The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 11/25/01
Text: I Thessalonians 5:12-18
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The holiday was a little different this year, was it not? A bit more subdued. Less air travel, but more over the highways. Family, important as it is at Thanksgiving, has become even more so. As we gathered 'round our festive, turkey-laden tables, we knew that this year too many tables would have an empty chair at the head. It might have been for a loved one tragically lost, or it might have been for a loved one - police officer, firefighter, soldier - who is off on alert protecting us from another outrage of this first war of the 21st century.

It is interesting to note that it was not until we were at war, the War Between the States to be exact, that our Thanksgiving holiday was officially recognized by Congress. Of course, as our children can tell us, its beginnings were in the small Plymouth Colony in 1621 when the English Pilgrims feasted with Indian neighbors who brought gifts of food as a gesture of goodwill. The custom grew in various colonies as a means of celebrating the harvest. In 1777, over 100 years later, the Continental Congress proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving after the colonists' victory over the British in the Battle of Saratoga. Then it took another twelve years before George Washington proclaimed another Thanksgiving Day in honor of the ratification of the Constitution and requested that the Congress finally make it an annual event. They declined - there was still too much discord among the not-entirely-"United" States. It would be until 1863, in the midst of the bloodiest war our nation has ever experienced, before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. Then it took still another 40 years, the early 1900's, before the tradition really caught on. After all, Lincoln's official designation was to bolster the Union's morale, so many in the South saw the celebration as just a Yankee holiday.

Thanksgiving today is generally a mild-mannered celebration full of family, food and football - fun. But it is good to remember that that is not its origin. It is more often born of adversity and difficult times. Thanksgiving not for bounteous blessings but sheer survival. Interesting paradox. In times of plenty we become indifferent, and our greatest gifts are taken for granted. But, let hard times come and the threat that these gifts will be taken from us, and we are brought back to attention.

There is an e-mail reflection that has been floating around cyberspace ever since September 11th that conveys the message. "What a Difference a Day Makes."

  • On Monday, we e-mailed jokes.
    On Tuesday, we did not.
  • On Monday, we were fussing about prayer in school.
    On Tuesday, we would have been hard pressed to find a school where someone was not praying.
  • On Monday, our heroes were athletes.
    On Tuesday, we relearned who heroes are.
  • On Monday, there were people trying to separate us by race, sex, color, and creed.
    On Tuesday, we were all holding hands.
  • On Monday, we were irritated that our rebate checks had not arrived.
    On Tuesday, we gave money away gladly to people we had never met.
  • On Monday, we were upset that we had to wait 5 minutes in a fast food line.
    On Tuesday, we stood in line for hours to give blood.
  • On Monday, we argued with our kids to clean up their rooms.
    On Tuesday, we could not get home fast enough to hug our kids.
  • On Monday, we went to work as usual.
    On Tuesday, we went to work, but some of us did not come home.
  • On Monday, we had families.
    On Tuesday, we had orphans.
  • On Monday, September 10th, life felt routine.
    On Tuesday, September 11th, it did not.

What a difference a day makes! Time magazine last week:
Bars show CNN instead of ESPN because patrons want the latest news, but a family doctor in a Chicago suburb cancels her subscription to the New York Times because the relentless coverage of fear and threats was taking a toll on her. Peace Corps applications are up 72% in San Francisco, even as Harvard alums fight to restore ROTC, and 100 times as many Smith College students turn out to meet the CIA recruiter as did a decade ago. People decide to get in shape in case they have to run down 50 flights of stairs, while others abandon their diets because fudge is a great antidepressant, and if the world ends tomorrow, they don't want their last meal to be a celery stick.(1)
We live in a different world today. The events of September 11th have changed us. I was interested in the comments of Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel in this week's Newsweek:(2) "We're having to rethink everything in our lives in light of the new situation...If history is any guide, the experience may ultimately enrich us - by granting us a common purpose and restoring a long-neglected sense of community." Harvard's Robert Putnam has found that community involvement - volunteerism, charitable giving, church attendance, time spent with friends - spikes predictably after a calamity. The effect is usually transient. But when people come together to defend a way of life, the experience can change them forever.
People who experienced the shock of Pearl Harbor spent the rest of their lives voting, giving blood and joining civic organizations at extraordinary rates. It wasn't the sight of smoking battleships that transformed them, says Putnam, but the experience of tending victory gardens and helping the Boy Scouts collect scrap rubber. Average citizens have yet to find such roles in the new war on terror, but we seem to long for them. Six in 10 Americans have given to charities, donated blood or worked as volunteers in recent weeks, according to the National Opinion Research Center. Some 80 percent of the volunteer agencies associated with the Points of Light Foundation report increased participation. And in New York, organizations like New York Cares have seen calls double since September 11.
Perhaps this different world we live in is reason itself to give thanks. "Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations," says the Psalmist.(3) "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus," writes the apostle Paul. Perhaps the circumstances of our recent lives will encourage us.

My friend Bill Carter tells the story of leaders in a church some years ago who decided to track down the congregation's drop-outs. They combed through the membership roll, put together a list of names, and sent out volunteers two-by-two to knock on doors and invite the absent members back to church.

As is often the case, the volunteers discovered that most of the people visited had found other things to do on Sunday morning. One person said, "I would come back to church if it didn't conflict with my tennis time." Another said, "We came to church when our kids were involved. When they outgrew Sunday School, we stopped going." Another said, "I enjoy going to church on the really big days, like Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July. Compared to those days, other services are a little bit dull."

One response was different. Two volunteers named Jack and Esther went to see a man whom nobody knew. He lived on the end of the street, in a big house behind three overgrown pine trees. It took the volunteers a few minutes to find the front door. All the curtains were drawn. It looked like nobody was home. Suddenly the door swung open, and a thin man with a shock of white hair said, "My name's Tarnower. What do you want?"

They said, "We're from the church. We stopped by to see you." He invited them in. They explained why they had come.

In a few minutes, he was shaking a bony finger at them. "I'll tell you why I don't go to church anymore. It's because I got in the habit of reading the Sunday Times before I went to the worship service."

Esther leaned forward. "Tell us," she said warmly, "how did the newspaper keep you from coming to church? Did you get caught up in the sports section and lose track of time? Or the comics?"

Mr. Tarnower looked at her with wild eyes. "No," he said, "I read the news. It's an awful world out there. There are a lot of diseases I don't understand. Wars break out. Families fall apart. Children run through the streets with handguns. People die prematurely. Listen, the world is falling apart, and the church can't do a thing about it."

"Well," Jack said, "you ought to come back. We have a nice minister, a fairly good choir, and a Bible study on Wednesday nights. You might enjoy our program."

"No," Mr. Tarnower said, "I don't think so. I get out for groceries, but that's all I want to face. I went to church for a while, but the world got worse. When my wife died, I decided to sit in here, watch everything fall apart, and wait my turn. I don't go to church anymore. The church has nothing to say."(4)

It would not be much of a surprise to hear that echoed this year. But I am here to tell you that the church DOES have something to say. Perhaps it is providential that, although the kitchen calendar says this is Thanksgiving weekend, the liturgical calendar says this is Christ the King weekend. It is on this last Sunday before Advent that the church stands tall and shouts for all the world to hear that Jesus Christ is ultimately in charge.

The story is really incredible. Who would believe that, nearly 2,000 years after an obscure Galilean peasant gained some local notoriety as a wandering preacher and healer, and was executed by the Romans, there would not be a single nation in the world where this obscure peasant was not worshiped and acclaimed as a king, a king whose kingdom shall never end, and who by his power holds the universe together? Fantastic, isn't it! Where in this world can one go and not discover somewhere a group of people who confess Jesus as Lord and King? In countries rich and poor, large and small, with despotic or democratic governments, the church which Christ has gathered into one body, and of which he is the head, is present and growing.

In the highlands of the interior of the East Malaysian state of Sarawak on the heavily-forested island of Borneo, there is a small village called Barrio. It is only accessible by small planes capable of landing on the tiny mountain-ringed runway, or by a long journey by canoes up jungle rivers and trekking on foot. And yet, every person in that village confesses the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In southern Zaire, where political turmoil and corrupt government have many people on the brink of starvation, there are small groups of Christians who gather in rural mud-brick churches, sometimes without even a roof, and there each Sunday, they sing the praises of a king whose name is Jesus. Through the long years of repression in the Soviet Union and its satellites, and in China where for so many years public worship was forbidden, we now discover in this era when the walls of repression are falling that the church was not only alive but growing, and is now stronger than it ever was in those lands.(5) Amazing! There is no other word for it. Amazing!

Yes, the church DOES have something to say. Jesus Christ wrote no books, composed no songs, drew no pictures, carved no statues, amassed no fortune, commanded no army, ruled no nation. And yet, he who never wrote a line has been made the hero of unnumbered volumes; he who never wrote a song has put music into the hearts of nameless multitudes; he who never established an institution is the foundation of the Church that bears his name; he who refused the kingdoms of this world has become the Lord of millions.(6)

Thanksgiving in a 9/11 world. For all we have to be thankful for, nothing is so important as this: we KNOW who is in charge and how it will all turn out. We and all around us are in the hands of the one scripture calls "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."(7) We know who ultimately wins.
  • Kamikaze hijackers flying planes into buildings do not win;
    Jesus Christ wins.
  • Contemptible, cowardly attackers with Anthrax do not win;
    Jesus Christ wins.
  • Religious fanatics of whatever stripe do not win;
    Jesus Christ wins.
And one day, at the end of history, "at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord..."(8) Hallelujah!


1. Nancy Gibbs, "We Gather Together," Time, 11/19/01, p. 30

2. Geoffrey Cowley, "Sowing Seeds of Redemption," Newsweek, 11/26/01, p. 74

3. Psalm 100:4-5

4. William G. Carter, "Something To Do While The World Falls Apart," No Box Seats In The Kingdom, (Lime, Ohio : CSS Publishing Company, 1996)

5. Larry R. Kalajainen, "Pleased to Reconcile," Extraordinary Faith For Ordinary Time, (Lima, Ohio : CSS Publishing Company, 1994)

6. Mack Stokes quoted by James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 73.

7. Revelation 22:13

8. Philippians 2:10-11

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