Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving Message 2014

(This message was given on Thanksgiving Day in St Paul's Cathedral. The sermon text was Matthew 22:34-40.)

I want to wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving today. It’s a gift to be able to gather and celebrate in this beautiful place of worship. We are, as always, grateful to the people of St Paul’s for welcoming us on this special day.

Thanksgiving weekend is the busiest travel period of the year in the US. Airports are packed and highways are filled to capacity as people are headed for reunions with families and friends. I know that many of you have family members visiting today. I also know that many of you are here in London and missing your families—missing your homes.

Most of us will try to soothe those feelings later with a Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and all the trimmings, different regional touches to the meal, pies and cakes and all kinds of treats. If we’re all very quiet we could probably hear our stomachs growling.
But the real point of Thanksgiving is remembering to be thankful.

Everyone knows that it’s important to say thank you. It’s part of the glue that holds us all together—it’s we teach our kids, right? “Say please and thank you.”

Being grateful—and saying “thank you” out loud—is a good and healthy part of being alive—it’s an essential part of being in a community.

Forbes Magazine says that gratitude in the workplace isn’t what it ought to be. “Only 10% of adults say “thanks” to a colleague every day,” according to the writer, “and just 7% express gratitude daily to a boss.” This is important, according to Forbes, because 49% of managers believe that a culture of gratitude increases profits.

Worrying about profits isn’t exactly what I was going for here today. But whether it’s profitable or not, every language and culture has its own way of saying thank you.

For those of you who know Pinterest: There are 377 different ideas for thank-you gifts on the first page alone.

But sometimes, apparently, it’s difficult to find the right words. And so of course, there’s a website to help us with that. It’s simply called “40 Thank You Phrases,” and it has such creative options as:

I am all gratitude, or,
I will forever be beholden to you, and:
Thanks a Ton.

They get slightly more creative as you work your way down the list.

Words are powerless to express my gratitude.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Consider yourself heartily thanked.

The list includes some unexpected gems such as:

Please accept my vehement protestations of gratitude.

And for those of us who come from California, the list actually includes this familiar phrase:

It was so awesome of you—thanks. (All that’s missing is the Dude at the end of the sentence.)

But of course, sometimes, we simply forget how important it is to say thank you, and the results can be fairly severe.

The Huffington Post shared the story of a young woman who was invited to a wedding for a couple she didn’t know very well. She decided to get a little creative with the gift, and so she filled a picnic basket with all kinds of fancy condiments and delicacies and specialty candies.

The bride was not impressed. She sent her guest a message that read: “I'm not sure if this is the first wedding you have been to, but for your next wedding, people give money in envelopes now. I spent $200 (the bride went on) covering you and your date’s meals, and I got some Fluffy Whip and Sour Patch Kids in return. Consider this a heads-up for the future.”

The bride went on to demand a receipt for the items in the gift basket.

I know, right? I cringe every time I read that message. That poor groom. Sometimes it’s a comfort to know that no matter how badly you behave, nothing you do could ever be as bad or as rude as something another person has already done. She probably should have just said thanks.

Thanksgiving is a day set aside to say thank you—a day to be grateful to God for life and the blessings we enjoy. But more it’s more likely that we think about the other important things: the food—the friends and family—the football games to watch.

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday. We Americans grow up learning about that first Thanksgiving—our entire set of traditions and the industry around the holiday, all stem from the story we’ve inherited that describes that very first meal.

But did you know that the only eyewitness account of that first celebration of Thanksgiving is just 115 words long? That’s right. Just a little over a hundred words, and look what we’ve done with it.

Our text this morning is even shorter than the description of that first Thanksgiving—just 92 words, but it is packed with an amazing and life-changing message. In our passage this morning, in this brief text from the Gospel according to St Matthew, we find a roadmap to a meaningful and fulfilling life—a path to true and lasting greatness.

In our story from Matthew today, Jesus is being tested by some Pharisees. These biblical scholars followed Jesus around and listened to his teachings—then they put their heads together and tried to come up with questions that would somehow back Jesus into a theological corner.

They ask him: Which is the greatest commandment in the Law? And Jesus answers:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We’re right to remember the first part of what Jesus says in this passage—to love God and love your neighbor is such an important thing for us to know—it is, in so many ways, the essential ingredient to a full and happy life. We’re right to remember those two rules for living, but I’m struck by the last thing Jesus says here, too.

“All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Really? Think about that for a moment.

The Law helped shape the behavior of God’s people. It was where the followers of God learned their ethics, and the boundaries of what they should and should not do.

The Prophets corrected God’s people went they went astray—when their worship was hollow, and when they forgot to be just and fair in the ways they did business. When God needed to discipline his people, he spoke through the prophets.

Now Jesus comes along and says simply, Love God and love your neighbor. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

And so the core of the Christian message—the one that everything else hangs on—is this:

Love God, and love your neighbor.

Here’s the bottom line: If you can make the small leap to see following God’s commandments as a way of being grateful to God, then there is no better expression of gratitude—no better way to say thank you—than the one we see in our text today:

Love God, and love your neighbor. Every other law and every other prophet—the sum total of everything we know about living the life of faith—everything hangs on these two commandments.

You may know that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in this cathedral 50 years ago. In one of his speeches Dr. King said this:

“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle, or Einstein's Theory of Relativity, or the Second Theory of Thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Maybe that's what's missing in places like Ferguson this week.
Maybe both sides have forgotten what's really important.

A heart full of grace, and a soul generated by love.

That’s what the life of faith is really all about. Because let’s be honest here: any trained monkey can follow a list of rules. The life of faith is different. True greatness is different. God calls us to a “soul generated by love,” for him and for our neighbors.

But maybe you’re having a hard time loving God right now.
Maybe the thought of loving God never occurred to you before.

That’s OK. God isn’t going anywhere. He’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready, and in the meantime there is so much for us to do. But where do we start?

Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn of the New York Times have just published a book called A Path Appears. In so many ways this book is a thoughtful, hopeful, and very specific answer to the question: How do I love my neighbor?

They tell some great stories.

Like the kid who was told by his third grade teacher that he would never amount to anything. A trio of family friends started mentoring him, and after college and a career as a journalist, Lester Brown is an evening news anchor in Boston. Oh, and the mentoring charity he started will serve 30,000 kids this year.

Or the group in Africa that provides chlorine dispensers to families so they can drink clean water. The units cost $1.98 per year, and they reduce one of the major contributors to childhood deaths by 40 percent. That’s 2 dollars a year.

Or the high school students in Southern California who were so moved to see how kids around the world were prevented from learning, that they raised $200,000 for a partner school in Haiti. High school kids.

This book is a treasure trove of opportunities to help other people, and it’s a feast for those of you who base everything on a good answer to the Return on Investment question. (You know who you are.) Here’s one just for you:

A medical doctor applied his knowledge of infectious diseases to the way gang violence spreads in urban communities. The US Justice Department estimates that the doctor’s program reduced gang shootings by as much as 28%, and here’s the kicker: for every dollar spent on this program, almost 16 dollars are saved in medical costs and legal fees. That’s in addition, of course, to fewer young people being shot.

I’ve never recommended a book in a setting like this, but that changes today. If you are at all curious about what you and your family can do to make this world a better and more livable place, read A Path Appears, and commit to trying just one single suggestion you find there. Fair warning, though: Doing good—loving your neighbor—it’s a little like potato chips. You can’t do it just once.

We’ve already heard from Dr. King today. Listen to the way he once challenged his congregation. He said:
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, "What are you doing for others?"

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast today, take a moment to think about what you can do for someone else—talk with your family and friends about one thing you can do or share with another person to make their life safer or gentler or just better. It’s not about feeling bad. It’s about setting yourself up to feel better than you’ve ever felt before.

If Dr. King is right and life’s most persistent and urgent question really is ‘What are you doing for others?' If that’s the question, then let me invite you to take a stab at one of the answers today.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen, if we spend just a fraction of our day thinking about how we might help another person?

The resources and talents represented in this room today could change the world.

As we continue our celebration of this wonderful Thanksgiving Day, think back on our text. The best way we can be thankful today is to love God, and to love our neighbors.  Everything hangs on those two commandments.

And so may that be true in your home and in mine, today and every day.

Amen. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.