I wanted to take a quick moment to say thank you. It’s certainly appropriate to do so, not only because we’re still in the Thanksgiving mood, but because, like the man who wrote the chief hymn we’ll be singing today (“Savior of the Nations Come”), Saint Ambrose once said, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.”
I’ve shared that quotation with you before. Sitting here at the church early on Thanksgiving Day morning, I took a quick stroll through previous Thanksgiving Day messages to the people of God at Our Savior in Hartland. In the note I sent last year, I shared the familiar quotation from Ambrose. Curious about its origin, I tracked it down. But before I get to that, let me continue the thread of sentiment I already started.
To the faithful here at Our Savior in Hartland—and in all the churches—you’re owed a debt of gratitude. Speaking as the pastor here, I should say that this congregation—how she operates, what she accomplishes, where she’s going—happens because of the faithful.
Now, don’t for one second think that I’m straying from our wonderful Lutheran legacy which knows to call out “Soli Deo Gloria” (to God alone be the glory)! I’m not. I’m simply doing what Saint Paul does with regularity throughout his epistles (Romans 1:8, Ephesians 1:16, 1 Corinthians 1:4, Philippians 1:3, Colossians 1:3, Philemon 1:4, 1 Thessalonians 1:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, and countless others). My thanksgiving to you is an acknowledgment that God has used (and continues to use) you for some pretty incredible things, all of which join to form a singular, bright beaming light of constancy streaming from this place. It pierces a shadowy world in desperate need of the Gospel. As your pastor, I thank you for your diligence in this. I owe this gratitude to you.
There’s another reason this is your due, and again, we consider Saint Ambrose. That same great Bishop of Milan wrote the words I quoted not long after the unexpected passing of his brother, Satyrus. Interestingly, if you read my Thanksgiving Day note sent out last Tuesday, you’ll see my words emerged from thoughts of my brother’s death, too. Reading most of Ambrose’s eulogy this morning, I can see he experienced the same nagging sense as me. Standing at the grave of his brother, he encounters a particular awareness. Ambrose understands that none among us knows the hour of our final moments together (Ecclesiastes 9:12). No one knows what his or her last words given or received in this mortal life will be. Will they be loving? Will they be cruel? Will they be inconsequential? Will they be thankful? Whatever they are, Ambrose acknowledges the finality of Death, and as a result, he writes something familiar to those of us who’ve lost someone close:
“To die is gain to me, who, in the very treatise in which I comfort others, am incited as it were by an intense impulse to the longing for my lost brother, since it suffers me not to forget him. Now I love him more, and long for him more intensely. I long for him when I speak, I long for him when I read again what I have written, and I think that I am more impelled to write this, that I may not ever be without the recollection of him.”
Now that Satyrus is gone, Ambrose feels the deepest sting of Death’s separating power. It makes sense, then, that he would urge the rest of us toward genuine thanksgiving in the here and now—that we would be glad to God for each other and that we would share this same tiding with the people in our lives. He calls it our duty. And we can agree, especially as we’re prompted by another sense hovering among Ambrose’s words. He knew something about his brother, something that stirred him to cry out, “You have caused me, my brother, not to fear death, and only would that my life might die with yours!”
Ambrose thanked his brother for being an example of faithfulness, even in Death. For a second time, this brings me back around to where I started. I’m grateful for your enduring devotion, just as Ambrose wrote that his brother “saw [Christ’s] triumph, he saw His death, but saw also in Him the everlasting resurrection of men, and therefore feared not to die as he was to rise again.”
Thank you for being a congregation filled with Christians who emit this Gospel truth in so many ways. Some of you do it through financial support of the mission’s efforts. Others do it through hands-on service. So many do it through regular prayer. Countless do it in simple conversation. All of you do it by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith. Truly, you know the value of what we have in this place—historic liturgy, binding creeds, rites and ceremonies that reach far beyond the here and now, a sturdy backbone for enduring an ever-encroaching world—things that so many churches are dismissing as unfriendly, socially stiff, or culturally irrelevant. But you know better. You’ve learned from those who’ve gone before you. Even Plato knew that “learning is a process of remembering.” And so, like Satyrus for Ambrose, you remember. You’ve learned from the examples of others to live by faith in Jesus Christ, trusting just as Ambrose did that “Death is not, then, an object of dread, nor bitter to those in need, nor too bitter to the rich, nor unkind to the old, nor a mark of cowardice to the brave, nor everlasting to the faithful nor unexpected to the wise.”
If the world had the capacity for genuine gratitude, it would owe its gratefulness to God and His Christians throughout history. Established in shiftless ways as this world’s salt and light—God’s gifts to the world in human form—the sour darkness of this life is made flavorful and bright (Matthew 5:13-15). Acknowledging this does not negate a heritage of “Soli Deo Gloria!” Why not? Well, let Jesus answer. He’s the One who said that through the faithfulness of Christians—the ones reflecting His light—the needful world around us will “see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (v. 16).
To God alone be the glory for all you are and do and say in service to His Gospel.
Again, thank you for your faithfulness. Know you are loved and admired by your pastor. But not only me. By others, too. Come to think of it, may I suggest something? When you arrive for worship, take a chance at putting your arms around a fellow Christian or two you’ve not visited with in a while. Tell them just how thankful you are that they’re in your life. Remind them how their example of faithfulness is not only a delightful blessing of comfort amid so many life-terrorizing things, but it is also a simple and ongoing demonstration of Saint Paul’s words to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Being together in the Lord to receive His gifts, and taking the opportunity while we still can to commend one another for that togetherness, is a blessing once again remembered not only at Thanksgiving, but every time we gather together in the Lord’s house to receive His wonderful gifts of forgiveness. I’m glad for that. And I’m glad to celebrate it with all of you.