“Let us give thanks to you, Lord, for it is right to give our thanks and praise.”
Giving Thanks When Things are Good
Across the country, people are giving thanks this weekend for all the good things they have been given. We are given a yearly holiday designed to remind us to be thankful, in which we gather with friends or family and eat good food. And it’s generally pretty easy to compile a list of things to be grateful for, ranging from family, friends, and food; to peace, freedom to worship, and electricity and running water.
It’s a lovely thing that we have a holiday set aside specifically for giving thanks. One of the reasons that it’s so good is because complaining generally comes more easily to the human race than gratitude, and we sometimes need reminding when it comes to being thankful.
Our passage from Deuteronomy today is part of a speech that Moses gives to the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promised Land. They’ve been wandering the desert for 40 years, and things are about to seem really good in comparison. And God knows that the temptation will be for the Israelites to forget God, and to take credit themselves for the good place they’re in. So God through Moses issues a warning: “Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth. But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” Don’t forget from whom all this good stuff comes.
So far so good: I think we can all agree that it’s important to give thanks! But before we start patting ourselves on the back, and tune out to start dreaming about turkey and stuffing, pause for a moment. These texts were written thousands of years ago, and I don’t know about you, but I know that exact same pattern in my own life: when things are going well, God gets put on the back burner, and prayer doesn’t feel either necessary or important.
So we have Thanksgiving: a yearly reminder to give thanks where thanks is due – to the One from whom every good thing in life comes.
But even once a year isn’t enough. And so as Anglicans, we gather weekly as a community around a Thanksgiving meal – because that’s exactly what the word Eucharist means. And in gathering, week by week, we are being formed into a people who are able to recognise where all this bounty comes from, and give thanks for it.
Giving Thanks When Hearts are Broken
But what about when things aren’t going well? What about those who are finding it harder to find things to be thankful for this year? Maybe this is some of you here today. What about those who are struggling with depression, or having a hard time making ends meet, or are facing the grief of broken relationships or lost loved ones? What about those who have had the bottom of their world drop out from under them, like so many families in Las Vegas and around the world lately?
What does Christianity have to say about Thanksgiving to those whose hearts are broken?
Too often the message has been that there is no place in church for those who don’t have it all together. That as Christians we have a duty to present ourselves as cheerful, and Thanksgiving is no exception to that. That especially on this day, but also every single Sunday, the unspoken expectation is that we stifle our tears and wash our faces and show up with a smile.
But friends, this is not what the Church is meant to be, and not what it means to be a people of thanksgiving. The Bible is a very real and a very gritty book, and it is full of tears from Genesis to Revelation. But more than that, it teaches us that at the very centre of our faith is One who understands everything that we are going through; One who was called a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. Our faith wraps around the Cross, a place where God bore the suffering of the world, where the Mother of Jesus wept, where the disciples were afraid. The Church has never been a place to run from emotions, but to face them head-on, and to bring them to the foot of the Cross where we can lay them at the feet of a Saviour who understands exactly what we are going through.
It is in being honest with Jesus about our pain and our struggles that we learn to know him in a different, and a deeper way – as the one who comforts us in all our tribulations, as the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians.
And here’s the Thanksgiving message that we have for those who are hurting this holiday. That Jesus is here, and he cares so much about you. That regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in, Jesus’ heart breaks for your pain. And it is in this place, beside the very heart of Jesus, that we can find the courage to practice gratitude in the midst of suffering. It is only here, held close to the one that loves us more than we can imagine, that we can say “It is well with my soul.”
Do you know that beautiful old hymn? It’s a favourite of mine, not only because of the words but because of its history.
The author of the hymn was a man named Horatio Spafford, who was a businessman from Chicago. In 1873 his wife and four daughters were crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe on a trip when the ship they were on struck another ship and went down suddenly. All four daughters were lost. Mr. Spafford received a telegram from his wife a few days later which read simply: “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Mr. Spafford boarded the next ship, and it was while he was on that heartbreaking journey across the Atlantic to join his grieving wife that he wrote the words to this song:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is only proximity to Jesus that can teach us the deep truth of those words in the midst of such heartbreak. This was a man who found himself in the worst pain one can imagine, yet was found there by Jesus, and was able to sing out those beautiful words from the depths of his grief.
This is the “indescribable gift” that the Apostle Paul mentions at the end of our passage from the letter to the Corinthians today – the gift of knowing and being intimately known by the Creator of the universe, the one who loves each of us so much that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him finds life, and finds a peace that passes earthly understanding, and finds a joy that goes deeper than anything this world can throw at us. This is the heart of a true Thanksgiving, from which all other signs of gratitude spring forth.
Thanksgiving and Thanks-Living
Because once we have tasted and seen that the Lord truly is good, it transforms our lives so that we can’t help but live out of gratitude for all that God has given for us. Canon Beth used the phrase “thanks-living” in her message in What’s Happening this week, and that’s exactly what we are called to, as a people redeemed and free. The General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer has this prayer:
“And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives” –
and these two responses, lips giving thanks, and lives showing thanks – thanksgiving and thanks-living, are what we are called to as Christians.
I mentioned earlier that the Eucharist is a weekly Thanksgiving meal that shapes us into a people of gratitude and grace. And reminders for both thanksgiving and thanks-living are built into our service each week:
At the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and we cry back, “It is right to give our thanks and praise!”
Just before this moment, we take up a financial offering. This is not simply practical. Yes, the Church needs to pay the bills. But there’s a deeper meaning behind it, and it is built right into the middle of the service intentionally, because it is teaching us to acknowledge that all things come from God, and it calls us to show our gratitude and thanksgiving in return by literally giving back from what he has given us. It is one way the liturgy is shaping us, week by week, into a people of gratitude and thanksgiving.
And of course this Thanks-living extends far beyond the financial, as we learn to offer up more and more of ourselves – turning all that we are and have over to God. This type of all-encompassing giving has ways of rebounding in beautiful ways, as the Apostle Paul describes in the epistle today. As we give with more and more generosity, we find that God delights to match our generosity and pour out even more on us in a joyful cycle of abundance. We will never be able to out-give God.
One example of this, and with this I’ll close.
Years ago, there was a couple named Anthony and Marion Isaacs, who attended a small nondenominational church in Winnipeg. Also attending the church was a young couple who were interested in going into the ministry. The Isaacs, my grandparents, endorsed this desire, going so far as to pledge $10/month in support of this young couple as they made their way through seminary in Montreal. The young man went on to become a wonderful priest, first in Winnipeg, and then in Toronto. Seven years ago I stumbled across his Anglican church, and in conversation we made the connection that it was my grandparents who had helped support Father Murray Henderson through seminary! My grandparents died long before they saw the fruits of their generosity in the form of Fr. Murray serving at the same church as their granddaughter: but God knew. And I have to marvel at the abundant economy of God, that takes a gift from so long ago and translates it into a blessing for future generations.
This is our God, who provides us with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work.
And so I say: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God”, for:
(ALL): “It is right to give our thanks and praise!”