A Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday (the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost), Preached on 11 October, 2020, All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto
Exodus 32.1-14, Psalm 106.1-6,19-23, Philippians 4.1-9, Matthew 22.1-14
time when we take stock of our blessings, traditionally thought of as blessings
of the earth, and when, ideally, we think of others as ourselves.
Thanksgiving can be thought of as an attitude that is sometimes expressed in prayers
and hymns. I want to suggest today that thanksgiving is best
thought of as the church’s posture, as a spiritual default position.
The Christian write
Anne Lamott has written that the best prayers she knows are ‘help me, help me,
help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you”. It’s a
wise observation. We might go beyond it to say that all prayers, or
at least, all prayers that we typically pray, fall into the two categories of
“please” and “thank you”.
In their everyday
use, both prayers are born out of urgency. We might pray “please
help me” when we are racing to the hospital after receiving terrible news, or
when we want the pain to stop. We might pray “thank you” when we
receive a clean bill of health, or when we get to the hospital and find that
our loved one is ok. I can’t prove it, but I think that we
are more likely to pray “please help” than we are to pray “thank you”, because
I think that fear is a stronger motivator than is gratitude.
The Israelites in
our first lesson certainly seem to be fear motivated. One
would think that they would be in a place of gratitude, having been freed from
slavery in Egypt, but that was a long hard journey ago, and now they are in the
wilderness, and their leader Moses left them to go up Mount Sinai to speak with
their terrifying God, and who knows what happened to him? The Israelites
want security, and if they have to make a God to deliver it, especially a God
they can comprehend, then so be it.
It’s often said
that the story of the Golden Calf is about idolatry, but it’s also a story of a
Thanksgiving celebration that goes horribly wrong. What’s particularly tragic about this episode
is that it is an example of misplaced gratitude.
Not able to trust or understand the God they have, the Israelites make a god
themselves and then thank them: “These are your gods, O Israel, who
brought you up out of the land of Egypt”. The Israelites want to give
thanks on their own terms to gods of their own making, who will ask nothing of
them in return. It’s left to Moses to literally beg the true God of
Israel, the terrifying God who freed his people and promised them a great
future in return for their loyalty.
Being thankful to a God who makes demands on us is authentic gratitude.
in the Wilderness, we as a people resist authentic gratitude because of the
vulnerability that it entails. It’s enormously tempting to turn
away from the God that might make demands on us, and to place our faith in
things that ask nothing of us. It’s easy, especially at
Thanksgiving, to be grateful for the things we have, especially in a wealthy
and beautiful place like King Township. We may not make golden
calves, but we are inclined to put our trust in gods that we can comprehend and
which seem to offer security – prestige cars, ostentatious custom houses,
private education, healthy lifestyles of cycling and hiking, and so on.
These things offer a sense of security and satisfaction, they tempt us to give
them our trust and even gratitude that we have what others lack.
It may be tempting
to say that we have nothing to learn from the Exodus story because its God is unlikeable
– jealous and manipulable.. Moses’ appeal to God to think of his
reputation (what will they say about you back in Egypt if you wipe out your
people?) makes God seem petty and cranky, a king who must be managed by his
advisors (sound familiar?). If we can recognize this aspect of the
story as being to some extent a literary device, we can see beyond the
narrative aspect to the essential theology – that this is a God who hears
prayer, who chooses mercy over justice, and who sets aside his anger at the
shocking ingratitude and betrayal of the people God created.
We can see that the God of Exodus is one and the same with
our Christian God.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas has
written that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel
from Egypt. There is no God but this God”. This is a God who can be
trusted in every sense, because this God is in the rescuing
business. This God is in the resurrection business.
This God is all about creation, life, freedom and renewal. Why
would we feel the need to make another god when we have this God? Why
would we feel anything but gratitude for this God?
It can be
especially challenging to feel gratitude to a God who might not give us ironclad
guarantees of security, who might not answer every “please help” prayer with
the prosperity that we might wish. There
is one place in the old Prayer Book service For the Blessings of a Harvest
which I find helpful in this regard. The
authors of that service wisely included a prayer to be used if and “when the
harvest has been defective”:
Almighty God and
everliving Father, who hast in wisdom seen fit to withhold from us at this time
thine accustomed bounty: we most humbly praise thee for still bestowing upon us
far more than we deserve. Make us truly thankful for our many blessings;
increase in us more and more a lively faith and love, and a humble submission
to thy blessed will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(BCP pp. 619-620)
This prayer is
remarkable in that it says “thank you” when it really still wants to say
“help”. The harvest has not been good. All is not
safely gathered in. Meals may be plain and infrequent this
winter. Even so, it says “thank you” for our real gifts:
faith, love, life, and even for God’s claims on our freedom to just look after
our own interests and not share with others.
In times of scarcity, after a bad harvest, it would be all the more
important to look after one’s neighbours, and all the more tempting to ignore
them and hoard the little one has.
This prayer brings
us back to gratitude and the difference between authentic and false gratitude. Maybe the greatest difference between “help
me” and “thank you” is that while the former is often simply primal, just pure
raw need, “thank you” can sometimes be calculated in favour of our own
interests and advantages. Like the Pharisee (Lk 18.9-14), it can be
tempting to say “thank you that I am not like” … like this person who has less
than I do, like people who live in this war zone in this crappy country, like
people who I see as being less important. Idols and golden calves
can seduce us into this kind of false gratitude.
is challenging because it makes us vulnerable – it exposes us to the needs of
others and it does not meet every one of our perceived needs. Authentic
gratitude takes us away from ourselves and towards God, which is why in our
prayer books we combine our thanks AND our praise. Authentic gratitude
means that we are grateful for the things that we hold in common with all
humanity – the ability to love and be loved as creatures who all bear the image
of God and who thus deserve equal dignity– and thus share what we have.
may our gratitude be properly placed, with thanks and praise, in the living God
who rescues us from sin and death, things that no god of our own making can
do. May our prayers of “help me” be answered as we need
and not as we deserve, and may our prayers of “thank you” be born of authentic
gratitude which sees the love of God for all his creation and which compels us
to love and share with our neighbours.