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Heart of Gratitude, Heart of Generosity

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Nov 23

Texts: Psalm 95:1-7a and Matthew 25:31-46

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving! It’s one of my favorite holidays—partly because in our family Thanksgiving is a time to “just be.” It’s not a time of frantic busy-ness, over-the-top expectations, piles of gifts, or even long days of travel. We just get to be together and nothing needs to happen. There is immeasurable blessing in that.

We cook together at my mom’s house and genuinely love doing that. This year’s menu-planning conversations are well underway. Negotiations over green vegetables, the plan to have berry pie and pumpkin pie for dessert. (Must have both!) Over the years we’ve had a range of dietary needs to accommodate. The vegetarian years, the vegan family member, lactose intolerance, sodium sensitivity, an allergy to certain spices. Mostly—because we love each other—we hold these things lightly and respectfully. All needs are accommodated and we are fed abundantly, and it’s a time to just “be” together.

It hasn’t always been this way in our household. Over the years we’ve had all kinds of family configurations around the table as grandparents grew frail and died, parents divorced and re-partnered, couples married, babies were born. We didn’t always handle our circumstances with grace. There was the year of the great rebellion—a year, long ago, when my mom’s new partner asked my sister and me to pick up some marshmallow fluff for her sweet potato recipe. We staged a rebellion. There was no way we were going to buy Marshmallow Fluff or eat a single bite of sweet potato cooked with that stuff. So we lied and said the convenience store on the corner was sold out of Fluff. It was a perfect, foolish, adolescent rebellion at circumstances beyond our control. Not exactly the spirit of Thanksgiving.

The kind of gratitude we express on Thanksgiving Day is not a shallow gratitude over happy circumstances. It is a deeper spiritual movement of hearts that know two things: 1) that our lives are fragile and finite and 2) that all we have is a gift of grace. Welsh-born poet and Anglican priest, George Herbert, wrote, “Thou who hast given so much to me, give me one more thing - a grateful heart!” Give us grateful hearts, O God.

The gift of gratitude comes from a place of deep heart-knowing. A place within each of us, where gratitude and generosity are intertwined. From this place, receiving and giving are like a seamless garment. They are like the ebb and flow of a great tide. Who among us, having received God’s manifold blessings, would try to build a dam against that great tide? But let the waters roar! The ebb and flow of giving and receiving, generosity and gratitude.

Many of us know the origin of our national celebration of Thanksgiving Day (or at least we refresh our memory by looking it up on Wikipedia every November.) In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared November 26 to be a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Lincoln’s declaration is remarkable because it came in the midst of the Civil War, just four months after the Battle of Gettysburg. The Battle of Chattanooga (resulting in over 12,000 casualties) was fought on November 23-25, 1863—just days before Lincoln’s first official Thanksgiving Day celebration.

It seems remarkable to give thanks in the midst of such hardship. Yet, this is our heritage. Think of Paul’s admonition, even from prison, “to be joyful always, to pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.” Of course, we give thanks when we are feeling grateful, but there is a deeper practice of gratitude embedded in our tradition. A spirit of recognition that everything we have and everything we are comes from God.

Our culture teaches us to focus on the negative and catastrophic, feeding us a steady diet of bad news along with our Thanksgiving turkey. With the twenty-four hour news cycle, it’s easy to get caught up in sadness, disappointment and cynicism, even to become overwhelmed and dispirited.

Yet, we are invited us to look deeply at what we have—the gifts of God—present right here and now, life abundant in the midst of the world’s pain and turmoil. This is not an ethic that discounts pain and suffering, but an ethic that declares, “pain and suffering do not have the final word.” We are invited to look deeply and to appreciate the places of light, love and possibility that unfold every day.

The hymn we will sing at the close of worship today is Now Thank We All Our God. The tune is Nun Danket, by Johann Crüger and the familiar lyrics were written by Pastor Martin Rinkart.

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother's arms,
Hath blessed us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

Martin Rinkart was a German Lutheran pastor who served in the walled city of Eilenburg, Saxony, amid the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. The walled city became overcrowded with villagers seeking refuge from the plague. At the height of the pestilence, Rinkhart officiated at 40-50 funerals a day—more than 4,000 in all—burying two other ministers from the town and finally, his own wife. It was in this world, so dominated by death, that he wrote the words to Now Thank We All our God.

God is in the midst of our lives and our histories—in all of their complexity. In the midst of our family histories, our cultural histories, our national histories, God is present, calling us to community.

Celebrating Thanksgiving in New England can be tricky because of the narratives so many of us have inherited. I know for myself, that educated in the public schools in Massachusetts, I visited Plymouth Plantation on school field trips more times than I can count. I was taught history from a particular vantage point—the master narrative of the successful European settlers. It was well into my adult life that I learned the stories of the Mashpee and Wampanoag, read Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, in graduate school, delved into race theory and cultural studies and began to unravel that master narrative.

When we think of Thanksgiving, we often remember what is commonly called “the first Thanksgiving.” In 1621, the Pilgrims, who had come to these shores from England and Holland, shared a three-day feast with Native Americans at Plymouth Plantation. Or—if you prefer—the indigenous peoples shared a three-day feast with the colonists.

This week I came across a cartoon depicting a Pilgrim (in one of those silly tall hats) and a Native American (in a buckskin garment and feathered headdress) standing together and holding between them a platter of roast turkey. The caption reads, “Thanksgiving: Celebrating the day Americans fed undocumented aliens from Europe.”

The settlers, or colonists, or colonizers were celebrating a day of thanksgiving, of which William Bradford wrote, they gave thanks for “all things good and plenty.” One of the things we may not know, is that this was not a singular event, but part of a well-established Christian tradition. Europeans who came to these shores brought with them the tradition of celebrating “thanksgivings” and “days of prayer,” in which they thanked God for their blessings. Not just the English and Dutch, but also the Spanish, celebrated days of thanksgiving. Records show that a day of thanksgiving was celebrated in Jamestown in 1610.

We can begin to see a pattern—a tradition of the practice of gratitude—in all of life’s circumstances.

Psalm 95, which we read this morning, rings out, “Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise with songs of praise!” A fitting scripture for Thanksgiving Sunday. Yet, I must confess to my surprise at discovering that today’s lectionary passage from the gospel of Matthew was the stark account of the great judgment. The sobering image of Christ, as the judge of history, separating the sheep from the goats at the end of time. What does this have to do with the spirit of Thanksgiving, this day of gratitude?

I think there actually is a connection. We hear a clear call to certain actions: feeding, clothing, visiting. And we hear a clear judgment against those who fail to respond to that call. But if we become overwhelmed by the powerful image of judgment, we risk missing the gospel! Here is an invitation to abundant life. An open-hearted life into which flow many blessings, and from which flows great generosity.

In Matthew’s story, the righteous are not counting the ways in which they have given of themselves for the sake of others. Quite the contrary. They have given freely and without expectation and they are surprised to discover that they have—in in fact—given to the king of creation. We do not earn our salvation through good works, but this open-hearted giving is perhaps a sign that “we get it.”

We understand that everything we have is pure gift, that nothing belongs to us, that we are meant to share life’s blessings with open hands. This is the spirit of Thanksgiving. An open-hearted and regular practice of gratitude. An open-handed and regular practice of giving.

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