November 24, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BEST WORD
Mark Twain made a lot of money and lost a lot of money in the course of his lifetime. When he was at the peak of his popularity, he could sell one of his books for $5 a word. We can do the math on that. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has 110,793 words. At $5 a word, that comes in at $553,965. He lost all that and more. He was broke 10 years before his death. But he managed to build his estate back up to just over the half million dollar mark before he died.
Back in his heyday, someone read that he was actually being paid $5 a word. This person sent him a five dollar bill in the mail. Along with the money was a very short note. “Dear Mr. Twain: Enclosed is $5. Please send me your best word.” Mark Twain answered with an even shorter note. “Thanks.”
It is the best word! And some people say that Thanksgiving is the best holiday. It’s their favorite. It’s even better than Christmas. Christmas has all the commercial trappings. Christmas has all the expectations that often drive us to excess. But Thanksgiving is more of a pure holiday. It’s all about being thankful. Thankful for your blessings. Thankful for your family. Thankful for a warm home. Thankful for a good meal. Thankful for a good nap after the good meal. It’s the best holiday because it’s all about the best word. Thanks.
The Bible is filled with this best word. The words “thank”, “thanks”, “thanksgiving”, “thankful”, and “thank you” are found 535 times in the Bible. And you’re probably wondering how I found time to write a sermon and also count all the words in Huckleberry Finn and all these forms of the word “thanks” in the Bible. Computers can be time savers as well as time wasters!
When it comes to choosing the scripture for Thanksgiving Sunday, there are many possibilities. Psalm 75 is one of the many. “We give thanks to you, God. Yes, we give thanks!” Thanksgiving is not the theme of this Psalm. It’s actually a little hard to find a clear theme in this particular Psalm. Verse 2 is the most memorable verse. “God says, ‘When I decide the time is right . . . ‘ ” It’s a good reminder that it is God who decides when the time is right. In our haste, we can be in too big a hurry. Or in our fear, we can drag our feet. Life is all about timing — getting in sync with God’s time, which is always the right time for things to happen.
That’s verse 2. We find several other sub-themes as we continue through this Psalm. It’s not one that lends itself well to a verse by verse expository sermon. But it makes one point very well — it is always a good idea to begin with thanksgiving. Whatever else might come next, saying “thanks” is the best way to start. And so Psalm 75 begins in exactly the right way: “We give thanks to you, God. Yes, we give thanks!”
We give thanks in at least three ways. First, we give thanks for other people. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude, one we can never fully repay, to other people. We are all like that turtle resting on top of a fence post. Whenever you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you can know one thing for sure. He didn’t get there by himself!
If we were ever to make a list of all the people who have helped us in life, it would be a long list. From those who literally saved your life, to those who just made your life a little more pleasant. And of course there are so many others in between those extremes. We have many people to thank.
It’s always a good idea to pay your debts promptly. It’s best to be generous with that word “thanks” as we go through life. Every time someone does something nice for you, say “thanks.” I am thankful that “please” and “thank you” are not hard words for me to say. They were drilled into my head as a child. I don’t even have to think about saying these words. They just come out naturally. And I am grateful that that is the case with most of the people I meet. Good manners work wonders in social settings. It feels good to say that simple word “thanks” but it also feels good to hear it.
But, try as we might to be polite and express appreciation as we go through life, invariably we miss some of those opportunities and we look back with regret. Sometimes it’s too late to thank those people we didn’t thank at the time. But sometimes it isn’t.
Some not so young friends were sharing childhood memories and one of them remembered with gratitude a certain teacher. Her name was Mrs. Simpson. She had introduced this man to Alfred Lord Tennyson. He explained how that love for great literature had opened doors for him and had a lot to do with the person he had become.
He was asked if Mrs. Simpson even knew she had made such an impact on his life. He thought for a moment and said, “She probably doesn’t. I never told her.”
He was encouraged to look her up and write her a letter. Of course, the first thought was that it might be too late. But he was relieved to find out she was still very much alive. He got her address. He did write her a letter. And she wrote back.
My dear Willie:
I remember well your enthusiasm for Tennyson and the Idylls of the King when I read them to you, for you were so beautifully responsive. My reward for telling you about Tennyson did not have to wait until your belated note of thanks came to me in my old age. I received my best reward in your eager response to the lyrical beauty and the idealism of Tennyson. You will be interested to know that I taught school for fifty years and, in all that time, yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered my lonely old heart as nothing has cheered me in years.
“Thanks” is a powerful word. It holds great power, both for the one who says it and for the one who hears it. Is there a “thank you” letter you need to write? It may be long overdue. I can’t think of a better way to get yourself ready spiritually to celebrate Thanksgiving this week.
Second, we give thanks for life. That we are still alive, kicking and breathing and paying taxes is no small thing. It’s an easy thing to take for granted. Do we say thanks every day for life?
Now I am just the right age that a certain song that came out in 1971 is part of the sound track of my life. When I think how grateful I am that God has seen fit to give me yet one more day of life, I often think of a band called “Rare Earth”. Let’s listen to just part of their signature song.
(YouTube: “I Just Want to Celebrate”, Rare Earth TKV)
There was a movie a few years ago called “The Trip to Bountiful”. It’s about an older woman who, before she dies, wants to go back to the house, farm, and small town where she grew up. It’s in Bountiful, Texas. Her son and daughter-in-law won’t let her travel alone, but she goes anyway. They report her missing. Eventually they find her with the help of the police. She’s almost made it to Bountiful, but not quite. The local sheriff is moved by how important this pilgrimage is to her, so he offers to drive her the rest of the way.
As it turns out, there is hardly anything left of Bountiful. It’s a ghost town now. The house she grew up in is still standing, but just barely. No one lives there anymore or has lived there for a long time.
It’s a bittersweet moment. The childhood memories come flooding back. She scoops up some soil and lets it fall through her fingers. She says, “I am so happy, so content.” And you realize the “Bountiful” in the movie is not a place. It is a condition of the heart.
Do you have a bountiful heart? Is your heart full of gratitude?
Don’t make the mistake of postponing gratitude. Don’t make the mistake of saying, “I’ll be grateful when I have reason to be grateful.” You have reason to be grateful right now. You are alive. So celebrate another day of living!
Third, we give thanks to God. We acknowledge that God is the reason we are alive. God is the reason we have reason to be thankful. When we thank other people, we are really thanking God. Because God is the reason these people who have blessed our lives are able to bless our lives. Every single blessing we enjoy is there because of God. It’s all a gift.
Like all of our holidays, Thanksgiving has become secularized. It has been separated from its spiritual roots. When the story of the Pilgrims is told, the part faith played in their pilgrimage is usually left out. When the story of Abraham Lincoln’s “Thanksgiving Proclamation” is told, his many references to God are hardly ever emphasized. That proclamation, by the way, was issued in 1863, making this the 150th anniversary. We’ve heard a lot about the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, even more about the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, but very little about the 150th anniversary of the Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Of course, it’s good to have a holiday where no one is left out. You don’t have to be a Christian, you don’t even have to believe in God to celebrate Thanksgiving. “Thanks” is not a word reserved for people who give thanks to God. Gratitude is a good thing whether you believe in God or not.
So there is room at the Thanksgiving table for everyone. That’s actually a big part of the Thanksgiving story. The Pilgrims were Separatists in England. That means they wanted to have their own church separate from the Church of England. They wanted to have the freedom to practice their faith however they wanted to without their government getting in the way.
They soon learned it was impossible to be Separatists in England. The persecution was just too great. So they moved to Holland, which was better, but still not what they were looking for. Finally, they decided to cross the Atlantic in search of a new home where they could truly be free.
The freedom they sought and found here became the foundation of our nation. Freedom to worship as we choose. And freedom to not worship at all. If you want to be an atheist, there is no better place on earth to be one than the United States of America. Your freedom is guaranteed in our Constitution. And Thanksgiving is for you, too. It’s for all of us.
But there is a curious contradiction when it comes to believing in gratitude and not believing in God. Bart Ehrman identified this contradiction in one of his books (God’s Problem, page 128).
Bart Ehrman, by the way, has an interesting story. As a teenager, he was on fire for Jesus. Somehow, that fire went out and he now identifies himself as an agnostic. Atheists say there is no God. Agnostics say they don’t know whether there is a God or not. But even though he no longer considers himself a Christian, he is one of our foremost authorities on the New Testament. He has written a number of books that have sold very well. I was first introduced to him as he was being interviewed on the radio. I was very impressed.
I have a lot of respect for Bart Ehrman. He has reached a different conclusion about faith than I have, but he has a lot of integrity as far as I am concerned. His scholarship has advanced our understanding of the Bible. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend his books.
But here’s the contradiction for a non-believer on a day like Thanksgiving: Bart Ehrman says he has a fantastic life and he feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude that this is the case. But he has no one to thank! He writes, “This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it.” Well, I could suggest a plausible way of filling that void, but it would mean he would no longer be an agnostic!
God is the source the blessings in our lives. And being able to thank God is one of those blessings! It’s a blessing to know who to thank.
The prayer before we eat on Thanksgiving Day is always a special prayer. It’s a special moment. I often am called upon to offer that prayer. It’s always a privilege. And I am thankful I know who to thank.
It’s the best word. It’s a word we can’t use too often. And it’s best of all when directed to God. “We give thanks to you, God. Yes, we give thanks!”
So God, thanks! As we approach another Thanksgiving, may our hearts be bountiful. May we be filled with gratitude. And may our gratitude for all that we have been given overflow into love and concern for those who have less. For it’s not just thanks you want us to give. Make us thankful people who are also giving people. We now give to you our gifts. In so doing, we are saying “thanks.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.