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Based on the Scripture readings:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Philippians 4:4-9
Mark 5: 8-10

2004 November 21
Gretchen L. Elmendorf, Associate Pastor

Offering Up Thanks

I was channel flicking the other night, and I happened upon a scene that truly astounded me. Some doctors were in a hospital counseling a patient who wanted to get her nose sculpted through plastic surgery. The problem was, this was her fourth or fifth time at it, and she still wasn't satisfied. "I want my nose fixed," she said insistently, "to one of the doctors." "But you've already had it fixed several times," said one of the doctors, "and each time, the plastic surgeon did a great job. Your nose is perfect. I don't think you should go through the risks of surgery for another procedure." "You can't stop me, I want my nose fixed. It's not the way I wanted it to be." and the conversation went on and on, with the patient getting pretty hysterical. How incredibly sad.

But in these days of reality TV, of People magazine covers saying "Did she or didn't she?" and rumors about how many surgeries the likes of Michael Jackson has had, I wish I could say this woman was an anomaly. Everyone, it seems, on reality TV is fixing for a fixer upper. There's one reality show all about a day in the life of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who works 'til 11 at night, he has so many cases. Then there are shows about people getting their homes completely made over from top to bottom. There's a show called The Swan, where people go through drastic, dangerous physical overhauls and reconstructive surgery and even have things like jaws and teeth reshaped and sculpted, all to see who can be the prettiest.

It's when I come across scenes like this that I remember how truly countercultural the messages of our faith are. The woman with the multiple nose jobs was missing an ingredient central to our faith -- central to what we hear about in scripture today -- she was missing an attitude of gratitude.  A key to her happiness and to her true transformation was perhaps closer to her than even the nose on her face, so to speak. What if she lived life with a little gratitude? Can you imagine how her life would be changed if for all the times she obsessed about her ostensibly terrible nose, she replaced those thoughts with feelings of gratitude for what she already had? If she could but only count her blessings, not her nose jobs, Back to topI bet she could find the kind of transformation no plastic surgeon could even come close to achieving for her.

While I can't imagine any of us here are like many of these people on reality shows, isn't it true that we can all so easily fall into the trap and just plain forget about our blessings? Especially when we think that there's so much we need to improve upon? We tell ourselves we could look better, we could live better, and so the story goes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that if the stars came out only once a year, everybody would stay up all night just to behold them. We have seen the stars so often, we don't bother to look at them anymore. We have become accustomed to our blessings. And sometimes, we altogether forget that we have them.

The Israelites, when they came out of slavery and wilderness and got to the promised land, the Israelites not only counted their blessings, they offered them up to God in thanksgiving. Thank offerings were central to their practice and to their covenant-making with God. So the Israelites took the first fruits of their first harvest, and before even eating them themselves, set these fruits down at the altar of God, as an offering. In the words of Deuteronomy, each person said: "So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." They then set the bounty down on the altar before the Lord their God and bowed down.

The Israelites were the first in line to attribute their bounty to God but not the last. Jesus asks us to do the same. "Go, tell them how much the Lord has done for you," says Jesus to Legion after he was exorcised and healed. "Go, tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you." (Mark 5:19) What has the Lord done for you and for me of late? What bounty, what abundance do we have in our lives that come from our God? How has God been merciful to you and me? Back to topWho are we going to tell? Would we share our gratitude with our friends, our neighbors, or even strangers?

Not too long ago, a man I know was looking for his perfect job. He had been an architect for over 30 years, and now, in his late 50's, the job of his dreams had opened up. And from the way it looked, he was well positioned to get that job. So he asked me and several other friends, "Could you remember me in your prayers?  I've waited all my life for this job. I know I can meet the challenge. My wife, my children, they feel positive about this. Like this job is the one. We'd get to move to San Francisco. We're ready for change. Our kids are very excited about the possibilities." So I prayed for weeks for this friend, and so did many others. One day, after not hearing from him for awhile, he called me up to say, "I didn't get the job." He was crushed. He had been going through a hard time, but he wanted me to know something special that happened. "I knew I was being prayed for," he said, "and I can tell you, those prayers really helped." But this was obviously not the outcome he had hoped and prayed for. How did prayers help? "Because," he said, "you know, as the days passed, even though I knew there was so much on the line and my hopes were so high, I ran the risk of being let down, of being rejected, still through it all, I had the most amazing feeling. I was thankful.  I was thankful just even for the opportunity to apply for this job. I was thankful for the people who opened doors for me to get this interview. I was thankful that I had been able to work so hard in my career to even consider this possibility. I was so touched by the support of my family and friends, for the way they rooted for me. Don't get me wrong," he said, "I was disappointed, and I still am, but this feeling of gratitude. It hit me in a whole new way. It's like a buoy in my life that keeps me afloat now."

The apostle Paul says to us: "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." My friend came to know that peace. Not only did he pray with supplication for that dream job, his prayers of need and want were intermingled with prayers of gratitude, regardless of the outcome.

Not all is rosy to be sure. There are great disappointments in life; it's not so easy all the time to be thankful. Paul shows us, however, that it is possible not only to be thankful in the best of times but even in the worst of times. It's remarkable that Paul was able to write so adamantly about thanksgiving at a time when, by all appearances, he had little to be thankful about. He wrote his letter to the Philippians while in prison, and his prospects were looking dark. He was facing a trial and most probably a death sentence. He had undergone great suffering in prison and was even attacked, by one account (1 Cor. 15:32).  There was a ray of hope for Paul when one of the Philippians had sent a messenger to meet with Paul in prison and to stay by his side and be of service to him. But the messenger, no sooner had he arrived to see Paul, fell gravely ill. And to top it all off, Paul was writing a letter to people who were definitely not living on easy street. His disciples were trying to defend aBack to top

new faith under hostile rule; no doubt they were ridden with fear and anxiety.

So just imagine Paul, sitting in a cell, probably with very little light, surely not good food, most likely an uncomfortable, cramped place to sleep, if he even got sleep, few if not scarce belongings, in danger of his life, and out of that darkness he says, "Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice. Pray about everything and with every prayer, be thankful. The Lord is near."

A prayer of thanksgiving is a most powerful vehicle to God. I promise you the more you give thanks to God, you will find more to be thankful about. A prayer of thanksgiving feeds upon itself. The more you give thanks to God, you will find yourself feeling greater love and closeness to our Holy One.

Author and essayist Annie Lamont writes, there are two types of prayer. One is "help, help, help." The other is "thank you, thank you, thank you."

Over a decade ago, Erma Bombeck included in a magazine column a story entitled: "I Have Everything." She writes: 

An estimated 1.5 million people are living today after bouts with breast cancer. Every time I forget to feel grateful to be among them, I hear the voice of an eight-year-old named Christina, who had cancer of the nervous system. When asked what she wanted for her birthday, she thought long and hard and finally said, "I don't know. I have two sticker books and a Cabbage Patch doll. I have everything!" The kid is right.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Copyright 2004 Gretchen L. Elmendorf.  Used by permission.

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