November 22, 2020 Sermon
“Giving Thanks Amidst COVID-19”
1st Scripture Reading – Psalm 65
1 Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
2 O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
3 When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
4 Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
5 By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
6 By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
7 You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
8 Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
9 You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
10 You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
11 You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
2nd Scripture Reading – 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written,
“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.”
10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
“Giving Thanks to God Amidst COVID-19”
What do you do when our annual day of Thanksgiving to God rolls around…but you don’t feel very much like giving thanks? What do you do when the Thanksgiving holiday arrives…but the year is 2020…and all manner of reasons to NOT give thanks have arisen?
- A pandemic that seemingly started on the other side of the world has made its presence known HERE, even in Grand Junction, for 9 long months. Maybe you’ve gotten the virus yourself…or you’ve known someone who has and is struggling…or you know someone who has and who has died. More than 11 million Americans have contracted the virus. More than 250,000 Americans have died. Doesn’t sound much like a reason to give thanks.
- Even if the virus hasn’t directly touched your life, some of the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 virus most certainly have: at the very least, you’ve endured changes to your interaction with your faith community, as we didn’t get to celebrate Easter together in-person and, even now, you are celebrating Thanksgiving Sunday away from your church family; you’ve experienced periods of lockdown; you’ve been encouraged and in some cases required to wear masks; you most likely have cancelled or postponed vacation plans and various family get-togethers; you may have even been prevented from spending time with a loved one who’s been in the hospital or who lives in a residential care facility of any kind.
- As if the problems associated with COVID weren’t enough, we’ve experienced divisiveness in our nation this past year that goes beyond anything I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. This divisiveness has irreparably damaged countless relationships, maybe one involving you, and it has led to protests, riots, looting, and even more tragic losses of life.
My friends, today is Thanksgiving Sunday in the United States of America. This Thursday is our national holiday of giving thanks to God. Yet, for so many of you, it may feel very strange and feel very difficult, if not downright impossible, to approach God with thanksgiving in your heart at this time. What can you do?
Answering this question of how we can honestly and enthusiastically give thanks to God amidst our present circumstance is what today’s sermon is about. As I begin answering the question, I want to encourage you in your decision to participate in this worship service and this sermon: you are in exactly the right place and doing exactly the right thing at this moment in time. Because the first part of the answer is that we absolutely, positively, must take our doubts, our fears, our emotions, our reasons to think we should NOT be giving thanks…we must take these things to God. That’s the first step in being able to approach God with thanksgiving in our hearts: we’ve got to APPROACH God…with whatever happens to be in our hearts at the moment.
That’s what the psalmists did. That’s what Paul encouraged the early Christians to do. That’s even what the prophets and pretty much all the biblical authors and the biblical heroes of the faith did: they took whatever it was they were feeling to God. Had they taken their feelings to someone or something OTHER than God, I doubt very much they would have made their way around to giving thanks. We see this in the world all the time, don’t we? The people who take their feelings of doubt and despair, moaning and grumbling, to anything in the world instead of taking those same feelings to God, and they end up doing something very different from giving thanks.
So…that’s the first step in giving thanks to God amidst times of difficulty and pain: take your feelings to God. But, surely, the answer has to be more than taking our feelings and emotions to God. I mean, we could take all our frustrations to God and let them spill out without ever quite making it to thanksgiving. So, there’s got to be more. And, of course, there is.
A second part of the answer has to do with what was going on in Psalm 65. In that psalm, the psalmist found reasons to give thanks that had absolutely NOTHING to do with circumstance. It would be easy to read through Psalm 65 and imagine the psalmist was having a particularly good day and so wrote words like “Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion”, “Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts”, and “O God of our salvation.” It would be easy for us to read these kinds of words and imagine the psalmist was giving thanks to God for something very specific God had been doing for the psalmist, to imagine everything was going great for that psalmist and THAT is why the psalmist gave thanks. But I think that would be a MIS-reading.
Typically, when the psalmists thanked God for circumstantial things, they NAMED the circumstances – deliverance from enemies, healing from sickness, that kind of thing. But notice, no specific circumstances are mentioned in this psalm. Instead, the psalmist gives thanks for things that are ALWAYS true, regardless of present circumstance:
- God answers prayer: whether or not God has answered a specific prayer exactly the way you wanted – in the distant past or recent present – the psalmist knows from experience that God DOES answer prayer; it’s one of the great truths of the scriptures. And since it is historically true, this reality does NOT depend on the current circumstance, does not depend on God having answered a recent prayer the way you wanted God to answer it.
- God forgives our transgressions – God’s forgiveness is another truth that pervades the scriptures. God loves us so much that God chooses to forgive sins…and this is true regardless of our present circumstance. Notice, by the way, that God’s people knew this long before Jesus was born.
- God has performed mighty acts of deliverance. In the psalmist’s time, this was historically true through Moses and the Judges…and was probably considered true through David. For we modern Christians, God’s acts of deliverance now include what we know through the prophets and, of course, Jesus. We KNOW God is a deliverer…regardless of our present circumstance.
- And, of course, God created everything we can see, hear, touch, and know. This is what the majority of Psalm 65 is about. Even when you get to the lowest point, to the depths of despair – maybe even in a year like 2020 – you should be able to look at creation and give thanks to God for THAT: the mountains, the seas, the rains, the vegetation, and the animals. God made that happen; God deserves thanksgiving for creation.
I hope you see the psalmist’s point in all this. Even if you can’t find any PRESENT reason to give thanks, anything good about your current circumstance…and even if your despair is so great you cannot in this moment think of a SINGLE thing God has ever done on YOUR behalf that is worthy of thanksgiving – and, let’s face it, we have moments of despair like this, you SHOULD be able to look back at all God has done in general terms for God’s people throughout the ages. And even if you can’t quite bring yourself to give thanks for God’s ancient deeds on behalf of God’s people, you simply CANNOT escape creation. It’s all around you. And certainly, creation is worthy of praise and thanksgiving!
A third part of the answer to the question of how we can give thanks to God when our circumstance seems to be worthy of anything but thanksgiving has to do with our reading from 2 Corinthians. In this portion of the letter, the Apostle Paul was trying to encourage the Corinthian church members to regain their zeal for a collection Paul was taking up to help care for widows and orphans in Jerusalem. At one point in time, the Corinhtians had been very zealous in this endeavor…but their zeal had waned by the time of the writing of this letter. And Paul wrote something very interesting: “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us.” Paul told the Corinthians that participating in God’s work that had begun long before Jesus and continued through Jesus, God’s work of producing justice – caring for the needs of the community – would PRODUCE thanksgiving, would produce such profound communal results that thanksgiving to God would result. What does this have to say to us when our circumstances are bad, when our circumstances have us feeling like doing anything BUT giving thanksgiving to God? Quite simply, when you’re not feeling like giving thanks, if you do MORE to participate in ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth, in the process of doing the kinds of things Jesus did, you will start to NOTICE more reasons to give thanks – you will notice a changing of your circumstance. Maybe this means your circumstance actually changes, but I doubt it. What I think it means is that the more invested we become in what God is doing, the more we NOTICE what God is doing…and God is ALWAYS doing some great things around us. What really needs to change is our noticing. It’s kind of like what Paul wrote in verse 6: “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” I don’t think l this is about God multiplying your income when you give toward God’s purposes; rather, I think it’s about your eyes becoming evermore open to what God is doing when you give more time, energy, and money to God’s cause, it’s about reaping spiritual bounty, an awareness of God’s amazing works and deeds, as you get more involved with God’s amazing works and deeds.
Which brings me to the next part of this sermon; I’ve already explored some very practical steps you can take to give thanks to God when you’re not feeling very much like giving thanks: (1) take whatever you’re feeling to God, (2) give thanks to God for some things that transcend circumstance and are therefore always present, and (3) find ever more ways to participate in Jesus’ ministry. Now, I will consider WHY you would want to do that, why you would want to do the work required to give thanks to God when you don’t feel very much like giving thanks. Based on what we read in the scriptures, this movement DOES require work/effort, and we don’t always feel like giving much effort when we’re in a place of despondence, so…it’s worth considering the “why”.
The “why” takes us back to our reading from 2 Corinthians. What Paul described to those Corinthians is a process that self-perpetuates: “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully”. If you think of “sowing” as giving thanks, even replace the words for “sowing” with words about giving thanks, this becomes more clear.
The one who gives thanks sparingly will experience reasons to give thanks sparingly, and the one who gives thanks bountifully will also experience reasons to give thanks bountifully.
In other words, if whenever you are in a circumstance of despair you allow that circumstance of despair to dominate you, you will spiral downward. Alternatively, if, whenever you are in a circumstance of despair, you work to perform the acts of thanksgiving and the actions that lead to thanksgiving, you will spiral UPWARD!!!
I’ve always imagined this is exactly why we’ve decided as a nation to have an annual holiday of thanksgiving. While I’ve known so many people who view this holiday as a time to give thanks for what’s gone right in the past year, I view it as a time for all of us to refocus ourselves on the reality that there really ARE some reasons to give thanks even amidst all the reasons to feel like doing anything but given thanks. So that by taking time out to give thanks, we will have a national moment of spiralling upward that will hopefully lift our collective spirits for a while.
If we, friends and members of First Christian Church, Grand Junction, take this opportunity to give thanks to God – being sure to direct our thanksgiving to God – even amidst one of the most tragic years in recent memory, we will set ourselves on a course of turning away from the pain of 2020 and toward the wonder of all God has done, all God is doing, and all God will do for us and for all people. And if we allow the course we chart on this one day of the year become a pattern for every day of the year, we might just discover a spirit of thanksgiving toward God can and will become our default position, regardless of the circumstances that surround us.