Sermons That Work

Before It Was a Noun…, Thanksgiving Day (B) – 2009

November 26, 2009

Before it was a noun, “thanksgiving” was a verb. The difference matters.

A desert father once said:

“If you have a chest full of oranges, and leave it for a long time,
the fruit will rot inside of it.
It is the same with the thoughts in our heart.
If we do not carry them out by physical action,
after a while they will spoil and turn bad.”

Living thankfully is not essentially about feeling thankful, or even being thankful. To live thankfully is to act differently day by day because we are compelled by the Spirit to participate in the generous life of God-with-us, constantly practicing thanks-giving.

Thanksgiving is well established as a cultural institution in our country. We know it as a day to observe, a milestone in the year … the inauguration of the “holiday season,” we are told – a “high holy day” for retailers, a bellwether of our national economic health.

It is a time for families and wider communities to gather; a day for starting to write up our “holiday” shopping lists; for watching football; for eating, eating, and eating. And for many, it is a time when attention is given to those who live in deep need throughout the year.

“Have a good Thanksgiving,” we say to one another beforehand. And afterward, we ask, “How was your Thanksgiving?” assuming the word to be a noun.

But as a verb, as a spiritual practice, what is thanksgiving all about?

Giving thanks is actually central to the practice of Christianity.

It is a golden thread, woven through and uniting all we do as Christians.

At Thanksgiving, we celebrate the gift of the harvest. We do so actively. As Charles Winters put it in his wonderful prayer, which is offered by many just before the Great Thanksgiving in celebrations of the Eucharist:

“We make, O Lord, our glorious exchanges.
What you have given us, we now offer you,
that in turn, we may receive yourself.”

To harvest is itself an act of faith, of confidence in God’s continuing providence. When it has been a good year, it is evident that God is providing for us in abundance. But the very act of cutting down the stalk and gathering in the crop from the field, leaves the field barren. To harvest is an active response to all that God has given us, without which what has been given will rot and be ruined – of no benefit to anyone. In harvesting, we give thanks by stepping forward to collect what God has provided and using it to provide for our needs and those of others, trusting that in the cycle of nature, more will be provided in the next growing season.

There is an ancient, Biblical tradition in harvesting, of farmers not reaping all the way to the edges of a field so as to leave some for the poor and for strangers. Part of the joy of the harvest is found in encouraging the gleaning of that part of the crop by others. So, the practice of giving thanks at harvest time is connected with participating in the generosity of God, who provides the harvest.

The harvest is only possible when we join with God in the dance of abundance. We are thus acting as stewards of God’s bounty – taking charge, taking responsibility for that which we do not own, for another’s property (God’s property, strictly speaking). In so doing, we find ourselves giving thanks by sharing generously of the gifts we ourselves have received. That is the Christian practice of stewardship.

It is a common practice at Thanksgiving for congregations and other community groups to gather food for food shelves, or assist at soup kitchens, perhaps offering Thanksgiving dinner to those who are hungry or alone at this special time. It’s an admirable tradition. For some, unfortunately, this is motivated by a sense of guilt, that we have so much and are feasting so excessively – maybe if we remember those who have less than us, it will salve our consciences to some extent.

But as a Christian spiritual practice, we understand this work of feeding others to be a natural consequence of participating in the dance of abundance with God. Compassion and acts of charity flow naturally as a way of giving thanks to God; for in that action, we receive so very much. The blessing flows both ways in that exchange.

Practicing compassion and seeking to give ourselves away is a form of prayer. It is an activity that lies at the heart of all spiritual traditions, and therefore naturally catches the imagination of our neighbors in every community.

Thanksgiving, then, is not primarily about “feeling” thankful. In many homes, before the turkey is carved, people take turns sharing what they “feel thankful for” that year. This is a nice custom. But as practicing Christians, we are called to move beyond “feeling” thankful; we are called to give thanks by taking very specific spiritual actions:

We practice hospitality.
We practice generosity.
We practice stewardship.
We practice compassion.

Giving thanks is a verb, a spiritual practice that runs like a golden thread through all we do and all we are as Christians.

Perhaps it helps to set one day aside in the year when we have the attention of everyone around the nation, to rehearse the importance of being thankful. But we are even more effective as evangelists when we use Thanksgiving to act thankfully, with God, the God of abundance, who in this harvest festival, as in every day, rejoices to invite us to join in returning the gifts we have received, to God’s honor and glory and purpose.

Let us pray:

Generous God of love,
we gather in community
to praise and thank you
for the harvest of our orchards and vineyards.
Out of the sharp cold of winter,
through blossom and fruiting,
has come the plentiful harvest of today.
From winter trees, pruned and leafless,
has emerged a rich crop upon every branch,
swollen by the warmth of spring and summer.
Your boundless generosity, O God,
is like the overflowing of baskets and bins.
Here is variety and volume beyond measure,
like your immense love.

May we be moved to give back to you
a portion of what you have gifted us,
from the richness of your community
and the wealth of your creation,
for the sake of the gospel
and to your glory,
our Life-giver and Sustainer.


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Christopher Sikkema


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