1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-18

Final in the series Grateful

In the first two messages of this series, we explored our personal understanding of gratitude and how to increase our thankfulness by practicing habits of gratitude. We talked about how we respond personally to God’s gifts following the pattern of gift and response. Today we want to think about this idea in terms of a group or a community, and how a community can be transformed through gratitude. Author and preacher Diana Butler Bass, writing in her book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Gratitude, says: “When it comes to gratitude, ‘me’ always leads to ‘we.’”[1] She adds, “Gratitude takes us outside ourselves where we see ourselves as part of a larger network of relationships that are mutually reciprocal.”[2] We all receive the gift of community and respond with gratitude together.

Gratitude in community is not the way we usually think about or experience gratitude. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich observes, “For most people in the world today, the experience of collective ecstasy [gratitude in community or together] is likely to be found, if it is found at all, not in a church or at a concert or rally but at a sports event.”[3] Think about it: Where else do we celebrate together? But if our team wins the World Series, Superbowl, World Cup, or National Championship, people crowd together and give thanks for the victory. Even if our team beats a rival or has a big win, fans celebrate their team and rejoice together.

By the way, fun fact: Did you know that the first Thanksgiving Day parade in New York was not about celebrating department store commercialism? In the 1870s, Princeton and Yale played the first football game on Thanksgiving Day. As the tradition continued and grew, it was moved to New York and a parade was added. It became such a big deal in the 1890s that churches dismissed worship services early so people could go to the game and parade. It was a celebration of football and gratitude. It wasn’t until 1924 that Macy’s began sponsoring that parade. Share that around your Thanksgiving table this week to start a conversation!

There’s a “we” in the scriptures today. God called the Thessalonians together as a community, so they can be part of the early church to spread the good news of Jesus. But God called them together for other reasons as well. God gave them each other, so they can support each other during their persecution, and so they can experience God’s love and grace through their relationships with each other.

God has called us into community just like the Thessalonians. God gives us the gift of community for encouragement and support but also so we can experience Christ through our relationships. We can feel God’s presence through the presence of others. We receive God’s forgiveness when we forgive each other. We become the hands and feet of Christ by serving alongside one another in the body of Christ. Once we realize that this community is a gift from God, we are grateful to have each other. Gratitude is contagious, and it grows and spreads throughout the community, and it ripples out into the world.

On November 22, 2015, Pastor Jason Micheli stood in the pulpit of the church he served and preached a message on gratitude. A sermon on gratitude was nothing out of the ordinary as it was right before Thanksgiving. But this was no ordinary day. Jason, a forty-something father with young children, was preaching for the first time in a year. He had been diagnosed with and treated for a rare and incurable form of cancer. He was better, and his cancer was under control, but the congregation knew he would endure chemo every two months for the rest of his life. Barely out of treatment, he stood in the pulpit to preach a thanksgiving sermon for his community.

He began: “You all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with us. You’ve helped with my medical bills and sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch me when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car.”

He continued: “I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. … I was the guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.”

But he learned that gratitude is not about repayment of debts. It is about relationships. He discovered that courage and hope, strength and healing came through community. Then he spoke of the church’s greatest gift to his family in crisis: “We can endure all things because you’ve been with us. You’re with us. More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us. It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my family’s worry, fears, and anxiety. … It was kind of you to make my cancer – our cancer – yours too.”

“Thank you,” he finished, “for being with me.”[4]

Gratitude is social. It is about presence, participation, and partnership, as Pastor Jason learned. It is about being with one another, in life together.

Gratitude connects us in community as it grows and ripples out through us.

Far too often though, the opposite can happen as well. An ungrateful community results from ungrateful people who let their negativity and ingratitude, their desire for control and power to poison the community. Our sickness makes the community sick. Our personal sin taints the gift God gives.

Many times, we aren’t even aware of the consequences of our actions. We think that whatever is blocking gratitude in us – resentment, jealousy, fear, anger, self-righteousness, and so on – only affect us personally. But “me” leads to “we.” Negative emotions are also contagious. It’s Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The Bible tells us this in another: We reap what we sow. We receive what we plant and cultivate. And because we are not isolated islands in this life, we share life together, then others also reap what we sow. What we do and say affects us and others.

This comes through in the scripture. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to stand firm in their faith and hold fast to their community by comforting their hearts and strengthening them in every good work and word. Or as the Common English Bible puts it, “in every good thing you do or say.”

If you want to be part of a grateful community, then be grateful. If you don’t want to be part of a back-biting negative community, then stop back-biting and being negative. If you notice someone else poisoning the community with gossip and harmful actions, don’t participate in it. Talk to them with compassionate words and actions that what we are putting out into the community is changing the community.

We have the choice and power to be the community we want to be, to make the most of this God-given gift. We can choose to cultivate misery, or we can cultivate gratitude. Gratitude comes from an abiding presence and trust in God’s presence, gifts, and abundance. If we truly recognize that this community – this congregation – is a gift that God places in our lives, then we trust that God is present among us, and gratitude emerges because we are grateful to be part of it.

One way to cultivate gratitude together is to remember in community. A primary goal of corporate worship is to remember. We remember what God has done for our salvation. We celebrate what God has done in our lives. This fuels our faith and motivates us to keep sharing the gift of the Gospel and growing in our discipleship.

Scholar and preacher Walter Brueggeman writes about the three great festivals of the Hebrew Bible – Passover, Pentecost, and Booths. They celebrated God’s gifts of freedom and abundance. In ancient Israel, Jews traveled to Jerusalem, leaving behind the world and responsibility of home and village. They were instructed to come empty-handed so that God could supply their needs. These festivals are designed as outpourings of gratitude by Israel, who lives completely by the power and generosity of the Lord. These communal celebrations modeled an alternative community, one based in abundance and joy, representing how life should be.

Our worship is intended to create a communal space for gratitude and model the way life should be – time to express our gratitude and praise together and learn to trust God as individuals and as a community.

Another way to become grateful together is to celebrate differences. Just like our cars are made up on many different parts, the body of Christ is made up of many different parts that must work together to accomplish its mission of offering the love of God to the world. Each one of us has different and important roles to play. Let’s celebrate those differences, rather than taking them for granted or discounting them. We don’t all need to look, act, or think alike, but we are called to love alike.

Becoming a grateful community means we need to learn to practice spiritual disciplines both individually and collectively. Most of the time we think about spiritual disciplines focusing on the personal aspect – how I pray, read the Bible, fast, serve, and so on by myself. These are deeply important, and we should each incorporate those disciplines into our lives. But if we only ever exercise them individually, we miss another aspect of our faith.

When I have been on mission trips, I have set aside time to do my personal devotions and prayer. This helps sustain me spiritually. But I have also participated in the group time with others on the team to listen to scripture, pray, and share together. That shared discipline helped form our group, not just as a work team, but as a spiritual body, bound together by the Holy Spirit to do God’s work.

Gratitude is certainly one practice we can engage in privately and personally, but it is also something we can share in community, and through that sharing, our lives are woven together in Christ.

What if every small group, class, committee, or team in the church thought about how to practice community together, rather than simply focusing on their task? We might grow together spiritually through prayer, worship, shared times of storytelling about what God is doing, and periodic times of celebration to acknowledge what God has done and the work of specific people in our community.

Another way to practice gratitude together is to look for opportunities as a community to say, “thank you.” One way St. Andrew’s expressed that gratitude this week was by providing breakfast and lunch one day to area law enforcement and first responders involved in training for the Crisis Intervention Team. Thank you to Brenda Steed for taking on this project on behalf of St. Andrew’s.

You are invited to participate in sharing thanks to our local police, firefighters, health care workers, and sheriff’s department by signing your name to the four banners located in the Atrium; you might even write a brief message. These signed banners will be delivered to these important servants who help our community remain safe.

Friends, gratitude is both personal and social. It is a response to the gifts God has given us, and it motivates us to pass the gifts along to others freely. Gratitude strengthens us and connects us to one another so that we are stronger together.

God has brought each of us here in this community of faith known as St. Andrew’s UMC to be present with God and with each other, to participate in God’s work through the ministries of this church, and to partner with the people God has brought here. “Me” leads to “we.” This community is a gift. Let us be grateful to the Lord for this blessed gift. And all of God’s people said, “Amen.”

[1] Diana Butler Bass, Grateful, 97.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets, New York: Metropolitan, 2006, 225; quoted in Grateful.

[4] Jason Micheli, “Primed for God: Gratitude,” Aldersgate UMC, Alexandria, VA, 11/22/2015. Jason tells his story in Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016). Retold in Butler Bass, Grateful, 99.

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