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

AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE

Delivered 11/19/95

Text: I Thessalonians 5:12-18 (Psalm 100)

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It was almost exactly five years ago. Just before Thanksgiving, a Friday morning, shortly after 5:00 AM - I was awakened by a shout from our kitchen, "OH, NO!" A moment later, the cry came again, "OH, NO!" Christie had gotten up, gone in to start the coffee, and discovered we were flooded. A hose leading to our washing machine had burst during the night and water was gushing out. For the next hour and a half we were bailing out our house, then later watched as a crew moved in, hoisted furniture, pulled up most of the carpeting, and started fans going to dry everything out. Whoopee. Our Thanksgiving celebration that year had a certain pall over it.

That is not a unique story. There are many times when it is tough to be thankful. Everyone of us has gone through the deep waters of life often enough to know it. It is hard to be thankful when we are sick. It is hard to be thankful when we are denied something which we had set our heart on. It is hard to be thankful when we lose something or someone we love. But then, as thankless as we might prefer to be, we suddenly come across words in scripture that tell us we are wrong: "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving THANKS to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17); or the passage we just read...Paul's instructions to the Thessolonians..."Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." We read it...and we try to live it...but we do admit that it is tough sometimes.

I know it was tough for Martin Rinkert (1). Martin Rinkert was a minister in the little town of Eilenburg in Germany some 350 years ago. He was the son of a poor coppersmith, but somehow, he managed to work his way through an education. Finally, in the year 1617, he was offered the post of Archdeacon in his hometown parish. A year later, what has come to be known as the Thirty-Years-War broke out. His town was caught right in the middle. In 1637, the massive plague that swept across the continent hit Eilenburg... people died at the rate of fifty a day and the man called upon to bury most of them was Martin Rinkert. In all, over 8,000 people died, including Martin's own wife. His labors finally came to an end about 11 years later, just one year after the conclusion of the war. His ministry spanned 32 years, all but the first and the last overwhelmed by the great conflict that engulfed his town. It was tough for Martin Rinkert to be thankful.

But he managed. Listen to what he wrote:

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom his world rejoices.

What a magnificent spirit to come through in the midst of times of virtually constant devastation!

There is a great lesson there. Perhaps the words he used were Martin Rinkert's way of reminding himself just how to go about being thankful even while surrounded by such tremendous adversity. Thank God...with heart and hand and voices.

For Martin Rinkert, the voice was the easiest of all. He had sung in the famous choir at St. Thomas's in Leipzig as a boy. He enjoyed the songs and folk melodies of his country. He even wrote dramas to be acted in public. Obviously, his talent was put to use in the composition of hymns. Thanksgiving with the voice was as natural for him as anything he did.

For us it is relatively natural too. We might not have his talent for oral expression, but we DO speak and sing. We give thanks every time we worship together. As we study the Bible, we see the hundreds of times that giving thanks is intimately involved in what we bring to God. As we read and study the Psalms, we see that many of them were written precisely for use in public worship. When we read Psalm 100 where it says "Make a joyful noise," and then examine what form the worship of the community of Israel took, we find that much of it WAS a "joyful noise."

When we look at what we do in our own services from week to week, we see that we do much the same. It would be marvelous if everyone had a beautiful voice, or even if everyone could simply carry a tune in a bucket, but we know that is not the case. It does my heart good sometimes (if not my ears) to hear someone singing the great hymns of the church with tremendous gusto even though they could not carry a tune if you threatened them. They are honoring their Lord, and that is all that matters.

Of course, we provide thanks to God with our voices in other ways besides the songs of worship. Certainly we do it in prayer, and we OUGHT to. God has given us many good gifts, and frankly, it is just good manners to say THANK YOU.

Some years ago, at Christmas time, I felt that I wanted to buy a gift for a friend of mine who had been particularly helpful and encouraging during the year. He was a minister who had been most supportive as I prepared to go off to seminary. What do you get as a gift for a minister? Well, having grown up in a manse, I knew how much preachers appreciate books, so I set out to find one. I happened to know that this particular man was in the midst of a research project on a particular area of theology, so I looked for something which might be helpful in that pursuit. I had to go to several places before I was able to find something I felt would do the trick, but I considered the effort worthwhile. He was worth it. Finally, the evening came around when I would have the opportunity to give the gift. I handed it to him, nicely wrapped; he tore the paper off, grunted, set the book for which I had so diligently searched off to the side, and continued the conversation with no reference at all to the gift. I confess I was a little nonplussed by that. I did not expect for him to fall on the ground and kiss my feet for such generosity; it was not that big a deal. But I would have expected at least a THANK YOU...good manners, after all.

We treat God in much the same way. God has given us far more than an occasional present. God has given us life, health, food, shelter and a nation in which we are free to enjoy them to the fullest. And those are just the basics. If we were to count our blessings carefully, the list would go on forever. Good manners would tell us that our thanks should go on for the same length of time.

Be clear about one thing though: our scripture lesson does not tell us to give thanks FOR everything but IN everything, just as God's word does not say, "All things ARE good," but that "All things work together FOR good." I am certain that Martin Rinkert did not feel called upon to thank God for the Thirty-Years-War, but the words of his hymn, "Who wondrous things hath done/In whom his world rejoices," surely indicate that even in the midst of such a thing, there was much for which to be grateful.

I recall reading of two men on their way to church one very rainy Sunday night. One was visiting the other from out of town. The host told his guest not to be surprised if they would be the only ones in attendance that night. A layman was scheduled to conduct the service. The visitor asked if the man were a good preacher but was told, "No, but he can pray. He always begins and continues and ends with thanking God." Sure enough, the two men found themselves to be the entire congregation that night. The old man came into the pulpit, drenched with rain after having walked 15 miles to get there, and began: "Let us pray. Almighty God, we thank Thee that it is not always as bad as this." Martin Rinkert would have said AMEN!

But thanks with the voice was not all that the hymn Rinkert wrote was calling for. He said we should be thankful with our HANDS. It is that old axiom, "Actions speak louder than words." If we are truly thankful for what God has given us, we should be willing to show it by what we do.

Christians are religiously the most fortunate people in the world because Christianity tells us that we do not have to DO ANYTHING, and in fact CANNOT do anything, to earn our salvation. There are no works of our hands (or our mouths) that will be acceptable. In other words, Christians do not have to be religious. We can leave that to the Pharisees.

I once had a seminary professor who announced at the beginning of the semester that he was seriously considering a unique system of grading for that particular course. (There were only six of us in the class, and all pretty good students, so he could have gotten away with his scheme if he had really wanted to.) He said that we would no doubt proceed better if he announced at the start that we would each receive an "A" for our final grade, so we would not have to worry about that anymore - we could concentrate on our studies rather than a grade. I thought it was a pretty good plan myself, but he finally decided that such was not to be. I mention it only to point out that the plan is a perfect parallel to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ: we have all been given eternal A's; now let's get to work.

There are any number of ways we can express our gratitude with our hands...our work. A few are called to devote full time to the chores of the kingdom: ministers, missionaries, church educators and so on. Most express their gratitude in other ways: they serve as officers and teachers; they become leaders of the youth; they join visitation/evangelism programs; they cook meals for Wednesday Night suppers; and some even volunteer to do the clean-up work. There are lots of ways to say THANK YOU to God.

The way most people put grateful hands to work is by putting them into their pockets and purses. For some, that is the only thing they CAN do. None of the other opportunities for service that are offered by the church are suited to their talents, time schedule or abilities. Perhaps the physical limitations of age or infirmity limit what tasks can be taken on. It happens. But without question, the work of their hands can be gratefully given to God's work financially.

I am aware that most people do not look on their tithes and offerings as a way of giving thanks. Instead, they see them as something for which GOD should be eternally grateful. No. God gave the talent and the ability to earn the money in the first place. God gave the health and stamina necessary to the task. God provided the ingenuity for people to develop a society in which we can work as we do. Why should God be grateful for our returning what is God's already? Martin Rinkert would not have thought that way. He knew better.

Martin Rinkert understood that thanksgiving with voices and hands was desirable, but he knew that true thanksgiving begins with the heart. "Now thank we all our God/ With heart and hands and voices." HEART comes first.

HEART. We talk of "songs of the heart" and know we mean love songs. We hear a phrase like "the heart of the matter" and understand that what is meant is the central issue. When someone "sets her heart" on something, we know she fervently desires it. A "heart-to-heart" talk means a conversation that is deep and deals with issues of importance. HEART means all of them, not simply a pump for the blood. Heart is as much an ATTITUDE as anything else.

And I think that that is what Martin Rinkert would have us develop...a thankful ATTITUDE toward God. It is more than a flow of spoken praise and a series of grateful actions. It is a feeling that gets down inside us and permeates our entire being. It is an attitude that shows up as unselfish gratitude, not one that says THANK YOU in the hope of getting something more. An attitude of gratitude, to coin a phrase.

Sometime back I read of a husband and wife who decided to give a sum of money to their church as a memorial to their son who had recently died. A special ceremony of presentation was set aside during a worship service to publically acknowledge what was being done. Afterwards, another wife said to her husband, "We ought to do the same thing." "But why," her husband asked, "our son is still alive." The wife replied, "That's right. Let's give it BECAUSE he is still alive." (2) That woman knew the real meaning of a thankful heart...an attitude of gratitude.

As we come closer to this week's day of national Thanksgiving, as we begin to count our blessings, we pause for a time of self-assessment to affirm the necessity for a thankful heart, one that is thankful the OTHER 364 days of the year.

There is no question that we sometimes have difficulty in feeling genuinely thankful. I know Martin Rinkert would agree. Half his life was surrounded by more misery than any of us have ever experienced. Still, he was able to affirm his faith in the ultimate goodness of a sovereign God and experience that attitude of gratitude to which we are called in God's word.

Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices.

Amen!


1. Material on Martin Rinkert from Ronald Youngblood, "Now Thank We All Our God," Special Day Sermons, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Book House, 1973), pp. 23-29

2. ibid. p. 29

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