The Importance of Giving Thanks
At St. Thomas, North Charleston
November 24, 2013
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11;
The theme of Thanksgiving may seem to present itself in church only once a year – at this time of year. However, I want to suggest in this sermon that the theme of Thanksgiving is much broader and inclusive than a once-a-year matter. In fact, I will propose that getting this Thanksgiving theme right has everything to do with a proper understanding of human beings within the Kingdom of God. You see, therefore, this topic is a much bigger one than we might assume at first.
The readings today each focus on some aspect of Thanksgiving. After looking at each of them, I want us to consider Thanksgiving in its broader view as well.
The first reading today anticipates a time in which giving thanks will be very appropriate – that is, the time that the people of God enter the Promised Land. We heard of particular acts of thanksgiving which were identified as proper at that time - the time, as Moses says, “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” (Deut 26:1). The summary direction for the people is this: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (Deut 26:11).
This reading, therefore, deals with the formative event for the people of God in the Old Testament – the Exodus journey, culminating in their arrival in the Promised Land. And, according to Moses, the appropriate response of the people of God to this event is to give thanks.
St. Paul’s letters to various churches were often filled with directions about particular Christian behavior or about responses to certain people. And he often was quite precise and, sometimes, blunt in giving those directions. However, in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we have a very friendly and affectionate communication.
Our second reading today, from that letter, includes much encouragement to give thanks. It begins, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:4-6).
Today’s Gospel reading does not deal with the subject of thanksgiving so directly. However, as we read the passage, the reason for giving thanks becomes quite evident. We hear there of the pursuit of Jesus by the crowds, as he becomes better and better known, and we hear as well of an on-going conversation between Jesus and some members of the crowd.
People followed our Lord because of the wonders that he accomplished and, in particular, because of his miracle in feeding the five thousand. The people asked how they might participate in these wonders. They asked, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (Jn 6:28). In response, though, Jesus attempts to redirect the conversation He speaks of the true “bread from heaven” (6:31) and of God as that bread’s source. “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven” (6:32). As the people receive that “true bread”, Jesus calls on them not to seek ways that they can become miracle-workers themselves. Rather, Jesus makes clear that the people’s appropriate response is to give thanks for the “true bread” of God.
Therefore, we have these three examples of reasons for giving thanks in our readings – the people of God entering the Promised Land, the church in Philippi whose members have countless reasons for offering thanks, and the crowds following Jesus as they respond to his miracles. However, as I suggested earlier, the theme of thanksgiving is greater than particular reasons for gratitude. And our readings actually also point to that greater theme.
When we give thanks to God, we accept our proper place in creation. That is, we are creatures who depend on God, and as we give thanks to God, we acknowledge our proper place. God is the creator; God is the source of our blessings; God creates life and all that is necessary for living. As creatures of God, our appropriate role, then, is to give thanks.
Now, that may seem simple and obvious. But please be aware of this. The basis of all sin is putting ourselves in the place of God. Our desire for vengeance, our need for control, our will toward self-promotion – all these inclinations are evidences of sin. And each of them, at its base, involves an attempt to claim God’s place ... to put ourselves in the center of things, rather than God.
As we give thanks to God, however, we identify and claim our appropriate place in God’s creation. We are parts of that creation; we are not central to it. Therefore, at Thanksgiving time and in all times and places, may we make it our responsibility to fulfill our role in God’s world. And that is, to give thanks to God.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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