Thanksgiving Service 2021
The reading from Deuteronomy reminds me of the words by John. A. Shed: “He who thanks but with the lips thanks but in part; the full, the true Thanksgiving comes from the heart.”
God took care of ancient Israel. God provided her with everything she needed. Ancient Israel had to respond to everything that God had done for her with more than thanks with the lips – it called for a response from the heart and had to be shown in actions. She needed to give back – for God had done marvelous things for her. Israel needed to show her gratitude in a concrete way. She had to bring some of the first fruit of the ground to God. And giving of the first fruit of the land of course had a powerful symbolic value: Giving of the first fruits of the land from a generous heart was an acknowledgment that everything she had was a gift from God.
Now, obviously we cannot draw the line directly from ancient Israel to ourselves. There are aspects of ancient Israel and her position before God that are unique and different from other nations and people. But as people of faith, we too recognize that God is the One who bestows abundant blessings on us. God is the One who provides and therefore we too are called to be grateful.
And just as ancient Israel recalled what God had done for her, and then responded with gratitude by giving the first fruit, that is letting go of some, we are called to do likewise. By giving the first fruits, we too affirm that everything belongs to God.
The earth we live on is a spectacular place. It is incredibly beautiful, abundantly fertile, rich in diversity, unlimited in its potential, and generous in its giving. Irish-American politician Bourke Cockran once said: “There is enough for all. The earth is a generous mother; she will provide in plentiful abundance food for all her children if they will but cultivate her soil in justice and in peace.” Yes, earth is indeed a generous mother – and yet at the same time she is fragile and has endured tremendous abuse at the hands of her children.
God gives to God’s creatures this beautiful and radiant earth. God gives to us this beautiful land, our home. Unfortunately, we have not always treated it with the love and respect it deserves. We have not always cultivated her soil in justice and peace. Our species have not always responded with gratitude from the heart. We have not always showed our deep gratitude by our willingness to let go. We instead want more and more. We hoard and we never seem to have enough. And in the process, we harm our beautiful home so that the future of our species, is now more uncertain than ever before.
There is something else Ancient Israel teaches. And herein lies our comfort. Israel teaches us that the future is in God’s hands. Anxiety, panic, throwing in the towel, and giving up hope is never an appropriate response by people who put their faith in the God of Israel. For God has shown that God is faithful and trustworthy. We affirm with gratitude and with commitment that we believe in God who provided manna for ancient Israel, and who still provides enough for every day. As people of faith we do not question God’s willingness or ability to provide. There is thus no need for us to be selfish, greedy, or anxious about the future …for God has given us a land that abundantly provides.
A grateful response from the heart is thus an affirmation of our faith in God who provides enough for everyday and an expression of our trust that God will provide for the future.
It is said that gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind. A central concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition is covenant. The very basic meaning of the word is agreement or contract. In other words, two parties agree to act in an agreed upon fashion. In the Bible God acts with God’s people in a covenantal way. God pours on us abundant blessings and God requires of us to respond in gratitude. God blesses us and requires that we become blessings to others.
A loving God enters into a covenantal relationship because God cares deeply about community. God wants humankind to live in harmonious community. This is of course much harder than it seems. Self-interest, shortsightedness, prejudice, greed, violence, and intolerance are a few reasons why it is so hard for humankind to coexist in harmony.
Johannes A. Gaertner once said: “To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.”
It seems to me that being grateful is a very effective way to counter destructive impulses that destroy community.
It is when we approach life with a grateful heart, that our hands open in generosity. It is when we, in deep gratitude bring to God what belongs to God, that we are liberated from greed and selfishness. Someone once said: “Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer.”
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians urges them: “Rejoice in the Lord always”. The reason for rejoicing is rooted in the nearness of the Lord. He then points out that joy reveals itself in the way you behave: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone”. “Do not worry.”
In the following verses he urges us to think about: “…whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable”. This is what a grateful life should look like.
Research has shown that the way to cultivate a joyful life is to practice gratitude. People who are grateful are also joyful and content people. They are also more connected to others. So, there is, or should be a close link between gratitude and a joyful life.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel once said: “For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.”
It is when our hearts are filled with gratitude that we life with joy and can grow in our connectedness with God and in our connectedness to our community. Amen.