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Sermon: The Attitude of Gratitude

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA for Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016.
Thanksgiving Day; Year C (RCL): Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35        

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.      
        What gifts do you receive on a regular basis?  I’m talking about those daily happenings that we all have which make our lives a little bit easier, a little bit brighter, a little bit better—however you may choose to describe it.  Maybe it’s the interactions you have with the coffee shop employees and patrons.  Maybe it’s the smiles you receive on a walk through a store.  Maybe it’s the snuggles you get from your pets or your children or your loved one.  Maybe it’s the paper that gets delivered to your door every morning.
        What happens to you when that flow of such seemingly small gifts—I mean, I love my newspaper with my coffee, but I can get the news in other ways—when those daily expected things are suddenly not there?  Think about that.  What happens when your dog shuns you because you were gone for a few days, or your cat shuns you because, well, because it’s a cat!  Or that first time a small person you love pushes you away and says “no hugs?”  Or when that morning coffee comes with a confrontation, or your paper fails to arrive?
Be honest with yourself.
          If you are like me, my first thought is annoyance.  Because I have come to EXPECT something good, and it is not happening.  To me.  I (emphasis I) am affected.

        I submit that in our world of mostly plenty, this kind of mindset permeates our society on too many different levels.  Most of us are blessed by the way we live, even if we do not always consider our daily gifts as real blessings.  Yet in this same land of plenty, in our very community here, there are still far too many who live on our streets and under our bridges, seeking their next meal for themselves and others, and wondering where, and if, some sound work and good clothing might be found.  I was disheartened to hear recently at a Region IV Council meeting of the eight Episcopal churches in Alexandria that there may be as many as 185 students in our city’s public schools who are homeless!  When I hear that, I realize how at risk I am, and that we all might be, of becoming complacent, and prone to not giving thanks for everything or even anything, and by that lack of gratitude, failing to offer my help to those in need.
        “Attitude is everything.”  It’s no different when it comes to actions of Thanksgiving, or what we at Immanuel refer to often as Grace and Gratitude.  The attitudes we carry throughout life are of paramount importance if we are truly to live lives that demonstrate our gratitude to God for God’s movement in our lives.  And God’s presence, the essence of how God works in our lives is manifest both in the myriad gifts we are given and in the power of our gratitude for each and every one of those gifts.  The attitude for gratitude leads to action!        Every time we gather for worship, our work together here in this place has an element of thanksgiving.  When we are nourished with God’s bounty in Holy Communion, when we partake of Jesus’ Word that gives life to the world, and even when two or three of us simply join our hearts together in prayer to make our requests known to God, we do so “with thanksgiving.”  We are regularly encouraged to give thanks always to the Lord, who is good and whose mercy endures forever.  And yet, we frequently allow ourselves to be distracted, overwhelmed, unfocused.
       Today’s reading from Deuteronomy is set in the annual harvest festival called the Feast of Weeks.  Moses reminds the people of Israel that God has been their supreme Helper in their time of need.  It was God who provided the land they possess.  So this festival celebrated the first fruits of the produce of the land, which the people offered back to God in thanksgiving.  God’s people must respond with gratitude toward God because of these continual blessings.  Bringing their offerings, worshipers remember and proclaim God’s gracious acts on behalf of Israel.  This is focus.  This is purpose.  Today, our National holiday of Thanksgiving, we are called to remember that all that we have: be it health, wealth, prosperity or love; these are all gifts from God; they are to be used and shared with others.
        Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, urging them to be thankful, and to dwell on everything worthy of praise.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!”  It is essential to understand that this exhortation comes from a man who writes from prison while facing death.  Paul had been stoned and beaten and hounded by the mob.  Yet, experiences which would leave others, perhaps any or all of us included, both sour and bitter find Paul overflowing with joy and praise!  Look at verses 6-7:  “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 amazing grace!  That is incredible gratitude!  This is focus.  We also are invited to lay down our cares and worries before the One who cares for us.  Nothing is beyond this God who loves us so deeply and so fully.
       Finally, our Gospel text speaks of the day following the multiplication of loaves and fish by Jesus to feed five thousand.  He is pursued by a crowd that was clamoring for more food.  When they sought physical sustenance, Jesus pointed them toward spiritual food by teaching about the things of heaven.  As the people tried to grasp what he taught, Jesus made the historical connection for them, referring back to the Manna from Heaven the daily foodthat God provided the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness forty years.  Jesus revealed God meeting their ‘true’ needs in these daily gifts.  Again, Jesus turned the discussion to things of a spiritual nature, and as they ask him to provide “this food” for them, he tells them that He is the Bread of Life.  Believing in Jesus, they would never be hungry... at least not in things of eternal significance.
       How sad it can be when we sometimes put other “needs” ahead of this need for the Bread of Life made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ!  How very sad, when we, unlike Paul, allow the disappointments in our lives to challenge our gratitude for the gifts, the “daily bread” we receive.   Jesus is the only real need we have to live a life of eternal blessing. 
       Family and friends will sit around the table today and hopefully name with some delight things for which they are thankful, be they daily gifts or bigger events.  The scripture readings for this civic holiday of ours link persons, places, and things we are grateful for to the giver of all good gifts – to God.  There can be no gift without a giver; there can be no blessing without the One “whose steadfast love is everlasting, whose faithfulness endures from age to age.” (Ps. 100:5)  As Creator, it is God who has given people the land and its bounty.  As Liberator, it is God who has given people their story of blessings throughout time.  Embodied in Jesus, it is God who has nurtured and fulfilled people with the bread of God’s own self.  And as Spirit in community, it is God who gives the peace of God’s presence and listening ear.  When we bring everything together in God – food and faith, rejoicing and requests, excellences and hungers – everyone benefits.
       I hope and pray we all make an effort to recognize any blessings we may have come to take for granted.  I invite you to join with me in focusing on what makes up our daily bread rather than on what we lack or what we may think we need, and see how that affects our attitude.  And then, in the spirit of God’s Grace, and recalling the Israelites’ example of giving back to God in Gratitude,  I challenge all of us, myself included, to use those gifts and our gratitude to help those who lack what they need.
       This year, today, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, may we each see God for who God really is and know ourselves as who we are: A God that “gives the true bread from heaven” to give life to the world, and a people who have been richly blessed beyond measure who NEED to give thanks to the Giver of all good gifts. We have been given the Bread of Life.  We know this bread and have had our only lasting hunger satisfied.  May we now be truly thankful to the God who deserves our Thanksgiving through Grace, Gratitude, Prayer and Praise!