Sunday
October 3

Thanksgiving

By Marsh Chapel

Frontispiece

Eucharist means thanksgiving. Our Sacrament of Remembrance (the sermon from September 5), our Sacrament of Presence (the sermon coming for November 7), is also a Sacrament of Thanksgiving, a mode and moment of gratitude, of giving thanks (today’s sermon forWorld Communion Sunday). He took the bread, and gave thanks. He took the cup, and gave thanks.

Are you a grateful person?

Does your day begin with some kind of quiet whisper, in gratitude for the gift of being alive? Do your meals begin with some gesture or silence or utterance by which to acknowledge the gifts of nourishment? Does your evening end, as the covers are turned back, with a twilight thanks for this another day? Does your week start with a word of gracious, honest thanks for what we have been given? Can you pause midweek, when the occasion occasions it, to say a word or send a note of thanks? Does your work conclude with a sane recognition in gratitude of what others and The Other have given?

A young student this week said with innocent conviction, ‘I try to be a grateful person’. Such a beautiful sentence in American English. ‘I try to be a grateful person’.

And you?

Community

Thanksgiving requires a living community, and a particular language, and a personal experience.

You have entered, in this hour, a community formed for gratitude. The Bible tells us so. Our lesson (2 Tim.) promotes a communal structure for thanksgiving. Our psalm (100) sings the most glorious of thanksgiving hymns. Our gospel uncovers the very depth of faith, religion, the inward journey, the spiritual life—your prey in the hunt of coming to church: the marrow is thanksgiving.

Our parable today, in the heart of Luke’s own collection of personal materials, recollections, sources, sayings—in a way a kind of separate Gospel all its own from chapter 9 to 19—tells us that our field work is not a substitute for our interior duties. For those who may have missed a phrase or two in the reading, the Gospel tells of daylong servant work, after which the servant come inside and serves again. Does the master give thanks? No. It is the servant who is meant to be thankful, to be thankful for both the outward and inward journeys. Our fieldwork is not a substitute for our domestic duties. Our professional work, our day job, is no substitute for the matters of the heart. Wednesday does not replace Sunday. Achievement is not a substitute for grace. Pick and shovel do not compensate for a lack of table manners, nor does the furrow plowed cover the lack of table grace. To be human means to work outside and inside both. And the marrow of the inward journey is thanksgiving. Your soul life starts with a deep feeling of gratitude.

A restless heart, finally resting in God, said Augustine.

A cold heart, finally and strangely warmed, wrote Wesley.

A powerful feeling of absolute dependence on the grace of another, opined Schleiermacher.

A capacity to accept our own acceptance, preached Tillich.

A sense of timelessness, wrote Thurman.

Warmth is what Miguel de Unamuno called it: ‘Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, it is the frost.”

Academic communities particularly need his caution about night and frost, about the difference between understanding and overcoming. It is not the night of unknowing but the frost of unloving that kills. We sometimes presume that if we can write it down, then we don’t have to live it through. If you can get it down on paper, then you don’t have to live it. Not true. Le couer a sais raisons

Joan Chittester, writing with of Rowan Williams, in their book UNCOMMON GRATITUDE, records a conversation between them: “Finally I asked him directly, ‘what really interests you most about the spiritual life?’ He paused a moment. ‘I find myself coming back again and again to the meaning of ‘alleluia’’, he said. (viii). A hymnic life, a daily alleluia, is the ultimate expression of thanksgiving, she concludes (ix). But to enter the kingdom of thanksgiving, one needs a community of grateful people to show the way. We depend upon the exhortation and example of others.

Language

Culture is built on language. A culture can either magnify or diminish thanksgiving. Most do a bit of both. At its worst, student life and culture across the country can be a seething stew of all things degenerate, foul, graceless, and cruel. One incident (Rutgers, GW Bridge) last week bore lasting testimony to this hard truth. We here have a responsibility to do what we can, in our place and in our time, to extend the reach and influence of a culture, the church’s culture, a culture of grateful kindness. Four buses, two catholic and two evangelical, took students on retreat this weekend, and two buses took Protestants and others apple picking last Saturday. Thanksgiving at word and table. Jonathan Franzen’s new novel FREEDOM carries this startling statement: “all the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off…(we have) a trillion little bits of distorted noise”. Students entering college find sometimes that they must summon an inner courage to face off, square off against a graceless ingratitude. You may need to find a way to say to your roommate, “One of us is wrong, and I think it is you.” That is, you may need to create some physical and emotional distance between yourself and others who carry themselves in a different way. And you will need a community, whether this one or another, in which to be nurtured by gratitude.

Sometimes people ask whether they should introduce their children to religion. Should we go to church? This is a serious social question today, especially in a region like ours where no such expectation is the cultural norm. We may rightly honor many and different responses. But children do not grow up naturally grateful. They need to see thanksgiving in the lives of others, preferably not of their own kin, their own household. They need to run into others who will impress them with worn proverbs like, ‘If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he did not get there by himself’. They need the language of thanksgiving. Gratitude leads to generosity and generosity to grace.

The prayers of the church begin and end in thanks. The psalms of the church, if not laments, are full blown thanksgivings. The hymns of the church, in music and in poetry, exude thanksgiving. The teaching of the church adorns thanksgiving. The central sacrament of the church is thanksgiving, Eucharist.

But a community alone will not produce gratitude. A grateful attitude develops like a language develops. One learns to ‘speak’ faith, by trial and error, by practice, by listening and learning, by patient instruction. George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine taught us this some years ago. We learn the language of music. We learn the language of faith. We learn the language of thanksgiving.

An article this week catalogued the linguistic difficulties we Americans have in knowing religious language. Where was Jesus born? Who received the Ten Commandments? What leader created the Protestant refo
rmation? As it happens, most people do not know the answers to these questions. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons, do, but not the average person of faith.

It takes time and practice, much time and much practice, to grow in faith. It takes time and practice, much time and much practice, to become adept at being a grateful person. We learn to be grateful by seeing gratitude conferred on us, ‘spoken’ to us through the gracious, grateful lives of others.

You have learned and taught the language of thanksgiving over this last decade: y2k, dangling chad, nineleven, shock and awe, collateral damage, housing bubble, credit default swap, leveraged speculation, bursting bubble, hope and change, great recession, jobless recovery… Through it all you have kept alleluia alive, kept thanksgiving alive, kept gratitude alive.

Experience

But language alone, community alone, cannot confer thanksgiving. We must at the end of the day enter the house. We will want to go inside, set the table, prepare the meal, serve the dinner, and clean the dishes.

Your fieldwork is not a substitute for your homework.

You cannot claim the successes of profession or business as substitutes for the work of the inward journey, the path toward wholeness, health, and happiness involves becoming a grateful person.

“I try to be a grateful person”. A beautiful sentence.

Our need for thanksgiving is met in the service of thanksgiving, the Eucharist. We are servants of an eternal master who does not discount the invisible, interior, indoor work of the inward journey.

Some years ago, in the course of a capital campaign, my friend and I visited lovely new homes, bought before the housing bubble burst, purchased by young people who had enough to pay the mortgage, but in many cases nothing left over to furnish the interior. Looking back, I wonder now how many went into foreclosure. I wonder if some of our lives are not too often too similar to those fine homes, whose exteriors shine, but whose interiors are unfurnished, or at least under furnished. I wonder how many of us are on the brink of a kind of spiritual foreclosure?

I wonder about students whose parents have saved to support an expensive education, and who so enjoy a subsidized freedom. How do they learn heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about young parents both at work who enjoy the blessings of employment and activity, whose fieldwork consumes them and leaves little space for the inward journey. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about middle age men who have had the benefit of preparation and education and experience, perhaps with few collapses. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

I wonder about those at the heights of life who have the blessings that accrue to place and position. How do they learn a heartfelt gratitude?

Our colleague (S Hassinger) recently encouraged us to ‘follow, lead and get out of the way’. By ‘follow’, she meant learn, or re-learn, for some learning means unlearning what has been learned. By ‘lead’, she meant discover how to lead from the second chair, not the first chair, for few of us end up in the first chair. By ‘get out of the way’, she meant give people back their own work to do.

The entitled materialism of the last decade may require you to unlearn some things about what matters counts and lasts. Your place in the second row may inspire you to learn the beauty of the viola, in contrast to that to the violin. A sermon on thanksgiving may prompt me to give your work back to you. Your fieldwork is not a substitute for your domestic duties. Pick, shovel, tractor, computer, i-phone, blackberry and calendar are not a replacement for setting the table of the heart and hearth, for sitting inside the house of peace, for preparing a meal of spiritual nourishment. The first, best step in the journey of faith comes with thanksgiving.

Coda

The pragmatists and Methodists among you will want something more specific, so here it is. You best know thanksgiving when giving. If you have no other access to gratitude, to a grateful heart, you always have this route forward: give something with thanks to somebody, something real and costly and spot on. The heart follows the hand. You will be grateful when you have shown gratitude, by giving something to somebody.

This summer my wife attended worship in a church that had dispensed with the offering, and the offering plates, and the offertory. I have no idea why. But she was deeply incensed, and not only because of her Scottish ancestry. I think it had to do with the deep sense that gratitude, giving, thanksgiving is the marrow of the spiritual life, the inward journey.

Your fieldwork is no substitute for your domestic duties, nor can the outward journey replace the inward. As you come to receive the Eucharist (the word means thanksgiving) determine today to open or deepen your sense of thanksgiving by receiving bread and cup and by imagining a gift you may give to another.

O Give Thanks
O Give Thanks
O Give Thanks
Unto the Lord
For He is Gracious and His Mercy
Endureth
Endureth
Endureth
Forever
~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

Leave a Reply