Thanksgiving Sunday, October 8, 2017 Doug Norris
We’ve been following an old story, these past weeks, the ‘Exodus’, hoping it will lead us to something solid. This is the very classic Protestant conviction – that the creaky old Bible stories are in fact channelling some truth that is as fresh as the present day, and we need to hear it. Protestants in the 1500’s exchanged the authority of the Pope for the authority of the Bible – the ‘Paper Pope’ as some have called it.
This year being the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation, we are going to see lots about this, so it’s worth knowing a bit about our respective histories, even as these lines between the churches fade and become meaningless. So, Protestants lean on the Bible.
If you were here 3 weeks ago you heard of the terrified departure of the people who were with Moses, chased across the sea by the army of Egypt. Finally fleeing slavery and violence. A liberation. In the symmetry of human history this story was in front of us in the same weeks that the Rohingya were fleeing genocide in Myanmar, and tens of thousands of Haitians were crossing out of the US into Quebec.
Then, if you were here two weeks ago you heard the people of Moses complaining bitterly about their thirst, wondering if any kind of God was in fact with them or if Moses was a fraud. The journey that began with a liberation turns out to be a long and difficult one. And if you were here last week you heard of their hunger – and the mystery of the ‘manna’ that they found on the ground, basically reduced to eating twigs and grasses. The story of liberation has a beauty to it but beauty is not always pretty.
And always they chased the dream – the Land of Promise – believing that their destiny lay in a land flowing with milk and honey, clear water and green fields. As in our day have the Irish and the Scots and the English and the Dutch and the Doukhobors and the Vietnamese and the Syrians and Iraqis and Haitians… It may be creaky old story in the Bible but while we’ve been sitting in here somebody who is living it out has probably walked right past the doors.
So today’s passage, compressing four decades of story into a few weeks, takes us to the people now settled in the Promised Land. There is great and endless debate among Biblical scholars as to whether this was a conquest, a divinely led group of warriors swooping in and taking over the land known as Canaan, or now, Palestine/Israel, or the more likely version that it was a gradual assimilation, with intermingling, intermarriage, a barter economy, and the melding of cultures. The conquest story is more dramatic and is favoured by the Bible, Joshua making the walls of Jericho fall in a heap with the blast of his trumpet, but archaeology favors the second version.
In either event, they have landed in a good place. Like our Iraqi friend Shirin and her family, formerly refugees, who now show up here from time to time bearing heaping platters of food and happy children milling around, the Israelites arrived and found (as Roger read for us) “a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where they could eat bread without scarcity, where they lacked nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills comes copper.” We may be a bit light on the fig trees and pomegranates, but this sounds like us.
So, when you get there – here is the point of the text – when you get there, do not forget to be grateful. This is a Thanksgiving passage. When you get to the good and gracious land do not forget to be thankful.
At the risk of being a bit scientific with what is a spiritual practice, there are, from what I can see, fundamentally two methods for Thanksgiving. The Inventory Method, and the Comparison Method.
The inventory method is pretty straightforward. Sometimes we sing it : The purple headed mountain, the river running by the sunset and the morning that brightens up the sky… For the beauty of the earth, the glory of the skies, for the joy of human love, brother sister parent child… The spiritual practice of regularly pausing to be aware of the gifts. (grouchy guy on the street)
There is a great resurgence in the field of gratitude studies right now. The science of gratitude. The ‘Positive Psychology’ sector. Many books on practicing gratitude. Many studies, showing that 5 minutes a day spent in a conscious list of gratitude, a journal or just a meditative time, shows, for example, a 30% decrease in depressive symptoms. So part of the spiritual practice of today is straight up delight – breathe, feel your heart beat, see a beauty, receive this moment all as a gift.
The comparison method is a bit trickier. Maybe you know this prayer : For food in a world where many are hungry, for peace is a world where many are at war… and so on… At best this is a moment of compassion – ‘I had better, while recalling my own blessings, not get carried away, but remember others.’ This is good, though it is diluted gratitude. It might also veer into that prayer of the Pharisee ‘I thank you God that I am not like these others !’ Even some guilt over a secret delight that we have shown our superiority. Some versions of Christianity even say that if you have succeed it is because of your faith and if you fail or are in peril it is because of your sin. Perhaps gratitude is best straight up – simply receiving life as a gift. Compassion is its own channel.
There is a further method, however, found in the Deuteronomy passage. The ‘You Did Not Do This’ Method. When you get to that good and abundant land, don’t forget that God brought you there… The opposite of gratitude is not precisely ingratitude, but ego. I did this. I myself made it all happen. When we lose or weaken the impulse to be grateful, it is probably not that we no longer enjoy what we have in front of us, but we begin to believe that we did it. On our own. We are in fact the architects and authors of our own success. So there is nobody to thank. This is the fruit of our western individualism. The heresy that we are on our own. And we will not make it on our own.
When we utter ‘thank you’, to another person, to God and to the universe, we have said ‘I am not alone’. I did not do this alone. I do not need to be alone… I live in God’s world. This will be enough…