This afternoon I offer you my meditation on three verses that I have a “work-in-progress” relationship with. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) Really…?
I suppose I can be thankful when my gaze is directed towards myself; I’m thankful for my health and my family’s health, I’m thankful for being at this school and for the comforts and opportunities it provides, and because I don’t like to feel lonely I’m thankful for friends and community. But, if I’m able to crawl out of my self-focused world for just a moment and see my neighbor as Jesus asks me to, then it’s not so easy to be thankful. How can I be thankful when I hear words of prejudice and hatred directed toward certain groups of people in our society from those who are in power? How can I be thankful when poverty and injustice afflict our neighbors in this nation and around the world? How can I be thankful when the needs and concerns of too many people seem to be ignored and marginalized, and wars persist leaving children stranded and refugees without shelter? How can I be thankful when many will resort to violence to express their views and when peace seems elusive in our world divided by ideologies? There is a lot that is not good. If I love my neighbor as myself, how can I be thankful?
I don’t think Jesus was thankful for everything that happened in his life, if by thankful we mean appreciating reality as it is. In fact, Jesus was angry at the merchants and moneychangers in the temple. I don’t recall him giving thanks for what they were doing. Jesus was not grateful, either, for the hypocrisy of the religious people who came to speak with him or for the illnesses of the scores of people who came to him for healing. Jesus didn’t accept their situation, nor did he ignore it and focus instead on the blue skies and singing birds. And to be clear, Jesus certainly was not grateful for having to carry a cross to his death. He did not say, ‘God, thank you for leading me to this point.’ No, Jesus prayed to have God remove his suffering. But Jesus stayed in the place of human greed, brokenness and sin that ultimately produced his cross. That’s the kind of stick-it-out, authentic guy that he was. If Jesus’ gaze had been turned inward to himself, as the Son of God he had everything to be thankful for. But Jesus looked at the people around him with compassion and ultimate humanity and did not desert them in their time of trial and tribulation.
That’s the kind of Jesus I believe in, a Jesus who sees reality for what it is and sticks around in that suffering with his love, righteous anger, and yes, a peace that passes our understanding. That’s the kind of Jesus I can model my life after. And that’s the kind of Jesus that even today shows up in people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Gandhi, you, and me, and speaks up in our places of brokenness. We are never alone when we open our hearts to justice and love.
So, rejoice always? Yes. Pray without ceasing? Yes. Give thanks in all circumstances? Yes, because we are loved by a God who suffers with us especially when we thirst for righteousness sake, when we feed the hungry and clothe the poor and give voice to the voiceless. Somehow in that process a new heaven and new earth will emerge; we are co-creators in this. This is our meaning and this is our hope. Yes, we can give thanks.
Then, let us not grow weary in doing what is right (Galatians 6:9), for God is with us.
It seems to me that to live a life of faith is to balance what to give thanks for and what not to give thanks for, knowing that through it all we are grateful that God is indeed with us and is transforming our reality with us. And when we cannot give thanks for what we see in our world, then we must cry out. It is clear to us that “[the] Kingdom of God is not the United States of America [and we should] not confuse the two.” (UMC Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana Conference) So then what are we doing to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth even despite the United States of America and in all places in the world? Amen.