Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 19, 2012
I will never forget the moment. It’s the 2006 Rose Bowl – the Texas Longhorns are playing the University of Southern California. It’s fourth down, the Horns are behind, and they have the ball with just a few seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Vince Young takes the snap, and then bolts for the end zone, tiptoeing his way to a touchdown and a national championship for the University of Texas.
I will never forget that moment, because I was there. Dressed in my orange polyester Longhorn band uniform with a tuba on my shoulder. And the instant Vince Young crossed the goal-line, the band went wild. In one swift motion, we picked up our instruments and played Texas Fight louder and faster than we ever had. Amidst all of the excitement and the craziness of that play, we needed no direction. The Longhorn Band knew precisely what to do. It was second nature. I will never forget that moment.
But there are moments I had with the Longhorn band that I do want to forget. Like the hours and hours of practice playing the same music over and over and over again. And the seemingly endless marching rehearsals. My sore back from carrying a tuba. The constant sweating under the August sun. Practicing Texas Fight about a zillion times.
We all know about routines and practice. Just take the example of getting in your car. When you first started driving, you had to think about unlocking the door, putting on your seat belt, checking the mirrors, and starting the car. But now that you’ve driven thousands of times, you perform that whole routine automatically. Your brain goes on auto-pilot while your body does what it has to do. Again, second nature.
Christians have a specific name for second nature: it’s called “virtue.” Virtue is something we practice over and over and over again so that we perfect it. Hope, courage, and patience are Christian virtues that we have to develop. In order to be hopeful, courageous, and patient, you have to practice being hopeful, courageous, and patient until it becomes routine. Then, when it really matters, when things are getting crazy, we do the right thing without even thinking about it.
Paul raises another virtue for Christians, the virtue of thanksgiving. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to be filled with the Spirit, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. The purpose of all this singing is to give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Of all the Christian virtues, we cannot stress the importance of thanksgiving any more. See, we live in a selfish world. We live in a world that tells us to consume, to buy more for ourselves, to eat more, to only care about us. Selfishness is the name of the game. This attitude can creep into our prayers.
Now, there are two types of prayers: forward-looking prayers and backwards looking prayers. Forward looking prayers can be good: we may pray for healing, for our hopes, for our dreams, and the future. But all too often our forward-looking prayers succumb to the petty and selfish. “Dear Lord in heaven, I pray you to give me a good parking spot.” In our forward-looking prayers, we often hope to gain something.
But not so with thanksgiving. When we give thanks, we have to look backwards. And it in that, thanksgiving is quite selfless because we can’t really gain anything by looking backwards. We reflect on the good things God has done for us, or on the trials that God has pulled us through. Eventually, the hope is that you can give thanks for even the worst times in your life. It’s during those times, the wilderness times, that God may seem distant. But then when you look back, God was there all along. Giving thanks is a counter-cultural virtue because it’s not about us. And the virtue of gratitude to God is the heart and soul of Christianity, because it is the center of what we do every Sunday.
When we gather for worship, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. The word “eucharist” actually means “thanksgiving.” In that long prayer I say at the altar, we give thanks to God for everything. We thank God for creation, for the calling of Israel, for Jesus Christ, and for our redemption. We thank God for the saints who have gone before, we thank God for the Holy Spirit through whom live and love. We thank God for the body and blood of Jesus through which we are turned into the Body of Christ. We don’t hope to gain anything by our thanksgiving – we are simply giving thanks to God for being God. We look backwards at all the wonderful things God has done for us with gratitude. We become eucharistic people.
Of course, the Holy Eucharist isn’t the only way we show our gratitude to God. Remember, Paul tells the Ephesians to give thanks by singing. So we can imagine the church in Ephesus singing thanks to God all the time. Eventually, because they’ve done it so often, giving thanks becomes second nature. They don’t have to think about giving thanks to God for Jesus, they just do it. And then when hardship comes – even when they are persecuted by the Roman empire, even when they face internal conflict – the church will keep giving thanks. Because thanksgiving has become second nature.
And I know that the wonderful people on our Music Team are doing just that. They too give thanks to God by singing. And you know that they practice very hard. They spend hours in practice so that on Sunday morning, when it really matters, playing those hymns is second nature and they don’t have to think about it – they can concentrate on giving thanks to God.
Christians have all sorts of ways to practice giving thanks to God. We all practice giving thanks to God, on a weekly basis, by contributing financially to the mission of God’s Kingdom. This type of giving is not selfish – we don’t hope to gain anything for ourselves. We look back on the amazing things God has done for us, and we respond with what we have. Eventually, our giving to the mission of God’s Kingdom becomes second nature – it becomes a virtue. And while we all give, there are other ways to practice the virtue of thanksgiving. Some dance, some sing, some pray, some take pictures, and some paint their gratitude to God. I practice writing my thanksgivings in a journal. But in order to be a good writer, I have to practice putting words together. And I have to read constantly to hone my skills. It takes work to make my thanksgiving a routine.
But I’ve made it into a routine because I know there will be moments in my life when things go crazy. Things that will happen to all of us: they might be good moments, they might be bad. Vince Young will trot across the goal line. You will get bad news from a doctor. You will delight at the birth of a child. Your marriage might fall apart, or your marriage will be a blessing for many years. Crazy things will happen. To prepare for those moments, practice giving thanks now. Give thanks to God every day – through your money, through your prayers, through your actions, through whatever it is you do. Practice giving thanks to God so that it becomes second nature. Get to the point where your gratitude to God is as automatic as starting your car. Then, when it really matters, when life throws you a curveball you will know how to respond. You will know how to give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything. You won’t even have to think about it, because your whole life will be one, big, “thank you.”