I speak to you with a thankful heart, in the name of God!
There was a time this summer when we thought we might lose everything. At our cottage in northern Ontario dozens of forest fires were burning out of control.
The OPP had closed roads, rivers and campgrounds, warning many to evacuate. A friend of ours, in the epi-centre of one of the largest fires, this one on the French River, wasn’t allowed to be on her boat in daylight hours. In those hours, water bombers needed to swoop down on the river, fill up, and head to the nearest raging front of the fire.
So it only made sense for all of us in that area to have an evacuation plan. If we smelled smoke and had only a few minutes to evacuate … what things would we bring with us!
I chose five things and had them set out by the front door.
– A child’s paddle that I has carved years ago for our daughter Hilary when she was one year old.
– My book “Paddle to the Sea” which was my first Christmas gift after emigrating to Canada.
– A honey pail that we had used for decades while foraging for wild blueberries in the bush.
– A tiny loon which had been carved for me by a young boy as a gift on leaving a Chatham parish to come to St. James.
– The earliest photo I had, of my mother and me, when I was but two weeks old.
Marylou, ever practical, added her recipe file. Many recipies hand-written by her mother and grandmother.
We surprised ourselves. It wasn’t the expensive items we chose. Many of them, if put in a garage sale, would have no buyers. But to us they were priceless. They could not be replicated; they could not be replaced.
Each one of these items brought to mind a person, a memory a relationship And it was THESE things that were priceless.
A daughter learning to ply a paddle in Georgian Bay. A child’s wood carving. A young boy, Simon, representing the many hundreds of parishioners who so generously touched my heart over the years. A photo. Adoring eyes. My mother’s eyes. Priceless.
Remember the old adage? “The best things in life are not things!” I keep revisiting that.
I remember reading about the great American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who, decades ago, amassed a fortune of over $400 million. Carnegie ended up giving 99.5% of it away to world peace projects and especially to libraries . 111 in Ontario alone. He once said, “The one who dies rich, dies disgraced.” That was a very powerful line until I got out my calculator. If he gave away 99.5% of $400 million that would still leave him a tidy sum of $2 million. Not bad for the year 1919 when he died! At an annual rate of 2.77% inflation that’s $30 million today. I will back far away from cynicism, however, for I still love his thought, harsh as it first may sound. If we’re to take it literally, it’s a scary thought though, when practically all of us sitting here today could be considered rich by the standards of impoverished parts of the world. “The one who dies rich, dies disgraced.”
Indeed, Carnegie was saying that abundance and blessings come from above. He knew, we know, that these are gifts loaned to us from a most gracious and generous God and that, in God’s world, blessings should not be hoarded but celebrated and shared with those in need.
The best things in life are not things, not material wealth, not fame, not bricks and mortar …. though they all have a legitimate place. It is our memories, our relationships, the people who have touched our lives in a loving way. And our God who is so generous.
I think it would be a fair criticism, though, for some of you to whisper “That’s well and good for you.” You have a cottage. Carnegie had untold wealth. You whisper, “Most of my friends have great health but look at me.” “Your life is gilded but I’m just hanging on by a thread.” “God is not so munificent in my world.”
Well, those things need to be said; those heartbreaking realities shared. So I want to tell you a story. A story for those abundantly blessed, maybe even more a story for those in the shadows.
I think that was never more the case than with Martin Rinckart. Martin was a minister in the little town of Eilenburg, Germany some 400 years ago. He was the son of a poor coppersmith but somehow managed to work his way through an education. He was ordained a Lutheran minister. Finally, he was offered the post of pastor in his home parish.
A year later, 1618, what has come to be known as the Thirty Year War broke out and this little town was caught right in the middle of the fighting. Thousands upon thousands were killed across the land.
In 1637, the massive plague that swept the continent of Europe hit Eilenburg. People died in the town at the rate of fifty a day and the man called to bury most of them was Martin Rinckart. In all, over 8,000 died, including Martin’s own wife. The pestilence was followed by a famine so extreme that dozens of people might be seen in the streets for the food that a dead cat might provide. Martin mortgaged his future salary for years to come to provide what little food there was for his people. (He would not die rich!)
His labours came to an end about 11 years later just one year after the conclusion of the war. His ministry spanned 32 years, and all but the first and the last were overwhelmed by the great conflicts and tragedies which engulfed the continent and his town.
I didn’t tell you, though, that Martin was a hymn-writer. Towards the end of his life he put his faith to words and song, and this is what he wrote (most of you will recognize the words):
Now thank we all our God With heart and hands and voices; Who wondrous things hath done, In whom his world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms Hath blessed us on our way With countless gifts of love And still is ours today.
It’s probably the greatest Thanksgiving hymn ever written. You see how little Martin’s spirit was broken! It takes a magnificent spirit to come through such hardship and still express gratitude.
Martin knew what all people of deep faith know (though I say this much humility) it is our relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, that colours and shapes our whole understanding of life. God blesses us in good times with countless gifts of love. And though it may be harder to spot, God blesses us in difficult times. Goodness and thanksgiving and eternal life come from above and our Lord’s goodness is to be found even in the midst of hurt and despair.
Oprah Winfrey once said, and we echo that in this service of Thanksgiving: “Be thankful for what you have, and you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” How true!
As I wind down, there are three things I’d like you to do. The first is very difficult; the next two relatively easy, even enjoyable. First, recall Andrew Carnegie’s profound and disturbing challenge. “The one who dies rich, dies disgraced.” He was inviting us to think of others in need (not coincidentally, this being Jesus’ message, too). Let us use our gifts and our wealth, wisely and charitably.
Next, sometime today or this week, either alone or with your family, look around your house, your apartment, your attic, your basement select four or five items that you hold dear … things that evoke wonderful memories, relationships, and swell your hearts with joy and gratitude.
And lastly, know that very soon in our service, as our Offertory, we will sing the hymn “Nun Danket” which is German for “Now Thank We All Our God”. I invite you to look at the bottom of the page, and see the name Martin Rinckart and maybe run your finger gently over it in thanksgiving.
Remember his story, your story, and sing your hearts out with gratitude.