November 24, 2013
II Corinthians 9:6-15
Fifty years ago our nation was in the middle of a long four days, stretching from the assassination of President Kennedy on Friday to his state funeral on Monday. From Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, ministers frantically wrote new sermons to address this new reality only to hear upon leaving worship the news that the president’s assassin had himself been shot. These events are burned into the memories of all who lived through them.
People might not remember as clearly what happened on the following Thursday, November 28, as Thanksgiving Day drew to a close. The new president, Lyndon Johnson addressed the nation, saying: "Since last Friday Americans have turned to the good, decent values of our life. These have served us. Yes, these have saved us." At the same time, he recognized the “unthinking and unreasoning hate and division,” that had been a problem in our country for decades and called the American people to “banish rancor from our words and malice from our hearts--to close down the poison springs of hatred and intolerance and fanaticism.”
It was a call that went unheeded in many ways as our nation faced one crisis after another over the next five decades. And the current reality in Washington reflects the unthinking and unreasoning hate and division that continues to plague us.
This history, which has been recounted many ways this month and very much with us this weekend, took me back to the prophet Habakkuk.
The third and last chapter of this short book is a psalm that rejoices in God marching forth to save the people. After recounting all that God has done—shaking the earth, making the nations tremble, and shattering the mountains—the prophet who earlier lamented that God seemed indifferent to the cries of the people and slow to bring justice comes to a new way of responding to the difficulties and challenges of the present: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food: though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls—yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”
The experience and the response of Habakkuk were not unique.
Some six hundred years later, Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth about his recent experience: “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”
And yet, there he is, as we heard, writing: “Thanks be to God.”
This morning we sang the familiar words of the hymn written by Martin Rinkart in the seventeenth century:
Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who, from our mothers’ arms, hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is our today.
The second verse prays:
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
When hear those words, we might think that this is the thanksgiving hymn for those who are well-off and desiring that the countless gifts and joyful hearts they have long known will continue into the future. In fact, the hymn was written during the Thirty Years’ War. Rinkart was the only pastor in a walled city that served as a refuge for innumerable people fleeing the devastation of the war. When pestilence broke out in his community, he often buried as many as forty or fifty people in one day.
Now thank we all our God…in whom this world rejoices.
In the last half century of our time we have known one assassination after another, one war after another, riots and protests, terrorism and growing violence, economic upheaval and a growing gap between the very rich and everyone else. While we worry less about a nuclear apocalypse today than in 1963, we are more aware of the slowly unfolding disaster of climate change that we have brought upon ourselves.
If we have learned little or changed little in fifty-years-time, perhaps we at least have a better sense of giving thanks through all the adversity that we have faced and continue to live through.
Thanksgiving grows from something other than how good life has been or how much we have.
We rejoice in God,
we cry out “Thanks be to God,”
we thank God with hearts and hands and voices,
because of the gift God gives in Jesus Christ—the grace that enables us to continue living with a purpose even when we think everything has been lost; the grace that allows us, who have received so much, to be generous in return. This is, Paul tells us, an “indescribable gift.”
How after all, do we describe what God has done in Christ?
We try many different ways.
Some turn to theology to tell of God’s gift. Applying our minds and spirits we study and talk together, we think alone in the middle of the night. Theologians remind us that God’s free gift comes even to those who do not deserve it—and for that all of us can be thankful. With theology we try to describe that indescribable gift.
We try through our actions in the world to somehow tell of God's giving to us. If we are honest, we recognize that when we give to God, we are simply returning with one hand what we have freely received with the other. And when we give to others we are saying: “God has done this for us. God is like this—God feeds, God gives peace, God heals wounds.” With our gifts we are saying to the people of the Philippines, “God is a shelter in the storms of life.” This is God’s indescribable gift.
We try with hymns, using music to speak from the heart and to the heart. We sing of that traditional Thanksgiving affirmation: “God our Maker doth provide, for our wants to be supplied.” And in the singing the reality of those words sinks in. What we sing shapes our souls as we try to grasp God’s abundance and generosity.
Then, after all our theology, all our action, and all our singing we finally take our stand near Paul and with him shout: “Thanks be to God!”
Here’s what happens next—sometimes it unfolds quite naturally, sometimes it takes us by surprise:
Thankfulness leads to giving—to a liberal sharing. Gratitude moves us toward a desire that an ever-expanding number of people would enjoy all the good things of life.
God gives generously to each of us, but does not compel our response. Faith is offered as a gift, it is not forced upon us. God gives freely so that we can be—if we desire—like God at least in this sense: free, generous, and cheerful givers ourselves. The theologian Miroslav Volf says that freedom in giving is so important because “the gift consists more in the freely undertaken choice to give than in the things given….the ‘eagerness’ of the giver matters more than the magnitude of the gift.”
No rules govern God’s love for us. And no rules govern the love we offer in return.
There is nothing that forces our giving. When giving is connected with gratitude, the only guideline seems to be our own happiness.
When the guideline for giving is your happiness—your cheerfulness—that changes things, doesn’t it? We used to encourage people to “Give until it hurts.” But we found out so many had a low threshold of pain.
How much do you need to give—not just in the church but in the world—how much do you need to give before you feel good? So many people are walking around feeling miserable. When we stop and think that miser and miserable come from the same word, maybe there is a connection between giving and happiness. God loves a cheerful giver. That seems to be our only guideline for giving.
“The point is this,” Paul writes, quickly getting down to business. “The point is this: you reap what you sow.” And if that's not direct enough, he makes it more specific: “The one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly; the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.”
Now, this is no secret guideline that will guarantee prosperity. It's no sure-fire plan for wealth. Farmers know that well planted fields can wither during a summer drought.
Paul's words aren't absolute. But this general piece of folk wisdom is borne out in nature and in life often enough that we might want to listen when the point is made.
Put yourself into a project, do your utmost to get it started in the right way—and you have a good chance for it to grow.
A marriage, a family, a friendship—it’s just possible that those who sow love bountifully also reap bountifully.
So when Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians—and us as well, if we will listen—to give generously, without miserliness, he appeals to reason. “Think about it,” he says. Generosity and miserliness each have their own reward.
The good news comes with a challenge: Give thanks for the indescribable gift of God and sow bountifully. That's the point. It might seem simple at first, but if you take up this challenge, it will change your life. Give thanks for the indescribable gift of God and sow bountifully.
A funny thing about the giving that grows out of gratitude: it makes us better off. “You will be enriched,” is how Paul puts it. Your own life judges the truth of what Paul says. Recall you own generosity. My guess is that your grateful giving has left you better off in many ways.
God is the source of all that we have received. God is the source of all our giving, providing us with enough that we can share abundantly.
We give thanks and give and then give thanks once more.
Thanks be to God—Paul’s final words on the subject.
Thanks be to God—our own cry of faith as those who both receive and give the grace of God each day.
Thanks be to God—our affirmation in both prosperity and adversity.
This Thursday, let us stop to reclaim the good values of thanks and giving that have served us and may yet save us. Let us banish rancor from our words and malice from our hearts. Let us find joy in the grace that surrounds our days and happiness in the ways that we share that grace with others. Let us renew our commitments to this world, this life, these times so that coming generations might give thanks for our stewardship of the indescribable gift we have received.
Thanks be to God.