November 20, 2016: "Tis' The Gift To Be Simple"
“Tis’ The Gift To Be Simple”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 20, 2016: Thanksgiving Sunday
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 & John 6:24-35
Nine out of ten preachers will tell you that among all the holidays in a year, secular or sacred, Thanksgiving is by far the hardest to preach. Really, what else is there to say? The act that the holiday demands is right there in the name—Thanksgiving, giving thanks. And year after year we return the same refrain: “We have so much to be thankful for.” Its so very true. We have much to be thankful for: our lives, the food on our tables, and the clothes on our backs. We have much to be thankful for with the relative safety and freedom we enjoy, the warmth of this building, and the ability to worship as God calls us to worship. We have much to be thankful for considering that the sun rises and sets each day, the world continues to spin, and the march of time goes steadily on. Setting aside a day each year to recognize these things and give thanks for them is good and holy. What else is there to say?
Normally I’d say that there isn’t much more to say about Thanksgiving. But this week I received a sobering reminder about the importance of giving thanks and the significant impact it can have on the life we have been given.
I had one of those day this week. You know, one of those days. Call it what you will—a marathon, a perfect storm, whatever—but it was one of those days that started as soon as soon as my feet hit the floor and did not stop until my head hit the pillow. Board meetings for the various groups that I am a part of bookended the day, and in between there were people to see and more things to do than any normal person is able to do. These weren’t standard meetings or casual get-togethers, though: this group needs more money and that organization needs more volunteers; this person is mourning the death of a loved one, and that person is facing a potentially devastating diagnosis. Tough stuff, to be sure. To cap it off, to really ice that cake nicely, it was the day my office computer and the church’s internet network just decided to take a vacation, making it impossible to complete even the most basic things.
You could say that I was more than excited to pull in the driveway that night, drop my bag by the door, and flop down on the sofa, and you would be right. And that is exactly what I did. After a little while I got up to make dinner, and on the way to the kitchen, I walked past a stack of anniversary and birthday cards that had been accumulating over the month. In the back of my mind I heard my mother saying, “Andrew, you need to write thank you notes,” but that was the last thing I wanted to do after the day I’d had. Writing thank-you notes is such an arduous process, and I have the perpetual burden of being left-handed, which means my hand always smears the ink when I write. “Tomorrow,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.” Another day won’t make a difference.
But as I walked past that stack of cards on my way back to sofa, I knew what I had to do. So for the next hour and a half I sat and read through the cards and wrote thank-you notes to all the people who had been kind enough to send them. My hand was tired, and I smeared quite a few addresses and names, but it felt good when I licked and sealed the last envelope. More than that, while it felt good to do something I could have put off for another day, it felt good to give thanks. I’m not the only who has days like that day, and I’m no spiritual genius, either. I don’t walk around waiting for something to jump out at me as a message from God. But I do believe God was pushing me towards those cards that day. After a day when every breath, every minute, was occupied by some issue or something stressful, writing thank you notes was a moment of grace, a moment of peace. For something so simple, it had the power to bring me right where I ought to be; the mad rush of the day had been quieted, my mind was at ease, I felt peace from the top of my head to the tip of my toes.
I know a lot of people that are having days like the one I had, and for some those days stretch into weeks, even months. As a human family, it seems as though we are stuck in one those days. Add to that the many voices that vie for our attention, the many groups that compete for our allegiance, and every demand that must be met in order to provide for our families and simply survive, it is a wonder we even get off the couch at all. To echo some of what I said last week, there is never a shortage or work, particularly for people of faith. Jesus said that the poor will always be us, but every day we see some new form of poverty or need that will take vast amounts of creativity to solve. Poverty is just one thing in this world that seems to be out of control. There is also religious extremism, folks who co-opt the messages of faith and use them as weaponry, and a growing distrust in leadership inside and outside the world of religion. A lot of folks feel left behind, maybe even some among us today. Is there something, some way, to lift the burdens that are weighing people down and to begin setting things right for our good and for the good of the world?
I don’t claim to have all the answers, or the one answer that will solve everything, but I think gratitude is a good place to start. Gratitude, giving thanks, is deeply imbedded in the genetics of people of faith. We see this clearly in the book of Deuteronomy today. The Book of Deuteronomy is a collection of the laws and ordinances God spoke to Moses when they visited together on Mt. Horeb. These laws cover everything from a brother’s obligation to marry his sister-in-law if the brother dies, to the Sabbatical year when the fields are left fallow in order to regenerate, workers are given time off to rest, and all debt is forgiven. These laws also cover the Biblical mandate of giving thanks. Our reading from Deuteronomy today comes at almost the end of the book, at the pivotal moment in Israel’s history when they are about to take possession of the land God promised them so long ago. The Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, is the place the Israelites will call home, something they have been yearning for since the beginning. At such a moment, God has some things to say about giving thanks.
When it is time for the yearly harvest, God commands the Israelites to fill a basket with some of the first things pulled out of the ground or from the trees. Then, they are to go to the temple with their basket and give it to one of the priests. Once the priest accepts the gift, the Israelites are to bow down to pray. This prayer is a cliff-notes version of the Exodus story and by praying this way, the Israelites remember their entire history with the Lord. This prayer reminds them that Abraham and Sarah, their ancestors, were foreigners in a strange land without a home. It reminds them that the Hebrew nation grew and grew and grew, and this scared the powerful Egyptians enough that the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrew people. It reminds them that the Lord heard the cries of the people, raised up Moses as their leader, and delivered them from oppression in Egypt. This prayer reminds them that God made a promise that one day they would live in a land of their own. The closing of the prayer is so beautiful: “So now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” Having given their offering in the temple and prayed, God commands the Israelites to go and celebrate God’s bounty with all, including Levites and strangers, free...absolutely free.
The Israelites’ journey from Egypt into the Promised Land, from slavery to freedom, is a predominant theme in human history. At times, slavery in a foreign land has been actually slavery, actual human bodies shipped in chains from one place to another, made to work because of nothing more than a difference in skin color. Slavery to systems, substances, prejudices, and the ways things have always been done is also oppression like what the Israelites endured in Egypt. But time and time again, though the chains always find their way around people’s hands and necks, God is there offering liberation. For the slavery of an entire race of people, God offered liberation and the chance to equal rights and opportunity. For slavery to substances, God has worked miracles in the world of medicine and psychology. When it is systems that oppress, in the halls of government or in the sanctuary of churches, God has raise up prophets like Moses who speak truth to power in love. When we survey the course of human history, in the Bible and beyond, God’s way has always been to deliver God’s people from slavery to freedom.
And yet, freedom is often a Pandora’s box we are willing to open without much thought or consideration. This why, set in and among all the other laws and ordinances, God commands the Israelites to give thanks. Freedom has a way of making us believe that everything is up to us, that the course of the world rests squarely on our shoulders, that history will rise and fall on our watch. When the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land, free and in possession of everything they could hope for or imagine, God knew that it would not be long before the whole thing turned into chaos. God knew that it would not be long before the Israelites forgot who they were, and whose they were. God knew that it would not be long before the Israelites were plagued with the ravages of sin and death. The remedy, the solution, was and is gratitude.
When the Israelites gave thanks, they placed their hope and trust and faith in the one place that would not fail them: God. It is no coincidence that God asks for an offering of the first fruits of the harvest. Before the Israelites could turn to patting themselves on the back, they had to first acknowledge that God was the giver and provider of all things. This is where their attention needed to be. Sure, they planted the seeds and cared for the earth, but it was nothing short of a miracle that the seeds grew and provided for the people’s needs. By giving thanks to God first, before anything else, this miracle did not go unnoticed. This primed the Israelites for a life of peace, free from the burden of thinking it was all up to them. This prepared them to receive the abundance of God’s creation, free from the notion that they had to hoard it for themselves. And it opened their eyes to the needs all around, particularly among those who were strangers in the land.
My friends, though we are separated from the biblical Israelites by millennia, their story is so closely tied to our own. We, too, have been delivered from bondage, from bondage to sin and death and everything that says we are anything but God’s beloved people. We have been freed, and we have been forgiven. But just like the Israelites, it is easy to take this freedom and use it improperly. It is easy to take this freedom and imagine that we are above anyone and anything that is not like us. It is easy to take this freedom and imagine that we are beyond the reach of sin and death. It is easy to take this freedom, hoard it for ourselves, and commit the greatest sin of thinking that we earned it or wrestled it into our possession by our own power. Thinking and acting this way easily extends into all areas of life—how we steward the resources of the earth, how take part in the world economy, and even in how we share the good news of the gospel, or not, with the world. If we think it is all up to us, that everything we have we have earned by our own power and ingenuity, then sharing is out of the question, compassion withers before it even has a chance to bloom, and the goodness of God’s grace—grace we have received—comes to us but goes no further.
But, brothers and sisters in Christ, the good news is this: if we are willing to give thanks, to return to God with the first fruits of our very lives, we will live in true freedom. And it is simple. It is maybe the simplest of all Christian disciplines. With every breath we have the chance to breath in God’s spirit and breath out a word of gratitude. Each time we sit down to a meal, we have the chance to thank God for the hands that brought the food from the field to the table. Each day we wake up, take a nice warm shower, and put on clean clothes, we have the chance to thank God for it all. When we go about the work we have been given to do, we have the chance to thank God for the ability to work and provide. When we visit with family and friends, we have the chance to thank God that we’re not alone. When we pray, we have the chance to thank God for hearing us and knowing our needs even before we do. When we think on our relationship with Jesus Christ, we have a chance to thank God that in him we will never hungry or thirsty again. The result of this gratitude will be freedom as God earnestly desires for us all, but also a little discomfort, discomfort with how things are and a spirit that will not rest until all people are fed, clothed, surrounded by love, and brought into the presence of Christ where hunger and thirst will come to an end.
So I guess Thanksgiving isn’t that hard to preach after all. As you gather at tables this week and every week, as you travel to visit friends and family, and as you rekindle old memories and make new ones, give thanks. It is simple. And as the hymn writer so beautifully wrote, “’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift be free. ’Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be. And when you find yourself in the place just right, twill be in the valley of love and delight.” May it be. Amen.