A Sermon for the Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan
Giving thanks is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian. For example, St. Paul begins almost all of his letters by giving thanks to God through Jesus Christ for the church to whom he’s writing. He says in Romans, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Romans 1:8). He says in Philippians, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3). That’s just two examples, and we could go on through Paul’s letters looking at each of these thanksgivings and how they set up the major theme of the letter that follows. Giving thanks is so common for Paul and such a fundamental part of how he thinks and speaks that it is particularly noteworthy that Galatians contains no opening thanksgiving. It’s a pretty big clue that Paul is not very happy with what’s happening at the church in Galatia because he doesn’t begin that letter by giving thanks. For Paul, giving thanks to God is part of who he is, because for him it’s fundamental to what it means to be a Christian.
When we give thanks to God as Christians, for the small things and the great things, for finding our car keys and for our loved ones being found cancer-free, what we’re doing is connecting our experience with the reality of God as the giver of all good things. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it this way, “When we say thank you to God we connect our own experience with God as Giver. We say that what has happened to us is somehow rooted in the gift of God” (Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, 48). So, that’s what we’re here to do today: to say thank you to God for the good things that we have in our lives, for the love that we share, for the food on our table and the clothes on our back. And we do so because we recognize that all that we have, especially all the good in our lives, is rooted in the gift of God. So, we give thanks.
But the truth is a bit more complicated than that, right? Because, on the one hand, we don’t always give thanks as we should. We don’t connect enough of our experience to the reality of God as Giver, and for that, we should repent. That’s problem number one. We don’t always give thanks as we should because we don’t connect enough of experience to the reality of God as Giver.
Then, on the other hand, it is easier for us to give thanks when things are going well for us, but much more difficult to do so when things are not going well. It is easier for us to say with Paul that we give thanks for the wonderful things that God is doing in our churches and another thing to say with Jesus that we give thanks to God even as we stand on the doorstep of hardship, suffering, pain, and even death. But that’s what Jesus does. He’s in the Upper Room with the darkness and pain of the cross before him, just waiting for him, and what he does is he gives thanks.
He gives thanks in the midst of the approaching pain and brokenness because he connects his experience of what’s to come with the reality of God as Giver. He connects his broken body and spilled blood with the broken bread and spilled wine, and in that connection, he gives thanks to God who through him is giving light and hope to a dark and lost world.
Jesus is reminding us in this moment as he gives thanks that even in the darkest places in this world where sometimes it seems as though the light of the kingdom of God refuses to shine, even there God is present as Giver, and therefore even there we must continue to give thanks. Because if God is present as Giver in the darkness, pain, and death of the cross, then surely he is present as giver too in the most hopeless parts of our communities and the darkest moments of our lives. And I’ll grant you that that’s not an easy connection to make. In the midst of our pain and suffering and loss, in the midst of brokenness and hopelessness, it’s not easy to connect our experience with the reality of God as Giver, but God is present there too giving hope, giving peace, giving love, and giving his Son.
So, today I give thanks today for all of you and for all the work that you do ministering to the hopeless places in our community and in the darkest moments of peoples lives. To quote Bilbo Baggins, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” But you know, excluding that second part. The point is that today is a day to give thanks and to get to know our brothers and sisters in Christ. This Christian ecumenical gathering, and I think that that first word is important, is, like the Eucharist, a sign of the good gifts of God to his people, and I give thanks that he has gathered us all here this evening.
The Didache, the oldest known non-canonical Christian writing, so it’s the oldest Christian document that we’re aware of that doesn’t make it into the canon of the New Testament, says this concerning the broken bread of the Eucharist. “And concerning the broken bread: We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever” (Didache 9.3-4).
That’s the hope. That’s the promise. That the good gift of our giving father. We do our very best in our humanity to erect walls of division where there doesn’t need to be division. We separate us from them, ourselves from the other, and we define ourselves not by what we have in common but by our differences. We major on the minors, and we minor on the majors, and so we do a wonderful job of presenting to the world a broken and divided church. It dawned on me this morning that maybe as a hermeneutical exercise, we need to read Galatians 3:27-28 differently. Instead of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, maybe we need to insert our denominations in here to remind ourselves of what we all already know to be true. “For as many of you as were baptized into the Messiah have put on the Messiah. There is neither Anglican nor Roman Catholic, neither Methodist nor Lutheran, neither Baptist nor Presbyterian, for you are all one in the Messiah Jesus.” And for that, I give thanks.
We are all one in the body of Christ because we have all been baptized into the Messiah and have put on the Messiah, and while we may erect divisions between us now, this church is full tonight of people with whom we will all share in the heavenly banquet in God’s new creation. Tonight, we get a taste of that. Tonight we get a sign of the promise to come, and we give thanks to God the Giver who has given us this fellowship and unity in the body of Christ.
But let me remind us what it means to be the body of Christ. We are not the body of Christ in Largo so that we can gather together, shake each other’s hands, smile, and pat each other on the back. This is not what the body of Christ does. The body of Christ is broken for the world, and this body of Christ should be broken for this city and this county. As I said, the church as a whole has done a wonderful job of presenting to the world a broken and divided church. But what if, rather than being broken and divided, we presented to the world a church unified in its brokenness, unified in radical self-giving and self-emptying for the good of others.
The Church is the body of Christ, and when Jesus gave thanks just before he died, he took the bread from the table, broke it, and said, “This is my body.” This is why I love that Eucharistic prayer from the Didache, and we say a form of it here every Sunday at St. Dunstan’s. Individual grain, which was once scattered on the mountains, has now been gathered together and become one the Lord’s table so that it can be broken for the good of others and to the glory of God. So, I say, the Lord has gathered us here together and made us one in him, not for our good, not so we can shake hands and pat each other on the back, but so that we can be one and so that we can be broken. Not divided, but broken, because that’s what it means to be the body of Christ.
Let me close in prayer with one of my favorite prayers from this same section of the Didache: “We give you thanks, Holy Father, for your holy name which you have caused to dwell in our hearts, for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you have made known to us through Jesus your servant; to you be the glory forever. You, almighty Master, created all things for your name’s sake, and gave food and drink to humanity to enjoy, that they might give you thanks; but to us you have graciously given spiritual food and drink, and eternal life through your servant. Above all we give thanks because you are mighty; to you be the glory forever. Remember your church, Lord, to deliver it from evil and to make it perfect in your love; and gather it, the one that has been sanctified, from the four winds into your kingdom, which you have prepared for it; for yours it the power and the glory forever. May grace come, and may this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If anyone is holy, let him come; if anyone is not, let him repent. Maranatha! Come, Lord! Amen.” (Didache 10.1-6).