Last week, we began a series on being Rooted in Gratitude and Growing in Christ. This 130th anniversary celebration repositions us to give thanks first for how God is and will be moving in the future. We started with Gratitude, not attitude; and today, we look at being grateful for trials. It sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? To be grateful for that which turns our stomachs, brings on headaches, tests our patience, and often leaves us worn out. To be grateful for the unfair and challenging parts of our lives takes perspective and reflection. And yet, this is the kind of radical discipleship Jesus calls us to live out.
In the reading from the first letter to the church at Thessalonica, there was a few small little verses tucked into the longer letter. One of which was “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you.” Paul writes this gem to the church when all is not going well. When giving thanks in all circumstances is not just a pleasant reflection on the gifts of family and food, but rather include daily life struggles to feed and secure of the lives of one’s family. It is a first century world in which none of the creature comforts or legal privileges that we value were yet commonplace.
But giving thanks in all circumstances is the apostle Paul’s letter to us, today. Giving thanks to God when the hard drive on the computer fails or the water pump needs to be replaced. Giving thanks to God when the pain in your knee is driving you closer and closer to surgery and the headaches barely seem to let up. Giving thanks to God when work is a bear – you have accumulated the work from those who have moved on and there are not nearly enough hours to offer grace to your coworkers and complete all the tasks at hand.
Giving thanks to God, not because you are enjoying the circumstance, but because these are the places where we go deeper in our faith journey, these are the places when we depend more and figure less. Telling the stories of where we have seen and known God often involves some of the times of greatest trial and challenges in our lives. For me, some of you have heard me tell the story that it was during a hospital admission for depression, eating disorders and trying to hurt myself that I experienced the holiness of sacrament. In high school, when the world fell in around my head and I could not figure out how to hold the entire world on my shoulders, I spent time in the hospital. Nothing about that experience made me want to give thanks. Not the long list of things you cannot pack for an admission on the mental health floor, not the list of rules to be followed in order to keep you and others safe, not the schedule that felt like more drudgery than insight and revelation. But I give thanks to God for the dependence I found on God and God’s people, when a youth leader from my congregation brought me communion in one of my darkest hours. She was patted down and the communion bread checked for contraband. God showed up in her, through her, and in the mystical experience of holy communion. I give thanks to God for God’s creativity and persistence, steadfastness and ‘suffering with’ character. God’s commitment to be with the people of God is not just in the best times and on Christmas and Easter. God plays for keeps.
Let’s talk theology for a moment. Theology is how we think and understand who God is. God does not cause or send our trials. God does not give out medical diagnoses or shortfalls on bills. God does not wish for us to fall short or mess up. Our human blessing and challenge is that we have the ability to make choices that unfold in the short term and the long view. Choices that affect ourselves and many others. God redeems our struggles and walk with us in the midst of the hardest parts of life.
On Sunday night, we hosted Dr. David Shank, author of the books that our Understanding Islam class has been studying with Mel Leaman. Dr. Shank has a passion for sharing Jesus with Muslims, which he has done here and around the world, in compelling and respectful ways. He reminded us that one of the most unique and compelling truths of our faith is that our God suffers with us. In our faiths, this is not their understanding of God. We know that God suffers alongside us. Jesus know suffering and redeems our trials. Muslims come to know Jesus as Savior, because God suffers and walks with us!
Jesus, son of God, second person of the trinity, never abandons us. In fact, the very parable from Jesus this morning has something to say about how to grateful in the face of trials. Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector caution us against the “thank God it’s not me” kind of thinking that we could fall into when we give thanks to God for trials. Initially, the observation of not being what we find undesirable about another is benign, not uplifting, not benign. It is so quickly that our thought turns from observation to judgement, as we are only capable of observation with its cousin judgment. This kind of judgement is without empathy or understanding, without regard to Jesus’s ways of encountering and engaging. This recalls our sins of dismissal, one-upmanship, I’m better than you. This parable is always uncomfortable, not because we are the tax collector, no, for most of us, we are the Pharisee who knows what to do and how to do it and feels comfortable with our faith. We have cast off the tax collector. This reminds us that each time we have judged and condemned others, assumed that our relationship with God is more and better, we have not offered gratitude, but rather veiled judgments. “As soon as we start to question whether or not someone deserves a place in the kingdom, we would do well to remember this passage. As soon as someone points out the inadequacy of others, we would do well to remember this passage.”1 Here, we have some growth to do, church!
If we are going to respond to God’s call to be rooted in gratitude, we need to give thanks to God first. How will you this week give thanks to God for the challenges and unfair circumstances that you find yourself in? Where will you genuinely rely on the God who can and will redeem everything that we offer to God for the plot twist where life changes? The way we respond to trials shape us and influences those around us. This is your best witness. This is your best reflection of being a Jesus follower. This is your best imitation of showing who God is.
This week, I pray that you cultivate gratitude at work and at home, on the road and as you travel. I pray that you begin to give God the glory for all that God has done and who God is. I pray that as you live your faith out loud as a grateful disciple of Jesus, that others will ask you the God you serve who suffer along with them. This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4742 and the work of Amy Jill Levine in Short Stores by Jesus.
New Testament Lesson: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Beloved, pray for us.
Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Gospel Lesson: Luke 18:9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Meditations For Your Week
Sunday, October 23~ Saturday, October 29
Sunday: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.” Luke 18: 9-10. Jesus told parables to teach about ways to follow God’s way. Where are you following the teachings of Jesus even when they are opposed to how others live?
Monday: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Luke 18: 11-12. The Pharisee understood himself to be following God’s way. Prayerfully ask God to uncover where you think you are following God’s way and missing the mark.
Tuesday: “But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke 18: 13. We do not know the specific circumstances of the tax collector. What we know is that he depended on God in challenges. Where are you depending on God?
Wednesday: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’” Luke 18: 14. Prayerfully ask God to show you how you might be more humble.
Thursday: “But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.” 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-13. Where is God calling you to change your reflections about those in charge of you?
Friday: “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” 1 Thessalonians 5: 14-15. All people are encountering trials, where are you offering grace?
Saturday: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” 1 Thessalonians 5: 22-23. Prayerfully ask God to sanctify you, urge you towards perfection in following Jesus.