October 8, 2017
Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19
Like many families, it is the custom in our household to say grace before meals. The form we use is very simple: “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Each of our children brought it home when they started nursery school, which was interesting because they didn’t go to a religiously affiliated school. But we have continued to use those words ever since, even as our children grew into adulthood.
When we’re raising children, we teach them to express thanks. Saying grace before meals is one way. A feature of my life in the days after Christmas each year was to write thank-you letters to our relatives in England and the US for gifts we had received. We also want our children to develop an awareness of and express appreciation for the things other people do for them. When our children are small, we prompt them with the question, “What do you say?” As they get older, we know our words are having some effect when expressions of thanks become more spontaneous.
Sometimes, as we move out of childhood, it seems that expressing our thanks becomes more difficult. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because we become more aware of our failures and limitations. And if we don’t say thank you often enough, we can begin to take for granted the good things we have and the people who do good for us and to us. And when we take people and things for granted, we slowly lose our sense of thankfulness, our awareness of being gifted. We may even start to believe that all these gifts are no more than our due, that other people owe us. Then, if the gift ceases for some reason, we can become angry and resentful.
It has been my experience over the years that prayers of thanksgiving are sometimes the most difficult to express. We can easily find words to express our concerns for others, for the world, for creation, and even for our own deep sense of unworthiness. Petition and penitence are relatively straightforward. Prayer for ourselves might be a little more challenging, perhaps because we’ve been schooled in a false humility that says it’s wrong to ask things for ourselves, that our needs are less important than those of others. And perhaps prayer of thanksgiving is more difficult yet, because of our awareness of injustices and inequities in the world around us.
As a leader of public prayer, one of the problems I have in inviting people to express thanks is knowing that so many people lack the very basic things for which I am thankful: food, shelter, good health, meaningful work. It sometimes seems presumptuous for me to invite people to give thanks for friends and family, realizing that there may be someone in the congregation that day whose close relationship has become estranged and who feels only anger and betrayal. Or to ask people to give thanks for life and health when someone may have received a bad diagnosis. And this year especially, in the aftermath of a week filled with unspeakable tragedy, sadness, anger, and questioning, thanksgiving may be especially challenging.
Is there a way out of our difficulty? How can we recover a sense of thankfulness? How can we recover the ability to express thanks? I think there are three things we can do.
- The first is to acknowledge and affirm that we are indeed blessed and gifted beyond measure.
Most of us do not tend to think of ourselves as wealthy. Like many of you, I have an unwritten list of things I’d like to have, things I want to do around the house, places I’d like to go, things I’d like to see and do. The list rarely shrinks; mostly it gets longer. Items on the list get moved around as new wishes arise. It is a fact of life that the list will always be greater than the available resources.
We are not used to thinking of ourselves as rich. We have become used to a mentality of scarcity rather than abundance. We feel we are never far away from bankruptcies, deficits, and threats to our social programs. We don’t have to travel very far to see the human toll of our economy. And in a curious and backhanded kind of way, we identify with those who really do need help. Times are uncertain for everyone, and if you’re short of food, well, you’re just a little closer to the edge than me. That mentality of scarcity spills over into our church life when we look at the decline, both numerically and financially.
The truth is, of course, that by the world’s standards, most of us are truly wealthy. Most of the things on my wish list are wants, not needs. I’ve never been uprooted from my home by war, earthquake, or hurricane. I don’t have to choose between paying the rent or feeding my children. When we compare our situation with that of the vast majority of people in this world, we are rich beyond their wildest dreams, fabulously, even scandalously rich. Maybe one of the reasons we have trouble expressing thanks is because we know too well the discrepancies that do exist. Maybe that awareness can be the start of real thankfulness, as we realize that yes, we are blessed indeed. Maybe that awareness can also be the soil in which a passion for God’s reign of justice can grow.
The opposite response can happen too. Instead of realizing how blessed we are, we can start comparing our lives with those of others and feel envy or jealousy. Or when life’s disappointments and losses come to us, as they will do, we can also begin to envy those whose path seems so much smoother. While sadness, disappointment and even anger are natural and normal feelings in response to these events, they can turn into self-pity, which is never a good place to stay for very long. So when I find myself getting stuck in that cycle, I need to remind myself, “I’m warm, I’m safe, I’m well fed, and I have people who love me.” There are a lot of people who can’t say that. The best antidote for envy is to count your blessings.
- The second thing we need to do is to recognize and acknowledge the source of our blessings. All three readings today either warn us or call us to remember that it is by God that we are blessed, not by some fortuitous accident or by our own efforts.
Deuteronomy tells us, “Do not become proud and forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt…Nor must you say to yourselves, ‘My own strength and energy have gained me this wealth’, but remember the Lord your God; it is God who gives you strength.” Paul says, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance.” And Jesus asks, “Could none be found to come back and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
The message is clear. In the words of the old hymn, it’s not just “Count your blessings, name then one by one.” It’s “Count your many blessings; see what God has done.” Our society works against such an attitude by valuing individual initiative, individual effort and individual success. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food” goes beyond ordinary logic. It is a statement of faith, a way of seeing all reality.
- The third thing we need to do is not only to say thanks but to give thanks – to put the “give” into thanksgiving.
Our second reading for today is part of a section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. Paul is making the case for a collection of money to assist Christians in Jerusalem who have been suffering in a famine. One phrase in particular strikes me: “By always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” Wealthy or less wealthy, we nevertheless have enough to share in every good work. If not rich in money, we can be rich in time, rich in compassion, and above all, rich in opportunities to give. These are also gifts, given to us by God. How and where we give then becomes largely a matter of choice. We cannot all become involved in all causes or support all organizations. Some will bring food for the St. Matthew’s Maryland food box and knit items for the mitten tree, while others will challenge a system that keeps some people hungry and cold. Some will practice backyard composing or bring their scraps to church to add to the compost pail here, while others will volunteer in environmental education programs, and still others will press for an adequate return for farmers so they can practice good stewardship of the land they hold in trust. The yardstick is in Paul’s words, “Not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” A gift is only a gift if it is gladly and willingly given.
Someone once said the only prayer we need to say is “Thank you.” Thank you for life. Thank you for this beautiful world. Thank you for abilities, for food on the table, for love, for faith. Thank you for forgiveness, for reconciliation, and for opportunities to serve. Thank you for the gift of Jesus the Christ. Thank you for those this week, who, imitating Christ, bravely and selflessly exposed themselves to danger to help strangers in trouble.
I believe if we practice these things: 1) awareness of being blessed, 2) recognition of the giver, and 3) giving of ourselves to others – if we practice these in small everyday ways, we will recover our ability to express thanks. If we practice these things faithfully, we will not need to worry about how to say our thanks, for thankfulness will become a natural part of our life. in response to the gifts bestowed on us, our gratitude will lead us deeper into the generous heart of the God who loves us and wants to share all good things with us. And in turn we will be inspired to be more faithful stewards of the gifts given to us, that others too may give thanks with us for all God’s goodness. Amen.