Advent 1C – November 28, 2021
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 (Psalm 25:1-9 & Luke 21:25-36)
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Welcome to Advent, to the start of the new year in our church calendar, and to our period of anticipatory waiting leading up to our celebration of our savior Jesus’s birth! Now Advent is always a strange time for Christians who follow the liturgical calendar. Instead of jumping into Christmas, we like Mary, Elizabeth, the prophets, and the people of God await the redeemer. And our lessons reflect that. We have apocalyptic lessons, ones that anticipate the second coming, with strange images, sometimes disturbing images.
This year, perhaps we understand it more. Firstly, the world still seems to be a place of chaos: flooding, fires, and people doing crazy things like driving through parade routes. We are in the moving towards, but not yet, of something new as we move out of Covid. Peace Health had the lowest hospitalization rate in a month. Young children are in the process of being vaccinated, though access is skewed by where individuals fall on the economic scale. And yet, things are still not “normal”, whatever normal may be.
And parallel to this, perhaps we understand the yearning for a savior, someone who will come and change things, make all things new. We want to more out of these dark times (and indeed this time of the year is dark, rain or no rain); we want the light.
But this year – when as on most years the first Sunday of Advent comes on Thanksgiving weekend – I noticed something different in the lessons, something nestled amongst the discussion of signs and portents, of calls to have strength, and of unexpected changes. I noticed that there are reminders of thanksgiving, abundance, and gratitude. So, I want to follow up on our call to give thanks, hopefully something you already have been contemplating since Thursday.
In our lesson from 1st Thessalonians, we jump into the story where Paul is writing to the community that he founded in Thessalonica which was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. Timothy has returned from a trip there and has shared about all the good things that this fledgling community has been doing. And it is at this point in his letter that Paul writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” And Paul goes on to ask for increased love and holiness, more faithfulness. But pondering this passage as part of the community of St. Paul’s in Bellingham, Washington in the 21st century, I was struck by the first six words: “How can we thank God enough”? I’m wondering if we really are a people who give thanks unceasingly, are truly aware of the abundance of God’s love and grace, and are people of gratitude? Even in our secular world, over the past few years there has been a push for exploring gratitude and abundance.
A number of years ago, I – along with others – read a book on Simple Abundance and started an exercise of gratitude: writing down on a daily basis five things for which I was grateful that day. As the book’s author shares about her life, some days as her heart began to overflow with gratefulness, she noted, “I started giving thanks for everything: daisies in a jelly jar on my kitchen windowsill, the sweet fragrance of my daughter’s hair, the first sip of tea in the morning, pork roast with apples and cranberries for Sunday supper, hearing the word “I love you” before I went to sleep…[most days were simple joys;] “I listened to Puccini while cleaning and remembered how much I love opera.” Other days – rough ones – I might think that I don’t have five things to be grateful for, so I’ll write down my basics: my health, my husband and daughter, their health, my animals, my home, my friends, and the comfortable bed that I’m about to get into, as well as the fact that the day’s over.”1 And since the time when the author wrote that book, if you google books on gratitude today, a plethora of options come up – all encouraging us to give thanks. As Christians, who understand that God is creator of all and cares for each of us, our giving thanks has a specific focus and an intentional prayerful direction.
So, I want you to take stock of yourself. Are you thanking God enough? Do you thank God daily in prayer? Do you thank God as you walk around and see God’s world? Do you thank God as you rejoice in the people with whom you share your life? Do you thank God for this community of St. Paul’s? Do you thank God for the money you receive?
This morning, I want to take a little time to look specifically at three areas (nice trinitarian number, isn’t it!) where we are called to thank God.
First, I want to talk about financial blessings, about money. As North Americans, we tend to compare ourselves to the Jones’s, or in our case people like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. As we do that comparison, we may feel that we have little to be thankful for. But whether we are a middle-aged working adult; a college student who has a part-time job; a retired person living off social security, pensions or savings; or someone who is starting out in their first job or jobs, we have much to be thankful for. Even if you are supported through disability payments or public assistance of some sort, living in a country that has a very basic safety-net still provides a step up from countries that have nothing.
I’d like to spend a moment and provide a broader perspective concerning our financial blessings. If you are a single-person household with an after-tax yearly income of $12,000, you are richer than 82.5% of the global population. If you receive $30,000, you receive more money than 95.3% of the global population. If you receive $75,000, you receive more money than 99% of the global population.2 Does that make you think or feel differently?
And giving thanks for the money we have isn’t the only area where we can be truly thankful. As part of a community of faith, as the people of God (whatever that means for us given where we are in our journey of faithfulness and prayerfulness), we are to be thankful for our faith community, thankful for: fellowship, an ability to serve, coming – in person or virtually – to worship where we pray and hear and sing music, and so much more. But I’m wondering if we’ve become a people who see the glass half empty due to change and Covid. I think we’re having a hard time looking at the half full part or even the invitation to see the overflow of blessings.
I recently heard a story underscoring our challenges about being thankful for this community of St. Paul’s. One of the newcomers (and, yes, thanksgiving number one!, we are welcoming newcomers almost every Sunday), this newcomer shared about her first Sunday here. She was graciously seated by one of our Hospitality Ministers. She worshipped with us. The woman closest to her greeted her after the service. But then, this apparently long-term member of the congregation immediately started talking about how bad things were and went on to elaborate all that she saw that was no longer right with the church. The visitor, when the parishioner ran out of things to complain about, actually said that that wasn’t how she had experienced the service. Rather the newcomer had found herself blessed by a wonderful liturgy and prayers, good music, and (of course she had to tell me this!) a thought-provoking sermon. But it got me thinking about how we need to give thanks for those good things for which we are grateful, to share them with others. If we’re holding on to the old hurts, we need to find a way to let go of them or to constructively work to change things for the better.
Lastly, besides money and our church community, I want to talk about our overall thanks to God, for the blessings of life and love. We are loved by Jesus who gave his life for us. Day in and day out, we are invited into new life with the Spirit. Day in and day out, we are welcomed with open arms. Day in and day out, we are blessed by not only the one-on-one relationship between God and each one of us, but as part of the bigger creation – plants, animals, and all living beings. Day in and day out, we are invited to meet God in the Scriptures and in prayer.
So this Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, I would invite you to do a daily inventory of all those things for which you can offer thanks to God: people, financial blessings, little moments, big thanksgivings, this community, sun streaming through blue skies, family, tryptophan in turkeys (and other foods of course), for God himself, and so much more. As we wait this Advent, as we look forward in hope, let us give thanks to God for the overflowing blessings in our lives.
Amen. 1 Sarah Ban Breathnach, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, New York, NY: Warner Books, 1995, January 13 & 14. 2 https://howrichami.givingwhatwecan.org