Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, NM
This is a truly joyous festival day in our calendar. The work of this year’s harvest is over and now we can celebrate the bountiful, abundant gifts that God and the good earth have given us. Where I grew up in rural Nebraska, my little hometown was surrounded by a patchwork of of cornfields and soybeans and alfalfa, and around this time of year, the air was always filled with the warm, golden scent of freshly harvested crops. At my family’s house, this was always salsa-making season. Our garden produced fruits and vegetables by the bucket load, and our house would be filled with the aroma of roasting tomatoes, and freshly chopped onions and garlic, and spicy jalapeños.
Several of our readings for today paint images of this kind of overflowing abundance. Psalm 65 speaks of a year crowned with God’s goodness, of valleys decked with grain, and wagon tracks overflowing with richness. In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses describes the land into which God is leading the Israelites: “a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.” And just in case there were any doubt about where all this goodness came from, our reading from 2 Corinthians reminds us once again that it is God who has richly given all these blessings.
Our readings for today overflow with the goodness of God. And yet, at the same time, as much as they reflect God’s graciousness and generosity, they also reflect the tendency of humans to forget our history. Our reading from Deuteronomy in particular warns the Israelites not to forget God once they have started living the good life. They must not forget the hard times through which God has supported and sustained them and end up thinking that they have earned all this goodness on their own merit. As my grandma would say, they need to be careful not to get too big for their britches. It seems to be a persistently human trait that we slip into crediting ourselves for all that we have “earned” when things are going well, and then we fall back into blaming God when things are not going so great.
I find this text to be particularly relevant in our own 21st century American context. We live in a culture that demands self-sufficiency and independence, a culture that looks down on people who need help from others to get by. It’s a point of pride to be considered a “self-made man” (or woman), to have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps to get to where we are. And it is often a source of shame for us to admit to how much we really need help from other people.
I was thinking about all this yesterday when I was helping out with the mobile food pantry we hosted here at Peace. I sat at the registration table and got to chat with most of the people who came by to receive food. And I noticed that several of the people I spoke with were quick to mention that they were just having a bad month, or that they were waiting for a paycheck from a new job, or any one of a bunch of other explanations for why they had come to the food bank. It’s sad, but true, that our culture makes people feel embarrassed to have to rely on the generosity of others to be able to meet their most basic needs.
I kind of wonder if this mix of pride and shame might be at play in our gospel reading for today. Jesus heals ten people afflicted with leprosy as he travels through the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria. He sends them all off to show themselves to a priest, so that the priest can examine them and officially declare that they are healthy and fit to reenter society. Only one of the ten, a Samaritan, turns back to thank Jesus. The other nine rush off to find the priest right away, so that they can get their clean bill of health and be readmitted into the community. I am sure that it was embarrassing to be lepers living on the margins of society. And I’m sure they were eager to be made clean and to put the whole terrible business behind them and just go on with their lives as though it had never happened.
This is one reason why it is sometimes incredibly difficult for us to give thanks, especially to give thanks to God. Thanks-giving doesn’t let us forget the things that have happened. Instead, it requires us to admit that we have been in need; it requires us to confess our own reliance on God. Giving thanks to God obliges us to strip away the put-together façade that we have built up for ourselves, and to acknowledge our own deep neediness and poverty. Giving thanks forces us to recognize just how much we need God, and how much we need each other. Thanks-giving can sometimes leave us feeling really vulnerable, and as humans, we kind of hate that.
However, there can be room for incredible blessing in that kind of vulnerability. It takes away the barriers of our pride and our shame and allows us to be truly open to God. It allows us to connect with God and with other people in a way that just isn’t possible otherwise. Giving thanks can open us up to seeing that we need other people just as much as they need us, and that kind of openness leads us to deeper relationship with them and with God.
Giving thanks also enables us to enjoy the gifts that we have been given much more than if we never said thank you at all. It’s about much more than just being polite. The more we give thanks, the more we see how richly God provides for us, and the more joyous and grateful we become. And, I mean, gifts just feel incomplete without some kind of expression of gratitude. When someone who loves and cares about us gives us a gift, it would be weird if we never said anything about it, and the gift itself would become just kind of meaningless stuff. By giving thanks, we respond to an act of love with another act of love – and we experience again the joy of that relationship. I’m sure each of you can think of times in your life when people you care about have given you gifts that meant a lot to you. Think back to those times now, and remember what it felt like to say “thank you” for those gifts.
To share an example from my own life, I received a gift a few months ago from some dear friends of mine in Chicago. Some of you who have visited my office may have noticed that there’s this little, white, stuffed unicorn that’s always sitting on my desk. My friends knew how lonely and isolating internship can be sometimes, so they sent me the little unicorn to remind me that I have friends who love and care about me. And when I spoke with them to thank them, it was like receiving the gift all over again, because thanking them reminded me of the relationship of love that we share.
When we thank God, as we are gathered to do today, we are reminded of the relationship of love that we share with God and with one another. We are reminded that we love and are loved by a God who never ceases to shower us with blessings. Especially in the midst of our human culture that prizes self-sufficiency and punishes neediness, we are reminded that our interdependence, our reliance on one another and on God, is actually a tremendous blessing.
In fact, this blessing of thankfulness is at the very heart of our life together as Christians. We remember it every time we gather here at the table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The Eucharist, as it this meal also called, actually takes its name from the Greek word for thanks-giving – εὐχαριστέω. This word appears in our gospel reading for today – the Samaritan’s joyous exclamation of gratitude to Jesus is an act of εὐχαριστέω. Eucharist. Thanks-giving is at the very center of who we are as people of God, living in the love of Christ.
So today, I give thanks to God for the gift of this festival day to remember all the wonderful things we have been given. I’m thankful for the abundant fruits of the earth, and for those who labor so that we might be clothed and fed. I’m thankful for the sprawling family of the church in every corner of the planet, and especially for the community gathered here together under this roof. And I’m thankful to all of you for all the ways that you have blessed me and this community and one another.
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