Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
November 24, 2019
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “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.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “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.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.
A colleague of mine from Salt Lake City, Steve Goodier, relates a story told by Dr. Fulton Oursler of a woman who took care of him when he was a child. Anna was a former American slave, who after emancipation was hired by the family for many years. Oursler remembered her sitting at the kitchen table, hands folded and eyes gazing upward as she prayed, “Much obliged, Lord, for my vittles.” He asked her what vittles were and she replied that they were food and drink. He told her that she would get her food and drink every day, whether she gave thanks or not. But Anna explained, “Yes, we’ll get our vittles, but it makes ‘em taste better when we’re thankful.” Anna told the young boy that an old preacher taught her, when she was a very young girl, to always look for things to be grateful for. So, as soon as she awoke each morning, she asked herself, “What is the first thing I can be grateful for this morning?” Sometimes the smell of early-morning coffee perking in the kitchen found its way into her room. On those mornings she would say, “Much obliged, Lord, for the coffee, and much obliged for the smell of it too!”
Young Oursler grew up and left home. But one day he received a message that Anna was dying. He returned home and found her in her death bed, with her arms folded across her chest in prayer, just as he saw them at the kitchen table many times. He wondered how she could give thanks at a time like this. As if reading his mind, Anna’s eyes opened just a bit and she gazed at the faces surrounding her. Then, shutting her eyes again she said quietly, “Much obliged, Lord, for such fine friends.”
Oursler was deeply influenced by Anna’s uncanny ability to always find some reason to be “much obliged.” This wise woman taught him a secret that many of us have never learned. She taught him to choose to recognize his blessings and be thankful.
Thanksgiving Sunday is perhaps one of the most difficult preaching assignments of the year for me. Given our Congregational background, perhaps it should be easy. I could talk about the Pilgrims, about their historic courage and sacrifice, and about their perseverance in the faith. Yes, we are proud to be spiritual descendants of those who celebrated that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. But unless you are a real history buff, you can only hear so much about 1620 and 1621 before you want something more to go with it. So every other year at least, I try to set aside the history and tackle the theological meaning of thanksgiving. That is where it gets tough. It always seems to me as if I end up at the basic teaching that “you should be thankful.” What else is there to say? Yet Thanksgiving should be a genuine expression of gratitude, not something commanded by the preacher. It shouldn’t feel like something our parents remind us to say just to be polite. So perhaps that is the problem- how can I preach on thanksgiving, a subject that all of us already know and really don’t need to be reminded about?
When I reflect upon Thanksgiving biblically, my mind usually returns to the words of Deuteronomy that we heard this morning. This lesson was perhaps some of the first written words in all of Scripture. The words are part of Moses’ instruction for the Hebrew people, instruction for celebrating the Feast of Weeks or the Feast of the Harvest. Perhaps Moses was in a similar position that I am in today, he was looking for a way to get the people to be thankful, to understand the practical implications of their blessings, yet also to contemplate the sacred meaning and of those blessings. Later, these very words became a part of the Hebrew worship tradition.
As I hear these words, I try to picture that ancient service of worship. The closest comparison that we might have is Consecration Sunday, when we bring our Estimate of Giving cards forward as an act of worship. This ceremony was also a time of consecration, a first fruits ritual. Try to picture a worship service in ancient Israel, with people coming forward holding baskets filled with fruit or grain from the harvest. After the priest received the first basket, he laid it down before the altar as the rest of the worshippers raised their baskets of giving high. The priest began this liturgical recitation that are part of the words we heard today, recalling not the courageous acts of the Pilgrims but in a like spirit the saving acts of God in the lives of the ancestors of the people of faith. The priest recalled the wandering of the people and their initial homelessness. He then spoke of their migration to Egypt and their living there as aliens. He then moved on to their suffering as slaves and the affliction and harsh treatment. Next the priest reminded them of their cry to God for redemption, and then the Lord’s action in leading them out of Egyptian enslavement. Finally the liturgy spoke of the people settling in a fertile land, filled with milk and honey. In this first fruits ritual, while holding that basket of harvest over their head, the worshipper became a living testimony that God had been faithful from the time of the ancestors to the time of their current existence. The one who brought the offering of thanksgiving claimed the story for their very own. They became connected to God’s story of the past. They became the promise of God’s story for the future.
I like to think that this ancient ritual is all about remembering. The remembrance of our own stories should cause us to give thanks. We might consider stories of our own deliverance or release from bondage. We might recall times in which we were sustained with heavenly bread in the midst of a desert experience. We can think of places where we came upon unexpected people and places that gifted us with nourishment and support that seemed to flow with milk and honey. Yes, this ancient liturgy reminds us that thankfulness arises from the memory of the heart.
But I think there is more to thanksgiving than merely remembering. There is a call to act in thanksgiving in the present. It strikes me that in the combination of word and action, this ancient ritual actually defines what it means for us to be the grateful people of God today. As they worshipped, the people of God identified with their ancestors not through any claim to power or strength or any sense of divine entitlement. Rather they identified with them by remembering and embracing the concept of powerlessness.
If we use these words as teaching for how to be a thankful, faithful people today, perhaps there are three important lessons. First – we are to recall that our redemption is rooted not in our power and might and comfort and security but in God’s faithfulness in acting when we are powerless. God acts on behalf of those who are wandering and those who are oppressed. The most important part of the first fruits story for the Hebrew people was the recollection of their homelessness and their bondage. That is where God’s actions was most obviously noticed.
Second – we are not simply to celebrate our blessings in the bounty of the land, to fill our tables and fill our plates, but rather we are to point to God’s faithfulness as the source of the bounty. We are sustained because God is faithful and we can see this constancy in the fruitfulness of the harvest. The harvest is not the conclusion of the lesson of faith. It is the item which points to the constancy of God in each day of our life.
Finally – we are taught to be God’s channel of blessing to others, to those who are wandering or vulnerable themselves. Recalling our blessings and worshipping rightly is not enough. We are never to forget from where we came. Empathy for stranger and alien is rooted in the confession that we were at one time stranger and alien ourselves. To offer thanksgiving is to reach out and share with those who access to the bounty is limited. Thanksgiving is to serve others. When we follow God’s intention we consistently share of our blessing.
Rev. Clover Beal tells a story of a village along the sea, a village known for its important lighthouse and safe harbor. One day there were some strangers lost in the nearby waters, in need of rescue. The people of the village sent out a boat, saved the people, brought them into their community, and showed them hospitality. The strangers stayed in the village and soon began enjoying the benefits of the land just as the others before them had done. One day another group of strangers were lost in the waters and needed saving. But the ones who were formerly strangers did not want to save them, not wishing to share what they had acquired and have their comfortable lives disrupted. They had forgotten their story of redemption. They forgot that mercy had been extended to them. They saw no reason to act in thanksgiving in remembrance of what had been done for them.
This lesson, this ancient Thanksgiving ritual, offers us a vision of what it means to give thanks. We are to remember what God has done for us. And we are to make choices that imitate God’s gift to us. Bruce Epperly writes, “Thanksgiving is the virtue of interdependence, the recognition that our achievements are not fully our own, but emerge from a network of relationships that sustain and shape us, giving us the materials from which we create our experiences moment by moment. Thanksgiving as a spiritual practice reminds us that all our gifts are communal as well as individual. Our creativity and freedom, our ability to choose the good and noble, having their origins in forces larger than ourselves- God, this good earth, and persons who have guided, protected, inspired, and nurtured us.