Give Thanks 2018

My sermon on November 18, 2018 at McFarland United Methodist Church:

Let us pray:

Gracious God, open our ears that we may hear your truth, open our eyes that we may see your kingdom and open our hearts and minds that we may know the cry of those brothers and sisters who are hurting and hungry and dying without the knowledge of your love for them.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

In 1965, a new movie was in the theatres.  The movie was entitled Shenandoah.  It starred Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson, the patriarch of a farm family living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia during the Civil War.  Charlie was a widower.  His wife Martha died giving birth to the youngest Anderson boy who was about 16.  Now Charlie was an independent man.  He didn’t have much use for church or religion in general and he didn’t have much use for the war that was taking place literally on his doorstep.  The only thing that Charlie Anderson wanted to do was run his farm and be left alone.

Charlie would spend time at Martha’s grave having a conversation, mostly with himself.  But he would talk to her and tell her all about the things that were happening in the family and in the world.  When he had some situation that was particularly troubling, he would usually say that he wished she could be there to give him advice on what he needed to do.   It was usually at those times that the church bell would ring and Charlie would remember his promise to Martha, that he would keep the family in church…whether he wanted to be there or not.

So, with the sounding of the bell, Charlie would gather the family and off they would go…arriving late to church to the consternation of the pastor and the amusement of the congregation.  The Andersons would carry out the obligations of worship; but you have to wonder if their hearts were really in it…at least you wondered that in Charlie’s case.  There’s a moment in the movie when the pastor asks Charlie why he even bothers coming to church.  Charlie answers that it was Martha’s last request.

A memorable moment in this movie for me is the grace that Charlie says over every meal.  It goes like this:

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat, Amen.

Throughout the first part of the movie, Charlie Anderson is just consumed with keeping his family together as the war is getting closer.  His sons, like so many in the border states are wanting to get involved, on both sides of the conflict.  We tend to forget that the American Civil War pitted brother against brother in so many families.  But Charlie would have none of it.  The war had nothing to do with him or his family…and it was going to stay that way.

And it did stay that way…all the way up to the day that the youngest son, the one that they called “the boy” was captured by Yankee soldiers and taken prisoner.  You see, he was wearing a Rebel cap that he had found down by the creek and the Yankees mistakenly thought that he was a Rebel soldier.  Word gets back to Charlie and he and his sons set out to get the boy back.  They experience the horrors of war in ways that you cannot imagine.  Despair leads to even greater tragedy until Charlie returns home thinking that he will never see the boy again…and mourning the tragic deaths of two sons and a daughter in law in the process.

Charlie is devastated.  He doesn’t know what to think.  He doesn’t know what to do…and he certainly sees no need to give thanks to a God that, if he was even there in the first place, would have taken so much from him…and had now taken the very connection that he had to his beloved Martha.

Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever wondered why you needed to give thanks to God for something that, as far as you could tell, God didn’t have a hand in it at all?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had those moments.

Usually, they are those moments that have been referred to as a “dark night of the soul.”  Moments when you wonder not only what God had to do with them, but moments when you may have even wondered if there even was a God.  And if there was a God,  what was he doing while your world was going to hell in a hand basket and everything was falling apart all around you.

It is in those moments that you feel so lost…so alone.  You have an emptiness deep in your soul that cannot be filled.  Your heart aches and nothing can fill this void that you are experiencing.

So what do you do?

Well, for too many of us, we turn to worrying.

Now, I’m sure that I’ve mentioned that I come from a long line of worriers.  In fact, if my mom and grandmothers didn’t have something to worry about, they found something to worry about.  So excessive worrying is something that I have to combat in my own life.  Especially in times of transition for me or my family.  And the past 13 years have marked a time of major transition for us.  I worried about making the move from  corporate life into ministry.  And now, as I edge closer to retirement, I have worries about money and whether I’ve saved enough to get by on only a portion of what I am accustomed to making.  As our daughter Monica is making her way in the highly mobile world of theatre,  I worry what her future will be like.  As a United Methodist minister, I have concerns about the upcoming Special General Conference in February and how the actions, or possibly lack of action, there will affect my ministry and the church that has nurtured me for my entire 59 years on this earth.

The events in our world have provided major fuel for worry with the terrorist attacks from ISIS and the fear and uncertainty that is generated by that terrorism.  And it doesn’t help when fear of others is being peddled like beverages in a sports stadium by politicians who are master manipulators. When we are threatened, the defenses go up, the adrenaline starts pumping and we tend to forget who we are.

We forget that throughout the Gospels and the New Testament we are reminded that the key attribute that Jesus wants others to see in his disciples is love… love for others.  We forget that a key concern of God is for his people to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  We forget these things because we are so worried about what may happen that we forget whose we are… and that the one that we belong to is the one who holds the future in His hands.

We have to face the fact that worrying can do more harm than good; and excessive worrying can be just plain destructive.  So, why do we do it?  Why do we spend so much energy dwelling on the negatives when we could be focusing on the positive?

I think that we worry because we are the ones who want to be in control.  We want what we want when we want it …and we don’t like it when things don’t go our way.  I think that we worry because we have an over-inflated ego that demands that our needs be met; our wants and our desires take precedence over everything and everyone else.  We want our will to be done… not God’s will.

One of the best exercises that I can do when I’m feeling down, or when I’m feeling too much of myself is to head off into the woods to find a quiet spot in nature where I can think…where I can allow myself to contemplate the rest of God’s creation and where I can experience the awesomeness that is our God as I see the works of God’s hand in nature.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Philippi tells us:

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 guide your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.  How do we gain this peace?  Through prayer.  Turn your worries into prayers and God’s peace will be yours.  A real peace that comes from knowing that God is in control, our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is sure, our destiny is set, and our victory over sin is certain.  If we only take that extra step to trust God with all of our life then we can let God’s peace defend our hearts against worry.

During my time in ministry, I have seen some great examples of ministries that have practiced the tenets of Philippians 4.  Shepherd’s Arms Rescue Ministry for battered women and children in St. Elmo is a prime example.  Founded by Jim and Maryanne Sanders in 1995,  they pledged to perform their ministry without going into debt, believing that God will provide for their needs.  It means that things haven’t gone on the timeline that Jim and Maryanne would prefer for instance, the outer shell of their service building was in place when I first became aware of their ministry in 2006, but it wasn’t completed and dedicated until January of this year, but the ministry is doing great work as they help women transition out of a cycle of poverty and abuse.  Statistically, since their founding, Shepherd’s Arms has housed over 792 homeless women and children and has placed 62%  into permanent housing,  3,469 decisions for Christ have been made, 898,815 meals served on site, 17,241 food boxes provided, 730 families adopted for Christmas, 5,030 received clothing, 1,500 received blankets, 17,960 visits to widows.  All of this being done with the help of  8,152 volunteers, giving 37,443 volunteer hours. to make a difference in the lives of others as a result of a desire to live as disciples of the living Christ. They have “held fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” as this morning’s scripture from Hebrews reminds us.

The Thanksgiving holiday that we will celebrate this week has become nothing more than a day off to over eat and watch football for far too many of us.  Between the preparations for the dinner and the planning to watch the ballgames or how to tackle the crowds at the mall on Friday –or sadly, in too many cases, on Thursday night, we forget the real meaning of this national holiday.

We all have lots of things for which we should be thankful.

For one, we live in a country where even the poorest among us are much better off than the vast majority of people in the world.  For another, we live in a land where we can worship God openly and without fear of persecution… unlike many Christian brothers and sisters across the globe.

We can give thanks for the ministries of McFarland… the Free Store, the Simple Supper Bible Study, our Helping Hands ministry to name a few.

These are things that we can all be thankful for.  We each have other things for which we can give thanks.

For me, I’m thankful for a family that loves me in spite of myself and supports me in what I do. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve as your pastor,  even though I am still getting to know you in many ways.  I am thankful for the ways that you provoke each other to love and good deeds as you encourage one another to discipleship.

There are many other things that I’m thankful for and I won’t bore you with them (and I’m sure that you’re thankful for that).

The movie Shenandoah concludes at Thanksgiving.  The boy is still lost and they don’t know if he’ll even be found.  Charlie Anderson is grieving those who were killed as they looked for the boy.  The family is gathered around the table for dinner.  Charlie starts the prayer that I shared with you earlier, but he can’t finish saying the words.  As the tears begin to come, he hears the church bell ringing and he remembers his promise to his dear Martha.  The family rushes off to church.  As they are singing a hymn, the boy enters the church. He is reunited with his family and Charlie finally realizes what he is thankful for.

When we realize that God is in control, we can give thanks with a grateful heart for all that the Lord has given us.  Through Jesus Christ, we have freedom from sin and death and through the Holy Spirit, we have a comforter waiting to guide and comfort us in times of trouble.

Thanks be to God in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.