A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
"A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" is like a Charlie Brown Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. Someone mired in a false understanding of the holiday is moved to a "genuine" understanding of it. In "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," they don't make the move. By God's grace and mercy, we will.
Something must be wrong with me. That's the conclusion Charlie Brown often arrives at, and it's the one I arrive at in regard to Thanksgiving. I'm not talking about the fact that I don't have a great appreciation for the Pilgrims, food feasts, or a national religious holiday in a nation where irreligion reigns. I'm talking what's wrong with me over against what the Scriptures say about thanksgiving?
Where's the spirit of thanks in me that St. Paul had in him? On a ship storm tossed for two weeks, Paul takes bread and gives thanks. To the Romans, Paul writes, "First, I thank my Godfor you all." To the Corinthians, the congregation that gave Paul so much grief, he still writes, "I thank my God always on your behalf." To the Ephesians Paul says that he ceases not to give thanks for them. To the Philippians he writes, "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you." To the Colossians he writes that he and Timothy "give thanks to God" for them. To the Thessalonians Paul writes, "We give thanks to God always for you all," and "We are bound to thank God always for you." Finally in his letter to Philemon, Paul writes, "I thank my God."
Paul's not posturing; Paul's not just being polite. Paul is thankful. What's wrong with me that I am not? Even though, as I've said before, you are the best congregation I've served, knowing me as you do, do you think I would begin a letter to you, "I thank God at every remembrance of you?" I want to say, I would, but I know better. And it's no small matter that the spirit of thankfulness in Paul is not in me, for not only does Paul have a spirit of thanks, he commands that I have it too.
You heard the Epistle reading: "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let you requests be made known to God." Colossians 2:7 commands, "Abound in thanksgiving." Colossians 3:15 orders simply, "Be thankful." And Colossians 4:2 instructs, "Continue in prayer with thanksgiving." Paul commands Pastor Timothy that "petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people." Paul instructs the Colossians that whatever they do they are to do it in Jesus' name "giving thanks." Paul commands the Thessalonians, "In everything give thanks."
Like a character in a Charlie Brown melodrama I see there's something wrong; I even know the feeling I'm suppose to have, but I got nothing. I know this; you can no more get thankfulness from a human heart by beating it with accusations of ingratitude than you get gratitude out of a dog by beating it. I know what you're going to say. Count your blessings. I don't think a person can get the true spiritual grace of thankfulness out of their own heart any more than a baby can get true physical nourishment from sucking its own thumb (Chesterton, XX, 463). Unless a mother puts a bottle in the baby's hand try as it might it will find no physical food within itself; unless our heavenly Father puts thanksgiving in our hearts we won't find it there either.
You know what the problem is? I'm tied to the Thanksgiving turkey. You probably already know that Benjamin Franklin wanted America's national bird to be the turkey. He thought it a more respectable bird than the eagle. That's what he wrote to his daughter years after the eagle was selected. However, according to an article I read in a hunting magazine, the reason Franklin favored the turkey was because its head sports the colors red, white, and blue. That makes more sense to me. I've hunted turkeys and to me there not noble, powerful, or awe inspiring. Although a turkey is not flightless, it is tied to the ground. It nests on the ground. When it flies it does so close to the ground, and it even will run before it flies.
That's the problem; I'm tied to the Thanksgiving turkey. I'm tied to the ground. I'm tied to what my five senses can tell me. And all these five senses on their own can communicate to me is that sin, Death, and the Devil rule the world. Be thankful? Everything I see is tainted, stained, ruined by sin. We have enough arable land in the U.S. to feed the world literally, but sin makes that impossible. Sin leads to food rotting in storehouses or even being destroyed so as to raise prices. And you want me to be thankful for life? Don't you know all die? Each generation has a moment where life stretches long before them, but in a moment that moment is gone.
O I get it; I'm supposed to be like the mayfly: happy, thankful to live one or at the most two nights. That might be possible if my five senses only testified to me of sin and Death, but they testify of the Devil too. If the Rolling Stones could see him you should be able to as well. Who is behind the senseless wars waging around the world and the war on the unborn here at home? Who is behind the debauchery and licentiousness promoted by the entertainment industry? I see, touch, hear, smell and taste the Devil in the very air I breathe. And yet Paul expects me to be thankful?
He was, and he was the one who called the Devil the "god of this world" and the "prince of the power of the air." He breathed the same Devil tainted air I do. He knew what St. John did: "The whole world lies in the power of the evil one." So how could Paul see, hear, touch, taste and smell that reality and still be thankful?
Because Paul didn't run with turkeys; he soared with eagles. You're familiar with this Biblical picture from Isaiah 40. "He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." This passage has always appealed to me. I am tired and weary and can find precious little to be thankful for, but here is promise for renewed strength; here is promise to soar with the eagles rather than run with the turkeys.
And that's always been my problem with Isaiah 40. It seems to hinge its promise on my hopefulness, and if there is anything I have less than then thankfulness it's hopefulness. But the prophet Isaiah didn't pull these images out of thin air. He gets them from God's own words about how He has dealt with His people in the past. God describes how He delivered the Old Testament Church in terms of carrying them on the wings of an eagle. Exodus 19:4, "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself." Then 40 years later this is how God describes it through the mouth of Moses, "Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions."
I am not an eagle. My hope, faith, or thankfulness doesn't cause me to soar. No, God is the eagle. I ride on Him like baby eagles soar to heights on the backs of their mothers. As a mother eagle will lock its wings and go into an incredibly fast dive to catch her falling young, so God catches me when I fall into the spirit of thanklessness because I'm overwhelmed by sin, Death, and Devil in an around me.
To the rescue, came God the Son down into a Virgin's womb. He called, "Stop," to the sin, Death, and the Devil that would devour me. He earned the right to do that as a Man in my place because as a Man no sin was ever found in Him and therefore neither Death nor the Devil had a claim to Him either. He gave this right to me even though I remain a sinner; Death will take me, and the Devil hounds me. He gave me the divine right to call, "Stop" to these unholy three because He took my sins on Himself and died the death I should die: forsaken by God at the mercy of the Devil. My sins and God's Law gave Death and the Devil the right to rule. Having kept God's law for me and having died my death, Jesus breaks their rule.
Down Jesus swooped like a mother eagle to the rescue. Down He came into our sin, Death, and a world ruled by the Devil, and up Jesus flew again having defeated all three. Up, up, up we soar to see God's gift, God's grace everywhere, in everything. Having been forgiven of all his sins and having been freed from Death and the threats of the Devil, Paul could see God's grace everywhere in everything even in a thorn in his flesh.
Likewise for us, being so delivered we see God's extraordinary grace in ordinary places. By the grace of God Jesus won for us, ordinary water is a life-giving water rich in grace. By the grace of God Jesus won for us, words are divine able to forgive even the toughest sins. By the grace of God that Jesus won for us, Bread is Jesus' Body and Wine is Jesus' Blood given and shed for sinners to forgive them, to enliven them, to save them.
God's grace in Jesus leads to Thanksgiving in everything. The Greek word for grace is charis. The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharista. Hear the connection? Charis leads to eucharista. One of the names the Bible gives for the Lord's Supper is eucharist. One of the highest ways to say thanks to God is to eat the Body and drink the Blood of His Son whereby we receive even more grace. And more forgiveness, more grace, more charis leads to even more eucharista. It's a perpetual thanksgiving machine! God's grace in Christ leads us to say thanks to Him by celebrating Communion and this in turn gives us more grace which leads to more thanks which leads to more Communion which leads to more grace.
Up, up we soar on the back of our Savior. From the heights of this Eagle's wings, we see we're not at the mercy of sin, Death or the Devil; we're at God's mercy, and He has declared in Jesus' name that "His mercy endures forever." So now this illness, this pain, this loss, this gain, this fear, this worry, this grief, this hurry is not only evidence of God's grace but of His mercy. Good grief Charlie Brown; we have even more to be thankful for than I thought. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20101124)