Forced Gratitude
I Thessalonians 5:16-18
First Baptist Church Laurens
November 18, 2018

In the late 1920s, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a college student. In 1928, in order to make more money for tuition, Johnson decided to take a year off from college and to teach math and history to 29 fifth, sixth and seventh grade students at the public school in Cotulla, Texas. Cotulla was an incredibly poor town as were virtually all of the students in LBJ’s classes. Many of the students came to school hungry and had very little in the way of resources. Their lives felt very isolated and cut off and their futures felt limited in their little community not far from the Mexican Border in rural south Texas.

That 1928-1929 school year was a hard one for LBJ. There really wan’t much that was glamorous about it. He was the only male teacher and beyond his classwork he also lead the school chorus, coached the softball team and worked with bpth the Drama and Debate clubs. In many ways, when the school year was over, Johnson was likely very glad to see Cotulla in his rearview mirror as he returned to college.

At the same time those first hand experiences with poverty, the challenges of the less fortunate and the lesson of what it is like to lead not in order to make a name for one’s self but in order to make a difference in the lives of others, never left LBJ. That year in Cotulla went with him, influenced some of his work on equal rights and lead him to want to return to Cotulla while he was in office as the President. In short, those months in Cotulla were not glamorous or easy but they were a moment in life for which Johnson was forever thankful. (Leadership In Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin, pages 75-76)

In all of the letters that Paul writes that make their way into the New Testament, the famous apostle strikes a similar chord. Paul doesn’t sugar coat things with any of the early church or individuals to which he wrote. Life was challenging and Paul is honest about that. At the same time, Paul repeatedly calls us to find a way to recognize the things in life for which we should be grateful and to live thankfully through it all.

As we said last week, life had been challenging for Paul in his own visit to Thessalonica. Acts tells us that Paul left the city being run out of town by a mob. Likewise, even as Paul wrote back to the Thessalonians, he understood that some there didn’t care for him. Some thought Paul was only in the work of the early church out of a belief that such work could benefit him personally and financially and thus even as he wrote to encourage the Thessalonians, Paul had to defend himself. Inspire of it, Paul was thankful. The Thessalonians were holding on to the faith, they were good partners in his work and they were making a difference in their corner for the Kingdom.

Paul is also quite clear that life wasn’t easy for the Thessalonians themselves. Among other things, the Thessalonians were dealing with two clear challenges that made church life hard. On the one hand, they had some church members in Thessalonica who had family members that were dying. This was a problem because they had been under the belief that Christianity would be a one generation movement and that they would all be alive when Jesus returned. In light of this, how were they supposed to feel about these who had passed away? Where were their souls? What now? Likewise, this letter is clear that there were some in the early church who had stopped working and who were living off of the good graces of others. This too was problematic, challenging, stressful and worrisome. How were they to handle these freeloaders who were using their newfound faith to do nothing? Yet for them too, Paul says be thankful and recognize that inspire of it all there is so much for which we can live with gratefulness.

Paul’s life was complicated. Their lives in Thessalonica were complicated. Our lives, today, in Laurens, are complicated. LBJ’s year in Cotulla was complicated. Yet, in all of it, Paul says, give thanks. Give thanks – in this and in all circumstances.

What is interesting to me is that this is not really Paul’s suggestion, it is Paul’s directive for how we should live our lives. Paul doesn’t say be thankful if you feel like it or are up to it. Instead, Paul says be thankful in all situations and circumstances no matter what. Whether you want to or not – do it.

This coming Thursday many of our family gatherings will include some sort of forced time to be grateful. This won’t happen at all of our Thanksgiving tables but it will happen at a lot of them. It will take place as we are seated at the table or when we make a circle and hold hands around the den. Just before we pray and eat, we’ll go around the table or the circle and everyone will be expected to say something for which they are thankful.

Some of us will be prepared. Even now, we know the moment is coming, we don’t like to be at a loss and we will have something ready to offer. For others of us, it will be a spur of the moment thing and if we are toward the end of the table or circle rather than the beginning that will be just perfect because while others talk we’ll have a moment to think and get something ready to say. If this is our Thanksgiving tradition, we won’t be able to take a pass. When it comes our turn and everyone is looking our way, we’ll be expected to say something. In that moment, we will be forced to be thankful, whether we want to be or not!?!
In essence, I think Paul is challenging us to treat each day in this way. To act like we don’t have an option, to live each day as if at some point it is going to be our turn to say what we are thankful for right now. As a result, in our daily prayers, right before we go to bed or when we journal in the morning, what if we forced ourselves to choose gratitude? For the truth is, life is full of things every day for which we can be thankful. Even in our hard places, our challenging circumstances, our mundane days, our tears and in our joys, life is creating out of us better people and all of it has a chance to bring out of us the people God wants us to be if we just have eyes to see it and the grateful hearts with which to receive it.

Truth be told, I don’t think we can wait til November or the week of Thanksgiving to act this way. No, we must find a way to realize that the more we live with gratitude the better off we’ll be, the better off our world will be and the better off our witness for the kingdom will be.

When I think about these three directives of Paul to be people who rejoice, pray unceasingly and give thanks in all situations, I think you can make a compelling argument that we could almost put these three ideas on a continuum for how we enter, live through and exit the moments of our lives.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, to think about life’s occasions as moments to enter with joy by greeting each occasion with hopefulness, to live through with prayer as we constantly ask for God’s wisdom, direction and way and then to exit with gratitude by finding a way to exit each occasion with some degree of thankfulness. Enter with joy. Walk through with prayerfulness. Exit with thanksgiving. This is God’s will for us.

When I spent the week on Harvester Island in Alaska a little over a year ago, we had a little meeting right before dinner on the very first night that we arrived with Duncan and Leslie Fields who own the island and who were our hosts. What I remember is that Mr. Fields led the meeting. He was kind, gracious and welcoming. He told us that after all of these years on the island as well as after several occasions of having guests visit them there, they had learned a few rules that if followed just made life better for everyone. Some of the rules were things that you could have guessed while others were rules that could only come your way with experience, trail and error. Mr. Fields assured us that if we would just trust him and follow the few rules it would be a wonderful week for everyone.

This is God’s island – God’s world. God knows best how to live best in harmony with each other here in this place God has created. Paul gives us a peek at some of these rules that just make life better for us all. Enter with joy; live through it all with prayer, exit each situation with Thanksgiving…life well lived with God and with each other, here and now. Amen.