bless you and keep you…and have a very Happy Thanksgiving.