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.
When I was a child, my favorite holiday was thanksgiving. It could have been the food, since I really love to eat. And everything from the turkey and stuffing to the pumpkin pie ranks up there for me as some of the best food ever. But more likely, I think, my love for Thanksgiving had to do with the people. My paternal grandmother’s desire was that the Hoekman family get together every thanksgiving, and we obliged. Hailing from various parts of Michigan and Indiana, we traveled the handful of hours to spend the day together – starting early…ending late. Between my father and his two sisters there were a dozen cousins…and I was the youngest.
Certainly, I was teased and picked on, since including my brothers, eight of the twelve cousins were boys. But for some inexplicable reason, I loved it. I loved the rowdy football games in the back yard, no matter how cold it was. I loved the way food brought us all together, since we ate all day long, from morning till night, and the time we spent around the tables from appetizers to pie were times spent catching up and swapping stories of the year that had passed. I loved the laughter that spilled over everything. I loved the way stories about each of my cousins and siblings as children would emerge and be re-told to even more laughter each year. Even the teasing was infused with love and gratitude for one another sometimes in spite of our differences.
Each year, amidst the commotion and chaos and storytelling that was Thanksgiving, there was one, small moment of quiet just before we ate. When we had all sat down with full plates and glasses and were just about to dig in to that awesome meal, and my dad stood up to say a word of prayer. It was always my dad. He stood up and gathered each of us in prayer, thanking God for our family and our ability to be together, lifting up those who were not with us, those who were sick or troubled, asking God’s blessing on the food we were about to eat, and God’s blessing on each of us in serving God in our lives. “Bless this food to us and us to thy service in Christ’s name, Amen.”
It is not a coincidence that those same words often mark the end of my prayers before meals, I’d heard them so often from dad’s lips. It was the one brief, solemn moment over a whole weekend of eating and laughter. But it was a moment that reminded us where these blessings are from. To remember to give thanks to God.
As I grew older things began to change a bit. We no longer gather together at Thanksgiving since the holiday is short and families have work, school and sports obligations. So now, most often, we gather with adopted family and friends. Instead of Dad’s prayer the diverse and eclectic group goes around the room naming things they are thankful for. It is a tradition that allows for the variety of faith traditions at our table. What are you thankful for? Family, friends, enough food so that none of us go hungry, health, time with loved ones, our church. What are you thankful for?
Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written well before there was a national holiday reminding folks to be thankful. Towards the end of his letter to them he tells them not to worry, but to pray. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Do not worry, but be thankful, and pray.
However much I loved Thanksgiving as a child, now that I have stuffed my own bird and baked it, I am poignantly aware of the anxiety that comes along with it. And I am thankful I don’t have to do it this year… We worry about everything. We worry about the turkey and getting it just right. We worry about having enough. But we worry too about those folks gathered around the table. Will Uncle Pete bring up Aunt Marti’s divorce? Will Cousin Andy talk politics? Will Grandma make it through the day? Will we?
But Paul says do not worry. Paul tells us to pray. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it like this: “Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.”
Writer Anne Lamott wrote that she only ever says two prayers – the first is, help me help me help me… And the second is thank you thank you thank you… which may be some of the best exegesis on these few passages from Paul. Paul seems to join it all together – worry, requests, thanksgiving, prayer. It almost seems as if he thinks they all go together. Asking for what we need, giving thanks for what we have, letting go of our worry, and turning, again and again, without ceasing, turning to God.
Perhaps the annual Day of Thanksgiving pushes us away from Paul’s intention then. Sometimes I wonder if we too often store up our thanksgivings to share them on this one day or week, if suddenly we turn to our gratitude like it is one more thing on our to do list during this busy, hectic season. Note to self: think of things you are thankful for to share around the table on Thursday.
But Paul, Paul seemed to think we should live a life of gratitude. He seemed to think that our life should be one of thanksgiving and prayer, and that these should come as easily and naturally as breathing. And so what’s missing is the question: to whom are you thankful? Because it’s sometimes easy to forget that gratitude is an outward movement. When we simply list our thanks we can convince ourselves that we have something to do with the blessings we receive. Our thanksgivings can start to sound like: “I am thankful that I remembered to bake the pies early, I’m thankful that Aunt Mildred remembered to bring the cranberries.”
But when we name the God to whom we give thanks – the tone of our gratitude changes, as we are reminded of the fact that our faith teaches us that everything we have is a gift. The food on our table: gift. The car we drive: gift. The house we make payments on: gift. That last breath you took: gift.*
As people of faith, do we really believe this? Do we really believe that God is the source of every breath, every smile, every moment?
The Psalms are filled with this way of living: as they list over and over thanksgivings of praise to the God who created all things, who blesses us with abundant life. Reading them is a way of saying it out loud – it is God who does this. God who delivers our salvation, God who waters the earth so we can live, God who answers our prayers, who created us and gives us life.
We lift our prayers to God because only God can help us with dear old crazy Aunt Mildred. We lift our prayers to God because only God knows about the worries that plague us in the midst of these holidays: worries about bills and finance, worries about lonely marriages and that friend who is on the brink of dying any day now, worries about our children and how stressed they seem to be or our parents and whether or not they are healthy and safe… And as we lift our prayers and thanksgivings to God, as we say Grace, we start to live the life of gratitude that Paul described.
A life of gratitude is one that remembers not only the things we are thankful for, but the God who brings them forth. A life of gratitude is one that understands stewardship to be a giving back to God that which was never ours in the first place – money, time, talents, attention… all gifts. A life of gratitude means that our thanksgiving is not lifted up once a year but in every moment in every day, as we understand each moment to be purely a gift from the one who created each of us and this abundant world we live in. Maybe this is why for Paul worry and prayer and thanksgiving are all wrapped up together – since so often our worries are turned into peace when we remember that we are not in charge but God is. And that is something to be truly thankful for.
We lift our prayers, to God, because it is God who offers us the abundance of Grace. Because it is God from whom all blessings flow. Because it is God, to whom we give thanks. Thanks be. To God. Amen.
*This phrasing was inspired by Rob Bell’s Nooma video: “Rich,” which I highly recommend. His poetic language around our understanding of God’s blessings and how it informs the way we live out our faith had great influence on this sermon.