“The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land flowing with streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.”
“Do not forget.” The Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. God’s promise of living in the land of milk and honey had sustained them through the difficult years of living in the wilderness. We might expect that thankfulness would be the foundation of their living in this new land that offered security through its bounty. But, they were warned. Bounty and security were potential threats to their relationship with God.
“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.” It would be tempting, in the new land, to let the security and bounty displace God. Our prayer of confession today began, “Holy God, you have given us many good gifts. Today we thank you for all of them, but we also confess that sometimes we love those gifts more than we love you.” Things, success, and the busy-ness of life all have the power to distance us from God.
I have a violin piece for thanksgiving that combines the hymn “We Gather Together” with the song “Count Your Blessings.” I suspect that our national observance of Thanksgiving has a lot of “counting” in it. We’re conditioned to look at our lives and take stock — of what we have and of what we don’t have. It leads us to that “There, but for the grace of God go I” attitude that sets us up for comparisons. It can also lead us toward that “sin” of always wanting more. “God, I’ll prove to you that I’m not spoiled. Let me win the lottery!” Have you heard that prayer? I read an article, years ago, by a woman who became obsessed with the idea that God planned for her to win the lottery or Publishers Clearing House — something like that. She was convinced that God intended to bless her with wealth. When she didn’t win, she suffered a crisis of faith. For her, blessings were something to be counted.
Now, it would seem that both the Hebrew Scripture reading and the Gospel reading would invite us to see thanksgiving as something that arises when we have received specific things. The Israelites were receiving the Promised Land. The lepers received the gift of healing. They could “count their blessings, one by one” and therefore give thanks to God — although nine of the lepers did not acknowledge God’s presence in their healing.
But, what happens when life doesn’t live up to our expectations of God as the great Santa Claus who gives us what we want? Do we then begin to count blessings and see that we are better off than some? So, we have to be thankful?
If we read the story in Deuteronomy and the story in the Gospel at a deeper level, we are reminded that thankfulness is not based on the things of this world — not food, not success, not security, not even health. Thankfulness is based, first, on the knowledge that God is present, God is active, God is redeeming, and God is calling us.
And God calls us into the Body of Christ, into community with one another. I often hear people say that they worship God in their own way. So they have no need of church. Well, I will admit that church can be a messy, sin-filled, awkward, misguided institution at times, But the Body of Christ, the community of believers is God’s good gift to us so that we don’t have to do faith alone. The Israelites came together, disparate tribes, to become the nation of Israel. They needed each other to survive. Oftentimes, the prophets reminded them that a communal awareness was central to who they were to be.
I went to a cookbook with stories — because the stories, from around the world, are a great reminder that, too often, our idea of thankfulness is based on the wrong things. So, I’d like to share a couple of these powerful stories.
The first is from Brenda Hostetler Meyer. “During the first three years we lived in Lesotho, in Southern Africa, we were disturbed by children who came to our door on Christmas Eve, chanting, ‘Give me Christmas!’ Since we lived and taught in a vocational school compound, we thought they were singling us out as white people who had a long-standing reputation of giving handouts. When we moved to a rural village, we found the entire community taking part in this activity. All had prepared extra food and were gladly sharing it with those who came to their door. ‘Give me Christmas’ was not an expression of begging, but of identity with the clan. People who belonged to one another had the right and the confidence to ask for food or assistance. The children at our door had not singled us out as white people, but had treated us as members of their community. Sometime later I was carrying water home from a spring when I met two women I had seen, but never personally met. They stopped me, saying, ‘Give us water.’ I was elated. I felt like I belonged…You only ask for something of those to whom you belong…These women didn’t know me, but they were saying I was part of them.”
Mary Yoder Holsopple wrote: “One of the things I enjoyed most about Uganda was the opportunity to walk on meandering paths through gardens, up and down hills, and along streams…One afternoonI came across my friend Ruth, busy pulling weeds. After chatting a while, she took me to one corner of her garden to see what she had grown. She was excited because she had planted eggplant for the first time and they were just beginning to bear; two lovely fruits dangled on the stem. Later that evening two unexpected visitors arrived to spend the night in my home. Word soon spread that we had guests, and before long, Ruth appeared at the kitchen door. In her hands were the two eggplants. She gave them to me, saying, ‘Please prepare these for your friends tonight.’ I wanted to say, ‘No! No! You must keep your eggplant. We have plenty of food and you have so little.’ But I could not do that. I could not deny Ruth the opportunity to give of her literal firstfruits. She was giving so joyously. So I accepted the eggplants with much gratitude, a tear in my eye, and a new humbleness, for once again a Ugandan had taught me a lesson of generosity.”
There is thankfulness in these stories. It is not rooted in the things of this world. It is rooted in community, in being connected, both with other human beings and with God. There is a trust in these stories. Ruth could share her eggplants with someone because she knew that her community would always be there to support her. The children and adults could say, ‘Give me Christmas’ because they trusted the community.
One more story from the cookbook, and again, this is a story from South Africa. It was pumpkin harvesting time and Brenda was visiting her friend Me Malebohang. “More than half my pumpkins rotted in my field,” he said. “These eight are the only ones I have to keep for winter.” Pumpkins are the main vegetable for the people in that area because they keep well. When Brenda was ready to leave, Me Malebohang reached for the largest pumpkin and gave it to her. “You can’t give me this pumpkin,” Brenda protested. “You just told me that these are all you have!” Me Malebohang laughed. “We know that this is the way to do it. Next year I may have nothing in my field, and if I don’t share with you now, who will share with me then?” She took the pumpkin and cut it in half. “Here, you take half and give the other to your neighbor.” Brenda recalls what she learned. “No matter how much food you have or how many guests you have, food will go around. When you share it, it goes around. It always does.”
The Israelites, in the new land, would face the danger of being secure enough to not see the need for each other or for God. The lepers were those who had been abandoned by the community — isolated out of fear. When Jesus healed them, he was restoring them to the community, to that connectedness that gave life meaning. But his healing was not only for the lepers, but for the community that had forsaken them in their need. The community suffered when it ignored the plight of those who were sick.
Did you know that you can spend thousands and thousands of dollars to be trained in gratitude? There’s a gratitude institute that will train you to become a grateful, a thankful person. There are websites that will do the same. Many of them are focused on the individual — making one a grateful person. A few websites I visited suggested keeping gratitude diaries — writing down the things — and maybe the people — for whom one is thankful. Cultivating gratitude, it has been suggested, is a great self-help program.
The New York Times had a rebuttal to the popular gratitude movement a few years ago. “…there is a need for more gratitude, especially from those who have a roof over their heads and food on their table. Only it should be a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now. Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table? Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.
The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, ‘solidarity’ -- which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.”
“Do not forget the Lord your God.” When we remember the Lord our God, we are invited into a broader vision. We see others and our need for them and their need for us. Our gratitude needs to be more than words, but a willing participation in God’s vision of wholeness and justice.