(a sermon for November 18, 2018, the 26th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Psalm 103 and Luke 18:9-14)
It’s an old story; one I first heard way back when I was still in school, but one that still resonates with me even today.
It seems there was this minister, who along with his regular duties as a church pastor, volunteered as a chaplain at a nearby prison. Every Sunday afternoon, he’d leave church and go to this prison, so to lead worship and to visit with the prisoners there. He’d actually been doing this for years; and since many of those imprisoned at that particular facility were serving long, and in a few instances, life sentences, not only was there a lot of valuable ministry happening in that environment but also some close relationships were developing between the minister and a few of the prisoners. Over time, you see, this minister had not only become a pastor to these inmates; he was also seen as a good friend.
Eventually, however, as often happens in the ministry the pastor and his family were called to serve another parish in another state; and because of this his ministry at the prison had to come to an end. And so of course he went to the prison one last time so he could tell the inmates that he was going to be moving away and say good-bye. And, as is also often the case in ministry, the prisoners were very disappointed by the news and yet still they were happy for the minister, and wanted to wish him well in his new call. In fact, almost immediately it was decided they needed to have a going away party for him; and there in the dayroom/chapel of this prison, the inmates quickly put together an impromptu and makeshift celebration, complete with a mini-buffet made up of bits of food they’d been keeping in their individual cells! And as they shared in this feast, the prisoners gathered around the minister so they could shake his hand, embrace him and express their gratitude for all the times they’d spent together.
And then, at the end of it all, one of the prisoners presented him with a package that had actually been wrapped in a old newspaper “borrowed” from the prison library. And the prisoner said to the minister, “Here’s a going-away present to you from all of us; but we don’t want you to open it here. Wait until you get home, and when you do, know that it is the very best that we could give you.”
The minister took the package home, and when he’d told his wife all about the going away party, together they set the package on the dining room table and tore open the newspaper wrapping. And there, inside the package… was his wallet, his reading glasses case, his comb, some of his pocket change, even a set of keys he assumed he’d misplaced months before! You see, all the while they’d been hugging him and wishing him well they’d also managed to pick every pocket clean! And then they gathered up all of that which they’d stolen from him, wrapped it up and gave it back to him as a gift.
The most these prisoners had to give, you see, was what they’d already taken from him.
Well, once again it’s almost Thanksgiving; and if I might be pastorally honest with you for a moment, every year about this time I must confess that I find myself wondering what I might say to you about thankfulness that you haven’t already heard time and time again, even already this morning as we’ve been worshiping together! That we ought to be more thankful than what we are? Oh, yes. That ultimately it does seem a little silly to set aside only one day a year for giving thanks when our many blessings continue “from season to changing season?” Most certainly. That despite whatever our lingering feelings may be about mid-term elections and toward the people who don’t agree with us about that (!), nonetheless in this nation we are an especially fortunate people and not only ought we be exceedingly grateful for that, but also that it behooves us to work to become good and generous stewards of what we’ve been given as we reach out to others in need? Absolutely!
Actually, to suggest from this pulpit that you and I need to be thankful in all things kind of seems to me to be pretty obvious. Because I dare say that most of us here are very much aware of our blessings, and even if it might take a family gathering and some turkey and stuffing to speak our thanksgiving aloud, we do understand what it means for us to be truly grateful for what we’ve received. So maybe the best thing for me to do this morning is to start us off on another round of “We Gather Together,” pronounce the benediction and send us all forth on yet another glorious Turkey Day Feast!
But… then I remember that old story from so many years ago about the minister and the prison inmates, and I think twice about that.
You see, it’s one thing to count our many blessings; it’s quite another to acknowledge where those blessings have come from. When it comes to thanksgiving, we’re very good at showing forth pride in our accomplishments, great in touting the hard work and steadfast effort it’s taken to get where we are in this life. We’re good even in affirming the kind of good choices we’ve made that have led us along right pathways; but when it comes to facing up to the fact that so much of what we’re thankful for has come about not by our own effort but by sheer grace? Well… maybe not so much!
Yes, part of it is that so many of us live out of the principle that if we want something bad enough and work hard enough for it, it can be ours; truly, that’s at the core of the American Dream, and something to be thankful for, especially in these times! But friends, that philosophy only goes so far; the whole truth, and what we ought to understand as people of faith is that everything we have, everything we are and everything we can ever hope to be comes to us by the loving and gracious hand of God! When it comes to true thanksgiving, we’re much like those prisoners in the story in that we are only able to draw from that which we’ve received; and what we’ve received – indeed, what we’ve taken – is wholly from God, who is the source of all our blessing!
And when we realize that; when we come to grips with the truth that every bit of the glory and achievement of our lives comes from something and someone other than ourselves, than the way we approach Thanksgiving – not to mention our whole approach to life and living – cannot help but change!
Our gospel reading for this morning illustrates what we’re talking about quite beautifully; a parable of Jesus that is actually directed to some in his company who quite convinced that their own good names and their better nature was that which would most certainly confirm their righteousness before God! It’s a story of two prayers and two “pray-ers” and how very different they can be: first, there’s the Pharisee who “went up to the temple to pray,” specifically to pray a prayer of thanksgiving according to the custom of the time. And in that regard let’s be fair; this Pharisee, as a learned elder of the faith, was doing exactly was he was supposed to do in terms of proper religious observance. By all appearances, he was doing everything right and was the very model of faith.
Unfortunately, then the Pharisee opens his mouth.
Oh, the prayer starts out alright: “God, I thank you,” but from there every word has very little to do with God and everything to do with his own arrogance. As The Message translates it, the Pharisee “posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid…” (and at this point he pauses to make a grand and dismissive gesture to another man in the temple, “standing far off” so not to be noticed) “…or heaven forbid, like this tax man.” And then he goes on with his very self-aggrandizing oration, complete with references to his twice a week fasting and what he puts in the offering plate! In other words, for all the Pharisee’s many words, there’s no real thanksgiving involved here; this is nothing more than self-congratulation.
And what about that tax collector, who was “slumped in the shadows” as The Messsage describes him)? He’s also come there to pray, but in fact he cannot even bring himself to “even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” It’s not an eloquent prayer by any means, nor was it in keeping with temple ritual; and in all honesty, this man doesn’t even actually say “thank you” in any kind of usual or traditional way. But it was utterly honest; and in confessing his own weakness and hopelessness the tax collector did the only thing he could possibly do, which was to turn to the only one who could provide him forgiveness, and mercy, and life: only God. It was a simple and yet all-encompassing request for mercy, and in that there was an overriding affirmation that everything he ever had or could ever hope to have would come from God and God alone.
In other words, true thanksgiving. As Jesus himself put it, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God.” (The Message)
The point here is in prayer – as in any act of thanksgiving – it is the humility of spirit that makes all the difference. It is knowing – really and truly understanding – where our blessings have come from. It is the confession of your own hearts that that the only source of our hope, our life, our health, our food and everything else that gives life its richness, its purpose and its joy is ultimately not us, but God and God alone.
And no, I don’t believe that Jesus is suggesting in this parable that we ought to carry on like great spiritual martyrs, wearing the misery of unworthiness on our sleeves. Things like mercy, forgiveness and love; these are gifts that have been given freely out of the grace and infinite love of God, and they are given that we might rejoice in it. But by the same token we can never allow ourselves to become like Little Jack Horner in the nursery rhyme, proclaiming with every new blessing, “What a good boy am I!” True thanksgiving happens when you and I are humble enough to know that it is never our goodness that ought to be proclaimed, but God’s.
And if you’re somehow struggling with that; if you’re wondering how it’s even possible to be that humble, or maybe if you’re seeing all the hoopla of the holidays looming on the horizon and perhaps need to remember what Thanksgiving is all about, then let me give you this reminder in the words that were read (and danced!) earlier this morning:
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”
It is worth noting, you know, that the Hebrew word that we translate as “soul” is nephesh, which actually is better understood as one’s “inmost being;” the nephesh, the soul, is in fact all of who a person is; it is everything you and I are. So true thanksgiving, beloved, involves much more than a word of grace spoken around the table; it’s much more than simply being aware of our many blessings. True thanksgiving is when we are moved to bless God with everything we are. True thanksgiving, if I might quote Paul Myhre here, is when our every breath “inhales and exhales praise. It is [our capacity] to know God and to exclaim that God has done and that God continues to do amazing things.”
We are truly blessed, you and I; we have been gifted, nurtured and sustained by a loving, divine hand. So for the nourishment of good food, the shelter of a warm home, the love of family and friends, the caring support of this family of God’s people, for the times of celebration in which we danced for the sheer joy of it and for the times of sadness in which we found strength in crying on one another’s shoulder; and for the moments when even in great weakness we found the strength and hope that we needed…
… may the thanks of our inmost soul be unto God.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends, and
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry