Founder’s Commemoration Service 1.11.15
1 Thess 5.14-24
A man goes to the holy man and complains, "Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?"
He is told, "Take your goat into the room with you." The man in incredulous, but the holy man insists. "Do as I say and come back in a week."
A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. "We cannot stand it," he tells the holy man, "The goat is filthy."
The holy man then tells him, "Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week."
A radiant man returns a week later, exclaiming, "Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there's no goat - only the nine of us."
A theme running through this service is thanksgiving or thankfulness. We have already commemorated the benefactions and the generosity which founded the college and have brought to mind the contributions of so many people along the way. If you have read ahead, or know the script from last year, you will know that there are prayers of thanksgiving still to come. And we have just heard scripture read - and then announced ‘Thanks be to God’.
Many of us were taught as children not to forget our ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ and I still find myself responding to hospitality with the early-taught ‘Thank you for having me.’
We have listened to a psalm which is an outpouring of thanksgiving and praise to God - ‘Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name.’ And if it didn’t pass us by in the flurry of apostolic advice, we might have spotted St Paul’s puzzling exhortation ‘give thanks in all circumstances’!
Of course, this may be wisdom you have already taken on board – or you might have long ago decided that it is a redundant piece of naïve piety unsuited to a world in which justice needs to be striven for and in which there is much to complain about.
However my contention this evening - and there is not in my judgement much point agreeing to preach and struggle with scripture unless some contending goes on – it is my contention this evening that thankfulness is a key element of what it means to fulfil our humanity and, even more contentiously, that thankfulness is a fundamental way of knowing God.
I used to struggle with Paul’s words. As a young local minister (and as a bolshie Welshman to boot) I railed against injustice and found it hard to make sense of Paul’s words, ‘give thanks in all circumstances’. The only conclusion I could come to was that some supreme act of will was required on my part to say ‘thank you’ to God - DESPITE what was happening around me and sometimes to me. Yet this somehow seemed at best hypocritical and at worst impossible – saying ‘thank you’ through gritted teeth!
And then in my early forties I was given, out of the blue, a diagnosis of cancer and a period of time when I didn’t know how long I might live – with four growing children I wondered whether I would ever see them grow up, let alone their children!
Through, I would say, the grace of God and the skill of the surgeon and his team I survived. At first, it was to return home from hospital and then to return to work and then to see the fullness of years pass by with opportunities for service and celebration. In my journal at the time I wrote, ‘I am being tempered on the anvil of God’s love’ - and it certainly felt as though I was between a hammer and a hard place, though I somehow sensed that good was coming out of this hardness – good was being worked in me through it all. I also wrote ‘I believe that in this I am being held by God’s love - but God’s love has rough hands!’
And I began to see that it was not a matter of gritted teeth, but of seeing in all things the givenness and graciousness of life. Not for a moment did I think that God had sent the cancer, but somehow his Plan B (officially known as ‘redemption’) brought out of my personal tribulation far more good than if the tribulation had not occurred. Thus I could give thanks in the most challenging of circumstances. Well, not the most challenging, for after all I survived – yet in such a way that I learned that if I had not survived I would have still been taken to a new place in which there was a world made new. As Maya Angelou put it, ‘This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.’
After over forty years in pastoral ministry, being alongside people in all kinds of ordinary and extreme situations, I have learned that you cannot take people’s responses to hardship for granted. Tough times can make you bitter and twisted or can refine your humanity into pure gold. We are all work in progress, but we get to choose whether we will repay evil for evil or whether we will live lives of forgiveness and gratitude.
Perhaps we should speak not so much of ‘being human’ as ‘becoming human’ – that how we respond to situations and circumstances form part of a journey – a journey of becoming more who we are called to be.
There is plenty of historic wisdom to guide us. Cicero commented that ‘a thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.’ And Shakespeare offered plenty of warnings about ingratitude.
Within the Judeo-Christian tradition there is much emphasis on this theme. In Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the Hebrew slaves, escaping from Egypt, stand on the brink of the promised land and are warned;
When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them… do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the strength to get wealth. (Deuteronomy 8.12, 17-18)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was one of the leaders of the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, reflected, ‘In ordinary life, we can hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.’ In a Nazi prison cell on New Year’s Day 1945, he wrote a poem which looked with faith towards an uncertain future, a future which, in the event, was to end with a hangman’s noose a few months later. In Fred Pratt Green’s hymn translation of that poem we read, or sing:
And when the cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it gladly, trusting though with trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Within Christian believing there is an integrated connection between living thankfully and the Christian believer’s desire to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, patterning their life after his – for lives of thankfulness blossom into lives of generosity. And the apostle Paul crowns an extended exhortation on generosity and sharing, by characterizing Jesus as God’s ‘indescribable gift’.
Becoming thankful and generous human beings is also a way of coming to know something of the true nature of God – the generous, creative, life-giving, gratuitously gracious God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Or perhaps we should say that the more we acknowledge the generous love of God in heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving, the greater becomes our capacity to be trusting and generous.
Just as the concert pianist still needs to practice scales, so our repeated discipline of offering prayers of thanksgiving makes us fit for living generous lives in which we honour others and share and celebrate the goodness of God. The prayers of thanksgiving in worship became a kind of rehearsal in which we practise how to live.
Aa a Christian minister, I have frequently repeated the words of Jesus during the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. I continue to be moved by the reflection that Jesus in the upper room, the night before he was crucified, not only took bread and wine and indicated to his disciples that these elements in some way represented his body and blood, soon to be broken and shed - but then, with their meaning linking to his impending suffering and death, he took the bread and the wine and gave thanks for them. Not only that, but he said ‘Do this in memory of me’ and each time a group of his followers take bread and wine in this way they are opening themselves to being shaped and formed into his likeness – a likeness of sacrificial love and thanksgiving.
So giving thanks in all circumstances becomes a discipline of Christian formation, a way of entering into some awareness of the nature of God. To experience and celebrate life as gift can lead us in a small step to seeking the Giver.
I have learned that there are different ways of knowing. There is the knowledge that comes from books and the knowledge that comes from experiment - in laboratory and life. There is the knowledge that comes from meeting people and listening to their stories, weeping and laughing with them. There is the knowledge that comes with loving and being loved…and then there is the knowledge which comes from knowing that you don’t know and that you can’t know – or rather that you can only know in certain ways.
Approaching life with thankfulness leads us to a way of knowing God that is congruent with who God is and what God is like. Thankfulness recognizes generosity, and engenders trust. It recognizes faithfulness and leads to a way of knowing which is from the heart, that is the whole person. This is why Brother David Steindl-Rast claims that ‘Gratefulness is the heart of prayer and an approach to life in its fullness.’
This isn’t naïve piety, or even hypocritical politeness. Rather, it is a different way of knowing God, a practical way of knowing – not so much cognitive or intellectual knowledge, as the kind of knowing that someone who is loved knows.
In the climax to his Divine Comedy, Dante realizes that he can never understand the how of Jesus Christ revealing both divinity and humanity, but he somehow grasps intuitively that his soul can be aligned with God’s love. He writes,
But already my desire and my will were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed, by the Love which moves the sun and the stars.
This is the work of thankfulness – a grasping of the generosity and faithfulness of God, of our being shaped into a full humanity measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.
Bless the Lord O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget none of his benefits…
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all paces of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.