Remembering - To Be Thankful
Since St. Paul specifically warns us that "in the last days...men will be...ungrateful," it is fitting that we gather on the eve before the day our government has set aside for us to be thankful on. A key part of thankfulness is remembering. I've titled this sermon "Remembering - To be Thankful," but NOT in the sense that we need to remember to say thanks. No we are remembering in order to be thankful.
Well, what is it that we need to remember? Not blessings necessarily. O to be sure counting one's blessing can indeed be beneficial. Luther himself said, "The best way to lift the mind up to God is to acknowledge and ponder past blessings." He goes on to say, "The total sinking of the mind away from God down to hell consists in forgetting or failing to take note of goods received." Thankfulness is like signing for a package. You acknowledge that you received what someone else sent.
So, we gather on this evening to especially thank God for all that we received last year. Naturally, our Lutheran minds follow the explanation to the First Article of the Creed and we remember, "body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses...He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, and all that I have." But how glibly I can rattle this off.
Do I really realize that God beat my heart 37,826,085 times last year? Am I conscious of the fact that God gave me 8,408,600 breaths as well? Am I aware that God has given just me alone 1,200 pounds of food to eat and 265 gallons to drink? When I say I'm thankful for all of my senses, do I marvel over the fact that I can see a candle on a dark night 30 miles away, smell one drop of perfume in 8,400 cubic feet of air, feel something that only indents my skin 4/100,000ths of an inch?
Even when we count our blessings we miss most of them. Not only don't we know the extent of God's everyday blessings, I think we forget even the special ones. Do you remember being delivered from that worry that plagued you last January? Do you remember what you were so afraid of in February? What about that blessing in March? Isn't it true that you can't remember even a 1/10 of the things you prayed about and were given or delivered from? O we might remember this or that big thing but the daily bread, the deliverance from evil, and the kingdom coming in a hundred different ways somehow escapes us.
This is what bugs me about having a DAY of Thanksgiving. Who in the world can remember once a year what the Lord has done for him the rest of the year? Furthermore, if you could remember, how could one DAY of thanks be enough? In this respect, I agree with a pagan Roman philosopher who responded to the Roman senate's decree to have days of Thanksgiving for a victory by saying, "If the gods were to be thanked worthily for their favors the whole year was too short..."
Remembering our blessings in order to be thankful doesn't seem like the best plan. Not only is it inadequate, it can lead away from God rather than too Him. Luther not only called on us to remember our blessings, he also cautioned us against having a "fools sense of blessedness." A "fools sense of blessedness" said Luther came from things not God. He said in another place, "One must trust neither in temporal nor in spiritual goods, but through temporal and spiritual things in God alone. So one does not look at air and light but through air and light at an object." The blessings of God are like air and light. They are not to be the end object of our thanks. God alone is to be. We are to look past the gifts, regardless of how few or many we might have, and to the Giver of the gifts.
Sound pretty simple, doesn't it? Don't be fooled. St. Augustine said that one of the easiest sins to commit is to love the things God has made rather than God who made them. We do this all the time in a dozen different ways. We think the weather patterns God has made determine the weather rather than God Himself bringing the winds out of His storehouses and scattering the frost with His breath as the Psalms say He does. We see the monetary policies of men like Allen Greenspan or President Bush determining our personal economics rather than God. We love a powerful army as a strong defense against terrorism rather than love God as our Mighty Fortress and trusty Shield and Weapon. We latch on to medicine and doctors as that which keeps us alive rather than the God who created not only us but them.
In God's scheme of things, there is absolutely no reason that it's not a hundred degrees tomorrow and -25 the next day. In God's scheme of things, there is no reason that the stock market doesn't collapse on Monday and inflation become double or even triple digit by this time next year. In God's scheme of things, there is no reason that Canada does not invade and conquer us or that terrorism overwhelm us. In God's scheme of things there is no reason that plague, cancer, or virus not breakout tomorrow and kill everyone of us by Christmas. Do you get it? The only thing that stops any of these from happening is God and Him alone. We err greatly when we think it's weather patterns that give us stable weather, good economic policies that give us a liveable economy, Canada's weakness or our military might that keeps us from being overrun, or good medicine that stops plagues, cancer, or viruses from killing us. It's God and Him alone that preserves us.
But it's not enough to remember that. If we remember only that God and God alone preserves us from certain death, we will be no different than pagans past and present. Pagans have always known that there was a god or gods who took care of them, so they worshiped, served, and sacrificed to this god or gods to make sure his care would continue. Pagans believed they had to have a thankful heart and services of thanks or else. Even the noble pagan Seneca saw through this. "Although it may be a most honorable things to give thanks, yet it ceases to be honorable if it comes out of necessity."
We don't move God to keep giving by being thankful. As Luther said, Ingratitude dries up the fountain of human goodness but not God's whose kindness is inexhaustible. God has showered you with blessing this past year not because you remembered to say thanks last year, but, as we say in the explanation to the First Article of the Creed, "only out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in me."
Remembering this fact leads to thankfulness. It's not because we deserved to have food on the table that we have it there but God's fatherly divine goodness and mercy put it there. It's not because we weren't as bad as our neighbor that we haven't been on the operating table this year, but on the contrary, there was no more merit or worthiness in me than there was in him. It's not because of anything in us or not in us that God has given us things this past year. God didn't even look at us when He determined to "richly and daily provide us with all that we need for this body and life." He looked in His heart not ours, at His mercy not our merits.
If the heavenly Father had looked at us at all, He would only have had reason to judge us sharply. Look what we do we the blessings He does give us? Look at the things we think with our minds; look how we reason against Him; look what we look at with our eyes, hear with our ears, do with our hands, and where we go with our feet. What if such blessings only remained ours as long as we used them properly or were thankful enough for them? We would all be struck with feeblemindedness, blindness, deafness, or lameness. But God makes His sun to shine on the just and the unjust; His blessings to fall upon the righteous and the wicked. How come? Because God gives His blessings in the First Article of the Creed according to His grace in the Second Article.
Remembering the Second Article of the Creed leads to a thankful heart because there we find that God does not deal with us after our sins. No, He dealt with His only beloved Son according to our sins. Though Christ Jesus was never ungrateful, never took the things of His Father for granted, His Father put all the sins, all the ingratitude of us on Him. On the cross, the Father punished our sins as they deserved to be. It was not you or I crying out in the depths of agony, "My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken Me!" It was the only beloved Son of God. God the Father withdrew His grace and every blessing from His Son on that cruel cross because of our sins thereby testifying that He would never withdraw the same from us miserable sinners because of our sins.
Do you know what the best way to say thanks to God is? I suppose you all might have suggestions. Well then do you know what the highest way of worshiping God according to our Lutheran Confessions? To receive forgiveness in His Son. It seems like even George Washington had a sense of this because in His first Thanksgiving Day proclamation, October 3, 1789 he called on the young nation to "Beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions." Pardon of our transgressions is what we need more than food or drink, house or home, more than life itself. Remembering that God has met our biggest need by giving up His only Son in our place leads to thankfulness, and in fact is the best way to say thanks.
Relishing, reveling, rolling in the forgiveness of sins we have for Christ sake is the highest way of worshiping and thanking God. Even a pagan can thank God for food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, but only a Christian can thank God for forgiveness. St. Augustine said that Christians ought to hold cheap the blessings which even the wicked enjoy. Yes, friends, even the wicked can revel in rain water, river water, or lake water, but only Christians can revel in the waters of Baptism that forgive theirs sins and save their souls. Even the wicked can love beautiful poems and lofty literature, but only Christians can revel in words that send their sins away for good. Even the wicked can rejoice in wine and bread, but only Christians can rejoice in the Bread and Wine that is the Body and Blood of Christ their Savior.
Friends, remembering is key to thanking, but it's remembering the right things. Thanksgiving flows from remembering the God who blesses not necessarily the blessings of God. Thankfulness flows not from remembering your sin of ingratitude but God's free forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake. Across America today and tomorrow people will take time to be thankful. What distinguishes Christians is the God they are thankful to, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the fact that the chief thing they are thankful for is being forgiven. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (11-27-02); Psalm 143:5