Thanksgiving November 25, 2021
“Thanks” Philippians 4:8-9
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Too often circumstances determine whether we are filled with joy or sadness. Too often the situations that we face will determine whether we have a smile or a frown on our face. There are many things that can take away a full Thanksgiving, this year, in previous years, or the ones that lie ahead.
After the New Year’s Eve service last year, I had the brilliant idea to change our outdoor sign to read, “Good Riddance 2020; Welcome 2021.” As I was putting up those words on the Windermere side of the sign, and having a chuckle, thinking of my clever humor, a car pulled up to the stop sign and read the sign and just stayed there. They must have been there for a full minute. No one was behind them, and they just stayed and thought about what they were reading, I suppose. I thought they would shake their head, smile a bit and move on. But that is not what happened. They scolded me. They rolled down their window and spoke, “A church, a Christian church, putting up that sign?” And then they drove on. They were the only ones who saw the “Good Riddance” part. I took it off the sign right then. Maybe they were right. Too often circumstances, even the pain that COVID had brought, determine our ways and our attitude, more than they should.
There has to be something better, don’t you think? There has to be something greater that will influence how we will look at life. Today I base my sermon on the thought of St. Paul in his words to the Philippians, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Too many people have become negative, pessimistic, looking for the worst, searching for something to grip about. Our cities and towns, counties and states and our nation has become quite divided. Instead of following Paul’s wisdom of “Whatever is true, noble, right and pure…” folks look for what gets their goat and what turns them sour.
I want to tell you three stories of folks who had a choice on how they would look at life, whether seeing what was excellent or praiseworthy, or seeing what was discouraging and defeating.
The first story comes to us in the life of Rebecca Chopp. Rebecca Chopp has a remarkable career. She taught at Yale Divinity School, became the President of Colgate University and in the long history of the University of Denver became the first female Chancellor of that institution. In September of 2015 she began that work. She said that “I was at the top of an amazing career” and “Life was rosy”. But in July of 2019 she submitted her resignation from DU.
Earlier that year she noticed changes in her life. She was sleeping 8 hours a night – something she had never done before. She got lost on her way into work. For 7 months she underwent tests and the diagnosis read – “Alzheimer’s Disease.” Her brilliant mind that had accomplished so much was failing her.
Her doctor began her prescription with the words, “Live with joy.” Now her doctor added such things as diet, exercise, intellectual engagement, and making art as essential to her life, but they began with the guidance, “Live with joy.” Dr. Chopp wrote, “Many tears and hugs later, I live with joy the best I can. I know the general road I will travel, but I don’t know my specific path.”
My second story comes from the area where I spent my first 9 years of pastoral ministry – in northeastern Colorado, 200 miles from Denver, near the community of Holyoke. It was last Thanksgiving when I was reading the Holyoke Enterprise that I was introduced to Bryan Kroeger. I had heard his name before and saw he was very active in that community, but he came some years after I had left and so I never met him face to face. The article last November was about Bryan developing ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”. This disease will destroy his ability to use his hands and legs and his ability to swallow. It is not curable. Bryan said that as long as he has life he would like to fulfill the words of Acts 20:24, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” That verse, he said, is his path for purpose.
I imagine he could have gone a whole different route when he was given the word that he had an incurable disease. He could have become bitter or filled with anger that the Lord of the universe, the Almighty, had not prevented such a terrible thing from happening to him, one of His beloved children. But he turned to God’s faithful mercy. He turned to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure and lovely, admirable and gracious.
My third story comes from a devotion that Scott Luethy, the chair of our Board of Elders, shared recently. It was based on an article called “Giving Thanks” from Charles Moore. Moore writes, “As a child, I could never put the holiday and the purpose of thanksgiving together. Aunt Dorie would come drunk and weep at the table. No one knew why, and no one asked. Grandpa refused to speak to Grandma. My older brother showed his face only at the meal. Otherwise, he was conspicuously absent. In trying to make everything perfect, Mom would always have a migraine, and dad would be steaming because Mom didn’t feel well.
What a terrible Thanksgiving memory. There has to be something better than a Thanksgiving Day like that. Our story teller, Charles Moore asked for something deeper to that day. He continued, “I wonder whether all the feasting at Thanksgiving is more an escape, a kind of therapy or narcotic, than a meal of celebration. I wonder because I see so little Thanksgiving going on. When was the last time you or I sat down with someone and really thanked them – for who they are, for all the deeds of kindness they have shown to you and to others, for being there? When did you last look into the eyes of your son or daughter, mother or father, wife or husband and express gratitude for his or her life? What about your employer or employee, or even your neighbor?”
Thanksgiving is not a church holiday like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost or All Saints Day. Thanksgiving is a National Holiday, an American Holiday. As believers in our Lord Jesus, we are able to take this day and give it a spiritual foundation. These three stories of Rebecca Chopp, Bryan Kroeger or from Charles Moore, in my thought, tell us that Thanksgiving is not based on circumstances or life’s situations, but something deeper and greater. Consider that we have a Savior, Jesus, who has loved us with His own life, dying for our sins and rising again to eternal life. Consider that we are a new creation by the pure water of Holy Baptism and that we are fed with the living bread – Jesus Christ – at the meal of Holy Communion. Know, with assurance, that this year and every year, you are held in the palm of God’s hand. We, for every good reason, have been given a prescription from God to live with joy and thanks.
If you want to truly know what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable, things that are excellent or praiseworthy, consider the deep love of Jesus for you, and with true gratitude thank God, and thank those who are in your life.
Our life? Due to the goodness of God we really can live a life of thanks. Amen!!