Think about these Things

October 13, 2019            Harvest Thanksgiving

Philippians 4:4-9


Happy Thanksgiving! What a special time of year it is – for many of us, a favourite holiday in the church year.

Many of us love the fall particularly, with its golden, mellow beauty, and Thanksgiving feels like the special celebration of Fall: the church decorated with leaves and produce, the familiar harvest hymns; the house smelling of turkey, the table laden with squash and apple cider and pumpkin pie; and the family gathered around; the feeling of gratitude in our hearts, one of the most pleasant parts of our faith life, making us warm with the consciousness of all our blessings.

But Thanksgiving can also be difficult. It can be difficult when there are empty places around the table. Maybe children or grandchildren have moved on and are caught up in their busy lives. And especially when we have lost someone close to us, the family holidays can be particularly difficult. God knows, we have lost many who are close to our hearts in this community in recent years.

It can sometimes be difficult to be thankful when illness and disappointment has marked our lives, when we are more aware of our struggles and our losses than our blessings. God knows, there is a lot of serious illness in our community at the moment.

Perhaps it can be difficult as a church community when we remember thanksgivings of the past, when the church was packed with people and laden with produce. God knows, we have faced struggles and disappointments as a church community in recent years.

Sometimes it can be hard to be grateful, when the troubles crowd in on us, the griefs, the disappointments, the challenges that sap our energy and wear us down. Sometimes sorrow and bitterness can drive out gratitude; sometimes we just forget to be thankful, in the midst of a difficult year.

Well, the apostle Paul was not having a great year either, when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. He was in prison – and not just for a little while. When we read this letter attentively, we realize that he literally did not know whether he was going to get out again, whether he would be released or whether he would be facing his death. He is also beset by worries about the church he has laboured so hard to build up – we hear of jealousies and strife, we hear of opportunists, proclaiming the gospel for their own profit, we hear of apostles who would lay unnecessary burdens on people. There is every reason for him to be overwhelmed by fear, and bitterness, and worry, and disappointment.

And yet, amazingly, this whole letter is suffused by the most wonderful sense of peace, by a calm, deep, serene joy rooted in thankfulness.

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.
What a deep sense of joy and gratitude flows through these words, a determination to cultivate thankfulness in the midst of fear and sorrow and disappointment. Oh, to have found that kind of faith, a faith that not only endures life’s challenges as a kind of grim duty, but a faith that is so deeply rooted in the goodness of God that we can find a lightness and joy of heart no matter what life throws at us. A joy that is so deep and firm, that we can look even our own mortality in the face without being shaken. As the ancient hymn puts it, which we read at every funeral: “All of us go down to the dust. Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Even in face of the worst, our own limitation and end, we have through the love of God so overcome our focus on ourselves that we can still rejoice in the goodness of God’s creation.
Paul goes on: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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. 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.
That is the lesson of gratitude. It is a kind of count your blessings exercise that Paul leaves the Philippians with, an invitation to focus their minds and attention and energy on the things in life that are true and honourable and just and pure. Whatever is good in life, whatever makes life joyful and rich and worth living, let that be your focus. And that is what thanksgiving does for us.
Now one caution: I don’t think Paul is just saying, don’t worry, be happy. I don’t think he is trying to console us with superficial cheerfulness, it’s not that bad, there’s always someone worse off than yourself, get over yourself, or the like. This is not an invitation to make light of our pain, as though it doesn’t really matter because we’re not that important. It’s not about optimism, about just saying that everything will be alright. Sometimes our pain is real, and it isn’t going to go away. And we deserve compassion, we deserve to be compassionate with ourselves and kind, and not feel guilty about not being more cheerful.
Paul is not trying to teach us to suppress our sorrow or to make light of it. Rather, he is inviting us to hold that sorrow kindly, but also to put it into perspective, to see it as part of the pattern of God’s goodness. To remember the many ways we are surrounded by love and blessing, to give thanks also for what we have lost, to let it just be the blessing it was meant to be for us, and to look also to the future, to the good that will come. To hold all these things together in a grateful heart, in a heart that may not be cheerful or happy all the time, but that is nonetheless in touch with the deep joy that is the sustained note of God’s love for creation.
That is what we gather here to celebrate. Not just today, but every time we gather: but especially today, where our prayers are more intentionally prayers of thanksgiving. And I wanted to invite you to a little exercise, as a way of making these prayers visible as a celebration.
You have been given a paper leaf as you entered the church today. I invite you to take a moment and write down on the leaf some of the things you are thankful for. You see at the front of the church a bare tree, stark without leaves or signs of life. When we come to pass the peace in a few minutes, I invite you to come forward and fasten your leaf to this tree – so that these branches that look so barren and hopeless may be bright once more with our prayers of gratitude.