OF GRACE AND GRATITUDE
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015, 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time, non-lectionary sermon
Psalm 126; 1 Corinthians 1:1-8

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God
that has been given you in Christ Jesus…”
1 Corinthians 1:4

Well, it’s Thanksgiving time. One of the durable features of this holiday soon to come — one of the constants in a universe of change — is the school Thanksgiving pageant.

Surely, whatever age you may be, you remember those. The Pilgrim hats — black with big gold buckles — made of construction paper. The Indian headbands with one or two colorful paper feathers sticking out. The school play where Squanto shows up with a basket of corn, to save the Pilgrims’ bacon.

It’s an extraordinary thing, really, that amidst our madcap consumerist society, our endless race, as a culture, to purchase and own ever more, there exists this little island of calm that is the Thanksgiving holiday.

Nobody buys Thanksgiving presents. Nobody climbs a rickety ladder to hang, with fingers numbed by cold, a string of Thanksgiving lights from the eaves of the house. Nobody celebrates this holiday with a boozy party, waking the neighbors with noisemakers and drunkenly swaying to the strains of a folk song in the old Scots dialect, whose words nobody understands.

No, amongst the pantheon of American holidays, Thanksgiving remains more or less pure. The heart of the holiday is a fellowship meal: sitting around a table with family or friends and reflecting not on our complaints, for a change, but on our blessings. I think it’s a sign of health, in our otherwise sick and distracted culture that, on at least one day a year, we try to keep it simple. It’s a marvel to me that, in our very secular schools, those construction-paper, Pilgrims-and-Indians pageants are all about a virtue — gratitude — that’s deeply rooted in religious faith.

The Pilgrims, you know, were Calvinists. Burned deep into the code of their spiritual DNA was the conviction that one of the most important things a person of faith can do is to offer thanks to the Creator of all things. Calvin, in fact, says somewhere in his writings that the chief Christian virtue is not love, but gratitude. No wonder Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth colony — good Calvinist that he was — decreed that, in a season of very slim pickings, an entire day would be set apart for feasting and for thanking the Lord anyway.

*****

Thanksgiving was a priority for the apostle Paul as well. We had as our New Testament lesson this morning those lines from the beginning of 1 Corinthians, that include these words: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…”

Note well: “give thanks always.” Paul not only dispensed that advice: he lived it. Letter after letter of his, that we have in the New Testament, begins with the theme of gratitude.

Let me give you a quick tour of those opening greetings.

Here’s the letter to the Romans: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” (Rom. 1:8)

Here’s Philippians: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Phil 1:3-5)

Here’s how he begins his letter to the Colossians: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints…” (Col. 1:3-4)

And to the Thessalonians: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers…” (1 Thess. 1:2)

That’s the first of two Thessalonian letters. He begins the second one in similar fashion: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly…” (2 Thess. 1:3).

Now, if you were listening carefully to those very similar greetings from Paul’s letters, you might have noticed something that seems a bit unusual, because it differs from the way we usually write.

How is it that so many business letters and emails begin?

“Thank you for your inquiry.”

“Thank you for your order.”

“Thank you for your suggestion.”

“Thank you for your continued business.”

So, Paul isn’t the only one who habitually begins letters with words of thanks. But, here’s the difference between the greetings in Paul’s letters and the familiar pleasantries that break the ice in so many business letters. The difference is in who is being thanked.

In so many of our day-to-day communications, we thank the person we’re writing to. But fascinatingly, Paul never does that. In each and every one of those greetings I’ve just shared, Paul is thanking not the people of those fragile little churches, but God. “I thank my God always for you,” he writes in today’s lesson. Yes, Paul’s style is to remember the people he’s writing to, but he doesn’t thank them directly. He thanks God for them. There’s an abiding sense, in these letters, that God is behind everything that happens in this life, for good or ill — so God is the proper object of all that gratitude.

*****

Here in this passage we learn what, specifically, it is that makes Paul feel so gratitude. He’s thankful for God’s grace.

Interesting word, “grace.” When you or I use it today, we’re likely to think of a number of different meanings — none of which is what Paul means, as he writes out those lines to Christian friends in a distant city.

To us, “grace” evokes smooth, unhindered movement: the graceful moves of a figure-skater, sliding effortlessly across the ice. Or, we may think of the “social graces”: skillful mastery of society’s customs that grease the wheels of social interaction. We may talk of “saying grace”: offering up a prayer of thanksgiving before chowing down at the dinner table. If we’re having trouble making the monthly payments on a loan, we may apply to the lender for a “grace period”: a temporary suspension of payments, while we get our act together.

So, “grace” is one of those words that does double, triple, even quadruple duty. But none of these meanings expresses what it is Paul’s supremely thankful for.

The Greek word for “grace” is charis, which is the root of our word “charisma.” Now, the usual sense of the word charisma today has to do with a sort of magnetic attraction exuded by the beautiful people of society, successful celebrities and politicians. Journalists used to say John F. Kennedy had charisma, by which they meant he had a certain charm, a magnetic capacity for attracting admirers into his orbit.

That’s not what Paul’s talking about. The Greek word charis literally means “gift.” The grace of God is a gift we receive from God, far beyond our deserving.

The Christian writer Philip Yancey has as good a definition of grace as any I’ve seen. In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Yancey writes:

“Grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less. It means that I, even I who deserve the opposite, am invited to take my place at the table in God’s family.”

Reflect on what a wonder that is. “There is nothing I can do to make God love me more.” I already receive from God a love and acceptance so perfect, there’s no way I could ever improve on it.

The flip-side of that — equally wondrous — is this: “There is nothing I can do to make God love me less.” There’s no place I can run, no evil deed I may do, that can diminish in the slightest God’s extravagant love for me. It’s as the writer of Psalm 139 says:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
[Psalm 134:7-10]

That’s grace. You can’t outrun it. Even if you turn your back and reject it, it comes right back at you.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, describes grace — in her own wacky way — as:

“Spiritual WD-40. Water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He or She loves your grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and our world. To summon grace, say, “Help!” And then buckle up. Grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, but the phone will ring, or the mail will come, and then against all odds, you will get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness, even if you are sick of me saying it.”
[Salon.com, 4/10/2015]

I put on the bulletin cover this morning the first part of a powerful quotation of the theologian Karl Barth. Let me share with you his full statement:

Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder follows lightning.
[Church Dogmatics, IV.1]

So, what does this mean for our observance of Thanksgiving in a few days? Maybe it means the thanksgivings you and I are meant to offer have a lot less to do with turkey and all the trimmings, than with this wonder of God’s acceptance of us, a gift far beyond our deserving.

It was much the same that first Thanksgiving. The surviving members of the Plymouth colony knew all too well how close they had come to being annihilated by starvation and disease that first dreadful winter. They knew, then, how their poor choice of what provisions to bring and the late arrival of their little ship, the Mayflower, just before the onset of winter, would have led to their certain doom — were it not for the help of their Native American neighbors. Who would have thought their Lord would use the good offices of those primitive people they hoped to convert to the true faith to take care of them? It was a hard and humbling lesson for them to learn, but it was — once again — another instance of how surprising God’s grace can be!

*****

There’s been a story in the news this past week that troubles me very greatly. In fact, I’d say there hasn’t been a news story that’s made my blood boil quite as this one has, in a very long time. (Fair warning: I’m going to get political here — not partisan political, but raising a controversial issue because I believe our faith speaks to it with utter clarity.)

You’ve heard the news, I’m sure, about the many state governors who have declared, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in France, that they will resist any effort of the Federal government to settle Syrian refugees within their states’ borders. They claim this is to protect their citizens from terrorist attacks. This is because — by some accounts — a couple of the Paris terrorists got into Europe by blending into the surging crowds of refugees traveling by boat from Syria and Turkey to the Greek islands.

There are many things wrong with that position. First of all, as many commentators have pointed out, state governments do not have the authority to countermand a decision of the Federal government. If the U.S. Immigration Service, having examined and vetted a Syrian family and issued them green cards, settles them in a certain community, they are free to pull up stakes whenever they want and move to another state — just like any other green-card holder, or indeed, like any citizen.

Second, those who want to slam the door of our country in the face of Syrian refugees — people who are themselves victims of the inhuman atrocities of the Islamic State — are conveniently forgetting the fact that every one of the Paris terrorists (as best we can tell) were not refugees at all, but rather citizens or permanent residents of France or Belgium. Even those two men who seem to have entered Europe from Syria or Turkey, riding on leaky boats, were using that mode of transport to return to their country of residence, not to come there for the first time. They were home-grown terrorists, not recent immigrants.

Those columns of desperate people you’ve seen on the news, having landing in Europe with little more than the clothes on their backs, many without passports or identity papers, do present a security threat. No doubt about it. It’s a desperate humanitarian crisis.

But that’s not true for the 10,000 refugees our country has agreed to welcome. Those people aren’t part of the leaky-boat migration. Rather, they’re living in U.N. refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan. Most of them have been there for years before their applications for asylum finally made it to the top of the pile — and the credentials review takes one to two years to complete. Terrorists would find it far easier to slip into this country on student or tourist visas, rather than subjecting themselves to that sort of intense scrutiny.

So, who are these asylum-seekers? Mostly women, children and old people. The number of young men of military age in that population, they say, is about 2%. By and large, these are the most vulnerable of people: the ones Jesus is talking about, when he says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was in prison and you visited me, I was naked and you clothed me.” Just as you did to the least of these, he tells his disciples, “you did to me.”

*****

On Facebook this week, as a contribution to this debate, I posted a history article about a ship full of 900 refugees our country turned away and sent back to Europe, on the eve of World War 2. The refugees were Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. When they were barred from disembarking at Miami, the captain of the ship had no choice but to return them to Europe. Most of them were eventually murdered by the Nazis.
In response to my posting, my sister-in-law’s brother, Norm — a retired New York City high-school principal — posted a comment. He told me, simply, that his father-in-law had been on that ship. He’d had no choice but to return to Brussels. There the Gestapo got him.

I was flabbergasted to read it. I’d known the father of Norm’s wife, Fran, had died in the Holocaust. But I had no idea he’d been on a ship that had made it all the way to America before our nation — the land of the free and the home of the brave — turned him away, sending him back to his death.

Yes, this is a political issue. But it’s also, as I see it, a moral issue. The Syrian refugees are not anonymous. They have names, and faces, and stories. Christians — and we Presbyterians in particular, through Church World Service — have long been about the important mission of welcoming and sheltering refugees. We know we have been recipients of God’s extravagant grace, and for that, we feel profoundly grateful.

My point, here, is that it’s not enough just to feel grateful at Thanksgiving, to survey that table of feasting and take smug satisfaction in how fortunate we are. Sometimes grace and gratitude require something more of us. Sometimes they require us to take a moral stand, for the sake of Jesus Christ.

So, think on these things, won’t you? And, if you feel so moved, act.

Let us pray.
Lord, we have received bountifully at your hand.
May we, in response, become people of open hearts
and open hands,
extending your grace to others
even as we have received it in gratitude. Amen.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.