It has always struck me as kind of a shame that Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, removed from any special notice at Sunday worship services.
Most years, including this one, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday of Advent, and so by the time we are in church just two days after our feasts, Thanksgiving is a distant memory and our sights are set on all the activities that crowd our calendars between now and Christmas.
One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, says that all prayers can be boiled down to two basic types — “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
It’s the urgent “help me” prayers that seem to be most prevalent in our lives. The “thank yous” can get lost in the busyness of our days.
And so this Thanksgiving weekend, 20 months into the great pandemic, I would like to follow the example of one of the church’s first great preachers and ministers, the apostle Paul.
Paul was a traveler — he never stayed in any one place for very long as he roamed about the world spreading the good news of Jesus. But he kept in touch with his churches by letters, some of which have been preserved and become part of our scripture.
One characteristic of Paul’s letters is that he almost always starts by giving thanks — thanks to God, of course, but also thanks for the various congregations, the people who have gathered together in God’s name.
Here are a few examples:
To the Church in Corinth: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched by him, in speech and knowledge of every kind, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”
To the Church in Ephesus: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”
To the Church in Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.”
To the Church is Colossae: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints. Just as the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves.”
And finally to the Church in Thessalonica: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God.”
At all times, Paul gives thanks for the church, the gathered people of God. And although, of course, he is not here to write directly to this church in suburban Atlanta, on this Sunday of Thanksgiving week I would like to speak in his place, and say, I give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters.
During this time of Covid I am thankful for your faithfulness in worship, both online and in person. During these long difficult months, I am grateful for the way you have looked after one another, and reached out to help others beyond our doors who are struggling.
Just as Paul says he boasts about the Church in Thessalonica, I have heard Bishop Wright boast about the church of St. Dunstan’s, about your faithfulness and generosity.
I am thankful for the fruit of the gospel which grows in this place as you come together to worship, to study, to share one another’s griefs and joys, and to go into the world taking with you love and compassion and a thirst for justice.
I am thankful for those of you who willingly give of your time to sing, to tend the grounds, to prepare the altar, to arrange flowers, to assist in worship, to serve on the vestry, to volunteer in the office, to work the technology on Sunday mornings. Each of these tasks, no matter how mundane, are an act of love and service, an offering to God.
I am thankful for our founders, those brave souls who stepped out in faith almost 60 years ago to begin a church in this place. And I am thankful for our newest members, who continue to bring new insights, enthusiasm, and energy to our midst.
I am thankful for the children among us, and the laughter and joy they bring to our lives.
I am thankful for our staff, and the many hours of time they give beyond what is required to make sure our music is beautiful, and that our office runs smoothly.
I am thankful for the beauty of this place, for the gentleness with which the buildings rest on the land, for the hawks and owls and geese, fox and deer, who share their homes with us; for the beauty of the trees as they change from one season to the next.
I am thankful that you heed the words of our post-communion prayer — that you “go forth to do the work God has given you to do,” taking your faith beyond these doors and putting it into action in the world.
I thank God for your willingness to risk, to step out in faith — to speak out on issues of justice, even when that may be an unpopular thing to do; to welcome strangers to our country and to our church, to think about new ideas, new ways of seeing God. Every time you risk or try something new you show your faith and trust in God.
I am thankful for the generous financial contributions you make that allow us to maintain this sacred spot, to pay our staff, and to spread God’s love across the city and across the world.
I especially thank God for the support you have given me — the love you have shown for Joe, Joseph Henry, and me in times of sickness and grief, your willingness to share with me your sacred moments of joy and sorrow, your words of encouragement when I have been tired, your comments and questions that show you have listened to my preaching and teaching, even if you haven’t always agreed with it.
For all of these reasons I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.