Reflectionary

Think About These Things

Cornucopia
(A sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, Philippians 4:4-9)

It was the worst Thanksgiving ever.

In 1999, I invited some friends to come for Thanksgiving and then ended up having a major array of in-laws planning to come over, too.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, The Little Princess, then four years old, came home from her father’s house running a fever and sporting a bright red rash. She proceeded to cling to me. On Monday the doctor declared she had scarlet fever. And on Tuesday, my doctor diagnosed strep throat.

On Wednesday, I needed help to drive to the store and do the shopping, which involved two stores and a lot of leaning on the cart.

On Thursday morning we discovered that the BIGGEST! TURKEY! EVER! – though reputedly a fresh bird – had frozen on the inside while on the refrigerated truck. That’s a lot of bird to get cooked on one day, even for a 4 p.m. dinner.

It was the worst Thanksgiving ever.

Except that it wasn’t. The adult family members and friends knew each other just well enough to make it feel like a party, and the kids knew each other even better and had a great time scattering all over the house. Antibiotics had The Little Princess feeling much, much better by Thursday, and although I was exhausted, I made it through the day. #1 Son, who was then 13, rose to the occasion and helped me with everything, including running cool water into that turkey until it thawed completely.

The food turned out well, too.

It was like so many other times in our lives. Small things, and even larger things, going wrong could have ruined a happy — you fill in the blank. Sometimes the problem is not in the circumstances but in how we respond to them, in how we interpret them.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
(Philippians 4:8, NRSV)

As much as I hate to admit it, I have the capacity to ruin things for myself by looking at only what is worst about them, or even more often, what I have done wrong to make things less than perfect. There are perfectly lovely days or perfectly wonderful evenings or perfectly nice people I have failed to appreciate because I was harping on that word “perfect” and could not see that even slightly flawed occasions and individuals can be imperfectly lovely, wonderful and nice.

Of course there are people who will lie to us, or disappoint us. There are losses that will hurt us or disillusion us. There are random occurrences that will shock us or even threaten to break us.

But at the same time, there is goodness in the world.

…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

There are many people who call the church to ask for help, and sometimes having to hear their stories is painful, but I must conclude that hearing them is nothing compared to having to tell them.

“Our oil tank is empty, and when the children come home from school, there will be no heat.” That is just one of many calls I received this week, and they only got worse.

“My children’s father is in a halfway house. We’re getting divorced. He went to jail for domestic violence.” How can a person be so detached when she is the person against whom the violence was committed?

“My late husband used to beat me, and I’m disabled because of the brain damage.” How can a person tell me this story and still find something to smile about? But she did. She smiled as she told me about her daughters, one in college thanks to a scholarship, the other just turning 12 and making straight As in school.

The human spirit is harder to crush than we might think.

…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Paul is writing to the church at Philippi from prison. He’s not in jail for beating anyone, or for stealing from anyone. He is in jail for preaching the gospel, for sharing the Good News of forgiveness and love. Of all people, he had a reason to be bitter. Here he was, following the calling he could not avoid after being knocked off his feet by a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. He traveled all over the Roman world, and followed up his in-person ministry with letters from the road, shoring up the new churches with words of encouragement and exhortation and caution, too, when needed.

He wrote these words from jail.

I expect for most of us, jail would feel like the last stop on the road, a place from which nothing good could come.

But Paul knew better. He knew good work could happen anywhere and the Good News could be sent out to everyone, and he never stopped sharing it.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew better as he wrote these words in the closing of a letter from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama:

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

King spoke of his dreams, and those dreams were not based on present reality or on an assessment of the worst people are capable of being. He saw what good could come if people would find it in themselves to love one another. He believed in thinking about these things: honor and truth and the good news that love comes not just from people but from God.

Mary Oliver gives us another way to look at it:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
    keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
    astonished. *

The week ahead will be, for many of us, busy. As soon as I shake your hands this morning, I will be hopping into my car with my husband and daughter to scoop up Snowman at Beantown Airport and drive to Hiptastic University in Non-Contiguous New England State to see #1 Son play the part of Creon in Oedipus Rex. Tuesday night that son will take a train and a bus to get home to us for the holiday, and the children will divide time between our house and their father’s. There will be all sorts of possibilities for stress, misunderstandings or general crankiness right alongside the joy of being together.

Will it be the worst Thanksgiving ever? It could be, if we let it. It could be for any of us. We could let holiday traffic, or Friday shopping, or delayed planes or loneliness or unthawed turkeys ruin the spirit of the day altogether.

But my friends, whatever is false, whatever is dishonorable, whatever is unjust, whatever is tainted, whatever is dismaying, whatever is lamentable, if there is any mediocrity and if there is anything requiring condemnation, just for today, just for an hour, even just for this minute, let it go and listen to Paul, one more time.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Think about these things and give thanks. Amen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*Oliver, Mary. “Messenger,” as found in Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

10 thoughts on “Think About These Things”

  1. Very nicely done, SB…you tell stories so well, and connect them to the heart of the scripture. I really appreciate the idea that things are what we make of them, so much of it is our decision to experience something one way, instead of another….Thanks for sharing this!

Leave a Reply to Althea Agape Cancel reply