Sunday, November 24, 2013

Phil Kniss: Thanking God. It’s Complicated.

Thanksgiving 2013
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

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Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday.
    For Americans, it’s positive in its message,
        and culturally uplifting.
    For the church, it’s . . . it’s . . . well, it’s complicated.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that the church of every theological stripe
    has come to embrace and put into their annual worship calendar.
    Churches who never look at the lectionary—
        even independent evangelicals and Pentecostals—
        will have a Thanksgiving service.
    And churches who always follow the lectionary—
        Lutherans, Episcopals, Catholics, and others—
        do the same thing.
    It’s right there in the Revised Common Lectionary.
        There’s a set of designated readings
            for Thanksgiving,
            even though it’s not historically a church feast day.

Isn’t it fascinating that the greatest, highest Christian feast days—
    Christmas and Easter—
        have been coopted by our consumeristic culture,
            and made into the biggest shopping seasons of the year,
        and now we have to work hard to find any evidence out there
            of the great theological truths behind those days.
    And Thanksgiving—
        an essentially secular and fairly nationalistic holiday—
        has been coopted by the church,
        and embedded in our liturgical calendar.
    Of course, the notion of a harvest festival,
        and having feast days to give thanks for God’s providence,
        is deeply rooted in Christian, Jewish,
            and other religious traditions.
    But this fourth Thursday of November is a national holiday
        proclaimed annually by American Presidents since Washington,
        and finally put into federal legislation in 1941.
    Yet, we have found good reason
        to make it an occasion for Christian worship.
    I’m fine with that, by the way. No criticism intended.
    But I do find it interesting.
    And I think that theologically, it’s complicated.

Today, I hope I can bring a bit more theological clarity to our worship,
    and help us enter into this day, and this coming Thursday,
    with maybe a little more Christian integrity.

It’s especially important that I try to do this,
    because we have just ended a sermon series on stewardship,
    and today, we are celebrating a special offering of our first-fruits.

Let me start by saying something a little provocative.
    Hopefully, provocative in a good way.

I think God gets a lot of blame that is undeserved . . .
    and a lot of thanks that is misdirected.

The mantra we hear so much in the larger culture,
    around this time of year,
    is “count your blessings.”

    This is the season to stop, look around,
        and reflect on all the good things we have in life.
    We take stock, we count our many “blessings.”
        And we are invited to thank God for these “blessings.”

But what do we really mean by that?
    Do we mean that if our storehouse is full,
        the harvest has been bountiful,
        and we have been able to stock up
            with everything we need, and then some,
        that God was entirely responsible for that?
    Do we mean that it was God’s hand alone
        that made our storehouses full,
        and our list of blessings long?

We must, because when we thank someone,
    we are acknowledging something they did, for us.

So if we thank God for the blessings that come our way,
    doesn’t it also follow that we should blame God
        for the good things that don’t come our way?
    If a full storehouse and a long list of blessings
        is a sign that God is looking on us with favor,
        then wouldn’t an empty storehouse—
            and disaster, and loss, and suffering, and grief—
        be a sign that God is withholding favor from us?
    If God is responsible for the presence of good gifts,
        then God also needs to be responsible for their absence.

So consider . . . the average income
    for our Spanish-speaking neighbors in Harrisonburg
        is significantly lower than everyone else’s.
And African-American males
    are arrested and imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes
        at a rate way out of proportion to whites,
        with disastrous economic consequences for their families.
And I could go on,
    listing all manner of social ills, and economic woes,
        that have a multiple layers of systemic causes.

If we don’t take into account the systemic factors—
    like mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses,
    and laws that create greater burdens for immigrants,
    and other broad cultural and economic systems at work . . .
If we don’t take into account how these factors
    work in favor of those of us with resources,
    and against those without,
    and say that our long list of blessings
        comes directly from the hand of God . . .
    then I think we are theologically on very shaky ground.

So how do we give thanks to God? It’s complicated.
    I do think that some of our thanksgiving to God
        is not very well thought-out,
        and ends up being misdirected.
    And at the same time,
        we end up blaming God for things
        we ought to be taking responsibility for.

I’m particularly suspicious when we Americans, as a nation,
    on Thanksgiving Day and other times,
    give collective thanks to God for our blessings.
    We happen to have abundant natural resources,
        which we were smart enough to learn how to use and protect.
    We’ve had a relatively efficient government,
        a free market, a powerful military.
    We’ve been able to leverage the resources we have
        for our own national interests, and we did a good job of it,
        and now we’re the most powerful country in the world.
    We are a minority, in terms of world population,
        but consume a majority of the world’s resources.
    Not all of the time, but most of the time,
        we get our way in the world.
    So when we thank God for our national blessings,
        we at least need to add a big explanatory footnote.

So what is God’s role in our blessings, and in our sufferings?
    Nationally? Individually?
    We need to ask this question honestly of ourselves.

Maybe you’re thinking,
    [sigh] “Come on, Phil...lighten up...give us all a break.
        Sounds like you need a holiday.
        This is just Thanksgiving we’re talking about.
            A time to celebrate with food and friends and family.
            Go buy yourself a big, fat turkey, and enjoy it.”

I do plan on sitting at a three-generation Thanksgiving table.
    I don’t know if there will be turkey,
        since our daughter is fixing the meal.
    But I’m sure it will be bountiful,
        and we will, honestly and joyfully, give thanks to God.

    it seems to me that every time we give thanks to God for something,
        there is lingering somewhere in the background,
        a quiet and persistent “Yes, but.”

    This is true about economic and material blessings,
        as I’ve already mentioned.
    It’s also true about other topics,
        which we covered in our series on stewardship—
        gifts of talents, time, relationships, health.

    I know that a number of you in this room are cancer survivors.
    And a number of persons listed in our memory books are not.
        You’ve read their stories the last several weeks,
            as the books were on display.

    I know that all of you who survived this often-deadly disease,
        or have a spouse or child who survived,
        have thanked God for that many times over.
            You’ll probably do it again this Thursday.
            As well you should.
        But you have probably also paused to wonder, occasionally,
            why were we so blessed?

    That’s a tough question. And I don’t know the answer.
        Did God really choose this one to live and that one to die?

This Thursday, when we pull our chairs us to a large table,
    sagging under the weight of the food . . .
    I am not suggesting that is the time for long faces,
        to get all morbid and gloomy,
        and get lost in the why questions.
    I am not saying that before we dig in to our bounty,
        we should find answers to the questions,
        “Why did thousands of people die, or lose everything,
            two weeks ago in the Philippines?”
        “Why must millions of Syrian refugees
            continue to scramble to find bits of food,
                and shelter from the cold?”
        “Why are some families weighed down with conflict?
            or financial crisis?
            or terminal illness?
            while others will gather happy and secure?”

No, we should have a big feast this Thursday!
    Feasting is a thoroughly biblical thing to do.
    We can do it heartily and without regret.

It’s a text like the one we read today from Deuteronomy 26,
    that helps us celebrate and thank God with truth and integrity.

This wonderful text is a set of instructions
    about how the Israelites were to offer the first fruits of the harvest,
    once they settled into the promised land.
They got these instructions before they got there,
    while they were still wandering in the wilderness,
        being hand-fed by God, with manna and quail.
    Moses told them, “Once you get settled,
        plant some seed and harvest your own food,
            don’t forget where you came from!
        Remember it all still comes from God.
            Don’t get secure in your abundance.
            You still depend on God for everything you have.
        So bring the first basket of produce to God,
            set it down before the priest,
            and give thanks to God for it.
        Remember that your ancestor was a wandering Aramean.
            Remember that you yourself wandered.
            And give thanks to God for wandering with you,
                and taking you to that place.”

Of course, this also begs a question, if we know the rest of the story.
    What about the people who lived in that promised land
        before the Israelites drove them out by force.
    Yes, I know, in retrospect we see this as God’s judgement
        against the Canaanites, Hittites, Jebusites, and lots of other ’ites.
        But there wasn’t such a sharp line between good and evil here.
            There was a lot of sin and faithlessness among the Hebrews.
            And there were some among those heathen nations
                who were people of integrity and faith.
        Even God’s blessings in the Bible are a little complicated.

Scripture does affirm, and we should affirm, wholeheartedly,
    that God is the source of all good gifts.
    Giving thanks for our blessings is thoroughly biblical.
    Scripture proclaims that God is good.
        That God is generous.
        That God is the Creator of this good universe.
        That God is the source of all life.
        That without God, there is nothing.
    And the writers of scripture believed that God loves a good party.
    There were mandatory feasts, set forth by God’s law in scripture,
        scheduled regularly throughout the year, every year.

But here’s the thing we sometimes forget.
    The people were expected to feast and to celebrate,
        whether it was a good year or a bad year.

This first-fruits offering in Deuteronomy 26,
    the tithe set forth in the law, the first and best of the harvest,
    was not conditional, depending on how good the harvest.
        It was not quid pro quo.
            If you are blessed, give thanks.
            If not, you’re off the hook.
        No, the assumption was that God was with them.
            There would be gifts to give,
                and their gifts would be proportionate.
        It didn’t matter if the tithe had to be hauled in on an ox-cart,
            in 100-pound gunnysacks,
            or if the tenth of the harvest could be held in one hand.
        Either way, you brought it in, and you celebrated.

    The focus of the offering, as far as I can see,
        had nothing at all to do with how much they had been blessed.
    The focus of the offering was solely on God as provider.
        God was the source of all life.
            God produced the fruits of the soil.
            So God deserved their praise and thanksgiving. Period.

I’ve seen this lived out among the poorest of my brothers and sisters.
    Some of the richest feasts I’ve had,
        were served up by some of the poorest people I’ve known.
    In 2003 when Mennonite World Conference was held in Zimbabwe
        in the face of runaway inflation and food shortages
        and widespread hunger among church members,
        our Zimbabwean sisters and brothers put on a huge feast.
            They butchered dozens of steers, hundreds of chickens.
            Cooked up tons of corn, rice, and vegetables.
    Not because they felt obligated.
        Not to impress their European and North American guests.
    They were simply overwhelmed with gratitude to God,
        for the blessing of being part of a worldwide family of faith.
    They wanted to worship God because—
        despite their suffering and poverty and lack of basic necessities—
            they truly believed that God was on their side,
            that God loved them, cared for them,
            and suffered with them in their poverty.
    So they sang, even louder than we North Americans.
        They clapped. They danced.
        They laughed. They hugged each other.
        They feasted.
    And, most amazing of all,
        when the offering buckets were passed around in worship,
        they all put something in.

Many of you have witnessed the same kind of thing. Many times over.

    Somehow, I have been permitted the luxury
        of living in an economic system
        where I can go to the grocery store
            and buy anything I want to eat.
    I don’t believe God looked at me and decided I deserved it
        any more than some of my friends in Zimbabwe,
            or Haiti, or Syria, or the central Philippines.
    It’s just the way things happened to turn out for me.
    But because it did turn out this way,
        I have a moral and spiritual responsibility to be a good steward,
            to live in this world with compassion.
        With my abundance comes responsibility.

When people are hungry,
    they deserve to be fed,
    and we who are full have a moral responsibility to feed them.
When people need to work,
    they deserve to have jobs made available to them,
    and we who have economic leverage have a moral responsibility
        to use it to develop jobs and opportunity.
When people are socially and politically repressed,
    they deserve to be empowered,
    and we who have a real voice in the system
        have a moral responsibility to also listen
        to those who being silenced.

So let’s feast!
    Let’s honor God for being the Mastermind
        behind this incredible universe we live in.
    Let’s thank God for being the source of life that keeps it all going.
        God has done marvelous things!
        And it is right to give thanks.
We just have to be careful not to fall into
    thinking we are affluent
    because God looked on us with special favor.

So when we pause to thank God on Thursday,
    we should think before we pray.
    Let’s be sure that however we phrase our prayer,
        we could pray the same thing
        if we lived in a village in Zimbabwe,
        or if we lived homeless on the streets of Harrisonburg.
    Let’s thank God for being who God is.
        A God of love. A God of compassion.
        A God who is with us in our joy and suffering.
        A providing God, creating God, sustaining God.
        A God who finds pleasure in our pleasure.
        A God of celebration.

Let’s celebrate God’s goodness,
    rather than our abundance.
And when we count our blessings,
    let’s be sure that at the very top of the list
    is being loved by God.
    Now, and always, and in every circumstance.

And that, sisters and brothers, is also the spirit of celebration
    with which we are now going to do
        a re-enactment of Deuteronomy 26,
        in which we bring our first-fruits,
            remembering where we came from,
            and remembering the God who came with us,
                and provided for us.

Just a few words of explanation.
Our offering this morning is one combined act of worship.
    We will bring both our regular weekly offerings
        as well as the offering of our 2014 Faith Promises.
    They will all go into the baskets together, and be sorted out later.

Most of you received the Faith Promise forms
    in your mailbox two weeks ago,
    and came prepared to give them today.
        If not, there are extras in the foyer,
            and you can retrieve them after the service,
            and put them in the box in the foyer.
    Remember, if you want your Faith Promise
        recorded under your name,
        and to get giving receipts,
        return the whole yellow card.
    If you prefer to be anonymous, and not get receipts,
        just separate the name part from the part that shows the amount,
        and put both parts into the basket.

Now, as in Deuteronomy, this is an act of the whole community.
    So everyone is invited to participate.
    Maybe some of you don’t have your Faith Promise card with you,
        and all your pockets and billfold happen to be empty.
    That’s fine.
        With a little mutual aid, we’ll all have something to give.
    Look around you, make sure the persons on your right and left,
        including all the children,
        have something in their hands to give.
        If they don’t have anything,
            offer them something out of your supply.
        25 cents. A nickel. It doesn’t matter.
        It’s participating in this communal act of worship that matters.

    A church leader in Tanzania told me once—
        when I expressed surprise
        about how every man, woman, and child
            would parade to the front of the sanctuary
                dancing along to the music,
            and put something in the offering plate,
                no matter how small—
        he told me, “It’s an insult,
            to approach God in worship with empty hands.”

So that’s what we’re doing this morning.
    This is a celebration!
    You may dance, if you like.
    But we will try to proceed in an orderly fashion,
        beginning with the front rows, and working back.
    Walk down these two side aisles,
        or the center aisle.
    Then you will walk back to your seat by way of the angled aisles.
        At the front of the angled aisles
            you will walk past the big offering baskets.
    If this is physically difficult for you to do,
        just stay in your seat,
        and give your offering to someone next to you
            who will bring it for you.
When we finish, we’ll join together in the hymn,
    #91 in the blue hymnal, “Praise to God, immortal praise.”

—Phil Kniss, November 24, 2013

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