Thanksgiving Celebration

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Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Way, way, way back
on January 24, 2016 –
remember that far back?
It was my second Sunday here
and I preached on the text in Deuteronomy
in which today’s Hebrew scripture is also lodged.

There could hardly be a more perfect reading
to be inserted between post-election
and pre-Thanksgiving,
not to mention the day on which we
celebrate the in-gathering of our pledges for 2017.

I will get to Deuteronomy in a minute
but first, allow me to hover over a single word.

In street vernacular,
this bread and wine ceremony we do every week
is called “Communion.”
In the peculiar parlance of church-speak
it is more properly called, “Eucharist.”
“Eucharist” is the Greek word for “Thanksgiving.”

When those early conspirators
in the subversive moment
that came to be called “Christianity”
spoke about the kind of worship they did,

“Thanksgiving” is the word they used.
Every week for us is “Thanksgiving”
and that is the context
for these next remarks about Deuteronomy.

If you were to quarter a big, juicy red apple –
you know, cut it into four equal parts –
you would end up with four pieces of the core
as well as the flesh.

But unlike an apple,
in our spiritual tradition the core
is the most delectable part.

Not all Biblical wisdom or perspectives are equal.
In fact, there are some core insights
so scrumptious,
so luscious,
that they are potent enough to live on
without any other source of nurture.

The opposite is true also,
and we know it:
some Biblical perspectives are not even palatable,
and some are toxic.
But the core
is so sweet,
so delicious
that even poetry and music cannot begin to touch it.

Today we bite into a piece of the core,
the one I set on the table back in January
and that is with us week to week.
It is this:
the enemy of gratitude is amnesia;
and the power of gratitude is healing.

Let me repeat that, for effect if nothing else:
the enemy of gratitude
is amnesia;
and the power of gratitude
is healing.

That snippet of Deuteronomy we heard
is part of a long speech Moses delivers
to the all the people of Israel
gathered on the floodplain of the Jordan River.
It is an urgent plea for them to remember
who they are
and whose they are.
“When you have come into the land
that the LORD your God is giving you
as an inheritance to possess,
and you possess it,
and settle in it,
you shall take some of the first
of all the fruit of the ground,
which you harvest from the land
that the LORD your God is giving you,
and you shall put it in a basket
and go to the place that the LORD your God
will choose as a dwelling for his name…

By the way, I suspect that line of scripture right there
is what those early Pilgrims were doing on the first Thanksgiving,
though in our secularized worldview
the biblical background is lost.
Anyway, Moses goes on.

(And you will say)
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;
he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien,
few in number,
and there he became a great nation,
mighty and populous.
When the Egyptians treated us harshly
and afflicted us,
by imposing hard labor on us,
we cried to the LORD,
the God of our ancestors;
the LORD heard our voice
and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,
with a terrifying display of power,
and with signs and wonders;
and he brought us into this place
and gave us this land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.

So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”

Even though we are not farmers,
most of us anyway,
we still understand this “first fruits” idea.
Clearly this is a description
of an early liturgy
instituted for the people to remember
how they became a people
and why they were a people
and who it was that made them a people.

As you may recall,
the Book of Deuteronomy is a re-telling of Exodus
and it delivers within its verses,
the constitution for a nation.
Surrounded by monarchies and empires,

Israel is given the constitution of an egalitarian society –
a radically new model in a world
dominated by brutal hierarchy.

It is a constitution designed for ex-slaves
who are to remember
their slavery,
and remember
their escape,
and remember
what it was like to live without the love of God
as the guiding principle of the society.

“Never forget,” was Moses’ plea to them that day at the Jordan.

After forty years of wandering in the wilderness
looking for the Promise Land
they have finally arrived at the border.
After forty years of looking around each corner
and hoping for it;
drudging over every mound of sand
and yearning to see it;
climbing every steep and treacherous mountain
pleading for it to be on the other side.
After burying the weak and the infirm
in unmarked graves along the way,
they now held them in memory
even through the fog of years
as they gazed across the river into the Promise Land.

Wanting now to charge across the shallow water
into that long, long awaited land of milk and honey,
Moses by act of will and miracle,
makes them sit down and listen to him
for thirty-some chapters.

What we heard today is almost the end,
almost the period at the end of the sermon
and their moment of release into the Promised Land.

And here,
as he has through all the promises,
laws and statutes and social prescriptions
for thirty chapters,
Moses insists that whatever else they do –
whatever abundance and joy
they harvest and enjoy –
that they remember.
he tells them.

where you came from: Egypt.
what you came from:
how you got here:
an act of God and not by your own strength.
these are cities you did not build,
these are goods you did not make,
these are cisterns you did not dig,
these are grapes and olives you did not plant,
this is food you did not harvest.
you were slaves with nothing of your own
except the suffering you endured.
Do not forget the origin of your abundance
because if you do,
if you forget,
you will lose it all.

Moses warns them over and over and over again,
that prosperity brings on amnesia,
and amnesia is the enemy of gratitude.

So there it is, the succulent morsel of wisdom:
When we forget
who we are
and whose we are
our gratitude becomes weak and flaccid
and may evaporate altogether.
And when that happens,
we run the risk of being overtaken by
or just plain self-centered anxiety.

When we are full and satiated
and all our basic needs are met,
we sit back and we offer a deep sigh,
“Ah…the good life.”

But the punch line to this whole thing
is that forgetting
who we are
and whose we are
and what it is we have to be grateful for,
is a gratitude killer.
I dare say, all of us know what it is like
to live without gratitude.

One day,
even though we never meant to,
we woke up without gratitude.
We may not have noticed immediately –
brushing our teeth,
taking our shower,
eating our breakfast.
But without gratitude something happens
that re-shapes the experience of life.

Without gratitude
life becomes all about us.
In fact, life becomes about “me.”

Without gratitude,
life becomes an endless river of thirst –
surrounded by water yet never quenched.

Without gratitude,
life becomes an empty pit of hunger –
surrounded by abundance but obsessed with scarcity.

Without gratitude,
life becomes a festering wound of dissatisfaction –
no matter what we have
it is never enough.

I know you know
what that feels like.
All of us have succumbed.
It is almost a universal infection
we have contracted at some point
and will likely be hit with again.

When we run dry of gratitude
no amount of medical or psychological attention
will cure what ails us;
we will be dry bones in a valley of dry bones
and the misery of it is woeful.

At those moments,
gratitude is what injects marrow into our bones
and re-establishes the sinew and cartilage
to make gracefulness a renewed option.
Gratitude keeps us anointed
and well oiled
with the possibility of…

Conversely, without gratitude there is no possibility of joy;
and a life without joy is, well,
it is mere consumption.

But we cannot give ourselves joy –
that is something visited upon us
and utterly impossible to create on our own.
But gratitude can begin as an act of will.

Gratitude can be conjured up
when we are not feeling it
by remembering
who we are
and whose we are.

Memory activates gratitude.

There is always
and forever
a memory of gratitude.
We can call on it
and invite it to be present in the moment.
Even if we cannot feel it
we can remember it
and invite it to be present.

Remembering who we are
and whose we are
will activate gratitude.

And gratitude is what makes it possible
to survive grief.
Gratitude is what makes it possible
to endure pain.

Gratitude is what makes it possible
to perceive hope
even when we are only getting through
one step at a time.

empowers healing
even when a cure is out of the question.
Gratitude creates an opening for joy
even when sorrow and grief surround us.

The beginning of gratitude
is remembering…
who we are
and whose we are.

It is a very powerful moist morsel of wisdom
we have from these voices
that rise up to us up out of the soil of Biblical history.

Prosperity creates amnesia
and amnesia causes us to live without gratitude
and when that happens
life is only about me;
and in that kind of life
the best we can hope for is mere consumption.

But gratitude is always within reach,
a simple act of will to remember
who we are
and whose we are,
which then sets us back on the road
toward the possibility of joy
and all the other things
for which we give thanks.

I want to pause then,
and thank you,
each of you,
for making me your priest.

As your priest,
I want to thank you for your gifts
of time,
and love in the arms of community.

Beginning now our balancing act
between the living out and letting go of 2016
and stepping up onto 2017,

I invite you to sing your thanksgiving with me:
(Sing the doxology).