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What Are We Thankful For?

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
November 20, 2016

Meister Ekhardt, one of my favorite mystics, who lived in the 13th century, is quoted as saying, “If you have only one prayer. Let it be Thank You!” There is a poignancy to that suggestion! Didn’t he know that terrible things happen? He wasn’t living in our time! He didn’t have the internet telling him every negative reality that is happening around our planet!

But our scripture lesson today seems to be saying the same thing:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Paul didn’t live in our times! He didn’t have the evening news flashing pictures of suffering around the world into his living room. (He didn’t have a living room!) He didn’t have the Southern Poverty Law Center informing him that there had been over 400 reported hate crimes in the last week! He didn’t know that most such crimes go unreported.

But Paul’s times and Jesus’ times and Meister Ekhardt’s times were actually much more violent and terrible than our own. The Roman Empire was no picnic for anyone who didn’t stick with the program of worshiping Caesar. Last week I mentioned the terrible image of crosses lining the roads between towns and on hillsides so common that Jesus’ followers knew exactly what he meant when he said “Pick up your cross and follow me!” Poverty then did not mean not having a nice house, it meant starvation, dying before your time, and most did.

The Middle Ages, when Meister Ekhardt lived, was the focus of my studies when I did my masters in English Literature. Feudal times were dark indeed for all but the very few princes and priests. Women were suspect and ended up on stakes by the thousands, if not millions throughout Western Europe. Neither Paul, nor Ekhardt, nor Jesus were Pollyannas. “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who grieve,” was not meant to be taken as superficial comfort. Each of these visionaries spoke to the power of our minds and hearts and our responsibility to guard and guide them well. Each of them challenges us to be Thankful. And today we gather to remember that!

So what are we thankful for today?

In the past we might have taken some comfort in the fact that our lives are so full and blessed with abundance. As the Pharisee prayed in the Temple, “Lord I thank you that I am not like that tax collector…” or that Muslim, or that person of color, or that immigrant, or that mentally ill or disabled person, or that transgendered soul or those LGBT folks…But to whom much is given, much will be asked.” Says Jesus. And now is the time we are being asked, to see ourselves in the other, to stand with our neighbors, to remember who our neighbor is!

So what are we thankful for today? For our health? Certainly. For it gives us the strength to be here together, to pray together, to support one another in love. For our hearts? Even if they are broken and grieving. There is more room in a broken heart. We have good hearts! For our minds? Yes! But they can be tricky!

Our minds can lead us down into despair and hopelessness. When our hearts are broken open and the suffering of the world and our own suffering overwhelms, our minds can tell us to give up! That’s why Jesus and Paul and Ekhardt challenge us to think differently, to dare to be grateful, to even rejoice!

That’s why the second half of today’s scripture lesson is so key:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Our work begins with vigilance towards our own minds. We must remember what is true. I was surprised when I read a biography of Gandhi that his passion in life was always about learning, studying, knowing and living by the Truth. Jesus promised, “The Truth shall set you free,” although we sometimes add, “but first it will make you miserable.” Knowing what is true in history, looking beyond simplistic news stories and even fake news stories circulating on the internet is key.
But the deepest truth tells us, as Martin Luther King said, “the arc of history may be long, but it bends toward justice.” It is true that we are never alone, that our spirits are one with all of creation, that God, by whatever name we call God, or no name, is with us and we are with each other. As Ramakrishna said, “It is for us to raise our sails” so that the winds of the spirit can lead us.

We must be honorable and look for that old-fashioned quality in our companions and leaders. Common decency is at the core of civilization. There has been a loss of civility recently. We must reclaim it in all our relationships. “Whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is commendable…” Now is the time to lift up the good, honor excellence, become our best selves. Now is the time to praise it in others when we see it. This is how we encourage and grow together.

I have never been more thankful to be a part of a faith community than I am today. When we come together like this to celebrate our gratitude in prayer and music and teachings, we are remembering our best selves and encouraging one another to keep our commitments to continue to grow in faith and in how we live.

I had lunch with Patty Ebner this week and we found ourselves pondering the great gift that being a part of a faith community can be. We agreed that it gives us strength not just by being there, but by what we do in keeping our commitment to be there. Those of you who are raising young children or have completed that roll, know how important it is to offer them consistency so that they can build their lives on certain expectations.

We live in a market driven world that encourages us to shop and explore and do a thousand different things before we decide what it important to us. We know our children do best when we offer them a few choices and then allow them to follow through on the commitments they make.

My oldest son wanted to do children’s theater and little league. I made him choose one so that he could keep that commitment and when he didn’t feel like going, unless he was sick, he had to go.

Church could be that kind of commitment, because it is a place to grow our souls, to practice the goodness we know we believe in, to experience the role models who surround and inspire us. We need each other now!

Paul always manages to sound a little arrogant and his last words in our Scripture lesson this morning strike me that way:
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
He felt he was a role model. I’m not sure any of us has that kind of confidence, but I bet if you asked your friends in this church what they see in you, “role model” just might be on that list. I know I keep on growing in my faith because of the things you do and teach me.

The house churches of the first century were places where wounded and frightened souls gathered to learn this new and dangerous way of being in the world. They traveled unmarked roads to learning how to live out this crazy Law of Love. We’re on that road still today and together we can teach and learn, love and be loved, forgive and be forgiven, and change the world.
For that I am truly grateful!