Sermon 11-18-12: “Attitude of Gratitude, Part 3: Thanksgiving”

My Thanksgiving sermon from a couple of weeks ago, relevant for any time of year! 😉

“So even this Thursday, as some of us are drifting off to sleep in a turkey-induced coma, in front of the Lions or Cowboys game on TV, we ought to be thankful for faith and food and family… and, yes, even football. It’s all from God! And if we learn to see things that way, then we begin to grasp just how much we have to be thankful for!”

Sermon Text: Deuteronomy 8:6-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

The sad news was all over Twitter and Facebook on Friday: Hostess Brands is going out of business. I don’t know anyone today who actually eats Twinkies or Ding Dongs or Hostess Fruit Pies anymore—except when we deep-fry Twinkies at county fairs, of course! I don’t think today’s generation of kids eats these things. As one commentator in the New York Times said, American consumers want less processed foods. They want to know, quote, “the story behind their food,” unquote—which might not be a story that a Twinkie would want told.

When I was a kid, I wanted to eat Hostess snack cakes, but Mom wouldn’t buy them. Not for health reasons, mind you. It’s because they were more expensive than their southern counterpart, Little Debbie. Believe me, I ate some fake chocolate and partially hydrogenated cream-filled something or another from Little Debbie in my lunch nearly every day between first grade and seventh grade. Which means that, estimating very conservatively, I probably ate over 1,100 Little Debbie snack cakes just in my lunch alone. And, see, I lived to tell the tale! So they can’t be too bad for us, right?

One of the highlights of my kindergarten year was when my friend Matt Blue celebrated a birthday. His mom had arranged to have “Twinkie the Kid”—a man in a Twinkie cowboy suit—come to the kindergarten class and hand out Twinkies. I shared this memory on Facebook and tagged Matt, and he said he had no memory of that event. Matt, who’s now an emergency room doctor in Charleston, had an explanation for his memory loss: “Must’ve been the Yellow 5…or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil… Or ploysorbate 60.” He was joking, of course.

I’m thankful to God for good childhood memories like Twinkie the Kid coming to kindergarten class, and I’m thankful to be able to share that memory today—and laugh about it—with a friend I made 37 years ago, a friend God blessed me with 37 years ago! I’m thankful for growing up in a home in which all of my physical needs were met. I’m thankful for parents who worked hard to make sure of that—and for a country rich in natural resources and rich in opportunities to make meaningful and productive work possible. I never went to school hungry. I never came home hungry. I not only had my daily bread—I even had my daily “Swiss Cake Roll.” And for that I am thankful.

I pastored a small church in Forsyth, Georgia, when I was in seminary. There was one very large family in the church, who are some of my favorite people in the world, even though they also happen to be the biggest Georgia Bulldog fans I’ve ever known. They traveled by caravan to all Georgia games, both home and away. Every fall, when there was an away game on Saturday…there was almost zero chance that they’d be home in time to be in church on Sunday morning. I didn’t like it. When they were away, I didn’t like that there was this entire corner of the sanctuary that would be empty on Sunday morning. It didn’t look good, especially if we had visitors. Someone said to me once, “I wish they loved Jesus as much as they love the Georgia Bulldogs!” And I was like, Yeah! How dare they not come to church because of something as trivial as a football game! But then I started thinking of all the times I happily missed church because my parents were Falcons season ticket-holders! I was being a little hypocritical.

Now, I do believe that church should be our top priority on Sunday morning—and, like anything else, our attachment to something like sports can become a spiritually harmful idol. By all means. But is a football game really such a trivial thing? It’s important to me. I get a lot of enjoyment out of watching it, and following it. Do we imagine that Christians are supposed to be serious all the time, and walk around with frowns on our faces, and never let ourselves have fun? If not, then we should all agree that sports have the potential to be good.

And here’s my point: if something is good, it’s from God. Because all good things come from God, and God deserves our thanks and praise for them—even football!

I hate this idea that we live our lives as if God and Jesus and Christian faith and church are all over here, in this compartment of our lives, and things that we really enjoy, that move us, that get us excited, that fire up our imagination—like football and music and golf and movies and friendship and hobbies and our career, and whatever else—are over in this compartment of our lives. There’s sacred stuff for which we ought to be thankful to God, and then there’s all this other stuff, which God apparently has nothing to do with. No!

So even this Thursday, as some of us are drifting off to sleep in a turkey-induced coma, in front of the Lions or Cowboys game on TV, we ought to be thankful for faith and food and family… and, yes, even football. It’s all from God! And if we learn to see things that way, then we begin to grasp just how much we have to be thankful for!

Last week, a good friend called me and said, “Well, I had to get an emergency CT scan today.” And I’m like, “What?!” He said, “Yeah… I had my annual physical, and they did a blood test. Turns out some liver enzyme was at an elevated level. The doctor was afraid I might have a brain tumor. I had to go right away and get it checked out!” They did a full body scan, I’m happy to report there’s no sign of cancer anywhere. They’re investigating other, more treatable things. My friend said, “How many wake-up calls does one person need?” I thought I knew what he meant, but I said, “Say a little bit more…” He reminded that he’d already had two other traumatic or life-threatening experiences in his life—both of which should have reminded him of how incredibly precious this life is, what an amazing gift it is, how it’s not something to take for granted. Now, he said, here’s another traumatic experience.

But you know how it is… It’s like when I pass by a bad accident on the interstate, maybe a fatal accident. I say to myself, “I’m going to slow down now. I’m going to put my smartphone in the trunk, so I’m not tempted to look at it. I’m going to be a good, defensive driver the way I learned to be in driver’s ed. IPDE… Identify, predict, decide, execute. Yep, that’ll be me.” But… time passes. The feeling of shock and fear that I felt when I drove by the accident… it wears off. And I’m back to my old habits.

It was like that with my friend. It’s funny that he mentioned having a “wake-up call,” because that seems exactly right. Because when things are going well in our lives, and everything is smooth sailing, we so easily fall asleep, figuratively speaking.

This temptation to fall asleep—to take for granted our blessings, to forget about God and all the good things he’s done and is doing in our lives—is at the very heart of what Moses is talking about in today’s scripture. Deuteronomy is mostly a long sermon that Moses preached to the Israelites, as they were on the edge of the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into the Promised Land. They had endured a long journey of wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, a period during which their faith in and patience with God were severely tested. They had been through a long trial, Moses reminds them, a trial during which they hungered and thirsted and faced deadly threats all around, and they were only able to survive because God miraculously protected them and provided for them, for example, by giving them manna from heaven and water from rocks.

In today’s scripture, the Israelites are no doubt dreaming that life will be much easier than before, and maybe it will be… Moses tells them that they’ll be in a land rich in natural resources, with abundant water and vegetation. But guess what? When you enter the Promised Land, don’t think for a moment that God is finished testing you. In fact, you’re going to face a new kind of test: But it won’t be, “How will you handle poverty and danger and deprivation, as you did in the wilderness?” but “How will you handle prosperity and abundance and success now that you have a land to call your own?” Will you fall asleep, figuratively speaking? Will you forget where all this abundance comes from? Will you forget who gave it to you? Will you imagine that you did it on your own—apart from God? Will you imagine that you’re self-sufficient? Will you forget that everything that’s good in life is a gift from God our Father? Will you be thankful?

We usually think of God testing us when we go through a difficult time in our lives. Today’s scripture tells us, however, that we are also being tested when we go through good times…

When we have everything we need, God is testing us. When we land that dream job, God is testing us. When we make the grade we want, God is testing us. When we win the game, God is testing us. When we get that big promotion, God is testing us. When we get that acceptance letter from our favorite college, God is testing us. When we win that award, God is testing us. When we make a windfall profit, God is testing us. And this test consists of one question: “Will we be thankful?

Phil Niekro

Like some of you, I grew up watching the Atlanta Braves on the Superstation WTBS in the ’70s and early-’80s. My favorite player all-time baseball player is Phil Niekro, the hall-of-fame knuckleball pitcher who managed to win over 300 games on what for years was the worst team in baseball, the perpetual cellar-dwellers in the old National League West. I heard Niekro on the radio last week. He was being asked about his good friend and fellow knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the only knuckleball pitcher currently in the Major Leagues, who pitches with the Mets. Last week, Dickey won the Cy Young Award, the only knuckleball pitcher to ever accomplish that feat.

Do you know about the knuckleball? It’s a relatively slow pitch in which the pitcher puts no spin on the ball whatsoever. From the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand to the time it lands in the catcher’s glove, the ball rotates only one-quarter of a single rotation. And if it’s thrown well, the ball dances all over the place. A batter can’t predict where the ball will land—and often a catcher can’t either. Bob Euker, who used to catch Phil Niekro, said that the best way to catch a knuckleball is pick it up off the ground when it stops rolling. It’s devastatingly effective if thrown correctly. If you don’t throw it correctly, however, and the ball rotates, then it becomes this slow-moving watermelon that any average hitter can knock out of the park.

Dickey never intended to be a knuckleball pitcher. He’s 38 years old—old by big league standards. When he started his career many years earlier, he intended to overpower hitters with his fastball, but he wasn’t good enough. He spent years bouncing around the minor leagues. He suffered personal and professional setbacks. He finally switched to the knuckleball. That’s when he turned to Phil Niekro, who tutored him in the art of throwing them.

When he made the switch, both his personal and professional life turned around—which is no accident. See, Dickey is also a deeply committed Christian, and he said that God was responsible for this positive change. An interviewer asked him recently if a knuckleball pitch is a fitting metaphor for the turnaround in his life. After all, you don’t really control a knuckleball when you throw it. Mostly, it’s about “letting the ball do what it’s going to do.” In a similar way, Dickey found that true success in life comes from surrendering control of our lives to Jesus Christ and letting God do what God wants to do through us.

Phil Niekro said that moments after the Cy Young was announced, Dickey called him and said, “We did it!” Niekro said, “No, man, I didn’t do anything. You did it.” And Dickey insisted, “No, we did it. We did it. I am not a self-made man.”

That’s gratitude… If, like the Israelites, Dickey is being tested by his newfound success, it sounds like he’s passing his test. I want to pass that test, too. Don’t you? I want to be thankful.

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