For several years, I’ve noticed a lot of gratitude postings on social media during the month of November. You may have seen this, or even participated yourself in the practice of consciously engaging in (at least) one moment of thankfulness every day during the month of November. It’s a great exercise, and it warms my heart to see so much gratitude being expressed. But something also bothers me about this practice, and it took me a while to put my finger on it.
At first, I thought it was the limitation of thirty days. What, you aren’t grateful the other 335 days of the year? You have to save up your gratitude for the month of November, only? But that wasn’t it.
I pondered that it might seem just a bit self-congratulatory to announce to the world how wonderful one’s life is every day. “I’m so thankful that I’ve been blessed with the best husband ever” or “the most amazing children” or even “the ability to do so much for others who are less fortunate.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, who prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” ? But that wasn’t really what bothered me, either.
Then it hit me as I read the Psalm 106 – but really, almost every psalm has at least one verse in it that expresses this same idea. I realized that all this “I’m thankful for…blah, blah, blah…” floating around the internet was missing something really important.
Who is getting thanked? Who is receiving all this gratitude?
Being thankful all the time is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It helps us stay humble as we recognize the many blessings we experience in life, blessings for which we can take no credit whatsoever. That is important.
But even more important, I think, is remembering that just being grateful isn’t really going to change us into Christ-like people. Because being grateful is all about me and how I feel. But giving thanks is all about the One to whom I owe gratitude. Actively thanking God puts the focus on God, where it belongs.
And that’s how our thanksgiving becomes praise.
Psalm 100 gets it in verse four, and to make it even clearer, I’m going to replace the pronouns with the proper noun to which they refer: “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless his name …”
Thanks and praise go hand in hand. Thanking God is an act of worship. Psalm 100 goes on to tell us why we should thank and praise God: “for the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” We thank God for what he has done, and we praise God for who God is. We worship God in both our thanks and our praise. When we thank God for his goodness to us, how can we not praise him? And when we praise God for his mighty work, how can we be ungrateful?
Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes: “Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give.” But Brueggemann adds a warning: “While God’s gifts are welcome, in fact they do disrupt.” Brueggemann goes on to explain how God’s gift of truth disrupts the dishonesty that finds its way into every corner of our culture. God’s gift of generosity contradicts our stingy selfishness that puts our own interests ahead of others. God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference to the many needs around us, needs that would break our hearts if we really paid attention to them. God’s gift of justice exposes the injustice of our social structures. God’s gifts amount to an inconvenient reality among us; they remind us that what we have come to regard as “normal” actually promotes a deep abnormality in God’s design for the world he made and loves. What a different world that might be if God were truly at the center of it, if God were truly the focus of our thanksgiving and praise!
When we celebrate Holy Communion – which might also be called Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, depending on which church you attend – we draw on ancient words that Christians have repeated through the centuries in one form or another, in what we call The Great Thanksgiving. In fact, the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word that means “to give thanks.” As we celebrate our life together as the Body of Christ, we may say something like this:
The Lord 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 God thanks and praise.
These ancient words, spoken over countless Tables for centuries, introduce the Sacrament of Communion to Christians throughout the world. They serve as a universal reminder that we commune not only with Christ, who welcomes us to his Table, but also with one another, and with Christians we have never seen nor will ever meet. We are one in Christ’s Body. As we join together to remember Christ’s sacrifice for us, it is right to give God thanks and praise. It is right and a good thing to remember that God has provided for us, and will continue to provide for us. We give God thanks and praise, not because God needs to hear it, but because directing our thanks and our praise toward our Creator changes us, making us into better human beings, making us more and more like Christ.
And it is good to do this together, being Christ to one another as we offer bread and cup. You see, giving God our thanks and praise works best when we do it in community with others, multiplying our gratitude and our praise exponentially by offering our worship as part of the family of God.
If we look back to the origins of Thanksgiving – and I mean way back, past the Norman Rockwell image, past the post-Civil War declaration of a national day of Thanksgiving, even past the Pilgrims and Indigenous People who gathered for that first multicultural feast – we hear the words of Deuteronomy calling us to worship, calling us to give thanks and praise to the Lord.
Every single year, when people gathered in their crops, they took the first fruits of those crops to the temple, offered them up, and then they did a powerful thing: instead of gobbling up the good food they had just brought in from the fields, they took some time to think about their history. They remembered, together, a time when they couldn’t grow crops, a time when they couldn’t live in their own places, freely and peacefully. They remembered what it was like to be torn out by the roots, denied the rights of citizenship, treated like slaves. And they remembered, there in the temple, surrounded by the fresh produce of their own precious fields, that their freedom and their land and their harvest were all gifts from God.
In Deuteronomy 26:1-11, we find a curious detail that deserves our attention. Seven times in these eleven verses the author uses the word “to give” (nātan). In verses 1, 2, and 3, the verb refers to God’s giving of the land and in verses 9, 10, and 11, the reference is to the good gifts provided by God. The seventh use of the verb “to give” occurs in verse 6, and our English translations might make it difficult for us to recognize that the same word is being used. The text reads, “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing (nātan) hard labor on us.” Literally, that might read as “by giving us hard labor.” In the six other usages, God is clearly the subject of the verb, yet in verse 6, the subject changes. Israel remains the recipient, but it is Egypt who carries out the action. Instead of land or good gifts, Egypt “gives” Israel hard labor and oppression. These two very different uses of the word “give” offer us a fuller understanding of gratitude. The gratitude for the land being given by God can never be understood apart from the hard labor “given” to the entire community while they were slaves. The One who delivered them out of Egypt with a “mighty arm” is the same One who has delivered them safely into the land flowing with milk and honey. The produce harvested and brought as first fruits is never offered apart from the remembering of deliverance.
Maybe that’s why those 30 Days of Thanks comments rub me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because I don’t get a sense that the gratitude being expressed has any element of what we’ve been delivered from, as well as what we are being delivered to. We don’t like to dwell on the past, especially if our memories are painful ones. We don’t like to remember the struggles and hard times we have experienced, the times we have doubted God’s goodness, or suffered unbearable pain. And yet, it is those harsh memories that anchor our remembrance of blessings and give them a sharper focus. It is the backdrop of our pain that highlights our joy.
So, as the children of Israel brought their first fruits to the temple, they did a remarkable thing. They sat down, “together with the Levites and the aliens” who lived among them, and they celebrated with all the bounty that the Lord God had given to them. They sat down together. They sat down with Levites, who had no land of their own, who depended completely on the other tribes for food, as they ministered in the temple. They sat down with aliens, or foreigners, who had no land of their own, and who were completely dependent on the generosity of the children of Israel as they lived and worked among them. They sat down together and feasted on the bounty the Lord had provided to them.
Maybe thirty days of thanks isn’t such a bad idea. If that seems too much, perhaps you will consider the 24 days of Advent, the season of expectation that will begin this Sunday. As we wait expectantly for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, perhaps we can contribute something toward making that a reality. Perhaps we can offer our daily thanks to God for what he has done, and our praise to God for who God is. Maybe remembering that God has delivered us from slavery to our own desires can help us remember to give God thanks and praise.
But be warned: this daily practice of praise and thanksgiving may change you! Taking time every day to offer God thanks might turn you into a person who finds more goodness around you, a person who praises God more and more. You might even become more and more like Christ. Thanks be to God. Praise the Lord! Amen.
 Paraphrased from Sermon for Nov. 24th 2013 (Thanksgiving C) “Milk and Honey & Zombies and Aliens” – the copyrighted work of Rev. Holly Morrison and used with permission of the author.