A VERY old-fashioned Thanksgiving

Good morning, Friends!

One of the hazards of being a pastor is that people ask you to say grace all the time. Seems like every time we sit down, somebody looks in my direction and says, “Pastor, wouldn’t you please say a prayer before we start the meal?”

I think we ought to spread the work around a little more. I don’t mind saying grace or returning thanks some of the time, but I think it’s something which every one of us is capable of doing.

Prayer is not a special gift. Anyone can do it. And I think churches are stronger when we encourage everyone to take turns praying.

I don’t know about how things are done in your family, but for a long time at my family gatherings, we always asked the youngest person present to say grace.

There’s a story in our family, about how one of my wife’s uncles, when he was just a little boy, was asked to say grace. He was probably about 6 years old, and when he prayed, he was so quiet that everyone at the table had to strain to hear him.

They asked him why he didn’t speak up while he was praying, and he said, “I wasn’t talking to you.”

This week is Thanksgiving, and instead of saying something sentimental about the holiday, I’d like us to go way back, to the Old Testament, to look at the blessings God has promised us.

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:

  • You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.
  • The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
  • Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.
  • You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
  • The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.
  • The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.
  • The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you.
  • The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.
  • The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.
  • The Lord will make you the head, not the tail. If you pay attention to the commands of the Lord your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom.

Do not turn aside from any of the commands I give you today, to the right or to the left, following other gods and serving them.

– Deuteronomy 28:1-14

Giving thanks is supposed to be at the absolute center of who we are and what we do. Thanksgiving is not about turkey, or stuffing, or cranberry sauce, any more than Christmas is about holly, or mistletoe, or Hallmark specials. Thanksgiving is a central and fundamental part of our religious life.

I want to ask you all a question. When you sit down to eat a meal, do you think about how the food we eat got to the table?

Do we ever think about who grew it, or who harvested it? Do we think about who transported it and packaged it? Do we ever think about how who put it on the shelves? Probably not so much. Food is always just there, in the store. We put it in the cart and take it home and eat it and forget about it.

The same thing is true about our clothes, our houses. In an average day, we don’t give much thought to who made them.

We don’t think about the working conditions of the people, whether they were paid a fair wage or not. We don’t usually think about whether we’d be willing to trade places with the people who made our clothes or put together our cars or built our homes. Maybe if we did think about all those people, we would use less, and give thanks more.

In Bible times, people weren’t quite as removed from things as we are now. People mostly raised what they ate. They knew who made their clothes. They were neighbors with the people who built and repaired their houses. They could see the connections between the things of everyday life, and the people and conditions which produced them.

They understood pretty clearly that justice and injustice, fairness and inequality, had a lot to do with the peaceful enjoyment of their material possessions.

Instead of talking about rights and rewards, instead of talking about what the world owed them, people talked a lot more back then about blessings.

A blessing is not something which you or I have earned. A blessing is a gift. Blessings are gifts from God. And in this very old-fashioned world view that I’m talking about, people understood very clearly that everything we have is a gift. Everything is a blessing.

In the passage which we just read together, I’d like you all to notice the breadth of the blessings which the writer talks about. It says,”You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.”

It says, “The fruit of your womb will be blessed,” (that is, your children) “and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.” It even says, “Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.”

The most common parts of our daily living are meant to be blessed. Even these very humble and ordinary objects and activities are described as being under the blessing of God. All of our comings and goings, all of our human efforts and enterprises, are under God’s care and concern.

That’s a central fact in life, which we so often lose track of. God is the one who’s responsible for every good thing that we have in our lives. God is the provider. God is the creator. God is the instigator. If there’s any good, whether it’s a human faculty, a natural bounty, or a spiritual capacity, God is ultimately responsible.

We can contribute to our health a lot, by the way we eat and how much we exercise. We can abuse our bodies by working too hard, or by taking in things which are toxic. We can prevent some diseases by getting our shots or washing our hands. But a lot of our health is a gift of God. And much of our healing is always in God’s hands. We manage to forget that a lot of the time. But God is still here, all along.

God is incredibly generous to us. God blesses us, every day, in so many ways.

And along with that fundamental fact of God’s generosity, there is another truth, sort of a companion to it.

Our most basic, human activity is not eating food, or earning money, or watching the game, or going shopping. Our most basic, human activity is giving thanks. If you strip away thanksgiving, you lose one of the most important things about our human existence.

It’s one thing for us to say, as we say so often, that “we ought to give thanks every day.” I don’t want to knock anybody, but I think it trivializes thanksgiving to say that we should “say a little prayer every now and then.”

What the Bible talks about is something very different. The vision here in Deuteronomy, and it’s echoed and repeated elsewhere in the Bible, is that giving thanks is a way of life. Giving thanks is one of the central activities of life. Our lives are meant to be built around thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is not just a holiday that falls on the fourth Thursday of the month of November, which is a pretty arbitrary date anyway. “Thanksgiving, the holiday,” is something we made up. It started in the 1860’s as a Presidential proclamation.

Thanksgiving, the way the Bible talks about it, is something much deeper. It’s a whole attitude of living.

In the Christian scriptures, the word translated as “thanksgiving” is eucharisteo, which is where we get the word, “eucharist”. Thanksgiving has to do with communion with God.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the word for thanksgiving is yadah, which also translates as praise or as confess or witness. To give thanks is to praise God. It is also to bear witness.

When we pray, we say, “I am not the one responsible for all these good things. I did not create them or make them happen. God is the one who has brought us all these blessings. I give thanks to God, I give God the praise, I admit here in public that God is the author of all this.”

That’s what the Bible means by “thanksgiving”.

There’s a saying in the old Jewish rabbis that “It is forbidden to taste of this world without a blessing [that is, without giving thanks]. Whoever tastes of this world without saying a blessing commits unfaithfulness. . .” (Berakoth 35a)

In the Jewish tradition, part of enjoying anything is giving thanks for it. One of the main purposes for the Sabbath, besides rest from work and refreshment of our spirit, is giving thanks for the week that is past.

The rabbis said that giving thanks helps to re-create the world the way God intended it to be. Giving thanks restores things, it puts everything back in its right place. Giving thanks creates peace.

When we look at Jesus, have you ever noticed that before most of his miracles, Jesus gave thanks? When he healed people, when he fed big crowds, he always gave thanks first. It’s as though giving thanks releases God’s power in a special way. Saying, “Thank you, Lord,” is one of the most basic prayers in the Christian vocabulary.

I came across a writer one time who said that “if we can’t give thanks for something, we shouldn’t do it.”

“We mustn’t misuse the environment, he said, because that would violate the thanks we have given to God for the world that has been provided to us. We mustn’t undermine the fabric of society, because we have prayed for and given thanks to God for our neighbors. We can’t abuse our health or our bodies, because we have thanked God for the blessings of life and health.”

Thanksgiving as a way of life, thanksgiving as a daily, life-long attitude of the spirit, thanksgiving as the basis for every decision we make — that’s what I’m talking about. If you don’t understand how important constantly giving thanks is, you have missed the point of living as a Christian.

I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that says it’s OK to be shy about thanking God. Holding back is not part of thanksgiving.

All through the Psalms, you run into verses like this:

“I will give thanks in the midst of the great congregation…”

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to the Most High…”

“O God, from my youth thou hast taught me, and I still proclaim thy wondrous deeds. So, even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim thy might to all the generations to come…”

It’s OK for us to keep quiet about things that we have tried to do. Nobody likes to listen to boasting. But it’s not OK for us to keep quiet about the good things that God has done for us.

Every one here has many things for which we can be thankful. I would like us to break this habit of shyness. It’s OK for us to be shy about ourselves, but it is almost a denial of our faith for us to be shy about giving thanks to God.

One of the biggest changes we can make in this meeting has nothing to do with our building, or our budget, or our staff, or our music. What would it be like if we gave thanks more – a lot more?

It doesn’t need to be a big show. But what if we asked a different person to give thanks, before every activity we have here?

  • What if we thanked God for every blessing we receive?
  • What if we thanked God even for the smallest things?
  • What if our lives were filled with thanks?
  • What if we didn’t use anything, without thanking God for it?

Let’s see if we can transform ourselves, from people who keep quiet about our blessings, into people who celebrate them.

A church which gives thanks is never a poor church. We know we’ve been blessed. We know God cares about us. We know God provides for our needs.

And let’s thank each other, all the time, whether it’s in personal conversations, or worship services, or meals, or business meetings. When we’re grateful to each other, we won’t be fighting. We won’t be putting anyone down. We won’t be talking behind people’s backs.

Being thankful is one of the simplest, most transforming things we can do. We can change ourselves, we can change our church, we can change the world, by giving thanks.

Let’s go into quiet worship now together. Out of the quiet, whatever blessings you have received, let’s give thanks for them.

Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Brown

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