Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 28, 2019
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19) Commentary
Few phrases seem harder to learn and say than, “Thank you.” After all, few responses mature more slowly than thanksgiving. In fact, gratitude hasn’t yet fully ripened in me, even after nearly more than sixty-one years’ worth of reasons for feeling it. I, after all, naturally assume that I deserve nearly everything I have.
So Paul’s words in our text about living out our faithful relationship with Jesus Christ by overflowing with thankfulness are challenging. Most of us recognize, after all, that thanksgiving barely trickles, much less overflows out of us.
But does it really help anyone to have even the apostle Paul tell us to “overflow” with “thankfulness” (7)? I borrowed the structure of this sermon commentary from Lewis Smedes. He was a thoughtful Christian moral philosopher who wrote a wonderful little book entitled, A Pretty Good Person.
In it he notes that God’s adopted sons and daughters know that we should overflow with thankfulness because every good thing we have is a loving gift from our generous God. We also understand that ingratitude easily stops the flow of gifts. It tempts to hoard the gifts we’ve received instead of letting some of them pass through our hands into the sometimes-empty hands of others.
How then might we, in Smedes’ words, prime the pump of thankfulness to God? He suggests that we learn to celebrate what sometimes seem to us like God’s imperfect gifts. We might think about it this way: a young child brings you a clay pot she’s lovingly formed with her own hands. That pot may not sit squarely on the table. It may have garish colors. The pot may be, in other words, imperfect. Yet because it’s a gift from someone you love who loves you, you’re thankful for it.
If God’s beloved people wait for God’s gifts to perfectly match what we want in order to be thankful for them, we’ll never be thankful on this side of the new creation. If we only feel thankful for perfect spouses, well-adjusted children and booming retirement accounts, we’ll never be thankful, much less overflow with thankfulness.
If God’s dear children wait until God gives us complete health, a totally satisfactory job, and a plethora of friends to thank God, we’ll never give thanks. So those who overflow with thanks to God learn to give thanks for even the flawed friends, mediocre meals and drafty houses God gives us.
Those who overflow with thankfulness to God also, however, learn to say some thanks to God. There are times when God gives God’s people gifts that we’d rather return. Yet we discipline ourselves to say, “thank you” to the Lord for them anyway.
C.S. Lewis insisted that the line between pretending to feel thankful and actually feeling thankful is “too thin for even a moral bloodhound to sniff.” So we don’t know how expressing the thanks to God that we don’t necessarily feel primes the pump for our thanksgiving to actually overflow.
However, the American humorist Garrison Keillor once said that we’d all be better off if we started each day by giving thanks for even just one thing. Those who want to overflow with thankfulness learn to start each day by sometimes swallowing hard and saying thanks to God.
Some people I know served their pastor a cup of coffee and piece of pumpkin pie. The baker, however, was too inexperienced to put in enough sugar to adequately sweeten the pie. Yet the pastor simply dumped some sugar on the pie and graciously said something like, “It tastes fine to me.” It was his way of saying, “Thank you,” even though he may not have felt fully grateful for his tart piece of pie.
Those who want to overflow with thankfulness carve time out of every day to breathe out a thank you to God for God’s good gifts. God’s adopted children make it a habit of saying, “Thank you, Lord,” trusting that the Spirit will somehow use it to deepen our gratitude to God.
Those who overflow with thankfulness to God, moreover, understand that we’re always thankful to God in spite of something else. An adult son of a congregation we served died of complications of AIDS. His aging parents deeply grieved his death, even as they failed to fully understand its cause.
The presence of the man some of us later learned was their son’s partner cast a kind of shadow over the proceedings. It was one of the grimmest funeral processions I’ve ever led.
And yet it happened on one of those fall days when you could almost see God’s fingerprints all over what God had created. The leaves were turning golden and blazing red. The sky was so blue it almost made your eyes hurt to look at it. I found that I could be at least a bit grateful for all that beauty even though people I loved were in so much pain.
Smedes writes, “The world is too bent for unshadowed joy.” So if Jesus’ followers wait for all hungry children to be fed before we thank God for our daily bread, we’ll never give thanks. If we wait for every homeless person to have a roof over her head before we thank God for our homes, we’ll never be thankful.
Finally, those who overflow with thankfulness to God realize that gratitude often comes in the wake of anxiety. Psalm 107 is a litany of thanksgiving of those whom God delivered from some kind of trouble. In verses 23 and following, for example, the poet describes those “who went out to the sea in ships … [and] saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves … in their peril their courage melted … they were at their wits’ end … then … the Lord brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper.”
The most appropriate response to such salvation? In Psalm 107:31 the poet writes, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds among men. Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders.”
Many of us who proclaim Colossians 2 and as well as hear it live in a culture that anxiety deeply plagues. Most of our contemporaries will do anything to escape that anxiety. Yet we’ll never know full release from that anxiety until we experience its pain first.
Then once God has healed that pain, we have room and reason to express our thankfulness. In fact, gratitude can seem to almost burst out of us after God rescues us from some kind of trauma.
God has graciously given God’s beloved people countless reasons to overflow with gratitude to the Lord. So we give thanks to the Lord. We also teach children to say thanks to God. Through the Holy Spirit’s work, some of that thanks may even spill over onto the lives of the people who are among God’s gifts to us.
In A Pretty Good Person Smedes tells of growing up in a materially very poor home. One year his single mother told his family that they couldn’t afford a chicken for their Thanksgiving dinner. So, she announced, they’d have a nice pot roast instead.
Smedes, however, didn’t take the news of a Thanksgiving pot roast very well. He knew, after all, that his buddies would boast about how much chicken they’d eaten on Thanksgiving. Smedes also knew that when they’d ask him about how much chicken he’d eaten, he’d have to admit that he’d eaten pot roast.
“Pot roast? On Thanksgiving Day?” Smedes imagined his buddies howling. “What kind of nutty family have you got?” In one of the book’s most memorable lines, Smedes wrote, “In our neighborhood, if a kid’s mother was too poor to buy a holiday chicken, his status was under a cloud.”
So how did Smedes react to the prospect of having pot roast instead of chicken for Thanksgiving dinner? Did he thank God for something to eat when so many others had little or none? No, Smedes whimpered. He whined. Smedes says he did everything he could to make his poor mom feel sorry for him.
So on the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving his mom trudged the half-mile to the local butcher shop. There she bought what was among the store’s very last fat hens.
Smedes’ mom brought the chicken home, laid it on the kitchen table and announced, “There, we’re going to have chicken tomorrow.”
This prompted Smedes’ serious-minded older sister to turn on him. “See what you went and made her do?” she stormed. “I hope you’re grateful.” By which, Smedes adds, she meant, “I hope you feel rotten.” Smedes says he did feel rotten … but not grateful. What he felt was guilt for twisting his mom around his ingratitude. It did Smedes no good to know that he should be thankful.
And yet we basically understand why Paul invites his letter’s hearers and readers to overflow with thankfulness. We recognize that ingratitude warps our thoughts and attention. Smedes says it bends them away from God and each other and back in on ourselves. Ingratitude pays far more attention to what we assume we should have than to what we do have. It focuses our thoughts on what we’ve not received rather than on what we have received.
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