Monday, October 2, 2017

Focusing on Thanksgiving


ONE SENTENCE:        Gratitude, from whatever our station in life, is what motivates our giving back to God.   

            Our service here this morning has been called many things over the years – the Lord’s Supper, the Last Supper, Communion, and Holy Eucharist, among others.

            It is one of the seven sacraments – and one of the two dominical sacraments; that is, one of the two sacraments established by our Lord.

            It has ancient roots.  Christians in the early church gathered in the catacombs or in small, private homes to do, in hiding, what we do here in the open with friends and family.

            Throughout the centuries, the elements have been the same.  Bread and wine, of course. Some elements have fancy Greek names: anamnesis, prolepsis, and epiclesis.
We know the essential ingredients in what we do. We have readings from scripture, the creed, the prayers, offering, remembering, anticipating, and invoking the Holy Spirit’s presence on the bread, the wine, and on ourselves.

            The name of this rite has evolved over the years. Most of those names were in Greek: kharis – for “grace”; kharizesthai – “to offer gracefully”; eukharistos – grateful; and finally, eukharistia, for “thanksgiving.”

            So it is today. Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship – and it is an act of thanksgiving.  Our Eucharistic prayer is known as the Great Thanksgiving.  The people gather to recall God’s mighty acts in our lives… and in our history… and to give thanks.

            How do we respond?  How did the people of the Early Church, gathered in fear of their lives, respond?  Our circumstances are certainly different, but the central definition is the same: “Our response is defined by what we do with everything after we say, ‘I believe.’”

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            Let me tell you a personal story about my own journey.

            My father, God bless him, emphasized a lesson to me early-on.  I saw him, each Sunday fold a five-dollar bill and place it in an envelope for the church.  But, he didn’t stop there. I received 50 cents in allowance at that time… and I was expected to place five cents in my own offering envelope each Sunday.

            Let me be clear: For a six-year-old boy, that was not an act of thanksgiving, but it did emphasize to me a duty.  And it took root – a root which bore meaningful fruit much later.

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            I was reared a Methodist and joined the Episcopal Church at age 18.  When Nora and I were preparing to get married, I promised her I would join her in the Baptist Church.  After we married, I had remorse: “I’m sorry, honey, I just can’t do it.”

            So, we agreed on the Episcopal Church.

            As the years went by, we recognized our blessings – blessings that grew and expanded.  We became more and more involved in the church.  And we recognized the need to respond to those blessings.  We gave more… first a few percent of our income… then more… then, more.

            Our giving became our response to God – because we recognized that it all came from him.

            Two things have become true for us:  We practice the concept of first fruits, an ancient, Old Testament practice of giving first, before anything else is done with our income. The second thing that is true for us is that we do not limit our giving to 10 percent, and neither do we restrict our giving only to the church. 

            We recognize that God’s generosity to us has not been limited, so why should we limit our response? And also, there are many needs in the world – true needs, not civic clubs or political parties – which the church does not meet. So, aren’t they God’s work, too? We answer, “Yes.” Our giving is a response to needs which our faith places before us.

            My basic theology of giving can be summarized in this way:  It is not so important which good cause I give to; it is important that I give. And it is important to give out of gratitude and not out of resentment.

            If you have trouble with that last suggestion – gratitude versus resentment – remember the wisdom of the Twelve Step Programs: Fake it ‘til you make it.

            If all this seems daunting or intimidating to you, be gentle with yourselves.  Start with baby steps, with an aspiration of additional steps in the years to come.  Bit-by-bit, you will make progress.  If you give it earnest consideration, you will see your life and perspective transformed.

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            Mary Freeman, who is our chair for Stewardship, asked me a key question the other day.  While I cannot quote her exactly, the essence was, “How does someone who has very limited means give?  Can they give time?”

            As I pondered that thoughtful question and my inadequate response later, I recalled a situation from 12 years ago.  It was a potent and poignant memory.

            The Mississippi Gulf Coast had been struck a devastating blow by Hurricane Katrina. We had lost six churches on the Coast.  The needs were beyond measure.  The human anguish was without limits. 

We struggled to respond in a meaningful way. One very wealthy Jacksonian agreed to pay the compensation for all Episcopal clergy for six months – just to be sure that priestly care of the people continued.  Other very generous gifts were made.

            One day, in the diocesan office, I received an envelope.  It was from the Church of Advocate in Ashville, North Carolina – a congregation I was familiar with.  They were a congregation of homeless people, struggling drug addicts, probably some prostitutes, and transients – people very much “down on their luck.”

            As the old saying goes, these folks didn’t have two nickels to rub together.  But those folks – who didn’t even have a regular place to worship – had put together their coins, out of their poverty, and donated $145 for the recovery of one of our congregations.

            I was reminded of the Widow’s Mite and how Jesus, observing the contrast between the rich man and the poor widow, said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

            The poor widow knew the importance of giving.  She had little – but she was grateful for what she did have, and she knew it was good for her soul to give.

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