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
Thanksgiving, the 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.
Like the Israelites 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.
Authentic 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.
This Thanksgiving, 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.