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  • Adam Schell

Thank Full | Hearts of Gratitude

Well, today is the Sunday before Thanksgiving. And, if I’m being honest with you, I have to admit that I usually don’t have to spend a whole lot of time thinking about what I’m going to preach about on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. And that’s because the Sunday before Thanksgiving is the one time every year that I know I can talk about our need to be thankful for all that God has done and is doing in our world and in our lives.

But this year is different. I mean, it’s hard to encourage you to be thankful for your health when COVID-19 has infected more than 55 million people around the world and contributed to more than 1.3 million deaths. And it’s hard to encourage you to be thankful for the job that you have that keeps food on the table when the unemployment rate skyrocketed early on in this pandemic to 14.7 percent and more than eleven million people remain unemployed today. And it’s hard to encourage you to be thankful for your family and friends when the leading infectious disease expert in our country has admitted that he won’t celebrate Thanksgiving with his three children because of this virus and has urged us to do the same.

So, yeah, most years it’s easy to know what to preach the Sunday before Thanksgiving, but this year is different. Because in 2020, it doesn’t feel like we have much to be thankful for.

In 2020, it doesn’t feel like we have much to be thankful for.

So I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks wondering about what to say in this sermon. I’ve been trying to figure out what to say when Thanksgiving is just a few days away and a lot of us don’t feel very thankful.

And the more I’ve thought about this sermon and the message that God wants us to hear, the more my mind has wandered to a passage found in the book of Matthew. Now the book of Matthew is one of four biographies of Jesus that we have in the Bible. So in the book of Matthew, you’ll find stories about Jesus' birth, his ministry, his miracles, as well as stories about his crucifixion and resurrection. But in the passage we’re going to be looking at today, we’re going to hear a lesson that Jesus taught.

So let’s take a look at Matthew 6, and we’ll start reading in verse 25. Here’s what it says:

6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34 (New International Version)

Now, I’ve gotta tell you that when I first started thinking about this passage, I couldn’t help but think of the song Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Do you remember that song? Now, chances are that if you have ever heard this particular tune before then you can’t forget it. There's just something about the peppy melody, simple lyrics, and lighthearted message that have made it an enduring fixture in our culture. I mean, this song has been featured in everything from Disney films (like Wall-E), to episodes of The Simpsons, and it even served as George H.W. Bush's campaign song during the 1988 presidential election.

But, just in case you've never heard the song or simply can't remember any part of it besides the “Don't worry, be happy” chorus, allow me to hit some of the lyrical high spots for you. Oh, you don't have to worry, I won't be singing it, which should make us all happy. But here’s how part of the song goes:

Here is a little song I wrote, you might want to sing it note for note. Don't worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble, when you worry you make it double. Don't worry, be happy.

Ain't got no place to lay your head, somebody came and took your bed. Don't worry, be happy. The landlord say your rent is late, he may have to litigate. Don't worry, be happy.

Ain't got no cash, ain't got no style, ain't got no girl to make you smile. Don't worry, be happy. Cause when you worry your face will frown and that will bring everybody down. So don't worry, be happy.

Did you know that when this song was released, back in September of 1988, it actually reached number one on the Billboard charts, and just a few months later at the Grammy Awards in 1989 it won song of the year?

Now, how ridiculous is that? I mean did you actually listen to the words in this song? Ain't got no place to lay your head, somebody came and took your bed. Don't worry, be happy. The landlord say your rent is late, he may have to litigate. Don't worry, be happy.

I don't know about you, but if I were without a home–with no place to lay my head–I don't think I'm going to be able to be happy. If someone came and took my bed, I'm certain I'm going to be pretty worried about that. Or if my landlord were threatening to evict me from my home, the last thing I could possibly be is happy. Sure, the sentiment of the song sounds great–“Don't worry, be happy”–but there is a lot to worry about in our lives.

There is a lot to worry about in our lives.

Yes, there’s everything that is going on because of COVID-19. So we can worry about contracting this novel virus, and we can worry about spreading it to others. But we also have to worry about remembering a mask whenever we go out in public or remembering to use hand sanitizer whenever we get back in our cars. But there’s way more to worry about in our lives than COVID-19.

If you're driving around this afternoon and you see that your fuel gauge is running a little too close to that “E,” you're going to worry about it. And heaven forbid you were to run out of gas on your way to a service station. Because then you have to worry about making it safely out of your car. You have to worry if AAA will be able to get a tow truck out to you. You have to worry if someone will stop and help you push. And to top it all off, you have to worry if you did serious damage to your vehicle in the process.

Or what about when you read the newspaper each morning or flip over to the evening news – doesn't that make you worry sometimes, too? I have to say with all of the violence and hatred we see on a daily basis from places halfway around the world and from places just a few blocks from our homes – it's enough to make any of us worry.

And even these are just the tip of the iceberg. We can worry about work, and wonder about our next job evaluation or a colleague who's mad at us. We can worry at home, and be concerned about a child (or grandchild) who is struggling with online school or feel afraid that we're not as close to our spouse as we used to be. When we turn on the TV we hear stories that make us worry. When we catch a commercial or two, we worry about our hair loss, or our weight gain, or our bad breath. When we drive around our neighborhoods we see more and more home security signs popping up in our neighbors’ front yards. Everywhere we turn, everywhere we look, there seems to be something else to worry about.

And when we think about all of these worries, a song like Don't Worry, Be Happy seems flat out ridiculous. But we have to remember that these aren’t just words that Bobby McFerrin sang in the 80s, these are also words that Jesus spoke in the passage of scripture that we read a few minutes ago. At the beginning and at the end of that passage Jesus told us, “Do not worry…” There's no denying it, it's right there in black and white–well, maybe red and white if you've got a red-lettered edition of the Bible–but it's still there.

So is that the message that we need to hear today? With Thanksgiving just a few days away, do we just need to stop worrying about COVID-19 and everything else that has drug us down this year and be happy? Well, I gotta tell you that sounds pretty ridiculous to me too. And it also sounds disingenuous to the reality that we have all been living in over the last eight months.

Plus, I don’t think that that’s really what Jesus was trying to tell us in the passage we read from the book of Matthew. I think there’s more to it. But to help us see it, I think we need to look at this passage with a fresh set of eyes. So to help us do that, I want to read those same verses to you but I want to read them from a different translation.

So let’s listen to what Jesus taught as it’s translated in The Message. Here’s what it says, starting in verse 25. It says:

6:25-26 “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

27-29 “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

30-33 “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

34 “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

Matthew 6:25-33 (The Message)

So when we read this passage from a new perspective, it sounds a little different. In this translation, Jesus doesn’t tell us not to worry. Instead, Jesus tells us that God will take care of us.

Instead of telling us not to worry, Jesus tells us that God will take care of us.

He tells us that’s what God does for the birds of the air. God takes care of them. God makes sure that they have food to eat. So we don’t need to worry about food because God will take care of us too. And Jesus tells us that’s what God does for the wildflowers in the field. God takes care of them. God makes sure that the wildflowers are more beautifully dressed than Solomon in all his splendor. So we don’t need to worry about what we’ll wear either because God will take care of us too.

But you know what, most of us never worry about what we'll be eating, or drinking, or wearing to begin with. The truth is that we live in a country today where food is readily accessible to almost everyone: there are grocery stores to shop at, or restaurants to eat at, and for a smaller number of people there are backyard gardens to choose from. Even in the height of the pandemic when the shelves in our grocery stores weren’t quite as full as we were used to, there was still plenty available to keep us fed.

The same is true when it comes to clothing. We don’t worry about clothes. We have closets and dresser drawers jam-packed with clothing. We have more shirts in our wardrobe than we could wear in a month. We have more shoes than we'll wear out in ten years. Simply put, we don't have to worry about these things.

But it was a different story when Jesus was teaching these things in the Sermon on the Mount. You couldn't run to a local grocery store to buy milk, bread, or eggs back then. You didn't have closets jam-packed with clothing. Sometimes, actually a lot of the time, you had to worry about how your belly would be filled, or if your clothing would last for another day. But those just aren’t the things that we worry about in America right now.

So do Jesus’ words still ring true today? Does God still take care of us when we’re worried about spreading a virus instead of putting food on our table? Does God still take care of us when we’re worried about being able to see our loved ones instead of having clothes in our closets?

Well, the answer to those questions is: yes. Yes, Jesus’ words are still true. Yes, God still cares for us in the face of COVID-19. Yes, God still cares for us even when our entire world feels like it’s changed.

And that’s exactly what we see if we take a closer look at the very first Thanksgiving. Now, for a lot of us when we think of the first Thanksgiving, we think about the cute little plays that our kids or grandkids have put on in the past. So we think of little boys and girls wearing construction paper costumes and pretending to be Pilgrims or Native Americans. But the cute little plays that we envision couldn’t be further from the reality of what the first Thanksgiving was like. And that’s because the first Thanksgiving wasn’t just a time when Pilgrims and Native Americans got together to celebrate an abundant harvest and to stuff themselves silly.

No, when the first Thanksgiving took place centuries ago in the Plymouth colony way back in 1621, the Pilgrims were truly thankful for every morsel of food on their table. Why?

Because the previous year—the year that the Pilgrims had actually arrived in America—they didn't have much of anything to put on their tables. They had suffered through a harsh winter with dwindling supplies, and they had watched as about half of their fellow Pilgrims died from starvation or exposure. So over the next year—as they learned to hunt and fish, to plant and harvest—they really were thankful for everything they had, because they knew what it was like to go without.

And it wasn’t just the Pilgrims who were thankful either. The Native Americans were as well. Charles C. Mann, who is an award-winning journalist and author, writes about this in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. But, according to Mann’s research, the Native Americans that gathered with the Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving were all part of the Wampanoag tribe.

And the only reason that the Wampanoag’s leader, Massasoit, had allowed the Pilgrims to land at Plymouth Rock was because of the devastating loss that his people had suffered five years earlier. Who villages had been wiped out—likely from Smallpox, which had been spread from other Europeans who had come to the shores of America before the Pilgrims arrived. But Massasoit allowed the Pilgrims to land and set up camp in his territory because what was left of his tribe was being threatened by another Native American tribe.

So Massasoit made an unconventional alliance with the Pilgrims that helped the Pilgrims establish their colony and helped Massasoit’s tribe avoid a war with a neighboring tribe.

So when the Pilgrim and the Wampanoag sat down at that first Thanksgiving, they were truly thankful. And they were truly thankful because they had seen how hard life could be...but they had also made it through. They had survived. And they had survived because God had taken care of them all.

But we don’t even have to look back to the story of the first Thanksgiving to see that God provides for us. Just think about how God has provided for our church this year. Back in January of this year, we launched a new website, we started using a new management system, and even had all of our members and regular attenders update your contact information. Now, little did we know that we’d find ourselves living through a pandemic a few months later, but because we launched a new website we were able to start worshiping online without any major problems. Because we start using a new church management software we were able to transition to online giving which has kept our church going seamlessly. And because we had you update your contact information, we were able to start making phone calls, sending texts and emails, and just stay in touch with you throughout this pandemic.

And that was just how God provided for us in January. The biggest things that have happened in our church have happened over the last couple of months. In September we finalized the sale of our old church building, and that sale has provided us with the financial resources to position our church to serve the Kingdom of God well into the future.

So, yes, it’s hard to feel thankful with everything happening in our world right now. I mean, I know it’s hard for me to feel thankful because I know that come Thursday, I won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving with my parents and siblings for the first time in my entire life. But, as I look at the way that my family has weathered the storm of COVID-19, I can be thankful that we are healthy. I can be thankful that even though I won’t be sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner at my momma’s table that I will still have food on my table. I can be thankful that God has continued to provide for me and to take care of me.

So, even though this year has been hard and even though our celebrations will look a little different this year, take time this week to reflect on how God has provided for you and taken care of you this year. And when you do, you’ll find that even in the midst of a pandemic your life is full of blessings.

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