Sunday, 13 October 2013

Thankfulness- Deut 26

It is not an uncommon experience to be shocked by the ingratitude of people as we read through the Bible. We read about God rescuing the people from slavery in Egypt because God hears their cries and suffering. Then, as soon as they are miraculously rescued through the parted sea they start complaining and wishing they were back in slavery. They complain about being hungry … and God provides them with manna to eat. They complain about not having meat…  and God rains quail on them. He brings them into the Promised Land … and they complain that they don’t have a king. When they are in the Promised Land they even turn and worship other gods, basically rejecting the God who rescued their ancestors from slavery and brought them to a land of abundance. The Bible is not always about heroes who should be imitated. It is mostly about God interacting with a group of people who are very very human.          
I have worked with teenagers for a long time. It seems like one of those things that gets said about teenagers in every generation that “teenagers nowadays are entitled and ungrateful”. It is a comment I have found frustrating because I have noticed just as much, or more, self-entitlement from older generations- be they my generation, my parents’ generation, or my grandparent’s generation. No generation has a monopoly on entitlement and ingratitude. I see it on the road. I see it at the coffee shop. I see it in the grocery store. I see it in myself.
I was in Cuba in 2001 with a youth group on a mission trip. When we first arrived we tried to make conversation with our limited Spanish. “Tengo mucho calor” I said with a smile, which means “It is very hot”. I was proud that my university Spanish was paying off…. In the morning I found out that our hosts had gone out and bought numerous fans. Not an inexpensive purchase for our hosts, who lived quite humbly.  I felt about an inch tall. … I actually wasn’t that warm. I was just making conversation. … It was a moment of realization I never forgot.  I realized that I often would complain about something when starting a conversation. I would complain about the news, about the weather, about the government, about people driving,… you name it. Complaining was my ice-breaker.  I hadn’t really noticed it because we do it so often and in Cuba they didn’t really do that. At least the people I met there didn’t do that. That event made confront the fact that ingratitude had taken up residence in my heart.
I think ingratitude is something we all face. When we get new sneakers, or a new car, or a new house, we are filled with gratitude, but that soon passes. What once inspired thankfulness in us becomes the expected, normal, and usual. What once inspired gratitude is taken for granted. Or worse, we begin to feel like we deserve it. For some reason it can be easier to focus on the bad events in our day. We take our spouse for granted and instead focus on an upsetting email. We take our blessings for granted and instead are consumed by a rude comment spoken by someone in the street we don’t even know.
I once attended a church where during the prayers space would be given for people to pray about all their needs. In the middle of the service people would pray out loud so everyone could hear. They would pray things like, “Help my son find a job”, and “Heal Jenny’s cancer”. I loved that moment in the service because suddenly we were sharing each other’s pain and lifting that pain up to God. … Later in the prayers there would be a similar space where we were invited to pray out loud our thanks giving to God…  and usually it was much more quiet, if not silent. I don’t think the silence meant that we were ungrateful, but I think the silence pointed our forgetfulness.              

In Deuteronomy 26 we read about a practice that God’s people used to nurture thankfulness. When they were harvesting they would take some of the first fruits of the harvest and bring them to the temple. When they came to the temple they would say to the priest “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us” (26:3). They publicly remind themselves that God has done something in the past to make it possible for them to be on the land that has produced their crop.
Then after their offering is placed before the altar they would say, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;  and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me” (26:5-10). The worshipper is reminded of where they came from. They came from a wandering nomad. Their ancestor was a nobody- from nowhere. As a nomad, he had no place of his own. In his old age, Abraham had no child of his own. Though Abraham wasn’t particularly special, God chose to bless him. Through God’s intervention he had a family.  His family was small at first, but grew into a nation, which was a sign of great blessing.  They were eventually enslaved and mistreated in Egypt, but God rescued them miraculously and lead them to the Promised Land. So their ancestor was a nobody with no land, who was made into a nation with a land. They were enslaved and now they were free. The worshippers are reminded that if God didn’t bless their ancestors, then they would not be enjoying the fruit of the land. In fact, they could still be slaves, or they might not exist at all.  Out of this remembrance they are commanded to celebrate. They are to use the bounty of the land to celebrate and include those who do not have a portion of the land.  
I suspect we could benefit from a similar practice. We could look into our past and ask who our ancestors were that we ended up in Canada. Was there something special about us, or our ancestors that we are blessed to live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world?

I was at a corn maze yesterday and they had an air canon. They would load, apples, oranges, tomatoes, and pumpkins into the canon and people could pay to shoot fruit and vegetables at an old rusted-out bus in the middle of a field. After I got over how cool it was I started to think about how blessed we are to live in a place where we have so much food that we can shoot it out of air canons at rusted out buses.
Is there something special about us or our ancestors that we live in Canada and not in Syria? We tend to applaud individual accomplishment, but we couldn’t accomplish without a society that provided the freedom to pursue our gifts. We are in a country that provides universities where we can be trained. We have hospitals without which many of us would not have made it into adulthood.  We have a strong economy that allows us to be employed and to make more money than we could make elsewhere in the world.
Ultimately it comes down to God’s provision. God gives us the ability to produce. He gives us life. He gives us talent. He blesses us with strength to work. He grants us intelligence to design. As creator, it all comes back to him. Deuteronomy teaches, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (Deut 8:17-18). 
   To nurture thankfulness we can do two things. We can retell the story of God’s blessing in our life and we can offer sacrifice. This has been the practice of God’s people for thousands of years.  First, we remember. We retell the story of God in our lives. We remind ourselves that all we have and all we are is because God has provided us with life itself. This includes our individual stories, but it also includes the bigger story we find ourselves in- The story of God rescuing his people from slavery. The story, ultimately, of God loving us so much that he took on flesh and showed himself to us through Jesus Christ, and loved us so much that he was willing to die for us on a cross to show that he would not hold anything back, but would offer himself completely in love. And, through his resurrection he offers us eternal life. In a few moments we will participate in the Eucharist, which is where we remember and re-live that story. The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving. Every Sunday we have a thanksgiving meal where we remind ourselves of God’s great deeds which have blessed humanity.   
 Second, we will sacrifice. If we are thankful we will also offer to God some of our harvest. Not because he needs it, but because we are thankful and the act of giving graces us with grateful hearts and allows us to participate in God’s action of blessing. It has always been the practice of the people of God to offer back to him from our own lives.  We do this by offering to the church, to the poor, to our families and our friends. We learn to be generous because we recognize that God is generous with us. This is not a dreary act of duty. God commands this to be an act of celebration that excludes no one.    

The Christian life is a life of thankfulness. In the 1st letter to the Thessalonians Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances…” (5:18). That doesn’t leave any of us out.  We are all called to lives of thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving!       

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