As far as we know, human beings have always given thanks for the fruit of the field and the yield of nature, since times immemorial. Many of our ancient ancestors knew times of scarcity; they knew hunger and want; they knew illness and death because of a lack of food. They knew that enough food for survival was not a given. And so they celebrated with abundance and thankfulness after a good hunting and gathering season, or, later in history, after a good harvest. And because people knew enough food could not be taken for granted, and that the seed would sprout and grow, and they would not know how – they gave thanks for this miraculous provision to their respective gods and goddesses.
However, as history progressed, and harvests became more predictable and food more plentiful, people seemed to forget what power is behind the mysterious growth of good things. In today’s lesson from the book of Deuteronomy, even the ancient people of Israel is admonished, ‘Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord, your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.’ So forgetting God, it seems, is not just a modern phenomenon.
Today we celebrate Erntedank, the Thanksgiving for the harvest, as many church communities still do today in many places in Europe. But the enthusiasm for this festival has decreased quite a bit. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, in this day and age, we don’t lack anything. We have more than enough of everything. Food is overabundant to the point that we can afford to waste it and throw it away. If there’s so much of everything, why be thankful? Do we still understand growth and harvest as a mystical cycle, something we, if we are honest with ourselves, still can’t quite explain? That a tiny seed yields a tomato plant, an ear of corn, a big lemon tree? Have we lost the awe of the mysterious provision of all the things we need in life?
We in this part of the world may just now get a sense that not all things can be taken for granted, like water. And so we are truly thankful for rain, like this past week.
But I dare say that, overall, we may have to yet learn again what it means to lead lives full of thanks. Because we tend to say to ourselves, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’, and forget about God.
A few years ago, at my last congregation, I had a great group of confirmation students. In the fall, I had my students prepare an entire worship service – they planned it, and even gave the message that day. That particular year, my congregation participated in an ELCA stewardship program, ‘Stories to tell and gifts to share’, and the pre-appointed theme of the day the confirmation students were to lead the service was “Grateful Living”. So I told the students that their service was to be on Thankfulness. I really thought this would be an easy one. Not.
The young people were especially struggling with the message of the day. What could they say about thankfulness? In the end, they decided to ask the congregation some questions. One of those questions: why thankfulness? And the first (and almost only) answer they themselves came up with: It makes people want to do nice things for you if you show your appreciation.
I was just blown away that apparently the next generation sees thankfulness as something that serves them, you know, you better thank grandma for her gift, so that she continues to send more in the future. And I also felt confused, because my own two kids were part of that group of confirmands. But then I realized: It’s not just that the next generation is a bunch of ungrateful twits. After all, we raised them. We are the ones who are their examples, their role models, their teachers. In this congregation, we just had two baptisms, and as a congregation, we promise to help raise those children in the faith and lead by example. Is it something that we will show those children, that we only give thanks if it serves our needs? Or will we model lives lived in gratefulness to them?
It’s so easy to be ungrateful when things don’t go our way. To complain and to gripe about it. To think that life’s just not fair – why do others supposedly get lots of things thrown at them, and I have to work hard for them? Of course right now, that’s one of the complaints you hear in Germany, with all those refugees receiving help. Why do we tend to focus on what we don’t have instead of taking an honest stock of what we do have, and give thanks for the abundance? Food, shelter, clothing, entertainment options, family, friends – most of us here are pretty darn rich, for we don’t lack anything. Isn’t that something to be deeply thankful for? Shouldn’t we say thank you to God, and at the same time wonder why we have been showered with so many good gifts? What we have done to deserve such abundance?
American author Thornton Wilder once said, ‘We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.’ We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.
Don’t you think he has a point? For if we chase only after the things we don’t have but thing we ought to have, and forget to enjoy what’s been given to us, we chase the dream of a supposedly better life without truly living in the moment. And we lose the chance to live life to the fullest.
So it is only right and salutary that we should give thanks at all times and in all places. It is only right and appropriate that we should give thanks on this day, as we enjoy the bounty of God’s miraculous provisions – and on every day that we experience God’s goodness and mercy and blessing – which is, every day.
This would be a good time to say ‘amen’. But just one more thought. It is one thing to say thank you to God. But there is more to thanksgiving. Listen to the word: thanks – giving. As people of God, we are people called into community. We don’t exist by and for ourselves. Yes, God may have given us power to get wealth, to use the words from Deuteronomy. But with every gift comes a responsibility. What we have received we are called to share. That’s why, today, as in many other churches in Germany and other European countries, not only the altars are decorated with the fruit of the field, but the people of God also give thanks by bringing gifts for the less fortunate ones in society. Today we collect food for the food pantry, and if you feel so moved by the Spirit, you may also leave all fresh food that you brought to the altar today – I will take it back home, hand it over to my husband, and everything will the go to the food room at my husband’s church and be given to the poor and hungry tomorrow. And, by the way, even if you didn’t bring any food items today, cash or checks for the San Francisco food pantry are gratefully accepted, too.
We give thanks by giving back to God, whom we encounter in our neighbor in need.
Let me close with another quote by a great man, John F. Kennedy. He said, ‘As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.’ To which I say,