Sunday, November 22, 2009
The Wedding of Thanks and Giving: a Thanksgiving sermon
This sermon, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11. was preached at Peace Mennonite Church, Portland, Oregon on November 22, 2009
Once upon a time God gave a party for all the virtues, great and small, humble and heroic. They all gathered together in a splendidly decorated hall in heaven and soon began to enjoy themselves immensely because they were all acquainted with one another. Some were even closely related. Suddenly God spotted two virtues who didn't seem to know each other at all and appeared ill at ease in each other's company. So God took one of them by the hand and formally introduced her to the other. "Gratitude," God said, "this is Charity." God had hardly turned around and they had already begun talking to each other as if they were long lost friends. And the story now goes around that ever since God brought them together wherever Gratitude is there you will also find Charity.
We also know the virtues of gratitude and charity as thankfulness and love that gives. We find these both relating to each other in today's text from the book of Deuteronomy. This scripture comes at the conclusion of a list of statutes and ordinances given by Moses to the people. It includes two sets of instructions that have to do with liturgy, particularly offerings. These acts of giving were to function as concrete demonstrations of love for God accompanied by the virtue of thankfulness. Let's take a peek at our text and watch the relationship develop between Thanks and Giving.
We see in our text in Deuteronomy that thankfulness begins with an act of remembering. Someone once said that gratitude is the memory of the heart. Thankfulness arises from a heart that has been moved by its memory. We look back at something we have experienced or received and perceive it to be a gift of God and we respond with thankfulness and gratitude. Like that time that you saw your first child being born and lifted up by the heels screaming to high heaven. With glassy eyes you held back the flood of wonder over the gift. Later, with sprigs of gray in your hair you thumb through the baby pictures and remember that moment and sigh, "Thank you, God."
Or someone asks a prayer in church concerning their shaky job situation and you remember when you were laid off. Those envelopes with see-through windows sat there quietly on the table waiting for a check and a trip to the mailbox. But, they just piled up one on top of another. All the newspapers in the house had circles in the classified section. The numbers on your phone are faded from all the dialing but each call ended with “Sorry…” on the other end of the line. Then one day, unexpectedly, the phone rang. The voice on the other end said, "Can you be here in the morning?"You hung up the receiver and almost jumped to the ceiling. And as you looked back over the months and months and remembered the phone call, you whispered a "Thank you, Lord." Memory gives rise to thankfulness.
For the Israelites thankfulness was to arise from the memory of their own story of Exodus from bondage and entry into the promise land. They were to remember from where and to where God had brought them. Their act of offering the first fruits upon entry into the promise land was to be coupled with the ritual of remembering and reciting God's mighty and gracious acts of delivering them, sustaining them, and gifting them with a land flowing with milk and honey. From the remembrance of God's gifts of liberation and land, Israel was to respond with thanksgiving.
Shouldn’t the remembrance of our own stories cause us to give thanks? Walk down the dusty back roads of your memory. Do you come across any stories of deliverance or release from your own bondages, addictions, or habitual patterns in your life? Are there any memories of being sustained with heavenly bread as you walked through desert experiences in your life? Can you think of places in your memory where you came upon a land of friends or unexpected opportunities or church experiences that made everything around you seem to flow with milk and honey? And when you remember those moments, don't you just you want to shout to the sky "Thank you, God!" Then, you know what I mean when I say that thankfulness arises from the memory of the heart.
One way we express our thankfulness is through worship. As we remember God's gifts we may want to go beyond the spontaneous “Thank you, God.” We may want to respond in worship. Thanks arises from the perception of being "graced" or “gifted.” We naturally want to express our thanks when given a gift. But, who do we thank for the sunshine and rain and growth of crops? Or the beauty of a rainbow or the purple hills and orange sky at sunset? Who do we thank for waking to a new day or a moment of silence that wraps its warm arms around us? Who do we thank? The atheist is in a rather awkward position when moved by awe, wonder or feelings of gratitude for life's giftedness. To whom do they offer thanks? Worship, prayer, and praise is one way that the believer expresses thanks to God for the gifts life has given them. As in the prayer of Johnny Appleseed, "The Lord's been good to me, and so I thank the Lord."
Israel's offering of the first fruits was, first and foremost, an act of thankful worship. It involved a sacred place---the tabernacle, sacred persons---the priest and Levites, sacred objects---the altar and offering, sacred words---their confession of faith, and sacred gestures- --bowing down. The offering of first fruits was an ongoing part of Israel's worship. The offering of first fruits to God was a ritualized form of expressing thanksgiving for the gifts life offered.
But isn't the offering within a church service merely something we have to do to pay our interim pastor, cover the bills, and support mission projects? No. It's true that we offer our gifts to keep the church running. But, first and foremost, it is an act of worship. It is a concrete, tangible response to the experience of our having been graced and gifted. We offer the first fruits of our labors. Notice I didn't say what little we have left over after paying off our bills and entertaining ourselves. We offer our first fruits as a response of joyful thanks for what God has given to us.
Worship as an act of thanksgiving does not mean our offering of thanks is to be isolated to yearly holidays, Sundays, or even religious activities, such as prayers of thanksgiving. It is an attitude of gratitude that permeates our living with thanksgiving. As one father learned from his wise child. The father of a certain household, as usual, at the morning meal asked the blessing, thanking God for a bountiful provision. But immediately after the prayer, he began grumbling about the hard times, the poor quality of the food he was forced to eat, and the way it was cooked. His little daughter interrupted him. "Father, do you suppose God heard what you said in your prayer?" "Certainly," he confidently replied. "And did he hear what you said about the breakfast?" "Of course," he said hesitantly. "Then, Daddy, which did God believe?"
Worship and thankfulness are not to be isolated to religious rituals or particular days of our lives, as if we could come here on Sunday and give thanks, but live with an attitude of ungratefulness the rest of the week. Worship is a ritualizing of our response to God and serves as a reminder that all of life is sacred, all of life is gift, and deserves a response of thanksgiving. Worship is a most important form of expressing our thanks to God.
Our thankfulness is also expressed in giving and sharing. Gratitude begins within the person or community as an act of remembering, moves upward in worship toward God, then outward toward others in acts of giving and sharing. Israel's first fruits offering was not only a gift to God, but was be shared and eaten by the Levites and the sojourners who resided in the land, those who had no direct access to the fruits of the land. Thanksgiving to God is expressed in the giving and sharing of our gifts with others, particularly those without access to the fruits of the earth. Our acts of giving and sharing become a repetition of the God's giving and sharing with us.
There is no more powerful way to express our thanks than to give and to share with others. Rosemary Prichett and Cheryl Wood both understand that thanks is expressed in giving. But after you hear their story you may wonder which one was most thankful and who gave to whom. Rosemary, an African-American mother of three, living in a homeless shelter, found an endorsed $400 check on a windy downtown sidewalk. She could have seen the money as a gift of God to her. Instead, she looked through the phonebook and found the name on the check---Cheryl Wood, a white nurse from a nearby town. Cheryl was so grateful that her check was returned she wanted to offer a gift to Rosemary, but she refused. As they sat and shared about their lives and their children, Cheryl learned that Rosemary had bid $1200--- her entire savings---on an abandoned house, which she hoped to fix up. Two days later, who shows up at Rosemary's dilapidated house, but Cheryl. She had called a number of businesses asking for donations of supplies, workers and equipment. An army of contractors, suppliers and volunteers donated $30,000 in goods and work! All of this came as a response of thanks for the gift of a returned $400 check!
Thankfulness to God is expressed through giving and sharing with others. When we give and share our money, our time, our talents, our support, our encouragement, and our energies with others, we are making concrete our gratitude for the gifts that God has given to us. Sharing and giving as a thankful response to God is a way of creating a little slice of heaven on earth.
There is a story about a man who wanted to see both heaven and hell. "I'll show you hell,"said the Lord, and they went into a room which had a large pot of stew in the middle. The smell floated through the air and caressed the man's nose. But around the pot sat a bunch of desperate, thin, grumbling people who were starving. All were holding spoons with very long handles which reached into the pot, but because the handle of the spoon was longer than their arm, it was impossible to get the stew into their mouths. Their suffering was terrible. "Now I will show you heaven," said the Lord, and they went into an identical room as the first one. There was a similar pot of delicious stew and the people had the same long-handled spoons, but were well-nourished, talking, happy, and thankful. At first the man didn’t understand. "It is simple,” said the Lord: "You see, they have learned to feed each other." Giving and sharing can be a bit of heaven on earth.
Our gratitude to God is best expressed in sharing our bounty with others. We give because God has first given to us. And what greater way to express our thanks to God than by giving to others. We say “thanks” to God when we share the first fruits of our labor and support this church's ministry and the ministry of others. We say “thanks” to God when we give a cup of cold water to the thirsty or a piece of bread to the hungry. What more noble virtue could there be than to share our gifts, time, and support for the homeless, the hurting, and the hopeless? Are we not giving thanks to God when we visit someone who is sick or lonely or elderly? And, thanks be to God, are we not making a little patch of heaven right here on this sod where we live? In giving of ourselves we are celebrating the wedding of the two virtues----Thanks and Giving.
So, you see, that ever since God first introduced Gratitude and Charity, they have always been found together. And their marriage has produced the fruit of thankfulness. So, as one poet put it:
Go break to the needy sweet Charity's bread
for giving is living;" the angel said
"and must I be giving again and again?"
My peevish and pitiless answer ran.
"Oh" no,," said the angel" piercing me through
"Just give till the Master stops giving to you."