Based on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Our theme this Advent is “openness.” We are exploring it in worship, and it is the theme of our Advent Devotions – now available in the Narthex!! Today we’re starting with “Opening Our Hearts to Gratitude.” This may feel redundant to start with gratitude right after November and Thanksgiving, but I think there may always be more to say about gratitude. Or, at the very least, there is always more to be grateful for.
While I adore the season of Advent, I often struggle with the Advent texts the lectionary provides. The texts as a whole are cold, dark, scary, and apocalyptic. In them, one can hear Christian thinking about the SECOND coming of Christ because in the texts, one is reminded that officially Advent is at once a season of waiting for the coming Christ Child at Christmas and a season of waiting for the second coming of Christ.
The issue for me is that I have yet to be convinced about this whole “second coming” thing. It doesn’t fit how I understand Jesus, his message, his work, or the continued work of God with the Body of Christ. I’m perfectly fine with any or all of you being deeply committed to the second coming, because as always, I could be wrong!
Yet, my understanding of the second coming is this: the early Christians claimed Jesus as the Messiah. The faithful Jews who did not become Jesus followers responded by pointing out that Jesus did not do the things that they’d expected a Messiah to do, in particular to establish a kingdom on earth with political, military, and economic might. The Christians had trouble refuting this argument (because it was true), but they worked on it together and decided that Jesus was going to come back and do those things. This idea has taken a stronghold in the Christian tradition.
It doesn’t fit with the way Jesus lived, which had NOTHING to do with wanting to establish a powerful kingship. Nor does it have to do with how Jesus acted, which was all about empowering people without power to work together for the common good. It also misses the resurrection narrative itself, in which the followers of Christ are enabled and empowered to continue his work to transform the world.
I don’t think Jesus is coming back, at least not as a single, human, physical figure to establish a kingdom on earth. RATHER, I believe the shared work of the Body of Christ is to be the continuation of the work of Jesus to build the kindom of God. I believe that we are the continual way that Jesus is “back” although I more commonly think of it as the way that Christ continues to live.
So, I tend to get frustrated with the Advent texts. However, I still think my take could be wrong, and I don’t think I have more wisdom or knowledge than thousand of years of shared tradition, so I try every year to find my peace with the Advent texts. This year I’ve made my peace by picking two Pauline epistle texts (this week AND next week) and attending to them. These are lectionary texts, but not the apocalyptic ones. It is a balance. I think it is going to work out, they’re really excellent.
I wish we started Advent with Creation – as a way of remembering the start of our faith story with the start of the new year. So, I want to try it. My favorite “story” of creation in the Bible is Psalm 104. Read it here: Psalm 104, NRSV.
As it turns out, creation is a great starting point for gratitude. For many of us, being in the wonder of Creation is the easiest way for us to connect with the Divine, and I think that is in part because we are so overwhelmed with gratitude for the wonder and mystery of it all. The Psalm meditations on how each creature is cared for within creation, by God’s good gifts. The gifts for humans are like a communion set PLUS –“wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.” The Psalmist is not only practiced at noticing the wonders of creation, the Psalmist is also masterful at naming them with gratitude.
Another of the major access points to gratitude meets us in the opening verse of our reading from 1 Thessalonians. Paul asks, “How can we thank God enough for you, for all the joy we feel before God on your account?” I have been meditating on this verse all week, thinking of individual people I know and love; considering how incredibly grateful I am for their lives, their wisdom, their actions, their prayers, their BEING; and then trying to consider what it would take to adequately put together words to express my wonder.
How can we thank God enough for you? It actually feels impossible – even if I just pick one person, and even the one I pick isn’t someone I see all the time or know exceptionally well. How could I adequately thank God for the support of my high school chemistry teacher, or my junior high Sunday School teachers, for a college friend I’ve lost touch with but once had thought provoking conversations with? I’m SO grateful. But the words don’t feel like enough. And then there are ones I know better, and the ones I see more: how I could I ever thank God enough for my beloved partner, for my parents, for my dear friends, for the leaders, and members and participants of this church, for the staff I work with who make so many things possible?
The possibilities of things to be grateful for is (or approaches) infinite. I see where Paul gets his exuberance. There is so much joy to be found on account of God’s beloved people. There is so much to be grateful for. If you are needing the gift of opennness in your life, if you are willing to play with letting gratitude soak into your heart, I encourage meditating on this exuberant verse. “How can we thank God enough or you, for all the joy we feel before God on your account?” There is plenty to be found in that one little verse.
Paul’s exuberant gratitude for the people was writing to is, of course, not the final point. He also offers blessings to them, and one of them is particularly striking, “May Christ increase to overflowing your love for one another and for all people, even as our love does for you.” Scholars believe that this is the first letter of Paul, making this the first book written in the New Testament. Thus it reflects the earliest recording we have of the faith of the early Christians. I was stuck by this passage because it is more outward looking that much of the New Testament is. I suspect that as Christianity developed, and did so in a world that was hostile to it, it became more concerns with internal survival. Here though, early on, there is a balance between the relationships of the people of faith and those beyond the faith.
Love is presented as expansive. God’s love flows to all people, God’s love flows to and through Paul, God’s love flows to and through the early church in Thessalonia – as does Paul’s love, and Paul prays that it will increase to overflowing with them – allowing the love to be shared within the church and beyond to ALL people.
The joy isn’t the final point – love spreading to all people is the final point. But that end point goes through abundant gratitude. Love itself is a reason to be grateful. So is the expansiveness of love, the healing nature of love, the fact that God’s nature is one of love, the reality that we can share love, the reality for any of us that we have ever felt love, that it comes in so many forms.
How can we ever thank God enough?
Now, having focused on the wonders of creation and the incredible power of love, I want to take a step back. Gratitude is very important, it feeds our hearts, changes our perspectives, and allows a deepening of our spiritual lives.
That said, not everything is wonderful, or even good. There is deep pain the world including grief in its many forms, depression and anxiety, illness and injury, abuse and neglect. There are things we are not grateful for, and there are time when we are not filled with gratitude.
I think honesty and integrity are in order. When we are not grateful, it is worth paying attention to what emotions we are feeling. Whether it be anger, sadness, despair, frustration, exhaustion, confusion, or something else entirely, our emotions deserve some space to BE in the world without judgment. They’re even worth exploring. WHY are we angry, or sad? What ELSE do we feel? How strong are those feelings? Have they had a chance they need to be expressed?
THEN, and only then, it is worth considering IF there is space for gratitude too. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t, there is no right answer. If so, there may be a silver lining that can be a source of gratitude. Perhaps you can’t be grateful for a terrible experience you had – but you can be grateful that it is over. Perhaps you are homeless and can’t be grateful for homelessness – but you can be grateful for those who see your humanity and support you. Perhaps you can’t be grateful for the death of a loved one – but you can be grateful for the time you had with them.
You don’t have to force gratitude on yourself if this isn’t the right time for you. It will come again when it is ready.
However, if you in a place and time in your life when it is possible to feel gratitude, I encourage you to take the time to notice the multitude of possibilities for gratitude around you – from creation to people and beyond – and to express it as well as you can. I suspect it will open your heart – to God, to others, and to even more gratitude as well. Amen
Preached by Rev. Sara E. Baron on December 2, 2018