Awareness and Thanksgiving

Sermon for Sunday, December 3, 2017 || Advent 1B || 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Today I’d like to talk about the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving. The theme of awareness comes from the Gospel lesson, and the theme of thanksgiving comes from the reading from Paul. Taken together, we can see a deeper truth as to how giving thanks helps keep us aware, as Jesus urges. This sermon began percolating when I was getting ready for the service on Thanksgiving Day, so a few of you heard parts of it that day. But before I get to the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving, I want to tell you about the bedtime ritual at home.

It goes something like this. Right after dinner, at 6:30 in the evening, we take the twins upstairs and brush teeth. Then we have bath time until 6:45. Then jammies and stories. And then we say our “gratefuls.” What are you grateful for today? As you might expect, the children’s answers run the gamut from the silly to the profound, but what you might not expect is that every night they turn the question back around on me. If I don’t answer, they will let me know it. “Daddy, what are you grateful for?”

Some days, something springs readily to my lips. I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with you, I’ll tell them. Or I’m grateful for getting to perform a baptism or for the yummy dinner mommy made. Other days, I open my mouth to speak and no words come out. My day flashes through my mind, and I realize I don’t remember my day well enough to find within it something I’m grateful for, something I’m thankful for. So I mumble something incoherent which satisfies the kids, and then I sing the good night songs and put them to bed, each with three kisses and an extra kiss.

It is so easy to wander through our days. It is so easy to float vaguely from activity to activity, encounter to encounter, with little forethought or reflection. It is so easy to set the autopilot, sit back, and disengage. On the flip side of the coin, it is also all too easy to be so busy that nothing receives the attention it deserves. It is all too easy to become so over-scheduled that activities overlap to such a degree that there is no space for breath or reflection.

In both cases – in both hyper-apathy and hyperactivity – the seeds of inattention are sown. In hyper-apathy the world passes us by. In hyperactivity we pass the world by. Neither state of being is fertile ground for gratitude, for thanksgiving.

The question we ask before bedtime is an antidote for both states of being. At the end of the day, I know my kids are going to ask me, “Daddy, what are you grateful for?” And I really want to have an answer for them. But to have an answer, I need not to sleepwalk through the day. I need to engage every activity, every encounter, searching for that which fills me with thankfulness. At the same time, I need not be so over-scheduled that my day becomes a blur. Practicing that question at bedtime – “What are you grateful for?” – keeps me attentive during the day. Being on the lookout for reasons to be thankful helps me stay balanced between apathy and activity.

In our Gospel reading this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus invites us to be aware, to keep alert, to keep awake. He desires nothing more than our attentiveness to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in our midst and our participation in it. He yearns for us to be prepared to serve him in any of the myriad ways he comes to us, as we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson. Recall that when we serve those who are hungry and thirsty and lonely and naked and sick and imprisoned, we serve Jesus. But it’s so easy to forget that; thus, Jesus urges our attentiveness. Be aware. Keep alert. Keep awake.

That’s the invitation and the command. That’s the what. Paul gives us the how. And he’s not even trying to. Today’s excerpt from his letter to the Corinthians comprises a few sentences that make up a common convention for letters in Paul’s day. Scholars call it a “thanksgiving paragraph.” Right after the salutation, right there at the beginning of the letter, Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind.”

Nearly all of Paul’s letters begin with a similar paragraph giving thanks for God’s presence in the lives of his correspondents. The letters begin with thanksgiving, which sets the stage for everything Paul has to say to the churches he founded. The act of giving thanks prepares his hearers for the rest of Paul’s life-giving messages.

In the same way, the act of giving thanks prepares us for our lives as followers of Jesus. It’s no coincidence that the fancy Greek word we use for our worship service – Eucharist – means “thanksgiving.” Giving thanks is the primary action of worship. And the primary reaction is greater awareness of God’s presence in our lives, the gifts God gives us, and the service God calls us into. That’s the correlation between awareness and thanksgiving. They feed into one another, creating a virtuous cycle of ever-deepening gratitude, commitment, generosity, and love.

I am so thankful for the ritual my kids and I do at bedtime, for without it, I wouldn’t have that daily reminder to keep awake and aware to God’s presence. I’ll confess, I’m prone to slipping into hyper-apathy. There have been times in my life when I’ve simply existed, rather than lived. I’d wake up. I’d go to bed. A day would have happened in between that I couldn’t remember. I felt like a child’s coloring page, forgotten after only one or two marks of the crayons. But practicing thankfulness, gratefulness helps us stay fully colored in. For when we practice these things, we are full – full of thanks, full of gratitude. And this fullness can spill from us, can overflow from us onto all we meet, especially when we are paying attention to God’s presence and God’s call on our lives.

As we begin Advent this year, as we look forward to celebrating the inbreaking of God’s presence in the embodied form of God’s love that we know as Jesus the Christ, I invite you to remain attentive. Ask God to help you resist both hyper-apathy and hyperactivity. And when you go to bed tonight imagine a pair of high-pitched, giggly three-year-old voices asking, “What are you grateful for?”


Photo by Kyle Popineau on Unsplash

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