When I was growing up, my mom always said the same thing as we sat down to eat as a family. Instead of, “Let’s pray,” or “Let’s say grace,” she always asked, “Shall we be thankful?” Then we would join hands and my mom or dad would offer grace. The thing about this was that it was so ordinary, so everyday. I never even noticed that my mom used this phrase until my spouse Jen met my family and she pointed it out to all of us. This ritual of taking a moment at the table to give thanks anchored my family through good times and hard times. Surely, we didn’t always feel thankful. Supper might have been leftovers that no one really liked. Or maybe my brother and I were exchanging insults and kicking each other under the table. Perhaps it was that day I drove too fast on an icy street and crashed the car into a snow bank and then slammed into the back of another car. Or that day my brother had emergency surgery to remove a ruptured appendix. It didn’t matter what had happened. My mom’s refrain, calling us to prayer, and to gratitude, never changed. “Shall we be thankful?”
Gratitude, like love, runs deeper than feelings. It is an identity we claim, a decision we make, a path we walk, even when the feeling itself is not present. “I do not cease to give thanks for you,” Paul writes to the believers in Ephesus. Here, Paul expresses gratitude not for these believer’s material blessings or the fortunate circumstances of their lives, but for their “faith in the Lord Jesus” and their “love toward all the saints” —“saints” referring to all people, not a select few.
It’s not clear whether Ephesians was originally addressed to the specific Christian community at Ephesus. Maybe it was more of a general letter to the early church as a whole, a letter that expressed Paul’s eccesiology (that is, his theological understanding of the church). Paul’s ecclesiology is not a moralistic list of “shoulds.” It is a poetic song. Paul sings that he does not cease to give thanks for the church. Then he prays eloquently for the church to recognize and give thanks for its own gifts. He asks that God will reveal to us, and that we will find the wisdom to understand—“with the eyes of the heart enlightened”—“the hope to which God has called us”; “the riches of God’s glorious inheritance”; “the immeasurable greatness of God’s power.” I kind of think these phrases are poet-speak; they offer three different ways of depicting the one central thing Paul is trying to describe. The power at the heart of the church is the power God shows us in the resurrection of Christ. “God put this power to work in Christ in raising Christ from the dead.”
Jan Richardson, an artist, author and Methodist minister, writes about her understanding of how the power of resurrection has been at work in her life following the recent illness and death of her husband, Gary.
“In the wake of my husband’s death, I am clear that when it comes to suffering, in the astounding variety of forms by which we experience it in this world, it is not enough to chalk it up to mystery, to a larger plan. It’s not that I’m not interested in the bigger mystery, or in knowing that I might have a better grasp of it someday in another world. It’s just that someday is not, in itself, sufficient to get me through this day, to move me from one moment to the next in this world where Gary is not. In the midst of my grief, what I know is that hope, inexplicably, has not left me. That it is stubborn. That it lives in me like a muscle that keeps reaching and stretching, or a lung that keeps working even when I do not will it, persisting in the constant intake and release of breath on which my life depends.” (http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/11/19/so-that-you-may-know-the-hope/#.VGzLvN7vZUM)
Resurrection is God’s hope that does not leave us even in hopeless times. It is life that springs from death and love that arises from the ashes of hatred. Resurrection affirms the rejected and broken Jesus and vindicates his way of servant leadership, his ministry of healing and feeding, and his prophetic voice that demands justice. Resurrection is the counterintuitive power of those who choose to change the world not by picking up the sword, but by laying down their lives. God’s power is not the same as human power, a point that God brings home by elevating the tortured and executed Jesus to the figure of the reigning Christ. God places Christ “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” a stance which both church and society have tragically misinterpreted. William Loader writes:
“The church has not shown itself to be good news when it has seen its role as filling the universe and controlling it…. Nevertheless, the image [of the reign of Christ] can inspire. Far from being an ever-expanding hand reaching out to grab, manipulate and control, it can understand as its authority the engagement in bringing transforming grace and hope, both of which carry their own authentication and infallibility.” (wwwstaff.murdoch. edu.au/~loader/AEpChristKing.htm)
“I do not cease to give thanks for you,” Paul writes about the church, when it is centered around faith in Christ, that is, hope in the power of God that raised him and that binds us together in unconditional love. In this season of giving thanks, I echo Paul. I do not cease to give thanks for you, for this church… and for what God is doing in you and through you, as week after week, you hold one another’s hearts in prayerful silence punctuated by the small noises of breathing, shuffling, and crayons on paper. I do not cease to give thanks for you as you gather, with generous compassion and hospitality, around a family in the time of crisis or death. I do not cease to give thanks for you as you cuddle and cherish our children, and invite our neighborhood families into our basement full of toys. I do not cease to give thanks for you as you reach out to welcome a stranger or someone who’s been around for years but still feels estranged. I do not cease to give thanks for you as you read and study and engage in heartfelt discussion about healing the broken places in our world. I do not cease to give thanks for you as you take delight in bringing over some really good-looking produce from the food shelf for friends at St. Paul’s, or sit down to eat and catch up with companions at Lexington Commons. I do not cease to give thanks for you as you honor tradition and welcome change in the church’s organizational structure, as you express the vision of faith in dollars and cents.
I do not cease to give thanks for you as, today, we commission ten Befriender Ministers to serve First Church. We are all ministers. This is not just a slogan for us. We are all called to act as Christ to each other and to the world. Our Befrienders seek to embody the servant-like posture of Christ: active, non-judgmental listening that does not seek to fix the person or cure the situation, but simply offers care and companionship. That’s really hard work; they will need our prayers. But today’s passage reminds us that in such a posture of listening, an incredible power will be unleashed: God’s resurrection power, the power of a hope that will never leave us.
The good news of Christ is that no matter our circumstances we can root our gratitude in God’s power to bring life out of death, hope from despair and love in the midst of hate. Day by day, we can claim thanksgiving as an identity, a decision, and a path. Shall we be thankful? Amen.