Text: Deuteronomy 8:7-18
Liturgist Text: Luke 17: 11-19
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to embrace gratitude in the midst of trouble.
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The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, recently set up in the Big Apple, has received almost as much press coverage and debate as the second economic stimulus package. The 75-foot tall, 11 ton Norway Spruce from Oneonta, NY has been declared ‘underwhelming’ and a fitting metaphor for the pandemic year of 2020. With its broken branches, patchy gaps, and tired demeanor, the tree reflects our national mood: bruised by relentless pandemic, patched up with economic band-aids, and weary of a contested election. Is there a shred of Christmas joy or peace in the Big Apple’s, Charlie Brown choice of evergreen?
It has been a difficult year for sure, and now we find ourselves trying to find Thanksgiving in the tangle of COVID statistics. Even with the advent promise of a vaccine, we steel ourselves against the winter nor’easters forecasting death and destruction before we find our way to a spring thaw of normality. Where are you Thanksgiving?
It is an age-old question. How do we find thanksgiving in all circumstances when we do not find it for all circumstances? When the cornucopia overflows with fruit, potatoes and berries, nuts and squash, it is easy to give thanks. When pension statements whistle tunes of prosperity, it is easy to give thanks. When family gathers safely, healthy and happy, it is easy to give thanks. When choirs praise God from whom all blessings flow with psalms and anthems of blessing, it is easy to give thanks…at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
In the words of George Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so…” Even when things are ‘trouble-free,’ we often forget to offer thanksgiving. Like the lepers healed by Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading, one in ten might remember to stop and say ‘thank you.’ The rest of us race to our entitlement, believing we earned what we have, based on our own merit. The truth is, thanksgiving often hides in plain sight when things are going well.
That is precisely what Moses counsels the people of Israel against in our reading from Deuteronomy. Moses is nearing the end of his leadership tenure. He will die soon, and he is ready to pass the leadership baton to his protégé, Joshua. He has a sense of déjà-vu as the Israelites teeter on the edge of the Promised Land. He has been here before, but in that moment of decision, the people lost faith in their trust of God, crippled by fear at every turn. They railed against God and Moses, and were sentenced to forty years of wilderness wandering. Faith and gratitude, you see, walk hand in hand.
Moses earnestly hopes this time will be different. This time, they WILL enter the land. This time, they will be prosperous. This time, they will trust in God. This time, they will remember and give thanks to the One who is Source of all their gifts. This time they will choose the way of faith over the way of fear. This time they will be victorious.
Moses knows that gratitude is a choice, and, anticipating Joshua’s articulation of that choice (Choose this day whom you will serve, Yahweh or the gods of the Canaanites), he lays it out for them: “Don’t forget the Lord your God…when you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down…Don’t think to yourself, ‘My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me…Remember the Lord your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous and to secure the covenant made with your ancestors…”
Thanksgiving is not automatic, nor is it inevitable. It is a choice of the heart which does not require a plump turkey and cranberry sauce. That is why Pilgrims could celebrate thanksgiving with their North American indigenous neighbors even though half of their family and friends had perished during the preceding winter. That is why my grandfather, when I was 18, could celebrate thanksgiving with us through tears of gratitude just one week after Grandma’s passing. That is why an Oklahoma congregation could gather to sing, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” amidst the hurricane rubble of their former sanctuary.
And that is why we can remember God’s faithfulness and give thanks during this pandemic-suffocating month of November 2020. We can give thanks for the virtual technology which allows us to reach across miles to be with our families, though scattered to different points of the compass. We can give thanks for the masks which protect us both from infection and the risk of infecting others. We can give thanks for the resilience of nature to blanket the world in green following the scorching fires of drought. We can give thanks for the generosity of community which offers a helping hand during seasons of food insecurity. We can give thanks for those who cry with us when someone we love embraces eternity.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, roundly disparaged by the late night comedic commentators, held within its branches a secret–a stowaway in the form of a tiny, adult Saw-whet owl that came along for the 170 mile trek to New York City—over the river and through the wood to Rockefeller Center we go—a wandering pilgrim like Moses and his Hebrew friends looking for God, gratitude and joy on the brink of the unknown. Maybe it is the metaphor we yearn for—miracle in mayhem, gratitude in challenge, peace in the midst of pandemic. Yeah, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for God is with us…in grace, in gratitude, in granite.