There’s this funny thing about being United Methodist in the 21st century. Do you remember 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon? The pop culture version of our connected world. Back in the 50s (pretty soon we’re going to have to say “1950s”, someone did a study of how many connections it would take to link a person randomly picked from a phone book in one city to another person randomly licked from a phone book in another city. 6 was all it took.
And the big takeaway from that is really, “when was the last time you used a phone book?”
Anyway, the funny thing about being a United Methodist in the 21st century is that number is, I’d say, 3 or 4 at the most.
We are more connected than ever as a society, and United Methodists even moreso!
Geoff and I went to highschool together. We were also in UMYF and Boy Scouts together. Then we went off to school – me to Southwestern and him to A&M.
I saw him once after that – he happened to be passing near Wilmore, Ky., when I was in seminary there, so we had a visit. In the late 80s. Next time I heard from Geoff was following 9-11. He had been at the pentagon when the plane hit it. He was safe.
Then, another decade or so, now we’re connected on social media. You know how that goes, a flurry of interaction, then pleasantries, then back into regular life.
Then Geoff messages me. He’s retired Navy, settled in Georgia. I said we had been in scouts together. Well, the message was that his son’s troop had sent a team to Philmont scout ranch in northern NM, and one of the kids had sickle cell anemia, which doesn’t react well with high altitudes. So that boy, half a continent from home and family, had been rushed to a hospital in Albuquerque.
Did I know someone who could check on him?
Why, yes; my mind went quickly to several United Methodist clergy friends in Albuquerque. And also, as it happens, to my mother in law. A deeply committed, lifelong United Methodist, and certified Spiritual Director.
Donna Berry, Rachel’s mother, my mother-in-law, visited the scout in the hospital.
Thank God for connections and connectedness! Thank God for opportunities to do small things with great love for people you haven’t seen in 2 decades and for people you never have and never will meet!
I have no doubt you have some similar story; We live in such a connected world that if we simply pay attention, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God can work in us and through us to bless and encourage and comfort others.
And, of course, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God works in others to bless and encourage and comfort us.
But this is 2017. Almost 2018. We travel without a thought. Few of us have lived here all our lives, and those who have have likely visited lots of other places. And met many other people.
So, nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul was quite a traveller, but he didn’t have social media. To be fair, he did, but his social media was letters and couriers.
At this point, Paul has never been to Rome. He has travelled much of the empire, and he has planted churches.
He has travelled to Jerusalem – headquarters – to argue for accepting the gentiles into a faith that started entirely Jewish. His argument won the day, we learned last week, against those who said new gentiles Jesus-followers had to obey the law of Moses. “They and we are saved the same way; by the grace of Jesus.”
So, now, in the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, why does he thank God for the Romans? He hadn’t been there. He didn’t know them.
As you know if you have spent any time in this letter to the Romans, Paul has some things he wants to teach them. He is committed to helping them clear up some misunderstandings.
But before correcting them, or even beginning to teach them, he gives thanks for them.
Do we give thanks for people we have never met? Do we give thanks for people we feel obligated to teach, to correct and direct and educate?
Today, we do. If we want the gospel to be good news for us, we do. If we want the Gospel to be good news for others through us, we do. We give thanks!
Our willingness to give thanks helps make the gospel good news.
And let me be clear, because giving thanks too easily degenerates into listing the stuff or benefits we have.
Giving thanks is not just being able to list stuff – as though our relationship with God, or our mental or spiritual health rises and falls with what we have.
In another of Paul’s letter, Philippians, he thanks for Philippians for their support:
10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.)
Then he expands upon his thankfulness:
11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. 14 Still, you have done well to share my distress.
Paul isn’t grateful simply for the collection the Philippians have taken up and sent on. He is grateful for the connection with them; the encouragement he received from knowing them and spending time with them.
He is, in fact, thankful whether in need or having more than enough, whether hungry or full, whether having plenty or being poor.
Is that how thankfulness works?
Yes. Yes it is.
If we can learn to, and practice, being thankful and expressing thankfulness, no matter our situation, thankfulness works on our behalf.
Learning to be thankful people makes us better people. Learning to be thankful people brings us closer to God.
Did you catch what Paul said here? He is responsible to Jews and Greeks, to the wise and the foolish.
It’s like Paul has really, truly learned to be thankful in everything. He may or may not know that he’ll end up in Rome because, after his arrest, he appeals to Caesar to get his trial moved there.
This is the man who wrote “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” He has learned how to rejoice in the Lord always.
He has learned the power of giving thanks.
Like Tina Kennedy. Tina’s story comes from Christian Smith’s The Paradox of Generosity. Tina lives on welfare, having suffered a spinal injury in childbirth, and so lost her job as a cosmetologist. After giving birth to one of her children, the child’s father left her for another woman, one of her good friends. She recalls that time as a particularly dark chapter in life. It was not easy, but she did find a way to move past the pain and forgive her boyfriend, her good female friend, and the doctors responsible for her injury. Instead of letting bitterness take root, she remains thankful for what she has. “I had to regroup, regroup, re-evaluate things, where you put your priorities and things of life. But overall, TIna says, I’m blessed, and that’s why I keep my strength. I have life to be thankful for, you know?” Even though she could easily be overwhelmed by her health, financial, and romantic setbacks, she still generously reaches out to other people, by providing aid to extended family members and volunteering much of her time to local schools.
Smith tells us that “It is difficult to be angry, resentful, depressed, or fearful when one is showing selfless love toward another person. Such loving acts neutralize negative emotions that stimulate physiological responses known to adversely affect immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions.”
Learning to live thanksgiving isn’t just good for your physical body; It’s also good for your soul.
Learning to live thankfully, developing an attitude of gratitude, is good for body and soul – and thus, also – for the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the Church!
Learning to live thankfully is good for the church!
Paul began this section giving thanks for people he’d never met. He closes this section with these words – right after he mentions his responsibility to jews and Greeks, wise and foolish, he says:
That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.
He’s ready! Ready to preach the Gospel. The Gospel which is, by the way, God’s own power for salvation!
That’s some good news! The Good news of Jesus Christ, which is good news for all of us, is God’s power for salvation – for everyone!
And God’s righteousness, God’s goodness, is revealed in the gospel: that people are to live by faith.
Part of living by faith is learning to live thankfully. Give thanks this week. May this week be a step for you in the direction of living thankfully year around.
When we learn to live thankfully year around, it is good for our bodies, and our souls, and our church.
Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the Holy One….