Giving thanks giving

As we approach Thanksgiving 2020, many people are asking, what in the world have we got to be thankful for this year?

The holiday itself will be much different than any other in memory. So many gatherings have been canceled. So many of us will not see family except by FaceTime or Skype or Zoom.

The deadly virus that has stalked us for nine months did, briefly, appear to be tamed, but now it has roared back with a vengeance. Such an unsettling year – so many dead, so many still sick, so many jobless because our economy is in tatters, so many people hurting in so many ways.

On top of this layer a bitterly contested election season, and a president who lives in a bizarre fantasyland and won’t peaceably pass the baton to his duly elected successor.

The election results only certify what many of us have known for a long time – that we are a divided nation. We may occupy the same physical space, but we live in different worlds. Such division cannot be good for our future. There is talk of civil war – both among those who don’t want it, and among those who do.

Meantime, the clock of global warming ticks on. We are in the midst of the most active hurricane season on record. Drought and gigantic forest fires threaten the landscapes we love. Every day we don’t act to stop it, catastrophe moves closer – and we may already have reached the tipping point, beyond which only more bad things happen.

We have so many losses to grieve – loss of friends and loved ones to the virus, loss of confidence, loss of feeling secure, loss of hope.

So we have to ask, what in the world have we got to be thankful for this year?

At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s start with the obvious. Let’s start at home. I presume that all of you viewing or reading this message are doing so from a snug, dry and warm house that is connected to a safe water supply and a good wastewater system. I also presume that you have enough to eat, that you are not seriously ill, that you have some source of income, though you may feel sorely stretched at this time.

All told, that’s a pretty good foundation for thankfulness, don’t you think? Millions of people around the world would be deliriously thankful if they had even half those things.

Let’s dig a little deeper. We’ve heard a lot of speculation recently about the possible presence of water on the moon and on the planet Mars. Water is one of those things that makes life as we know it possible. Whether there is – or at one time was – life on the moon or on Mars, we should be thankful that the conditions have been right for life to flourish on planet earth.

Beginning with the creation stories in the book of Genesis, the witness of the Bible is that we humans are not a random accident but the gift of a generous Creator who has fashioned this world with us in mind and gives us the resources to survive and thrive in it. That doesn’t mean that life isn’t sometimes difficult, but that it’s always possible, and that purely because of the grace of God.

For these things are others, we give God thanks and praise. In a common table blessing, we say “God is great, God is good.” We give thanks because of who God is – God is great – and because of what God provides for us – God is good. We conclude that prayer by saying, “Let us thank God for our food.” It’s a table blessing, so we usually we don’t bother to mention everything else that God gives us.

We give God thanks for what God gives us. For us, giving is always an act of thanks, and thanks is always an act of giving.

That statement is a little dense, so let me unpack it. First, giving is always an act of thanks. We give in gratitude for what we have to give. You might think that if we had more, we would give more. But sadly, that’s not necessarily so. Those who have the least are often the most willing to give the most to others, while those who have the most often give the least, and then begrudgingly.

It’s a matter of gratitude, of being thankful for what you have. Somehow living in plenty can dull your sense of gratitude. It’s as if the more you have, the more you think you deserve it all. And the least you have, the more you understand that everything you have is a gift from God.

It’s like grace itself, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:9. It’s a gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Yes, your hard work may have something to do with what you have, but please don’t live in the delusion that you are a self-made man or a self-made woman. So much of what you have is pure gift, a matter of time and circumstance over which you had no control.

If giving is always an act of thanks, then thanks is always an act of giving. So many people find it hard to say a simple “Thank you” that it’s a major act of self-revelation and self-giving for them to do so. Whereas, so many of us say “Thank you” so glibly, so easily, that you wonder if we really mean it, even when we do.

Last week I read that in Korean churches, people have the habit of giving not only their tithes and extra offerings but also special offerings to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, job promotions – whenever something good happens in their lives. It’s like the “happy dollar” that members of Rotary and Kiwanis and other service clubs give to celebrate things that make them happy. Such giving is truly an act of thanks.

That’s the human dimension of thanksgiving. The divine dimension is different. God’s giving to us comes not from thanks but from love, the source of all things. And God does not thank us for our giving, though surely God exults in it. Every time we give freely, God must shout, “Hey, he gets it! Look, she understands!”

The whole witness of Scripture is that we ought to give thanks to God.

A clear refrain runs throughout the Old Testament.O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” You’ll find that multiple times in the Psalms especially, but also in the Chronicles and in the books of the prophets.

Give thanks to God, for God is good and God’s steadfast love endures forever. In the New Testament, Jesus models behavior that affirms that saying, and the Apostle Paul encourages it in his letters to various churches.

To the Thessalonians, he writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Note especially two things. Note first, that Paul says we should give thanks in all circumstances. No matter how good or how bad things are for us as the moment, we should give thanks for all the good we have been given.

Note second, that Paul does not say “give thanks to God for all circumstances.” He says we ought to give thanks in the midst of all circumstances, but he does not say that we should give thanks for all circumstances.

Paul is no masochist. He recognizes that good things come from God but not all things that come to us are good or from God. You’d think that would be obvious, but some Christians deny it. Some Christians are trapped in an awful theology that says that God controls everything, God determines each and every event, so that every act of pain in your life and mine is God’s doing, and we ought to thank God for it, good and bad alike.

You can believe that if you like, but I think it’s absolute rot. I do not believe that God causes us pain to teach us spiritual lessons. It is true that God teaches us spiritual lessons through our pain, because God always works to produce good from bad. But God does not micromanage our lives, and God is no more a masochist than Paul is.

There is one place where Paul appears to say that we ought to give thanks for everything. That’s Ephesians 5:20, but I think here he’s talking about giving thanks for everything for which we ought to give thanks – that is, everything that’s good.

I think that’s the attitude he shows elsewhere. In Colossians 3:16, he says: “With gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” In Philippians 4:6, he says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

I think the best statement about gratitude comes from James the brother of Jesus. In James 1:17, he says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…”

Every good and perfect gift is from above. The bad stuff comes from elsewhere. The good is a gift from God. Or, as Amy Grant says in her song titled “Hope Set High,” “When it all comes down, if there’s anything good that happens in life, it’s from Jesus.”

For sure, 2020 has been a crummy year. God may yet work some good from it, as God works for good in all circumstances. But overall this has not been a good year. Can we still say “thanks” on Thursday? Yes! Because we truly have so much to be thankful for. If nothing else, we have so far survived this crummy year. And because we have survived, we have learned that we can still give God praise, even in the midst of difficulty.

O give thanks to the Lord, for God is great and God is good, and God’s love endures forever. And if anything good happens in our lives, it comes from Jesus.

Amen.

This Sunday was delivered remotely on November 22, 2020, the Sunday before Thanksgiving.                

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