In Everything, Give Thanks – Bishop Dan Selbo

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

Dear Friends, Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus on this Thanksgiving Day 2020.

I don’t know if you remember, or if you ever saw the movie when it came out, but in 1998 a film titled “Life Is Beautiful” was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It was a touching story about an Italian Jewish family that was taken to a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War.

At the camp, in the movie, the father, a man named Guido, used whatever imaginative ideas he could come up with to shield his son Joshua from the reality of life in such a terrible setting. Throughout the movie, he hides his son from the Nazi guards. He sneaks him food and tries to keep him laughing, even when there was no reason to laugh. In an attempt to keep up his son’s spirits, the father convinces him that life in the camp is a game, in which the first person to get 1,000 points wins an army tank. He tells him that if he cries, he loses points. If he complains that he is hungry, he loses points. Quiet boys, he tells him, who hide from the camp guards earn points. The first one to 1,000 wins. 

It is a sad story, even under the laughter. It is a tragic chapter in our world’s history, no matter how you come at it. But this father, Guido, does everything he can to protect his son and to keep him focused on things that are good, even when there is so much around that is not.

In the movie, the father was played by the Italian actor and director Roberto Benigni. Hollywood loved the movie and they loved what Benigni had done. When he was presented that year with the Award for Best Actor, the first-ever for a male performer for a non-English-speaking role, Benigni said this: “It is a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation…It is a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.”

What a beautiful statement that is. What a wonderful way of saying what is at the heart of Thanksgiving Day. It is a day when we remember how much we have been given. It is a day set aside, in the United States, to remember and say thanks for the blessings of God.

But true thankfulness, giving thanks to God, at least for the Christian, goes so much further than a single day, and so much deeper than simply recognizing and giving thanks for the blessings we have received.

Paul’s words are a good reminder of how it is that we, as Christians, are to approach all of life. Not just when times are good, but also, and more importantly when they are not. He says, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

In other words, no matter what, “Do not be moderate in giving thanks to God!” Do not hold back in acknowledging and thanking God for the blessings we have.

Perhaps you have heard the old story of a small rural Baptist church where the folks got really excited and began to express, out loud, what they were feeling within. One man stood up and declared, “I have been smoking three packages of cigarettes a day, and I am going to quit.” Folks in the congregation cried out, “Amen.”

Another man stood up. “I have been drinking six cans of beer a day,” he said, “and I am going to quit.” And again, the congregation shouted back, “Amen!”

A third parishioner stood up and confessed, “I have been swearing an awful lot lately, and I am going to quit that swearing!” This time, the “Amens” came from all over the room.

Caught up in the excitement of the moment, an elderly lady stood up in the back and with as much enthusiasm as the other three said, “I have not been doing anything that is wrong . . . and I am going to quit that, too.” She was not going to miss the excitement, even though she had not done anything.

It is good to get excited in church. Perhaps it does not happen often enough. One thing we should get excited about, more often, is the blessings we have received from God. 

Go down the list. It never ends. Our families, our friends, our homes; our jobs, our careers, the chances we have to work; the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the freedom we have in the United States and Canada; the air we breathe, the ground on which we walk, the water that comes to us as a gift from God; our faith, God’s forgiveness in Jesus, the life we have, now and eternally, in Christ. Where do we start? Where does it all end? 

“It is a sign of mediocrity,” Benigni says, “when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.” It is a sign of who we are as followers of Jesus when we say thanks to God, no matter what, for all that he has done.

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Paul says that gratitude ought to be the dominant theme of our lives. It is not just a day. It is not just on Thanksgiving. It is God’s will for all of life.

In fact, it is an interesting study, even apart from our faith, what happens to people when thankfulness is a daily part of who they are. Some of the recent studies on aging are revealing, particularly in light of how so many of our seniors are living healthy and active lives into their 80s, 90s, and even beyond. Four common elements are found in seniors who live long lives. Number one is a sense of gratitude, a realization that what they have, no matter what they have, comes to them as a gift. The other three are a proactive approach to life, a desire to learn and grow, and an optimistic outlook.

Now, you can call that a self-fulfilling prophecy if you like, but it is hard to deny that, if nothing else, the more grateful you are for the things you have been given, the more you begin to realize how much you have been given and how much you have to be grateful for.

The old Gospel tune is onto something. “Count your many blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings, see what God has done.” And it works.

Think back to some of the early experiences of those first disciples. Paul and Silas ended up in prison for preaching in the name of Christ. They were beaten, thrown into jail, with their feet in stocks. Next thing you know, they are singing songs and praising God. And then an earthquake hits and they are all set free, and the singing continues.

It is one thing to be thankful when things are going well. It is another to remain thankful when they are not. Even in a pandemic, even when the things that are happening are not what we would choose. That is the Christian life. That is the life to which you and I have been called.

The great evangelist Dwight L. Moody tells the story of a man who got up during one of the revival meetings he was conducting and gave a testimony.  The man said he had lived nearly all his life on what he called “Grumble Street,” but not long ago he had moved over to “Thanksgiving Street.” Moody said, “That’s a nice change of address from Grumble Street to Thanksgiving Street.” And he said, “The man’s face showed it.”

Gratitude ought to be the dominant theme of our lives, and not just when things are going our way, but all the time, all throughout life. Paul Tillich once said, “Being thankful in life is an action that has its roots in grace, the free undeserved love of God. When we are truly grateful, we become starkly aware that we are wholly dependent for everything upon God and upon our fellow human beings who are made in his image. When we are truly grateful, we recognize that God has favored us, whether we deserve favoring or not.”

Bishop Thomas Ken knew that. Do you recognize that name? Bishop Ken wrote the words to the tune we know today as the doxology. He was born in England seventeen years after the Pilgrims came to America.  His life was filled with turmoil.  He experienced personal problems as well as political problems throughout his life.  He lived through the great London fire that destroyed four­-fifths of the city, as well as the devastating bubonic plague that brought death to thousands.  In spite of this, he maintained an attitude of praise to God. And he demonstrated that attitude in his time-honored chorus that has been sung ever since. You know the words:

“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

In closing, I would invite you to reflect on the words of that doxology. In fact, I would invite you to include it in whatever prayers you offer before your Thanksgiving meal. 

Regardless of what you do with the doxology, do not forget to thank God for the many blessings you have received.

Paul says, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

My prayer for you, on this Thanksgiving Day, is that your life and your actions will continue to reflect, in all things, the thankfulness you have in your heart for what God has done for you in Jesus. Amen.

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