Tag Archives: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

For All the Gifts Along the Way

(a sermon for November 24, 2019, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

Actually, as much as you all know I’ve always loved Thanksgiving Day (!), I must confess that most of those celebrations over the years have all pretty much melded together in my memory; a cornucopia, if you will, of many busy, sometimes even chaotic family gatherings and endless servings of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy (and stuffing, and sweet potato casserole, and peas and onions, and pies, and… well, you get the idea)!

There are, of course, a few memories that stand out: one of my earliest memories of Thanksgiving, for instance, was one spent at my grandparents’ house and how their table was elegantly and perfectly set with the fine china, polished silverware, and freshly pressed linen tablecloths and napkins, with a small crystal goblet filled with cranberry juice set just so at the center of each plate, to be drank at the very beginning of the Thanksgiving meal, just after grace and before anything else was served!  By contrast I also remember later years when the meal itself seemed overshadowed by my father’s and my utter determination (and, I realize now in retrospect, my mother’s great forbearance!) that we get up to the hunting camp for the last couple of days of deer season that weekend!

And I’ll always have very fond Thanksgiving memories of our own children growing up, all of them running around underfoot laughing and playing with their cousins, even a couple of occasions of Lisa and I having to sit at the dreaded “children’s table” with them when they were very small (which, by the way, did not reduce my consumption of turkey one little bit!).  I also remember one year when Zachary, who was just a toddler at the time, was so fussy at mealtime that I ended up taking him out for a long drive all through the surrounding countryside, in the fervent hope that he might actually fall asleep and so everyone else could eat in relative peace and quiet; but how, all in all, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable day for my son and me, and I might add, another great, albeit for me slightly delayed, Thanksgiving Dinner!

Strangely enough, however, as I was thinking about it this week I’ve realized that ultimately what I remember most about all these Thanksgivings past is not primarily the food but the people with whom it was shared; all the laugher and conversation, and the stories that get told and told again around that table often long into the night, all these joyous reminders of who we are, where we came from, the many blessings that we share, and most importantly, where those blessings came from…

…which, when you come right down to it, is kind of what the day is supposed to be all about anyway!

Therein lies one of the more interesting things about our Thanksgiving Day celebrations: as the late columnist Erma Bombeck once wrote, “Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare, [but] they are consumed in twelve minutes,” so… the question becomes, what are we to do with the rest of the day?  Granted, for many people and families these days Thanksgiving becomes more like a progressive dinner with several stops (and very often more than one dinner!) throughout the day, and what with parades and football and of course, the infamous “Black Friday” sales that now begin as early as Thursday afternoon (!) there is plenty happening to occupy the day; truly, I don’t think I need to tell anyone here how busy and convoluted a day Thanksgiving can become!  But that said, you have to wonder if at the end of the day it’s all worthwhile.  After all we’ve managed to layer upon our celebration of the day and admittedly, in all that is often required by it, can it still be said of us that we’re honoring the origin and purpose of Thanksgiving Day; and perhaps even more importantly, is it still about true thanksgiving unto God?

It’s worth noting here that though our American celebration of Thanksgiving commemorates that storied feast of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, historically speaking it wasn’t the first in North America.  That distinction likely belongs to the members of an expedition to Newfoundland in 1578, who celebrated their survival from a series of vicious storms with a feast of “tinned beef and mushy peas” brought over from England (mmmm….).  History also records a celebration meal shared in Nova Scotia by European settlers and the indigenous people of the region in the early 1600’s; and there’s even a proclamation of a yearly “day of thanksgiving” following a safe landing at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, several months before the Mayflower even set sail for the New World.  But regardless of the timing or circumstance, all these celebrations had at least one thing in common: the admonition to give prayerful thanks to God for the blessings of the harvest and, indeed, for life itself.  In the exhortation of an English preacher named Robert Wolfall, who was amongst that group of explorers in Newfoundland, they needed to be “thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.”  That’s a conviction that continues to be expressed every year as “we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” praying that in whatever form it might take in this particular generation “the wicked oppressing [might] now cease from distressing.”

So for us this act and celebration of thanksgiving does carry with it a long and austere tradition; but here’s the thing:  the desire of people to offer thanks to God goes back a lot further than that.  The example of giving thanks unto the Lord can be traced back to the very beginning of scripture; as far back as the story of Noah we hear about how after he emerge from the ark, the very first thing he did was to build “an altar to the LORD” (Genesis 8:20) for purposes of offering up a sacrifice of thanksgiving, thus establishing a tradition of giving thanks unto God.  In fact, there are at least 140 passages throughout scripture that call for God’s people to true thanksgiving, both individually and all together; giving thanks and praise to God as the giver of all our many blessings, and as the ultimate source of all goodness, the foundation of all that we have and all that we are.  And that story continues even now:  for God, you see, has always been the very heart of our story, yours and mine, and those of the families of which we are part; God is at the beginning of that story, God’s in the midst of every detail that’s unfolding as we speak, and God will be there at its conclusion.  And God’s presence through it all, is the supreme reminder of who we are, where we came from, all the many blessings that we share, and most importantly, of where those blessings came from… and the first and best reason for us to give thanks!

Which brings us to our text for this morning, from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses seeks to retell the story of God’s chosen and redeemed people, as well as about the need for worship, true thanksgiving and a the humble offering back unto the Lord. Now, the “back story” of this particular passage is that the people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years and are just about to enter the Promised Land; however, Moses is dying and knows that he will not have the privilege of entering into that land.  And so, quite literally on his deathbed, Moses tells the story of their long history in the care and presence of God, along with very specific instruction as a good and proper “act and attitude” of thanksgiving.  As we heard it read this morning, you know that it involves taking “some of the first of all the fruit of the ground,” putting it in the basket and going “to the place that your God will choose as a dwelling for his name,” handing it to the priest who in turn will set the offering on that altar of the Lord.  It’s all very ceremonial, and in the parlance of Biblical scholars very much part of the “priestly narrative” of some the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Old Testament; and it’s still very much in keeping with our Christian liturgy and tradition even to this day.

But here’s the thing I want us to notice this morning: that all of this culminates in… a story; a story that’s meant to be shared and passed on.  When this offering of first fruits has been set upon the altar, says Moses, “you shall make this response before the LORD your God: ‘a wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.’”  This is your story, says Moses, and it is a story that needs to be told again and again and again; it must be shared because this is the story of how God brought his people – our ancestors, yours and mine together – safely from there to here, guided and cared for and blessed every step of the way.

And you’ll notice also that the story that Moses recounts is unflinching in its honesty, remembering the painful parts of the journey as well as its triumphs: their affliction and suffering at the hands of the Egyptians, the years of slavery and their cries to God for redemption.  Just as so many family stories will inevitably include a remembrance of some the most difficult times that family has faced, Moses here wants to be clear that true thanksgiving, in some way or another, acknowledges both the bitter and the sweet, understanding that it was the hardship of their journey that led them to even more fully appreciate the mighty hand of God, his “signs and wonders” and his deliverance of his people to “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  This, says Moses to the people of Israel, is your heritage, this is your blessing, and this is who you and whose you are; and for this reason, you are to give thanks, make your offering and with all those who reside among you, friend and stranger alike, “celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”

And that, dear friends, is what Thanksgiving is all about.  It’s all about our story: yours, mine and God.

I love what the Rev. W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., of Truett Seminary of Baylor University, says about this: “Simply put,” he writes, “gratitude is rarely confined to the present moment.  More often than not the present moment is the culmination of ‘givings’ all along the way – sometimes being delivered to something and sometimes from something… the fruitfulness of the present [is rooted] with the faithfulness of God all along.”  I like that; Tucker’s words serve as a reminder to me that the act and attitude of thanksgiving, as well as to the matter at hand, our celebration of “Turkey Day” this Thursday, must involve more than just a cursory moment of grace for good food and fellowship, spoken quickly before the food gets cold!  Certainly we should be thankful for “health and strength and daily bread,” just as we ought to be happy for family and friends who have gathered around the table with us and for the countless gifts of love that are ours in the here and now.  But we also need to be aware and truly thankful for all the gifts that have come to us along the way: for the lessons learned over time and across generations, and the inheritance left us from those family members and friends – the saints of this and every generation – who have helped to make us who we are; for the experiences of life that have helped us to grow and persons and as a people, for love and laughter and wonder, and even for the difficulties of life and living we’ve been forced to face which have given us strength and understanding for the living of these days; as well as for the untold blessings of freedom and the fullness of bounty that is ours as a nation and as a people.

For all these gifts given along the way from generation to generation we give thanks and praise… but most of all, we give thanks to the one who is the true source of all good gifts around us, the ones, as the song says, are “sent from heaven above,” the ones that which “the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”

So have a wonderful day this Thursday, friends!  Have a great time with your family or with your friends, eat lots of turkey and stuffing (I know I will!) and if you can, make sure you take the time to visit and sit around the table and tell the good stories… again!  Have fun; and as you do, remember just who you are and where you came from… take some time to remember the many blessings you share – speak them aloud, because that’s always a good thing to do – but most importantly, let us all remember where those gifts, the ones for today and the ones along the way, actually came from…

… and may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!


© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


Tags: ,


thanksgiving_pumpkin_600x400(a  sermon for November 20, 2016, the Last Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and James 1:17-27)

Well, all I’ve got to say is… finally!  At long last it’s almost Thanksgiving Day; and man, do we ever need it now!

Honestly, what with all the turmoil surrounding the recent elections (to say nothing of the months and months of division and rancor that led up to it all!), if ever there was a year that we desperately needed this particular holiday, it’s certainly been this one!   I mean, no matter where you come down on what’s happened, these days have been, to say the very least, stressful and overwhelming; and that doesn’t yet seem to be getting a whole lot better!  I’m cognizant that these days even our worship has had a certain intensity about it; in which our songs and prayers has taken on a slightly different tone than perhaps they have before, especially given the context of everything that’s been going on.  And that’s not only appropriate, it’s good that our worship can encompass all of this and more; it just seems to me that right about now as persons, as people and as a nation we would all do very well to simply stop what we’re doing, take a collective breath, pause and reflect for a time on the amazing bounty of our blessings, and yes… sit down and eat some turkey!

If I might borrow a line from a song of the season, albeit one for the next season that’s coming: “Yes, we need a little thanksgiving… right this very minute!”

Now, you already know that I love Thanksgiving just by virtue of what’s on the menu (!), but actually, I do have to say that I also love this holiday because of the relative simplicity of it.  I love what the Rev. Victor Pentz, the recently retired pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta (and a favorite preacher of mine), has written about Thanksgiving: he says that “this holiday is busy and full, yet you don’t have to refinance your home to celebrate Thanksgiving.  All you have to do is let your children watch parades in the morning while you watch football all afternoon, and pretend everyone likes turkey.”  (Pretend?  I think not!) “Thanksgiving,” Pentz goes on to say, “is about simple things.  It is about country and family [and being together], and it’s about sunshine and soil combining to produce the miracle of life.”

And, might I add here, it’s also about making a joyful noise.  Because friends, whether it happens at a great feast surrounded by all manner of family and friends, or if it’s shared quietly around a table with just a loved one or two, Thanksgiving celebrations are moments designed to take time out of our regular daily routine: so that we might truly rejoice in the One who has given us our life, our health, our food, who has provided the bounty of the harvest and the blessings of freedom, and who has generously and gracefully gifted us “with every perfect gift… from above.”  Thanksgiving is our time “to bring a heart of thanks” to the God whom we adore; it is to say “thank you” and to say it aloud; it is to again acknowledge and affirm God’s many blessings in our lives and in our nation, both in times of joy as well as in those of challenge; and yes, it is our time to worship the Lord our God with joyful praise, perchance in the process reconnecting with who we are and have always been in relationship to God:  pilgrims… pilgrims on a journey of life and faith.

And if you’re thinking that’s an awful lot to fit into a word or two spoken around the table before the food gets cold… you’re right.  But then, Thanksgiving – true Thanksgiving – is meant to be more than a table grace or an exercise in good manners; and ultimately, it’s more than a national observance, or even the fulfillment of religious ritual or obligation.  In faith, you see, Thanksgiving is to be about true gratitude; and gratitude, properly shown or expressed, is an admonition to heartfelt action.  It is to proclaim, by word and deed, belief and behavior our full and sincere thanks to God!

In other words, to use the words of James that are found in our Epistle for this morning, our true Thanksgiving is for us to become by our very lives “a kind of first fruits of [God’s] creatures,” a real and sacrificial gift of ourselves as a means of gratitude.  This is the simple truth that lay at the heart of all our celebrating this week, and the reason it’s so very important and essential for us, especially now – it’s the “reason for the season,” as it were – but here’s the thing: the sad truth is that for all our focus on the rituals of turkey feasting, family reunions and the inevitable “Black Friday” preparations, we’ve risked forgetting all that.

Some years ago now, in preparation for a service much like this one, I came across a commentary on Thanksgiving Sunday written by an American missionary doing ministry in Managua, Nicaragua.  Actually, I use the term “commentary” kind of loosely; in truth, what this man had written was a no holds barred rant on the sorry state of the world, most especially regarding the deplorable self-centeredness of Americans. The man wrote, with no small amount of anger and bitterness, this long diatribe about just how overfed we are in this country; about our “privileged consumption” of fossil fuels; and how  abhorrent it was that “most of the world’s fun and leisure,” medical attention and the majority of the world’s “fancy pharmaceuticals” belong to such a privileged few; all of which stands in utter contrast to what you see amongst the poor in places like Nicaragua and throughout the world.

It was heavy and disturbing stuff, and not at all warm and fuzzy (!) for the Sunday before Thanksgiving; but it was also wasn’t entirely wrong, and more than a little humbling; and so with great trepidation I decided to share some of this man’s thoughts, albeit a bit softened for Sunday morning consumption, with the congregation that week.  Now, I was prepared for some of the folks in the pews to not like what this man (and by extension, I) had to say, especially so close to “Turkey Day;” and indeed, there were a whole lot who didn’t.  But what surprised me were the few who suggested that maybe I hadn’t gone far enough!  After all, as one person said to me afterward, “How can we fully appreciate our abundance if we do not know not first know and understand deprivation?”  To paraphrase (courtesy of The Message) James, “Real religion,” and, might I add, true Thanksgiving, “the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.”

The truth is that there is great biblical precedent for this kind of thinking: did you happen to notice, for instance, in this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy that there’s a real sense of movement in that particular passage? This is one piece of scripture that smoothly moves us from remembrance to thanksgiving to action to pilgrimage; those 11 verses literally take us somewhere.  The whole thing is framed by a ritual of gratitude performed by the ancestor of “a wandering Aramean” who “went down to Egypt and lived there an alien” and as a slave; and then who was brought out of Egypt by God “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power and with signs and wonders;” and brought to a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

What we have here is the remembrance of the deprivation and desolation that came before, along with thanksgiving for the incredible blessing and care of the LORD that has come in the here and now now; because you can’t know where you are until you understand where you’ve been!  How can you truly appreciate and “celebrate all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house,” if you can’t (or won’t) recall how it was before?   So God provides the movement – from deprivation to abundance, from isolation and oppression to liberation and community – but then, and here’s the thing, there’s even more; for along with this there’s also a movement toward action, in God’s people bringing forth the “first of the fruit of the ground” that the Lord had given.  In other words, an offering of the first and best of the harvest that would not have been possible without the blessing of the Lord; without that movement from deprivation to abundance.

Gratitude does not happen without true awareness of the value of the gift; but moreover, it is not complete without the appropriate response.  Our thanks for what we have been given can never be separate from the giving of ourselves in loving response.  To put a finer point on this, our word thanksgiving can correctly be read as two words: thanks and giving; which is the same relationship that exists between gratitude and action; faith and works; hearing the word and doing the word.  As people of God, these qualities always go together; it is how we truly live out of what we believe; without both as part of our faith expression, we risk forgetting who we are. As James aptly put it hundreds of years later, “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”

You see, putting aside all the other rituals and traditions of this particular holiday, the reason we come together as families and friends, and as a nation this Thursday is so that we might really “do” something in gratitude for our abundance of blessings.  It’s the same reason that as the church, we are ever and always called to reach out beyond ourselves to those in need.  What we’re doing is taking our thanks unto God and moving it toward the giving of ourselves for the sake of his son Jesus Christ.  And whether it comes in the form of filling up a box with groceries, bringing games to the residents at Fellowship Housing or simply in receiving an offering every Sunday so that God’s work can continue to be done in this place, it all amounts to the giving of ourselves as an active thanks for all that the Lord has done and continues to do for us.   It’s giving… thanks.   It’s thanks… giving.    Thanks… Giving.  Thanksgiving!

We are blessed, you know… and on every level.  However discouraged or overwhelmed or apprehensive any of us happen to be about now; the fact remains that every generation that has gone on before has also faced its share of challenges, has sought the Lord’s presence and blessing for the “living of these days,” and were guided along every good and hopeful pathway; and this year is no exception to that.  We are “the Wandering Aremeans” of this time and place and our God is even now moving us forward.  And so you and I ought to be giving thanks for all of our many blessings: for every good meal we get to eat; for every cold night that we lay warm and secure at home in our own beds; for every fresh breath of life that enters our lungs.

And let us give thanks to God for making us the congregation we are here at East Church, and for giving each one of us so many opportunities to actively be disciples of Jesus Christ in Concord, New Hampshire and beyond, because it’s not just who we’re meant to be, it’s also what we’re meant to do!  It’s about thanks and giving; and so let our thanks to God move in ways in which we find new and exciting ways to love and serve others in Christ’s name.

Beloved, may your feasting this Thursday be joyous… and filled with copious amounts of leftovers!  May the conversations you have with those around you this week be filled with laughter, and may the memories you share (and create) be good and uplifting and meaningful… and may it all be a whole lot of fun as well!  But above all, may each one of us be truly thankful for what we’ve been given; and may our gratitude be reflected in lives lived in true righteousness and sacrificial love.

Happy Thanksgiving, my dear friends.

Thanks be to God!


c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


Tags: , , ,

%d bloggers like this: