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Rejoice Always
November 26, 2017 (Thanksgiving)
Rev. Fritz Nelson – Presbyterian Churches of Columbiana and East Palestine

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstance; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.”

Paul began his letter to the Thessalonians by giving thanks to God for each of them. He ends the letter by instructing them to give thanks.

In the spirit of Paul, I want to pause this morning and give thanks for each of you. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your spiritual journey. Thank you for your commitment to this community we call church. Thank you for steadfast prayers and shared ideas. Thank you for voicing your opinions and forgiving my faults. Thank you for pitching in – with mission projects, with cooking meals, with coming to Whispering Pines, with quilting, helping with the building, being an elder or a deacon, teaching Sunday school, giving money, trying something new. Thank you for inviting friends or family members to concerts or classes or worship. Thank you for all the ways you are the body of Christ outside of this church, beyond its walls, in your families, in your work places, among your friends, in our community.

Back when I used to be a professional fundraiser I had a rule for thank-you notes. Each note had to say “thank-you” seven times. That was, of course, an exaggeration. I don’t think I ever actually wrote a note that said thank you more than about five, but my rule reminded me, and my coworkers, that our posture was to be of extreme gratitude. The success of our organization – along with our ability to buy groceries and pay the rent – depended solely upon individuals giving of their hard earned (or in some cases not so hard earned) money in support of our work.

Likewise the success of this congregation depends solely upon each of us giving fully of ourselves – of our time, of our money – in gratitude for the role this congregation has played in our lives and the role God has called us to play in the community. The gratitude you show makes a real difference. In my life – because without you I wouldn’t be here – but also in the many lives this congregation touches both directly through its programs and indirectly through each of us.

Some days, however, its hard to feel thankful. Maybe our spirits are just low. Or maybe we’ve been hurt. Or maybe, especially in the case of the church, we think things are going in the wrong direction or somehow we’re not included. Maybe it seems like forces beyond our control have swept everything away, rocked our foundation, left us broke spiritually, economically, relationally.

A few days ago I read a dispatch from our sisters and brothers in the Presbyterian churches in Puerto Rico. Some of you know that I’ve had an immense burden for Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit over two months ago. When the way becomes clear, I hope to take a team there and offer what help we can.

Only recently has Presbyterian Disaster Assistance been able to reach our sister churches up in the mountains in the western part of the Island. A clear road in these parts has one lane passable by four-wheel drive. Estimates for restoring power range from months to years. In one Presbytery, eighteen of thirty churches were severely damaged, many with water up to their sanctuary ceilings. Parishioners homes were destroyed. Many parishioners have fled the Island, joining relatives on the mainland.

The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance delegation stopped in the town of Maricao to meet the elders, evaluate the damage and join the congregation in worship. Bachita, the church’s oldest member, was on hand to greet the delegation. At 100 years old, Bachita has seen her share of suffering and trouble. This storm destroyed her house and left her with nothing. Yet she joined the delegation in giving thanks to God and ended their worship by ringing the church’s bell in loud celebration.

In good times and in bad, when its easy and when its hard, we come together to form community around the table of Jesus Christ. We sing together and pray together, we education our children and help our neighbors, we support each other in times of need and celebrate with each other in times of plenty. We give thanks for what God has given us. Each of us gives as we are able.

The stories I’ve been hearing out of Puerto Rico remind me of the stories I’ve heard out of other places that Christ’s church has struggled – places such as Syria and Iraq. Even in the midst of hardship, the people of Christ continue to come together in gratitude to God and they continue to minister to their neighbors. The same dispatch containing the story of Bachita talked about another congregation determined to continue its feeding ministry despite the destruction and lack of resources. Their tending to the emergency needs of their neighbors, to the migrants from the Dominican Republic who came to work the now destroyed coffee plantations, to the forgotten. They’re feeding those who are hungry in a very loaves and fishes kind of way. With a worshipful heart they are giving thanks to God and binding together to be the hands and feet of Christ.

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul wrote to the Philippians from prison. “Again I say rejoice.” We give out of gratitude to God. We give out of gratitude to our neighbor. We say thank you seventy times seven and trust that in even the hardest of times we’ll experience God’s blessing.

Amen.