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And Forget Not All His Benefits

(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

AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on November 18, 2018 in Jesus, Old Testament, Psalms, Sermon, Thanksgiving

 

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“. . . And Forget Not”

thanksgiving_pumpkin_600x400(a sermon for November 24, 2013, Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 103:1-5, 21)

Quote:

“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven.  We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity.  We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no nation has ever grown.  But we have forgotten God.  We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.  Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”

Unquote.

Now there’s a powerful and relevant, if unsettling, word for us today, friends! And what’s particularly interesting about it is that it’s not the editorializing of some media pundit, nor is it even a sermon quote from a random preacher; it is, in fact, the words of a Presidential “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” issued in 1863 by then-President Abraham Lincoln; a sentiment expressed 150 years ago this week to a nation embroiled in civil war, yet words that could well have been written for and about us today!

For you see, friends, ultimately what lies at the heart of what we celebrate this week is that truth that even now in these most interesting and challenging of times, we are the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven!  Consider this with me for a moment; that as this Thanksgiving approaches we are indeed blessed.  We have our families who love us, support us, and perhaps occasionally even chide us to be the best persons we can be.  We have our homes that are warm and dry and secure within, even as the wind blows cold outside; something to be greatly appreciated not only as we remember the great and tragic devastation that continues to plague the Philippines, but also as we consider those in our own midst who have spent the long nights huddled in makeshift shelters along the Merrimack River.  And on our tables we have food in abundance: come Thursday, we’ll feast on roast turkey (yes!) and homemade pie and be well fed; indeed, for most of us, sustenance will not be an issue but rather over-indulgence.

Moreover, we’re blessed to have each other; sharing in all the myriad joys and struggles of life, embracing as one its laughter and its tears.  And we have the blessing of the church of Jesus Christ, this family of God in which we belong, a caring community redeemed and preserved by the hand of God and led forth in the ways of love and peace.  And, lest we forget, we also live in a nation where, despite all manner of struggle and challenge and partisan bickering, we nonetheless rejoice in the manifold blessings of liberty and freedom. Truly and in so many ways – personally, nationally and spiritually – we have, as Lincoln said it back then, “grown in numbers, wealth and power.”  We are blessed!

And yet, Lincoln’s words cannot help but echo back to us in other ways as well; for somewhere in the midst of all the rituals of feasting, family, and football about to unfold – not to mention all the “Black Friday” mania (or as is sadly the case this year, the “Black Thursday Afternoon” mania) that’s already begun to ensue – we too have often run the risk of forgetting God!  It is one thing to “count our blessings,” after all; quite another to acknowledge to true source of those blessings!   The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, in writing about the great importance of the Sabbath in our lives, that six days a week we work to overcome the world, while on the seventh day we rest that we might overcome ourselves.  Well, it seems to me that Thanksgiving Day at the very least ought to provide us with just such a Sabbath moment; a time for us to draw back from the temptation of allowing ourselves to feel privileged and entitled to rather see our lives and living from the proper perspective: that of persons and a people summarily blessed by the God who is the source and end of all that we have, all that we are, and all that we can ever hope to do or be.

I think that’s what I love about our reading from Deuteronomy this morning, in which Moses, after having eloquently described to the people of Israel just how wonderful things are going to be for them in the promised land – that after all their years of wandering they’ll finally lack for nothing, they’ll “eat bread without scarcity,” have fine houses and large herds, and even their silver and gold will be multiplied (!) – but then hastens to add, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.”  Actually, once again The Message offers up a wonderful translation of this; there it reads, “If you start thinking to yourselves, ‘I did all this.  And all by myself.  I’m rich.  It’s all mine!’ – well, think again.”

This passage is a beautiful reminder of something that I do think that most of us know down deep in our hearts but all too rarely acknowledge in this age of celebrated self-reliance: that everything is a gift from God, and that we dare not succumb to the arrogance of claiming our own power and strength as the source of our blessing.  Ultimately, it is always God’s great providence and generosity which provides for our need; that our lives be filled with light and hope, tenderness and love, peace and prosperity is because God has blessed us. And so when we start looking at life from that perspective, then Thanksgiving can no longer be reduced to a hastily worded “grace” spoken before the food gets cold, a mere verbal receipt for divine services rendered; no, it becomes our soulful confession that we walk, live and love in partnership with the divine!  It’s a matter of faith, friends; a choice we make to pay attention to God’s presence and power in and through every facet of our lives; as the Psalmist has sung and we read this morning, to “bless his holy name” with all that is within us and “forget not all his benefits.”  And that’s important; because it’s there, friends, where not only does true Thanksgiving start, it’s where our blessings really begin!

Of course, the question is how we make that transition from what we might call an “environment of entitlement” to an “attitude of gratitude?” Because that’s never been an easy thing, especially in this culture of competitive consumerism in which we live today.  Indeed, as the late Henri Nouwen wrote in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, “the choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort.  But,” he goes on to say, “each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious.  Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seeming mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.”

In other words, true thanksgiving is built on awareness – awareness of God’s grace in all things.  And the more we are aware, the more we are thankful; and the more thankful we become, the more we are aware of God and just how vast are God’s blessings upon us.  It’s a cycle of sincere gratitude that builds a life of thanksgiving, in which, to use more words of the Psalmist, serve “to praise you, O Lord, giver of all good things, to thank you for your boundless mercy, which renews us and makes us whole.”

Barbara Myeroff, another well-known Jewish author and anthropologist (I seem to be somewhat rooted in Old Testament thought today!), tells the wonderful story an elderly lady of the Jewish faith named Basha, who lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods of New York City.  Now, because of her age and her poverty, she could not have possibly afforded the feasts that were so much a part of the observance of holy days; and yet when a day of feasting came, Basha improvised and celebrated nonetheless.  “She ate alone in her tiny room,” Myeroff wrote. “Over an electric hot plate, she cooked her chicken foot stew (chicken feet were free at the supermarket). [And] before eating, she spread a white linen handkerchief over the oilcloth covering the table, saying: ‘This my mother taught me to do. No matter how poor, we would eat off clean white linen, and say the prayers before touching anything to the mouth. And so I do it still. Whenever I sit down, I eat with God, my mother, and all the Jews who are doing these same things even if I can’t see them.’”  Such a meal was a feast, Myeroff concluded, “superior to fine fare hastily eaten, without ceremony, attention, or significance.”

Though I’m not at all sure how I’d feel about Chicken Foot Stew on the menu, we’d do well to take our holy-day cues from Basha!  Because that’s true Thanksgiving, beloved; more than the turkey and the stuffing and all the rest of it; more than the family gatherings and seasonal sentiment.  It’s what happens in that exquisite moment of grateful fellowship between the Almighty and his people; it’s our word unto the Lord; our joyful remembrance of this one who forgives all our sins, who heals all our diseases and “crowns [us] with steadfast love and mercy;” who“wraps us in goodness – beauty eternal.”  I can only hope and pray this morning that wherever our holy feasting finds  each one of us this coming week, each one of us will dine as splendidly.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”

Happy Thanksgiving, beloved;

And thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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