October 8, 2017

On Taking Time to Give Thanks

Passage: Deuteronomy 8:7-18, Psalm 65, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 17:11-19
Service Type:

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

“What do you say?” the parent asks the child as they open their grandparent’s birthday gift. It is a leading question; leading the child to say “thank you” to their grandparents. Usually followed with hugs and an enthusiastic response, “you are welcome!” So all of those things we do with our children to direct them towards gratefulness—saying thank you, creating a thankyou card or note—what is the purpose? Is it because we want to raise polite children and teach them the virtue of gratitude? Studies have been done that shows that an attitude of gratitude is good for your health—emotionally and physically. Is it to help them to be healthy?

I had taken two of my grandchildren to MacDonald’s to have an ice-cream cone. (Not because I’m cheap, by the way, it is the place they requested though I offered other choices.) After we had finished eating our various ice-cream treats—the words were out of my mouth almost without thinking—“and what do you say?’ And, of course, the “thank you Papa” followed in response as they had been schooled. Did I do that because I wanted to be thanked? I hope not. As a parent or grandparent, though, it is sometimes easier to let things go with a child than to be consistent all the time, every time. But why do we require thankfulness? Why does the gospel insist that we ought to be thankful?

It isn’t solely because we want to be thanked—as lovely as that is to hear; it isn’t merely because a thankful heart promotes health in life, as beneficial as that may be; it isn’t because well-mannered people makes life civil—though civility a much preferred option to incivility. It isn’t even a combination of all of these benefits. From the perspective of the gospel thankfulness witnesses to the very nature of our existence. So when we take up this subject of thanksgiving we are taking up the subject of the mystery of our very being.

When we share in our communion service we begin with what is called the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving. Let’s rehearse the beginning call and response of that prayer.
The peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
Notice what we say to God—it is right to give our thanks and praise. It is right: it is correct; it is about righteousness or right relatedness to God; it is right in the sense of good. Thanksgiving is about so much more than the spinoff benefits we can enumerate though they be many. Thanksgiving, according to the gospel, is the response of the human who knows or has embraced the true nature of her existence.

1. Luke is the Gospel writer who preserves this story of Jesus healing ten lepers. The reason we read it on the Sunday we mark as Thanksgiving is because of the detail regarding the fact that only one of the ten lepers, upon seeing that he was cured, returned to Jesus and thanked him. This prompted Jesus’ to remark “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” I sometimes wonder who I am more like. Am more like the nine who received the cure and never looked back or the one who did return to say thank-you? And does it alternate from day to day?

To probe this a little further, am I grateful for each day God gives me? Some days I am like the man who returned to give thanks but on way too many days I am more like nine—I take the day as a given and keep right on motoring. And how does this spill over into family life? Do I say thank you to the one who makes a meal for me or do I just eat and keep right on motoring. The point being that thankfulness expressed to one another is rooted in this bigger picture of gratefulness to God for the life God gave us.

Think for a moment about this question; where does the notion of giving thanks arise from? You might respond with something like, because I feel good about the fact that someone gave me a gift—their kindness needs response. But why is saying thank-you considered the proper response to having been given a gift and feeling good about it? The point I am making with you is this. According to the gospel, the expression of gratitude is imbedded in the nature of our existence as creatures whom God has created having breathed into us the breath of life. None of us were ever asked if we wanted life. Life by its very nature is sheer gift. Life is an act of pure grace and the rational response to such grace —the response that understands the true nature of our existence grace—is gratitude.

The theological Karl Barth was fond of saying that the basic human response to God is gratitude—not fear and trembling, but thanksgiving. “What else can we say to what God gives us but stammer praise!” In his book Reflections on the Psalms C.S. Lewis remarked on the Psalms’ insistence that we praise and thank God. He also observed how gratitude or lack of gratitude manifests in life: “I noticed how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most; while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”

I have remarked with you before that when we remove God from our understanding of the nature of human existence life gets flatted out; becomes two dimensional; there is little depth to the picture. In C. S. Lewis’s journey to faith he noted that one of the things his atheism could not account for was the imagination. If thought (imagination) were purely subjective—only brain molecules at work—then claims for it would have to be abandoned. If our thinking is merely atoms bouncing off one another then claims of imagination falls flat. Think for example of how with our imagination we apprehend something to be beautful—is something really beautiful or not? Is the apprehension of beauty merely the random collision of brain molecules? Then how is it that a lofty mountain vista causes so many of us to feel what we call a sense of awe?

So too with gratitude. If we remove God from the picture it flattens out. I have some treasured friends in life whose generosity towards me is beyond any ability I have to reciprocate. And saying thank-you seems so inadequate. The one thing I know about these friends is that they are not expecting anything in return—there is no “quid pro quo.” It is because I know something of the grace of God who gives me life expecting nothing in return; who while I was yet a sinner died for me; it is because I know something of God’s grace that the generous grace of a friend is put in perspective. I often say in wedding homily that the love we have for one another draws its breath from the God who is love and is in love with his creatures. So too our gratitude draws it breath from the grace of God the fills the universe. Thank you to God, thank you to a friend, thank you to a spouse isn’t simply an obligation we owe because we feel indebted; gratitude is the response we offer for grace-filled lives.

2. I recall being in a leadership development workshop where the importance of saying thank-you for organizational health was extolled. A boss who makes it a habit of thanking those in the organization for their efforts was believed to promote a more productive work environment. Mechanisms were then promoted for helping participants form the habit of saying thank-you. Why do we need the mechanisms, the pop-ups in our electronic calendars, to remember to say thank you? Why do I need reminding to take time to give thanks? Why do we have to school our children to say thank you? Clearly it isn’t a natural response among us humans.

As I reflect on this parable of these ten lepers it is clear that Jesus thought it important to offer thanksgiving for the gracious act of God. Jesus wonders what happened to the other nine. These other nine also saw their skin clear of leprous spots even as this one foreigner did. They all got the same treatment from our Lord. The story shows us something we know. It is easy to overlook the grace of God in our lives especially when God isn’t shouting at us for response. It is easy to overlook the generosity of a friend who simply does something for you and expects nothing in return. God’s isn’t like the squeaky wheels in our life demanding attention; neither is the generous friend. It seems to me that this points to a callousness in our hearts that needs remedy.

The grace of God has been given us so consistently and so quietly without demand—every day the earth successfully manages its orbit—we take is a given to the point of feeling entitled to it. Take the current notion of human rights that began as protections to promote equal opportunity. These rights are ever expanding and are now thought of as entitlements; as if the right to something somehow obligates someone or some entity to give it to you. These nine in the story may have felt religiously superior to the Samaritan who returned to give thanks and thus felt a kind of entitlement to the healing.

The Apostle Paul wrote of God’s amazing love “that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” We were not asking for a remedy or a cure from God. In fact we were quite content that God should leave us alone. And if we thought of God at all it is that God has failed to make things good for us; if God loves us why does God allow bad things to happen? I think of a line from the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem; in the third stanza we sing, “How silently, How silently, the wondrous gift is given.” In a world where hearts are filled with a sense of entitlement the wonder of God’s precious gift is ignored. Thankfulness is far from the mind and heart.

This human sense of entitlement and the ease with which we overlook grace, do they not bear witness to a heart disease; do they not confirm that gospel assessment that I am a sinner? In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church he lays out the case God has against the human race because of sin. The Apostle wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him. Every time I read that text the line “or give thanks to him,” it leaps off the page as a sober reminder that thanklessness is evidence that we have turned away from God.

We read today that story from the book of Deuteronomy when the children of Israel are being prepared to enter the Promised Land. They have been wandering in the desert forty years because of the failure to trust God to give them the land. A new generation has grown up and Moses is preparing them to keep God’s ordinances. The Ten Commandments are brought front and centre. And then this astute advice is given that the people be sure not to forget God in prosperity.

It is my conviction that prosperity can lure us away from thanksgiving—first to God and then one another. We have so much we treat gift as superfluous. One would think that prosperity would increase thanksgiving. But there is a subtle danger here from which we need to guard our hearts. Prosperity lures us to trust in the riches. Compared to the 90% of the populations of our world we live prosperous lives and we need to guard our hearts to not forget thankfulness to God.

Finally a short story to promote our thanksgiving to God. It comes from Rev. Craig Larson.

On my desk I like to display, on a bookstand, the kind of gift books you put on the coffee table—those filled with professional photos of nature or tourist destinations. My current book is called America's Spectacular National Parks (author, Michael Duchemin). For several days I have had the book open to a photo of the Grand Teton Mountains, (part of the Rocky Mountains) an extra-wide photo that filled not only the left page, but crossed the fold and took half of the page on the right. It is a majestic display of deep blue sky; rugged, gray, snow-capped mountains; and a calm lake in the foreground.

This morning I decided to turn the page to the next photo, and as I did I discovered that I had missed something important. The right page of the Grand Tetons photo was an extra-long page folded over. So when I opened it up, I added some 16 inches to the width of the photo. Wow. The Grand Tetons became even grander. The Christian life has unfolding moments like that, when we discover there is much more to God and his kingdom than we knew, much more to his purpose for us than we imagined.

It seems fitting that we would conclude this sermon rehearsing the opening of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving:
The peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise