Theologian Walter Brueggemann points out that the observance of Thanksgiving reminds us that life is a gift.
Thanksgiving is a contradiction of the values of a market economy that imagines we are self-made and can be self-sufficient. When we give thanks, we commit an act of defiance against the seductions of our society. . . We may sing all kinds of patriotic songs and feast to satiation on Thanksgiving Day. Beyond all of that is our acknowledgement that life is a gift that evokes response. We are never self-starters. The drive for self-sufficiency is an unnecessary and futile idolatry.
Enjoy family, friends, and a bountiful feast on Thanksgiving. Then, sometime during the day, find a place where you can be alone and quiet for half and hour or so. Take a pen, some paper, and this quotation with you. Read it over a few times and then make a list of things that make your life what it is because God and others have blessed you – evidence that you are not self-sufficient. Say a prayer of thanksgiving over that list and think of ways to express your gratitude to whomever else is on the list. Do it right away before the pressures of everyday life make you forget.
Here is a video meditation for your Thanksgiving on a text by Brian Wren with piano accompaniment arranged and performed by Tom Howard.
And here is the Collect for Thanksgiving Day from The Book of Common Prayer.
Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that worship attendance is declining. This applies to most mainline Churches in general and to The Episcopal Church in particular. We're even beginning to see worship attendance decline in evangelical megachurches. Given the fact that participation in corporate worship is almost universally regarded as of the utmost importance among Christians, this downward trend seems odd. What's wrong with this picture? Let's review the teaching that has been handed down to us.
Scripture - The First Commandment is “You shall love God with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your might.” The Second Commandment tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the foundation for the biblical conviction that the life of faith begins in and is sustained through Divine Worship. Love for our neighbor stems from our love for God. Such love is costly. It requires something of us. So has God's love for us. In divine worship, we respond to God's love for us and reaffirm our desire to love others in the way that God has loved us. In order to love like that, we need God's help and the primary source of that help comes through the experience of corporate worship. That is a thread that runs through the biblical revelation from cover to cover.
Tradition - The Episcopal Catechism describes weekly corporate worship as a “duty of all Christians” in which “we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.” In The Baptismal Covenant, we vow with God’s help, to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” The canons of The Episcopal Church make the expectation very clear: "All persons within this Church shall celebrate and keep the Lord's Day, commonly called Sunday, by regular participation in the public worship of the Church, by hearing the Word of God read and taught, and by other acts of devotion and works of charity, using all godly and sober conversation" (Canon II.1).
Why is our worship so important to God and what does worship do for God? It is impossible to say. However, it is not impossible to say what worship does for us. Archbishop William Temple said it this way: “This world can be saved from political chaos and collapse by one thing only, and that is worship. For to worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”
Reason - People instinctively assign values, attach loyalties, and establish priorities. As we mature we expand upon those instincts and become more and more intentional through the operation of reason and the human will. It is natural, normal, and healthy for people to worship. Martin Luther said that whatever our heart clings to and relies upon is our god. Everything on Archbishop Temple's list of benefits of worship is necessary for a healthy life and vital faith. Whatever else we may decide to do on a Sunday, nothing benefits us more than corporate worship. Likewise, our private daily prayers sanctify the time, life, and space we share with our neighbors.
Experience - I should also mention that there is strength in numbers. The Greek word for Church in the New Testament is ekklesia. We usually say it means "assembly." It does, but even more it means a"n assembly that has been summoned out." God has summoned us to assemble in worship, yet on an average Sunday in America, approximately one-third of the members are in worship and that is slipping. Empty or less-than-half-full houses of worship speak for themselves. And what do they say? Take your pick from a wide array of possibilities, all of which suggest a weakening of fervor and devotion among Christians. What difference will that kind of message make to the enemies of God or to those who are seeking a deeper relationship with God? It just makes sense that full churches send a different message; one of strength and vitality.
So, what's the problem? - If scripture, tradition, reason, and experience call us to worship God and show us the benefits for the living of our lives, why is worship declining?Here are a few thoughts about that.
Dominence of Culture - Perhaps we have given our culture with its emphasis on consumerism, entertainment, status, and options too much power over our worship habits. We excuse ourselves or place the blame on various aspects of our secular culture: soccer, two-career households, visiting out-of-town relatives, T-time at the golf course, fatigue from a stressful week at work, the only day to sleep in, and the list goes on.
Erosion of Christian Identity - The Incarnate Christ calls us “Light” “Salt” and “Leaven” meaning we are expected to transform culture, not the other way around. Our influence starts when we refuse to compromise our allegiance to God, starting with corporate worship. Who we are and whose we are is defined and refined week by week as we gather in worship.
Competing Loyalties - Most important of all, the heart of our worship has to do with our relationship with our Savior. I remember a poster that was popular in the 1970's. It had a glass of wine and loaf of bread sitting atop a white cloth and the inscription, "Jesus of Nazareth cordially invites you to a banquet given in his honor." Our relationship with him is nourished and sustained through Word and Sacrament at a banquet at which he himself is our host.
Is that so strange or difficult to understand? Do you share meals with your family and friends? Is it important to them for you to show up at those meals? Does it impress them that you have excuses for your frequent absences? Do you think they might eventually begin to believe they are not as important to you as other people, pursuits, or possessions?
Relationships require something of us, especially the most important ones. Our actions provide the evidence of the truth of what we say about those relationships. "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action" (I Jn. 3:18). Worship is "walking the talk." Your family and others who are watching how your faith is expressed in your life will know if you are telling the truth.
Skirting the Issue - One of the best selling religious books of our era is The Purpose Driven Life, by Pastor Rick Warren. Pastor Warren guides readers through a forty-day spiritual journey in search of life's purpose. The first words he has to say on the first day of the journey are these: "It's not about you." The rest of the journey is dedicated to the biblical revelation that we were born by God's purpose and for God's purpose. Along the way, he describes the necessity of worship, the heart of which is surrender to this God and his purpose for our lives.
This message is bound to rub people the wrong way. That may be a good thing because that reaction may prompt reflection on values and priorities. Even though I'm in the company of a best selling author, I am aware that the Prophets were run out of town and stoned for calling God's people back to worship. Jesus was crucified for saying things like, "The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him" (Jn. 4:23).
Most of us who have been in ordained ministry for awhile have tried all of the less direct, "kid glove" approaches and they are not effective. We've tried to fix our sermons, our music, and our wardrobe to make things more "convienient," "appealing," and "entertaining." We've set attendance goals, assumed much of the blame for the behavior of people given into our care, and tried numerous gimmicks to coax the faithful to worship. And still, worship in our churches continues to decline.
So, let's try the direct approach. We have not been completely honest and we have not served the flock of Christ well by shading the truth. One of the most important and helpful things a pastor can do is tell you this:
God wants you to adjust your life so you can be there when your Church gathers for divine worship!
God will be pleased, it will strengthen the Church, it will enrich you spiritually, and it will help you love others. There is no substitute for worship.
How to Get Started - If you are still with me and have concluded that worship needs to be a greater priority in your life and that of your household, you may be wondering how to proceed. Here are some ideas.
Some may be able to simply decide to be there every Sunday unless prevented by some major physical difficulty like illness, disability, or you're snowed in.
Others may make a commitment to make a more gradual change during the next year. For example, If you attend corporate worship once a month, try twice; if you worship twice a month, try three times; or, just decide that you will worship twice as often.
Some may have a job or signficant obligations to others that make Sunday morning attendance extremely difficult or impossible. If changing your job or work schedule or finding a substitute for a couple of hours most Sundays is not possible, let your pastor know you'd like to help start a service at another time. Most of us will listen and try to find a way to make that work!
Most church members could double their worship attendance and still not be there every Sunday of the year. I'm not a mathematician, but I believe I'm correct in suggesting that if places of worship are typically two-thirds empty and we doubled attendance, our churches would then be two-thirds full. Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience tell us that would be a good thing for God, for the People of God, and for the world God so loved that he sent his only begotten Son. It could be the beginning of another Great Awakening in the hearts and minds of Christians.
Whatever you do to improve your participation in corporate worship will be a step in the right direction. It is time to reverse the trend and it has to start with a new commitment on the part of the believer. This is a call to worship.
Therefore, I join St. Paul in extending this invitation to those born of water and the Spirit, who bear the Name of Christ: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect” (I Cor. 12;1-2).
I have a great old rolltop desk in my study. There are a number of treasures on my desk, including a small stone. This stone was given to me by a dear friend and colleague, The Rev. Jim Nelson, rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Friendswood, Texas. He gave me the stone to remind me of a parable he tells.
A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But, a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. "I've been thinking," he said. "I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone." Sometimes it's not the wealth you have but what's inside you that others need...A Precious Gift inside you.
I believe that the wise woman had the inner gift of generosity and I pray to receive it every single day when I see the stone my friend Fr. Jim gave me.
The Canons of The Episcopal Church list thirteen specific duties of Rectors and Priests-in-Charge. Among those thirteen duties is the duty “to ensure that all persons are instructed concerning Christian stewardship, including: reverence for the creation and the right use of God’s gifts; generous and consistent offering of time, talent, and treasure for the mission and ministry of the Church at home and abroad; the biblical standard of the tithe for financial stewardship; and the responsibility of all persons to make a will as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer” (Canon III.9.5.a.2).
My performance of this duty has never required a canon as motivation! As far as I am concerned, the ability to be stewards is a gift of God that distinguishes human beings from all other creatures. It is a privilege to exercise that gift as an expression of faith in the Creator. There’s no more important priestly work than that of helping those given into our care to develop a healthy relationship with their possessions.
Our Lord had the same conviction. More than half of his sayings concern possessions. He wanted to liberate people from bondage and knew that our possessions have a way of possessing us. If you don't think you've given your possessions power over you, take a moment and consider how you've felt about them - or the loss of them - during the last couple of years. Jesus mission was to restore us to unity with God and one another, so he spent a lot of time helping people sort out their relationship with whatever estranges us – mainly, our possessions. He has entrusted that mission to us.
The invitation to make an annual "pledge" to God for the work of the Church is an opportunity to take a step toward healing our relationship with our possessions. We are invited to make a new commitment concerning what we will give to God, in acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty over our stuff.
One expression of stewardship is to practice tithing, the ancient biblical custom of returning to God one-tenth of what God has entrusted to us. Gay and I learned to tithe from the clergy who taught us in our childhood and from our parents. We do not regard tithing as a law or obligation, but as a spiritual discipline that helps us maintain a healthy relationship with our possessions so that they will have less interference in our relationships, so that we will be free to be stewards. To us, it is a precious vocation and we commend it to you as you consider your stewardship decision. We grew into tithing by starting with a percentage we could live with and then adjusting our lives so we could add at least 1% annually until we reached 10%. We now regard that tithe as God’s. Amazingly, the remaining 90% has always been enough.
Whatever we have, whether spent or saved or given away, is a sacred trust from God. We believe the least we can do is return the first portion of it – for us, a tithe – to God who has entrusted 100% of it to us to invest it in those things that further God’s ongoing Creation. We invite you to join us.
I love congregational singing. Those who know me well will tell you that I seldom meet a hymn I haven't sung or at least heard. The idea of learning a new hymn always appeals to me and I have irritated folks along the way by suggesting that they should enjoy singing a new song as much as I do.
Of all the hymns I love to sing, those written by Charles Wesley are my favorites. In the course of his career, Charles Wesley published the words to more than 6,000 hymns. He also wrote the words to another 2,000 that were not published. I am grateful that the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church includes 24 of his hymns.
At Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky, where I am serving as Interim Rector, the Organist-Choirmaster normally selects the hymns for our services. Yesterday, the opening hymn he selected was a Charles Wesley hymn that I don't recall ever singing. O Thou Who Camest From Above is traditionally sung to the tune Hereford, which was coomposed by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Charles Wesley's grandson. Both the words and the music were a very pleasant surprise for me and I would like to share them with you.
O Thou Who camest from above, The pure celestial fire to impart, Kindle a flame of sacred love Upon the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for Thy glory burn With inextinguishable blaze, And trembling to its source return, In humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire To work and speak and think for Thee; Still let me guard the holy fire, And still stir up Thy gift in me.
Ready for all Thy perfect will, My acts of faith and love repeat, Till death Thy endless mercies seal, And make my sacrifice complete.
Here is a recording of the Choir of Rochester Cathedral singing the hymn.
I hope this hymn makes your heart glad today.
P.S. This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Samuel S. Wesley's birth.
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