It’s hard to know how to speak this morning, on “Thanksgiving Sunday”.
Thanksgiving is not exactly a religious holiday, and yet I think it has more potential to bring our focus back to God than Christmas does, since the focus is on giving thanks for the blessings we enjoy rather than buying our way to happiness.
But at the same time, thanksgiving isn’t like Christmas or Easter. Those are holidays that celebrate specific events in the life of Jesus who is the center of our faith.
And yet gratitude is a Christian virtue worth exploring on Sunday morning. Time after time in the letters he writes, Paul exhorts his readers to give thanks ‘without ceasing’.
So like I said; it’s hard to know how to speak this morning as we look forward to family, food, and a nice long weekend.
We do have a lot to be thankful for. That’s important to remember, because so much of the year we take so much for granted.
The safety and security of a relatively decent government, the infrastructure we enjoy, which includes being able to travel from one coast to the other without worrying about documents or checkpoints or impassable roads…the clean water we drink that runs with the turn of a faucet…the ability to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer…You know, even something as simple as good hygiene and access to basic health-care; things like advil, tylenol, cough syrup…
For all this and more, we should indeed be grateful.
After all, life is not so easy in the majority of the world, and the proper response when you’re given something that you don’t necessarily deserve is gratitude.
So, I think it’s great to take a day out of the year to simply celebrate the abundance we enjoy.
I think it’s good to clear our agendas and our schedules for one day if we can, take the time to cook things to perfection, and enjoy the ability to feast.
But I do think we as Christians need to exercise some caution when we come to the Thanksgiving table.
(I’m not just talking about how much we eat).
Let me say it like this.
There is a temptation at this time of year, to look on all our abundance and the ease of life which we enjoy, and to accept it all as a sacred gift and blessing from God, no questions asked.
But really, part of what it means to be a follower of Christ is to ask questions!
We can’t help it.
God is actively redefining our lives.
Every day, God is re-writing our story so that we no longer conform to the pattern of this world. But it’s not a passive thing; we participate in it; which means distinguishing between God’s story and it’s perversion.
And to do that, we have to ask questions.
Because sometimes God’s story and the perversion of God’s story are so similar that it’s hard to distinguish between the two.
For example, I think Thanksgiving as we know it presents that challenge.
After all, we worship a God of abundance; a God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills; a God who pulled a coin from the mouth of a fish, a God who multiplied the food to feed five thousand with just a little boys lunch.
And this abundance isn’t just physical. God’s love falls on both the just and the unjust like rain. In the kingdom of Heaven, the boundaries we build mean very little. God doesn’t view the world like we do, so this incredible abundance he bestows on creation is there for everyone to enjoy, no exceptions!
But that doesn’t mean we don’t ask questions when we come to the Thanksgiving table.
For example, you’ve heard me say that I’m grateful for the ability to drive from one coast to the other without worrying about anything but the price of gas and the time it would take.
But I’m not grateful that oil companies like BP and the others are willing to sacrifice the environment to let me do it.
I’m grateful for the security that comes from having a government that seems to function better than a lot of other governments we can look at.
But I’m not grateful that this security seems to come from a stance of power, intimidation, and brute force.
I’m grateful to pay low prices for a thousand choices at Rhodes.
I’m not grateful that many of my brothers and sisters–even right here in Millersburg–can’t afford those low prices, or don’t have the same choices.
It’s not that I’m against Thanksgiving.
It’s just that sometimes I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m being grateful for, or who it is exactly I’m giving thanks to at Thanksgiving time.
And it’s this kind of gratitude I’d like to warn us against this morning.
I’m going to call it ‘generic’ gratitude. It’s a one-size-fits-all kind of gratitude that we like to put on when it suits us.
Like when we learn about how people in Haiti are still cleaning up from the earthquake, and they don’t have clean water or enough food.
We hear about that, and often we express a generic kind of gratitude that it didn’t happen to us.
If you’re like me, you don’t get too specific in situations like that, because you realize there are heaps of humanity who haven’t been so fortunate.
And so you might push it out further, and realize that if I’m thanking God for sparing me, then God must have somehow been behind making it happen in the first place.
He must have decided who’s going to suffer, and who’s not.
And there are lots of people who do think like that.
Probably even some of us here, who think that God makes everything happen in the world, and so a hurricane like Katrina becomes divine judgment, or an earthquake becomes a punishment.
Well, I’m not going to get into all that this morning; though I am planning to do a series on brokenness and evil after the first of the year.
It’s enough to say this morning that for reasons like this, I think many of us offer what I call ‘generic’ thanks at the Thanksgiving table.
We do express our gratitude, but we don’t think it through too much.
And that’s not bad.
Generic gratitude isn’t all bad.
In fact, it’s what makes a national holiday like Thanksgiving possible.
Christians will be doing it, Atheists will be doing it, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, there is no religious significance to the kind of “Thanksgiving” that many of us are preparing for even now.
All will partake, and all will “give thanks” in one way or another.
But that kind of generic thanks has no place in church!
We are not a generic people. We are a peculiar people.
We worship a specific God, and so we need to think of blessings, abundance, and gratitude in very specific ways, and use specific language when we speak.
We can’t give generic thanks, because our lives are rooted in a very specific story; it starts with a creative God who beckons to us to share in creation, and it ends in the resurrection and new life that flows on like endless song in the new creation God is making through us!
Paul puts it well in the passage we heard this morning.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.
He’s clear about the reason he’s giving thanks.
He’s also clear that God’s richest blessings are not physical.
God blesses everyone across the world with some blessings. Rain, sunlight, and God’s love fall on everyone the same regardless of nation, religion, race, creed, or any number of ways we try to divide ourselves.
But the tighter we try to cling to the things we call blessings…the quicker they rot like manna in the wilderness.
That’s why the prosperity gospel is such a farse; because it suggests that God’s blessings are given to some and not to others, and the difference is what kind of formula you pray.
It suggests that God’s blessings can be stored up, and clung to for our own personal pleasure; and that’s simply not true!
God does want people to prosper.
But the kind of gap that exists today between the rich and the poor; ungodly is the only word to explain it.
Paul understood that God’s richest blessings are not physical.
That’s why he can write that he’s learned to be content in any and all situations; in hunger, in plenty, in persecutions, in chains, etc.
It’s because he’s in God’s story and he knows it!!
Not in a haughty kind of proud way that says “I’m in and you’re out”; but rather, in the kind of way that goes to prison because he knows God’s story transcends the present reality; whether that is plenty or want, riches or poverty; God’s story transcends and transforms it!
Paul knows he can join up with that story no matter where he goes or who he’s with.
And so can we!
For we who seek to follow Christ, Thanksgiving is an enormous opportunity to tell a different story.
Because we know that as characters in God’s story, the blessings we receive are not only for our own enjoyment. They are given to us in order to transform reality!
In Genesis 12, God calls Abram away from his country and his family and his ancestors, he calls Abram to a new and foreign land; and then he says to Abram “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing!” In a similar way, God has called us to that same hope!
He goes on, saying “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed!”
We are blessed to be a blessing, so that all the families of the earth are blessed.
It’s actually a little bit hard to hear that as I gear up to attend the feast I’m planning to attend on Thursday, because I’m hard pressed to point to the families of the earth who are blessed by my blessings.
See, that’s the challenge for this Thanksgiving holiday; to find ways to bless others with the blessings we’ve been given, so that the way of Christ is known, celebrated, and God’s abundance becomes real among us.
All of us.
Millersburg Mennonite Church
P.O. Box 16
288 E Jackson St
Millersburg, OH 44654
Phone: (330) 674-7700
Fax: (330) 674-7700
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