November 21, 2021
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Luke 18:35-43; 1 Thessalonians 5:18
Thanksgiving Celebration Sunday
One of the more enjoyable books I read this year was No Time Like the Future by Michael J Fox. I referenced it in a sermon months ago. At 29 Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which has gradually increased its toll over the years. Then in 2018 a tumor was discovered on his spine leading to surgeries and long months of therapy and recovery. Finally, just when he thought he was safe to stay home alone, he fell, suffering an excruciating fracture and setting back his recovery.
Fox, who is an optimist by nature, reassessed some of his early writings that talked about facing setbacks with a positive outlook. He thought, “What am I telling people? You can face hardship and it might get worse!” But don’t think he’s become a pessimist. He’s just taking a more honest approach to life. He’s realized that facing life squarely where it is, and not where you want it to be, can open you up to reasons to be hopeful.
Toward the end of the book he gives one little example. His daughter drove him to Baltimore for his six month MRI check-up. On the way home they stopped at a service station. While standing outside, a man came over to him and asked if he is Michael J Fox. Fox says he’s gotten used to this. He can always tell when he’s been made by somebody because they just stare at him and then finally come over and ask for a signature or selfie with him. Normally that’s fine, but this day he’s just not in the mood. But that’s not what this man does. He says, “I’m ex-military. I have PTSD but the doctors are helping me and I’m doing well.” He just wanted to thank Fox for helping him. He said the way Fox had faced his challenges gave this man hope.
Riding back home Fox thought about the encounter and wrote, “It stirred a feeling of gratitude that through my example of living with adversity, I was able to positively affect someone else’s life.” Now think about that. Michael J Fox was going through a new level of adversity this man knew nothing about, but because he expressed gratitude to Fox it stirred gratitude in Fox and it helped him. (p.177)
Often at Thanksgiving we are sanctioned to be grateful as if the feeling of gratitude is created by our determination. Just be thankful! But what if gratitude sometimes comes as a surprise, something we don’t generate? What if it’s more serendipitous, like happiness, something we find not because we set out for it, or made it our object, but simply because we are open to experiences that leave us thankful and actually help us?
I’m thinking of this thought because I’m really struggling with Paul. He implores us to be thankful in all circumstances, but is that really possible? I know, I know, some of you Bible experts will point out that Paul didn’t say be thankful FOR all circumstances. He said be thankful IN all circumstances. I’ll give you that, but come on! Are you really thankful IN every circumstance?
Two weeks ago we recognized the most lives we ever have in an All Saints’ observance and since then we have had seven more deaths in the church. Yesterday I conducted my third funeral this week in which we had six funerals at the church this week. It’s hard to be thankful in such circumstances.
--This pandemic continues to linger. Some countries are having to return to shutdowns. Some parts of our own country are enforcing new restrictions. We wonder if we’ll ever get past this. Its hard to be thankful in this circumstance.
--Indianapolis had the largest number of homicides in our city’s history last year and darned if we aren’t on pace to surpass it this year! Its hard to be thankful in this circumstance.
I know Paul didn’t say “I’m thankful FOR all things,” but I’m still struggling with him saying, “I’m thankful IN all things.”
Then I read again recently this story about Jesus, and I wonder if Paul had heard it and if that’s why he said what he did. Jesus was going through Jericho. He was heading to Jerusalem. He knew he would be crucified there. Talk about hard to be thankful in every circumstance. But while Jesus was passing through Jericho a blind beggar began calling out to him. He said, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And it says “Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Why did the crowd traveling with Jesus rebuke this man? Before looking at that question let me say that if I identified myself in this story I would probably have been in that crowd. I am someone who likes to consider that I am leading the way for Jesus. I work to create worship experiences, and lead a church that does good things, so people can experience Jesus. I would have probably been in the crowd, would you have been?
So why did they shout down the blind beggar? One reason might have been the title he used for Jesus, “Song of David.” That was an inflammatory reference to a Messiah who would come like a King David like warrior and lead a revolution setting Israel free from all her enemies. But if you lived in Palestine at the time under Roman occupation, such a title was seditious and dangerous. To be affiliated with such rhetoric could put your life in danger. Maybe the crowd was worried about Jesus being associated this way. Maybe they worried for themselves.
They also may have shouted down the beggar because they had their own agenda for Jesus. They may have had places they wanted to see Him go and things they wanted Him to do. They may have had their own agenda and they didn’t want Jesus being distracted.
Whatever the reason, this man was an unimportant interruption to their plans. Yet Jesus stops for him. Now how would you have felt if you had been in the crowd? Have you ever resented the fact that God did not seem to go along with your agenda? Have you ever felt like you’re trying to force God to go places God is not in a hurry to get to?
I had a lay leader one time who had this expression he would often say, “I’m trying not to get out in front of God.” It was his way of saying he didn’t want his faith to become a constant badgering of God to give him what he wants, but to align his life with what God wants. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.
Maybe this crowd was trying to direct Jesus instead of letting Jesus direct them, but it’s clear they didn’t want this man distracting Jesus. Nonetheless Jesus goes to him and asks him what he wants. The man said, “I want to see.” And Jesus heals the man and then it says, Immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus, praising God.”
Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell this same story, except Mark says there were two beggars, but other than that, all stories are pretty much the same. The man praises God and becomes a follower of Jesus. But Luke adds one detail the others don’t. Luke adds the response of the crowd. Look at this, “When all the people saw it, they also praised God.” (v.43)
These are the same people who just moments earlier were telling the man to be quiet, to quit trying to get Jesus’ attention. The fact that Jesus stopped for the man went against their desires, but they ended up praising God. Can you ever think of a time you ended up praising God as a result of something that made you wonder where did God go?
I know someone in our church who is praising God this Thanksgiving for something unwanted that happened this year. Stephen Hoskins is a member of our Governing Board. Earlier this summer he and his grandson were riding electric scooters. (Note to all grandparents, Don’t ride electric scooters with your grandkids!) Anyway, they were zipping through the sidewalks in their neighborhood when Stephen decided to take a short cut through a patch of grass. His front wheel hit a divot he couldn’t see flipping him over at high speed, crashing him face-down on the sidewalk.
His first thanksgiving in this experience was an EMT who happened to be passing by at that moment. He stopped and administered first-aid. The next thing Stephen knew he was in St. Vincent Emergency with many MRI’s and CAT scans being performed. Here’s a pic of him in the hospital. It was pretty gruesome. Doctors feared significant damage to his neck and spine. But then they saw something else in the scans, his carotid artery was blocked 90%. He was on the verge of a massive stroke.
He had to go in for immediate surgery to remedy that blockage which was successful, his second thanksgiving. As it turns out the neck was okay, and as Stephen says, “I am not grateful I had the accident but I am grateful that it may have saved my life.”
What a peculiar idea isn’t it? Something happens you are definitely not grateful for. And when I saw Stephen in the hospital before learning of the blockage, I think its fair to say it was hard to feel thankful even in that moment, but with , and he and JoAnn exhibited incredible patience, there came reason to praise.
Sometimes thanksgiving surprises us. It comes upon us when we least expect it, just like the crowd experienced in the story with Jesus. One minute we are going along with Jesus in our company and everything is wonderful and happy, and its easy to be thankful. Then the next minute it feels like Jesus took a left turn. We kept going, but he stopped going with us. And we wonder, “Lord, what happened? You were with me one minute, and now you’re not.”
But if you just wait, if you remain patient, you experience God doing something that gives you reason to praise after all. Could Thanksgiving come down to that sometimes? What’s you are going through is not something to be thankful for or in. Let’s quit putting sprinkles on it! There’s just no amount of Christmas music and Hallmark movies that will drown out the discouragements you are living with.
Where’s the doxology? You can’t have worship without doxology. What happened to the doxology? What happens to life when you don’t have praise? Life falls flat.
But where does doxology come from? Doxa means glory. Ology means to think or to expect. To expect glory. Oh, not there’s a doxology. You better pack your lunch for that kind of doxology. You have to rolls your sleeves up for that, because that’s a doxology you have to work at. It’s no easy praise. It’s not a praise that comes because the cornucopia is full. Its not a praise for when the table is full and everyone is sitting at the table dressed up and someone says, “Let’s count our blessings and be thankful.”
No, this doxology is for special times. Its for times when the table is bare and the cornucopia is empty and you say, “I still expect glory. I’m not letting go of that. It’s all I’ve got!” You say with psalmist, “yet I will praise Him.” Now that’s a praise. That’s a Thanksgiving which says no matter how bad things have been nothing can stop me from expecting. I expect God yet to bless me, that I won’t stay here forever, and one day I sing the Doxology again. Sometimes, thanksgiving looks like that.
John Nepsa has been a member of St. Luke’s many years. In his Disciple Bible Study group the other day he shared how miraculous it is that he’s still here. 40 years ago he didn’t want to be. He’d just gone through a divorce, was out of work, and out of hope. John says, “I lost me. My identity was gone. I was no longer married. Didn’t feel like he was being a good father. Wasn’t identified with a career. I just felt I have nothing left to keep me going.” One night he was driving on the interstate and came up on a semi-trailer. He was going to just pull in front of it and let that be it. He about did. But something kept him from it.
He was so shaken he pulled off the road and drove to a gym he was a member of. He went to the steam room and fell apart. A member of St. Luke’s happened to be there, a man who had just lost his wife and they talked. John says he lost his wife and John lost his life, but the man kept saying these words to John, “It will get better.” John said, “Of course I didn’t believe it, but that idea stuck in my head. I just started saying to myself, “Things will get better. They can only get better. Life will get better.” And they didn. Not overnight. Not in some sudden flash. But day by day, by inches, life began improving. Through friends, opportunities that came along, the church, step by step life got better.
Today John is a very active member of the church. He’s a Stephen Minister helping others going through painful times, being that person who encourages people saying, “Life will get better.” Today John says, “I am so blessed. I am just thankful to be alive, and my thanksgiving comes from a dark, stormy night 40 years ago.”
Many times in life we are not thankful for what we go through; and sometimes we aren’t even thankful in the things we go through; but always, we can choose to believe that if we will be patient during those times, we will find reason to praise. Sometimes that’s what Thanksgiving looks like—doxology, patiently expecting glory.
Let us pray: Lord, this morning some of us are in good places and we have much to be thankful for. We don’t need to be shy about that because we recognize you as the source of our blessings and remember that most of all we need the Giver more than the gifts. But some of us are not in such good places, but we can still have thanksgiving by holding onto hope that life will get better, that we are your beloved and you are with us, and nothing can stop from expecting glory to come. In Jesus name. Amen.