Gratitude: Bedrock of Faithfulness

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Gratitude Season at Peace – 1
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Today we begin a five week series on gratitude because without gratitude, one cannot live a faithful Christian life. You might avoid many acts of evil. You can attend worship weekly. You can work diligently to please God, but you cannot be truly faithful to God, without gratitude. Gratitude is the bedrock of faithfulness because gratitude is the most fundamental and appropriate response to the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. Gratitude grows in a heart that trusts in and loves God, no matter the circumstances. And from an attitude of gratitude spring all kinds of wonderful fruits. It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratitude that makes us joyful.

Have you ever noticed that people who have more, inevitably want more? We live with the illusion that thanksgiving comes when we get what we want. But I’m guessing that actually the opposite is true. Gratitude is more profound and evident when we do not have what we want, but trust and thank God anyway. Look at the dispute between the NBA players and owners. Do any of them really need bigger salaries than they already have? It is a lose-lose argument when everybody is greedy.

Consider all the political debates over the economy. When will people on both sides acknowledge that it is a complicated issue, which requires more of us than playing the blame game. This mess we are in -- it is not entirely Wall Street’s fault. It is not entirely the fault of politicians in Washington – certainly not the exclusive fault of one political party or another. We have all participated in a system which ran amuck because we wanted more than we could afford, and for a while, we had more than we could afford. I am no economic strategist, but I know that fixing the problem is more complicated that cutting government spending or raising taxes or creating jobs. It is some combination of all of the above.

It is a complex system with all kinds of variables, and I’m tired of hearing simplistic arguments and fierce blaming. I believe if we all worked on gratitude, we would be much better off, whether the economy improves or not.

If you drive north of here on Lakewood Ranch Blvd, you will see the site work being done in preparation for the new dental school LECOM is building. They’ve been doing site work for weeks and weeks. Got to get the foundation right. What happens when you build on an unstable foundation? Building falls down or cracks or is damaged by high winds. We need the solid foundation of Christ, with our a bedrock of gratitude to sustain us in a storm. I am saying that the bedrock of Christian faithfulness, the foundation upon which all Christian attributes are built is gratitude for your life in Christ. And gratitude is not merely being thankful for what one has, but trusting in the love of Jesus Christ, who shows us God is with us, God is for us, and God is beyond us – so we can trust in God, no matter the circumstances.

This gratitude is seen in the earliest words of the New Testament. The first letter to the Thessalonians was written by the Apostle Paul in 52 AD, about twenty years after Christ died and was raised. Paul begins this letter with gratitude to God for the faith, hope, and love of the Christians in Thessalonica. Paul established the church there among mostly Gentile households, but then he was forced to flee. After his own attempts to return were thwarted, he sent Timothy back to check on them, and having heard a positive report from Timothy, he writes to encourage them to continue to hold fast to the God they have come to know in Jesus Christ, and not to return to the idol worship of their former days.

Hear the word of the Lord:

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

(NRSV)

Note that Paul thanks God for their faith, and does not just pat them on the back. Gratitude expressed in general or to others is good, but the heart of our gratitude should arise as an expression of thanksgiving to God, who is the giver of all good gifts. If all I express is gratitude for a person or group of people, then I am in essence putting my ultimate trust in them, not in God. That’s why, friends, the healthiest relationships are ones where a mutual gratitude to God is in the center of the relationship. Mutual gratitude to God leads to gratitude expressed for others, but the reverse is not always true. Mutual gratitude expressed to one another is largely dependent upon not disappointing one another. When I disappoint Richard or he, me, I can still be grateful to God for him, even if I am not feeling gratitude toward him. I can handle the disappointment better, if I know my life rests not in Richard’s care for me, but God’s care for me. If I am overly dependent on Richard, or he, me, then our marriage becomes idolatrous. Your job, your colleagues, your family, your lifestyle can become an idol, when you expect to be completely satisfied by them.

Another reminder of our sermon 2 weeks ago on the commandments – first two commandments of the ten – love God first. Don’t put other things before God. Or as Jesus summarized, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” How do you love God? Primarily with a grateful heart.

Did you know that the word Eucharist means “thanksgiving” so our weekly communion is a weekly expression of gratitude to God. To have communion with God is an expression of gratitude. And when we pray at the table, the prayer called the “Great Prayer of Thanksgiving” we are thanking God and rehearsing again each week what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. When you give thanks at your meal time, it is primarily an expression of gratitude, an act of loving trust in God.

The best gratitude is gratitude to God for blessings, not just gratitude for blessings. Our gratitude is to God, who gave us this place to worship, not gratitude for this place of worship. Do you see the difference? I am grateful to God for the house I live in, instead of being grateful for my house. You see, if I am just grateful for my house, then I have every right to grumble now because my house is worth half of its value back in 2005 when we moved in. No, it is crucial that my gratitude belongs to God, and is misplaced if my gratitude is for my house. My house deserves no praise, no trust should be placed in my house. It is just a house, and a rather dirty one sometimes. No, my gratitude is for the God, who provides a place for me to live.

Do you see why so many Americans are angry? They have been worshipping their possessions, their lifestyle of comfort, their privileges as a wealthy, super-power. Those of us who can re-direct our gratitude away from those things to the God who sometimes provides those things and sometimes provides other things, even some hardships which make us better people, will find ourselves on a better foundation. Our world is not crumbling because our world is the One God is in charge of, not this world of being the rich and powerful.

The Gospel Paul shared with the Thessalonians was not a comfortable, easy Gospel. The people were persecuted for the exclusive devotion they gave to the God of Jesus Christ. This faith put them at considerable risk in a Roman imperial society, but they held to their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfastness of hope in Christ, because they were so filled with gratitude for the powerful message of the Gospel.

This message filled them with faith, hope, and love. They received the Word with joy and with conviction. The Holy Spirit empowered them and their gratitude was the foundation upon which their faithful living was built.

My friends, everything else in life is going to be stripped away. In the end it is going to be you and Jesus. Nothing else will matter. It will not matter what you did to make money or what you wore or drove or where you lived or even who your family is. Your accomplishments will likely be forgotten in a generation. Your name will be forgotten even by most of your family members in a few generations. They might find you on ancestry.com but they will not remember you. How quickly can you name your great grandmother or great grandfather? What will matter is your life with Christ, which is endlessly full of love and purpose. Will there be a group of Christians still giving thanks to God, because you laid a foundation of gratitude to God here in this place. Will your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope empower the next generations to continue to trust in God?

I want to end with the stories of two persons who became quadriplegic, paralyzed in both legs and arms in their late teens. The first one was the son of our congregation members in Alabama, Paul and Carol. Karl Blake died just a few years ago. He was in his forties. From the time of his accident, life was difficult. He lived with his mom and step dad, who had helpers who came in to care for his daily needs but for the most part, Carl was not a happy man. Though he was a Christian, he was bitter about his life’s limitations. The other person is Joni Eareckson Tada. After her initial struggle with despair during the first two years of rehab, Joni found gratitude -- the bedrock of faithfulness. She found gratitude for her life with its limitations. She wrote a book about how her Christian faith sustained her in the struggle. Joni then became mouth artist, holding the paint brush in her mouth. She was a popular Christian speaker, and went on to write over forty books. Joni talks about giving thanks in everything (as in 1 Thess 5:18) but also giving thanks for everything. (Eph 5:19-20)

Joni says most of us are able to thank God for grace, comfort, and sustaining power in a trial, but we don’t often thank God for the trial, for the problem. “What feels like manure turns out to be fertilizer.” (Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, Thanksgiving 2010) Now I am not recommending that you go out and rashly remind all your struggling, despairing friends that they should be grateful for their struggle. That’s a conclusion they need to reach without undue pressure from us, but when someone like Joni expresses gratitude for her struggle, it speaks louder than words. When the Thessalonians held onto to their faith in the midst of persecution, it was a beautiful witness that inspired Paul’s gratitude and faith and because he recorded it, it has inspired many Christians after him.

Joni Eareckson Tada says that many decades in a wheelchair have taught her to thank God even for her quadriplegia. It’s a gift wrapped in black she says. It is a bruising of a blessing, the shadowy companion that walks with her daily, pulling and pushing her into the arms of Jesus. And that’s where the joy is. (from the forward by Tada in Choosing Gratitude by Nancy Leigh DeMoss) The joy is in being filled with gratitude in all circumstances. Rejoicing in the Lord, no matter what. If you can do that, you have a foundation of faith which is unshakable.