Thursday
Nov242005

« Thanksgiving »

I began to record the services at my church three years ago. Jerry, our minister, has been with us nearly 20 years now, and he has been a great friend for most of that time, except for the times of course when I never showed my face around there for years at a time, but that was a reflection on me, not him. I began to do the recordings as a way to uphold my end of the deal, thinking upon reflection that his place in my life was tremendously influential on me, and to preserve his work would be a good and noble way to show that. Each week, I record the service and then take the CD home to edit out the sermons, which I keep an archive of for the whole church to use. I also put the audio up on the web. And in this case, the first recording I made there, on November 24, 2002, is on Thanksgiving, and coincidentally, exactly three years ago now. I loved this message right away, and periodically, I would revisit it. Finally, I decided to transcribe it. It might be a bit much to transcribe all the recordings, but this one I didn't want to miss.

Readings:

Psalms 100
Luke 17:11-191
Thessalonians 5:16-18

Our reflection this morning concerns the commandment to give thanks. If we look at biblical references to giving thanks, we find that they are many. To give thanks is one of the major commandments of the biblical witness. In the Hebrew bible, the act of giving thanks is primarily declared in the book of Psalms. This is where the greatest number of references occur. When we consider that the book of Psalms was the liturgy book, the songbook of ancient Israel, covering nearly a millennium of time, we see how central thanksgiving is to our faith. We begin to get a deeper appreciation for the central role of thanksgiving in the worship of God—the God of the Exodus, the creator and savior of the world. In the most famous of the Psalms, Psalm 100, the Psalm commands us. “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, give thanks to Him. Bless His name.” What does it mean? To enter God’s gates with thanksgiving. Of course it meant to enter the temple with thanksgiving. But there is a deeper meaning. Thanksgiving is an approach, an entry into the holy presence. A way of moving toward the divine countenance, a way of unlocking the gate of the Spirit. There is a negative corollary: do not give thanks and remain at a distance from the divine presence. Thanksgiving is the key that makes entry into the gate of the holy presence possible.

We do not always find reasons to give thanks. Often life seems too harsh, too absurd, too filled with conflict and destruction. How could we possibly give thanks in such a context? Many years ago now, a very sensitive person asked me, “how can I give thanks for bread and good food when so many are starving to death? Am I to be thankful that because of luck I am not one of them?” I suspect that all of us at one time or another have asked ourselves a similar question. Sensitivity to the suffering of others raises the question of the validity of thanksgiving, perhaps as nothing else does. Still we are commanded to enter His gates with thanksgiving. Why the commandment—and what we do with the seeming conflict—between it and the reality we often feel…is our task.

Insight into the answer of why we give thanks is to be offered us by our text for this morning. By remembering that according to all of the accounts, Jesus’ offering of thanks substantially took place at the meal he shared with his followers on the night on which he was betrayed, arrested, and delivered into the power of Rome to be killed. Thus, the time-honored name of the liturgy surrounding his meal is Eucharist, which is the Greek verb, “to give thanks.” So at the center of the passion story, or almost at the center of the passion narrative of Jesus is the commandment to give thanks. We may wonder how Jesus gave thanks, but that’s not the question. The question is why did he. And in answering why he did, we may come to a deeper understanding of why we must.

Jesus was of course following the Passover liturgy, commanding as it did, the giving of thanks. But there was more than that… there was a deeper root of giving thanks. We’re told Jesus was shocked and puzzled because only one out of ten lepers returned to give thanks. I think Jesus was shocked and puzzled not because he felt slighted but because such callousness amounts to a disregard for the miracle of being. The miracle of being. And the God who gives it. Fundamentally, thanksgiving arises from the deep appreciation that we do not create our own life—that all we have, we owe. It's not trite to say that there is no such thing as a self-made person. But many people act as though that were the literal truth. The next thought has to be ‘what happens when people behave as though we owe no one else or any other our being, our life, our breath?’ And the answer to that question is clear and precise. All of the violence and destruction and ruin that we know in history, and our own time give to us the insight that they rest on a fundamental false premise, and that is that we owe no one thanks for anything. We owe no one anything. We are the measure of all things. We can do as we wish, as power is the extension of our own ego that is not in debt to anyone or anything else.

All lip service to the contrary (such a predominant idea) and living action throughout history and our own time leads us of course, into the shadows, and thus we have to counteract it.

So we have to be clear. Does not an ethic of justice and love, compassion and care, rest on the living acknowledgement that what we have, we owe? Does not an ethic of justice and love, care and compassion rest on the reason for our giving thanks? Thanksgiving is a sacrifice. It’s the sacrifice of our own egotism, our own self-centeredness, in acknowledgement that we are surrounded by that which gives us life, and breath, and everything else. Life is gift granted to us for a season and a time. To fail to give thanks is worse than death. It is to be insensitive to the source and goal of our being, and those who have sustained us along our life’s way. And, as Elie Wiesel has written, “The opposite of life is not death. It is insensitivity.” Insensitivity to the mystery of our being, and the being of others inexorably leads to the violation of our own life, and the life of others. And so we remember, thanksgiving is a living memory of who we are, who we owe, and of the God who granted us the mystery of existence in the first place.

Paul of Tarsus commands, “in everything, give thanks.” Having tried to be sensitive to the reason for giving thanks, we come closer to an understanding of how we may give it. We may give thanks because it is owed and because it is a reminder to ourselves of who we really are. Paul commands, in everything give thanks, and that means that thanksgiving must also take on the contours of resistance. Resistance.

My teacher, father Gustavo Gutierrez, from Lima, Peru, the so-called father of Latin American liberation theology, told us that at the root of all theologies of liberation is the heart and spirit of gratitude. Gratitude. Why? Because the powers of oppression, the powers of destruction and violence seek to destroy the reasons for thankfulness, thus casting people into despair, cynicism, nihilism, and the way to resist is again to give thanks. To remember all the reasons for giving thanks. And that’s why, often enough, in the heart of the poorest favilas in Latin America, the center of the community is a joyous thanksgiving. People who live on the edge of starvation, giving thanks as a way of resisting the condition that forced them into that situation in the first place.

The way to resist is to give thanks. Thanksgiving is an act of resistance because it consecrates the world where we are—delivering it into the presence of God, entering the gate of the Holy, recognizing the source and mystery of all being, beauty, justice, loving kindness. For all the reasons the powers of the shadows give to erase gratitude from our hearts, we are in the midst of them to give thanks as a testimony to their lie. Thus in everything, we are to give thanks.

Think if you will of the most simple and profound act: saying grace over bread. Saying grace over bread. A simple act recounted by us countless times in our lives. And we remind ourselves of the Hebrew blessing, as old as Judaism itself:

Blessed be thou O lord our God,
Master of the universe
Who brings us forth bread from the earth.

Amen.

A simple “thank you.” It does not seem much. But it was said in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Even there. And we know from Alexander Solzenitzen that prayers of thanksgiving over a crust of bread were said countless times in the gulag of the Soviet Union. Prayers of thanksgiving as resistance. The consecrating of life and breath and the world itself in the face of all that seeks to destroy. And at our own tables too. Thanks over bread. The consecration of life. The wonder of being. The beauty and preciousness of love, friendship, and hope as resistance against all that seeks to take it away.

Thanksgiving is entry into God’s presence—the gate of the Holy. Gratitude is the key to God’s future opposed to the death we seek to sow in ours. How do we give thanks rests in why we give thanks. We give thanks to acknowledge the mystery and wonder of life. The mystery and wonder we did not and do not create and for which we owe everything. It is simple then to give thanks. It may be done at any time…surely, over a piece of bread, but also at any other time. We are to be a living thanksgiving, as seal and testimony that creation, life, breath, beauty, wonder do not belong to us except as a gift, and that therefore, we are not the lords of the earth, for the one lord of heaven and earth rests with us.

And so we say,

Blessed be thou O lord our God
Who has created us,
sustained us,
And enabled us to reach this season.

Amen.

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