22 November 2009

An evening with the Baptists

This evening the First Baptist Church in Virden hosted the annual Thanksgiving Service sponsored by the North Macoupin County Ministerial Association. Pastor Philips invited me to preach the sermon and I happily accepted his invitation.

My words were very well received and the Baptists were gracious hosts. I'm pleased to say that the local Catholics were also very well represented.

What follows is the sermon I preached for the occasion:

Dear Pastors and Ministers,
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

May the Lord give you peace!

I am grateful to Pastor Philips and to my fellow members of the Virden-Girard Ministerial Association for their kind invitation to preach this evening. They have welcomed me warmly and have been very supportive of my ministry here among you, and I thank them. I thank, too, the members of First Baptist Church who are graciously hosting us this evening; may the Lord reward you for their kindness.

Some four hundred years ago, in 1621 a great feast was held between Puritans Separatists and local Indians to give thanks at Plymouth for the recent harvest in the midst of great hardship. This week families will gather across this land to commemorate this event, though the current difficulties are not so severe, the harvest is not yet finished and our own menus will be very much unlike that of the first Thanksgiving on this nation’s soil.

There is something within us, a certain desire and longing, a certain necessity, if you will, to give thanks. Man must give thanks, for he is not his own, in and of himself. Saint Paul puts it this way: “What have you that you did not receive” (I Corinthians 4:7)? All that we have is gift, whether we recognize it or not.

This need to express gratitude has given rise to rituals and traditions in every culture of the world, in every age and place, from the simplest peasant to the most noble of kings. Although much has changed, this desire to offer thanks remains, even, curiously enough, among atheists.

The greater man advances technologically, the greater his need to give thanks lest he become lost in himself, lest he become ill at ease and unable to rest.

In every corner of the world we discover certain truths. Among them is this: the more a person gives thanks, both to his Creator and to his fellow man, he greater his happiness will be.

Here in the civilized West we have come to the notion that life is meant to be happy and that if, for one reason or another, it is not, something must be amiss. But, my brothers and sisters, is this, in fact, the reality of our human existence?

If we think back to that first celebration of Thanksgiving, can we really say that life was happy for the Europeans or for the Indians as we think a happy life should be today? Of the original number who set sail from England, half died of malnutrition, disease and the elements before the celebration of that first Thanksgiving. Twenty years later, they still had only one plow among them.

The hardships they endured, we, with our indoor plumbing and electricity, computers and supermarkets, can scarcely imagine. Theirs was a life few of us could have lived and in this regard they are not very different from the major course of human history.

This certainly could not have been what we mean by a happy life, but it may well have been a contented life. Would any one of the pilgrims have expected anything less? Of course not; difficulty and hardship was part of everyday life. Why should we expect it to be any different for us, here at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

This gives us cause to consider for what we are grateful. Do we give thanks for the ease with which we have our food, for our trusty air conditioners in the summer and heaters in the winter, for our vehicles which make travel so fast and simple and for the other technological advancements of our age? Of course we do, but we should not stop there.

Those first pilgrims rendered thanks to Almighty God who saw them through that first difficult winter. They did “not forget all the gifts of God,” simple as these gifts may appear to us (Psalm 103:2). They were well aware that, as King David sang, it is the Lord “who pardons all your sins, heals all your ills, delivers your life from the pit, surrounds you with love and compassion, fills your days with good things” (Psalm 103:3-5).

The Lord does all of these things through the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is this very cross of which the Redeemer says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

The Church – and each of her members – must always give thanks to God for so great a gift through which all good things come to us. For without the Cross of Jesus Christ, what do we have? As Saint Peter says, “By his wounds, you have been healed” (I Peter 2:24).

So often we seek to flee from the Cross, to avoid what is difficult and seek only what is easy. But, my friends, the Lord Jesus did not promise us a rosy and happy life; he promised us persecution and rejection and division; he promised us the Cross. It is only through his Cross that we know his peace, his joy and his love. Why, then, do we run from it? Why do we not instead run toward the Cross whenever it is presented to us?

We are often afraid of the Cross because it requires us to change our lives, our manner of thinking and doing. It requires us to renounce ourselves more and more until we can say with the Apostle, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

The Cross of our Lord is not simply his; each of us is called to share in it and share in it we must, if we wish to be his disciple. The Cross will come in different forms for each us because the Lord knows how we will best grow in holiness and grace. He knows best how to complete the good work he has begun in us (cf. Philippians 1:6).

Whereas the Cross was once the symbol of death, now it is the symbol of live, the symbol of victory. Christ reigns now from the throne of his Cross, offering each of us a share in his victory. This is why Saint Paul says we are to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:18). Are we grateful for the Cross as it comes to us?

Saint Paul was certainly grateful for the Cross of Christ, even if he asked for it to be taken from him. When it was not, he accepted it as a faithful disciple and through it came to rely on the grace of Christ in all things, finding in it the cause of his joy (cf. II Corinthians 12:7-8). Christ Jesus said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” which lead Saint Paul to say, “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9). This is the mark of one who has accepted his share in the Cross.

Writing to the Church of Colossae, he says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:24). How can he rejoice in his sufferings? Because he is thankful for them, because he recognizes the grace given him through them.

Saint James, too, recognized this grace, and so he wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3).

Likewise did Saint Peter know the beauty of the Cross. “In this you rejoice,” he says, “although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:6-7).

Dear brothers and sisters, let us never seek to shy away from the Cross, but let us welcome it gladly, with rejoicing and much thanksgiving. This seems contrary to our natural inclinations. We willing give thanks for the blessings we receive, those things we ordinarily consider good, but to give thanks for difficulties and hardships seems almost insane to our modern sensibilities.

Consider the following reflection of a soldier from the Civil War:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am, among all people, most richly blessed!

This is the reflection of one who knows the beauty of the Cross, of one who is thankful for it.

As we gather this week with family and friends around our tables, we will rightly recall with gratitude that first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. We will rightly recall with gratitude the many material blessings the Lord has given us, both in this nation and in this time. But let us not forget to render thanks to the Father Almighty for the gift of his Son, for the gift of his Cross, for our sharing in his sufferings.

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