January 4, 2014 | The Second Sunday after Christmas

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by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

Each year, Santa puts two things in everyone’s stocking,
at least at my house.

The first is an orange, usually a clementine;
it’s always the first thing put in the toe,
so it’s always the last thing that comes out of it.

This is apparently something Santa does in many houses;
St. Nicholas was reported
to have dropped three sacks of gold
down the chimney of a poor man to provide a dowry
for his three daughters;
the oranges are meant to represent those sacks of gold,
and have been found in stockings for centuries.

But Santa also brings one other gift to everyone,
including this year when my mom and sister were with us:
a fresh package of thank you notes for each stocking.

Thanks to Santa,
I learned to write thank you notes at a young age,
always trying to get them in the mail before the New Year;
some years I am more successful than others,
but I learned early on the importance of saying thank you.
No matter how you feel about the gift,
you should say thank you;
in offering thanks,
we complete the action of giving and receiving;
otherwise we’re just sort of taking the gift,
instead of receiving it with gratitude.
Without offering thanks,
we rob a gift of its intrinsic holiness.

And that gratitude,
that simple statement, “Thank you,”
is the foundation of what the author of
the Letter to the Ephesians is saying today.

The whole letter is almost liturgical in its construction;
our selection for today consists of a blessing
(“Blessed be God, who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing…”
and a thanksgiving,
(“I do not cease to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.”)

In fact, our selection of the letter today
is almost a rhapsody,
pure emotion flowing through the pen
and pouring onto the page.

And the verses of that rhapsody
are shot through with thanks:
thanks to God for making a world that includes us,
thanks to God for not only making us,
but for making us God’s own children by adoption,
through Jesus Christ,
and to honor the glorious grace that has been given to us
freely through the Son.

God gives us something amazing:
our lives,
the fullness of our very selves,
made in God’s image,
and called into relationship with God through Jesus.

And what do we do in that relationship?
We give thanks right back to God
for the gifts that God gives us.

To use the language from Ephesians,
we bless God for the blessings that God has given us,
from the blessings that God has given us.

This cycle of blessing and thanks,
giving to God from what God has given to us,
is the foundation of our relationship with God.

Anne Lamott, the essayist and author,
says there are really only three prayers:
Help, Thanks, and Wow;
and each of them is essential in its own way.

“Thanks” is certainly essential to our relationship with God,
because giving thanks nurtures and cares for
the holiness of the gifts and blessings we receive from God:
if writing a thank you note to your aunt for the Chia Pet
you received for Christmas is important,
then how much more important must it be
to give thanks to God for the myriad blessings
we receive from God each and every day?

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits,
required each Jesuit to examine their daily lives
twice each day, and express their gratitude to God
for the ways that God works in their daily lives,
a practice which Jesuits keep to this day.
In fact, during the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century,
when the Jesuits there asked Ignatius
if they could skip their prayers because they were so busy,
Ignatius said they could skip anything but the Examen;
expressing gratitude is central to our lives.

It’s actually the thing
that makes it possible for us to do what Paul
prays we will be able to do:
To receive a spirit of wisdom and truth from God
through the Holy Spirit,
that the eyes of our hearts may have enough light
to see what is the hope of God’s call;
if we receive God’s blessings,
and give them back to God as thankfulness,
then God will continue to give to us,
and us back to God;
it becomes a virtuous circle,
which keeps reinforcing itself
as our gratitude grows and deepens.

My friends,
no matter who you are,
no matter what you have done,
no matter if you have much faith or little,
God is already working in your life,
and doing amazing things;
when you realize it,
and give thanks for what God is doing in your life,
and give thanks for Christ,
through whom it’s all possible,
that’s discipleship.
That’s what lies at the root of being a Christian,
at least as we have received the faith.

After all, the our primary act of worship on Sunday,
the Eucharist,
is a Greek word that means “Thanksgiving.”

What we do is give thanks,
in our worship,
in our private prayer,
through our missions,
in our life as a community,
joining in the prayer of the whole host of heaven,
that sings throughout time:
we give thanks.

It’s even easy to give thanks,
at least when times are good.

It’s pretty easy to thank God
when we win the lottery,
or get the promotion we’ve worked for,
or find ourselves in the flush of new love,
or are called “Mommy” for the first time.

It’s harder to be grateful
when we’re confronted with a truth about ourselves,
perhaps one we desperately need to learn,
but are loath to hear.

It’s hard to be grateful
for the times in our lives
that push us to the edges of ourselves—
a troubling diagnosis,
a disappointment or a betrayal,
or circumstances that are beyond our control.

It’s hard to be grateful
when we only have hard choices,
like Joseph and Mary faced in today’s Gospel.

Confronted with the truth
that Herod wanted baby Jesus dead,
Joseph rushes his family out of the barn
and into the night,
fleeing for their lives to Egypt,
with a newborn child and his young mother,
still recovering from childbirth.

It’s hard to give thanks when things look bleakest.

But Joseph,
who remained faithful to God
as this astonishing and amazing story unfolds,
acted to protect his family,
trusting God,
who three times in today’s Gospel
spoke to Joseph through an Angel in his dreams:
“Go to Egypt to escape Herod,”
and then “It’s all Clear: Go back to Israel”
(and then “PS: Go to Galilee, not Jerusalem”),
and each time, Joseph did as he was told.

Now the Gospels say precious little about Joseph at all;
he gets short shrift from the Evangelists,
which I think is unfortunate.

After all,
he endured so much to do his part in raising Jesus,
to living God’s call to him,
even though it was hard.

And each of us is given these opportunities in our lives:
each of us has the opportunity to give thanks,
even when things are hard;
even when the road is difficult;
and we can’t see where the road leads;
and in learning to express gratitude even then,
even when times are rough,
we live more fully into the call to be disciples,
and we journey more deeply
into that virtuous circle,
where blessing begets blessing,
and we continue to be nourished
through giving our gratitude,
even when it’s not easy,
even when the night falls dark.

So what are you most grateful for?
I’d invite you to answer that question now,
but more importantly,
I’d invite you to answer that question tonight,
just before you go to bed,
thinking about everything that happens between
this moment and that one.

What are you most grateful for?
It’s a question that God can help you answer,
if you ask for help;
Just review your day,
moment by moment,
and ask God to help you see
the moments that you are most grateful for.

It’s the one thing that Ignatius of Loyola asked his Jesuits to do
twice every day;
it’s the beginning and end
of the virtuous circle of our lives of faith,
and it’s the thing that honors the holiness
of every gift and blessing we receive,
whether we realize the gifts and blessings when they come,
or whether we need a little distance in order
to see them as blessings and gifts.

It’s the very cornerstone of our worship as Episcopalians:
we give thanks at the table,
for the bread and wine,
for the gift of Jesus, who is present to us
in the bread and the wine,
and for the many blessings that we receive each day,
because God is doing amazing things in each of our lives,
whether we realize it or not.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
just as he chose us in Christ
before the foundation of the world
to be holy and blameless before him in love.

Thanks be to God.