What if some big pharmaceutical company developed a medication that taken daily would enable you to sleep better and have more energy within three weeks? What if that same drug would reduce your risk of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders? What if it would help you to better manage stress, reduce your risk of substance abuse, boost your immune system and increase your overall health? And what if it would also increase your usual level of happiness by 25% and increase your overall vitality and life-satisfaction? Best of all, what if this little pill had absolutely no negative side effects and was available free of charge?
I think we would call that a wonder drug wouldn’t we? And I’ll bet that there would be a big line-up to get it.
Well I have some good news for you. It’s available for you right now, right here in this church. Only it’s not a pill, it’s something much better. It is the practice of thanksgiving. Don’t take my word for it. Major scientific studies conducted over the past decade at places like the Virginia Institute for Psychiatry and the University of California have empirically verified each one of the claims that I have just made for the practice of thanksgiving. If you want to check it out for yourself, there is a book called Thanks! by Robert Emmons that summarizes the thankfulness research. The conclusions are quite clear: Giving thanks is one of the best things that you can do for your health and well-being. If it were a pill, we would call it a miracle drug.
Now, we as people of faith shouldn’t be surprised, should we? After all, medical scientists and psychology researchers are really only catching-up with what our Christian tradition has been teaching for thousands of years. We gather here every week to give thanks to God. Our prayers always include a time for thanksgiving. And soon we will celebrate the Eucharist which is in fact the Greek word for giving thanks. As Jesus points out in today’s gospel, giving thanks makes us well.
Our scriptures also remind us that it is good and right for us to give thanks to God. In our first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that “you shall eat your fill and thank the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.” Paul in the letter to the Corinthians that we heard as our second reading reminds us that not only are we to give thanks with our voices, but we are to show it in our lives. Jesus commends the one man who sees that he has been healed and turns back to praise God and give thanks.
True gratefulness is the recognition that all that we have, our lives, our wealth, our abilities, all of this is a gift from God which has been entrusted to us for a time and a purpose. The concrete expression of our thankfulness is to be generous and to share what we have with others. Generosity is how we walk the talk of thanksgiving. And not surprisingly, 21st century scientific research has confirmed this as well: people who practice thankfulness have been shown to provide more support to others.
So if giving thanks is so good for us, so good for those around us, and is something that our scriptures and Christian tradition urge us to do, then why don’t we do it more often? In other words, what are the obstacles that keep us from practicing more gratitude in our lives today?
There are four challenges to thanksgiving that I want to take a look at this morning, with a view to helping us to overcome them and reap more of the benefits of thanksgiving in our lives.
The first challenge to thanksgiving is that too often our primary concern is for our own interests. This may be driven by insecurity, or by the sense that something is lacking in our lives. But whatever the cause, self-interest is an obstacle to thanksgiving, because as Paul points out, a true attitude of gratitude manifests itself in generosity and in sharing what we have with others. And if we’re more concerned with our own interests than we are about sharing with others, then this will get in the way of the practice of thanksgiving.
Moving beyond self-interest is a matter of faith. It’s a recognition that we were created to be in relationship with others, and that nurturing these relationships with generosity will enrich of all of us with riches that are much greater than any of our possessions.
The second challenge to thanksgiving is the myth of our own self-sufficiency. Nothing new here. Our first reading from the Old Testament warns us “when you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God.” “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.” Throughout history, whenever people have done well, they’ve had a tendency to think that they got there by virtue of their own efforts, and that as a result they deserve everything they’ve got. If anything, I think this historical tendency has gotten stronger in our own day. We’re a society of self-made people who value independence and self-reliance. We work hard and we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
Now, working hard, and having a measure of self-reliance can be good things. But if you go so far as to think that you’ve done it all on your own, you’re fooling yourself. And that myth of self-sufficiency is the enemy of thankfulness. Because thankfulness is inherently relational. What, after all is the most common expression of gratitude? We say “thank you”. There is a “you” involved in gratitude, it’s not just about me. Thankfulness is not when you say “I’m glad I have a nice house” or when you say “I’m lucky to be healthy”, or even when you “count your blessings”. Thankfulness is not a feeling, it’s an action that happens when we say “Thank you”. And it is this pesky “you” that gets in the way for people who indulge in the myth of their own self-sufficiency, because thanksgiving forces us to affirm our dependence on others and our dependence on God. Now, sooner or later, each one of us will move beyond the myth of self-sufficiency. It might happen when we lose our job, or when illness strikes, or when we face death. But rather than wait for that moment of tragedy, it’s better to start today to give up the illusion of self-sufficiency and to acknowledge our dependence on others and on God.
A third challenge to thanksgiving, and specifically to offering thanks to God is that there has been a decline in our awareness of the presence of God in our lives. For the people of the Old Testament this wasn’t a problem. They believed that God sent the rains to bless them, and that if God withheld the rains it was to punish them for something. And so offering thanks to God after a good rain was a very natural thing for them to do.
For us, it’s gotten a bit trickier. Our modern scientific understanding of how the world works doesn’t consider God to be the direct cause of winds and rain. In fact we can describe much of how nature works without making any direct reference to God. But that doesn’t mean that we need to give up our faith in a God who is the Creator and Sustainer of our universe, the one who gives purpose and meaning to our lives and to all of creation. There are many scientists who discover that as they delve deeper into the workings of the universe, they encounter a mystery, something which engenders feelings of awe and wonder, a life force or ground of being that somehow permeates creation.
That is to say, to borrow the language of Albert Einstein, we have a much subtler notion of God’s presence and action in the world than did the people of the Old Testament. In theological terms we need to make a shift from thinking in terms of God the Father Almighty, who intervenes in creation with deeds of power, to thinking more in terms of God the Spirit, who is present in creation, inspiring, guiding, encouraging, teaching and loving. This is a more subtle understanding of how God works and why we’re to offer our thanks to God. We need to cultivate an awareness of the subtle presence and action of God in our lives.
Finally, there is a fourth challenge to thanksgiving which I can only touch on this evening, and that is that suffering robs us of easy gratitude. When things are going well, it’s easier to say thank you. In times of suffering, it’s tough. There is much that could be said here, but let me say this. Our Christian tradition encourages us not only to offer thanks to God, but it also encourages us to lament in response to suffering. Our scriptures don’t just offer thanks; they also offer lamentation, especially in the psalms and the writings of the prophets. Just as it is right to offer thanks to God for the goodness of life, it is right to offer lamentation to God in response to suffering. Just as we draw closer to the God who celebrates with us when we offer thanksgiving, we draw closer to the same God who suffers with us when we lament. By acknowledging suffering for what it is in our lamentation, sometimes we find that we’re able to offer thanksgiving even in times of distress.
Thanksgiving is not something that we should celebrate once a year, but rather something that we should practice in our daily lives. It should be the first thing you do when you wake in the morning and the last thing you do before you fall asleep. It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s good for you too!
Homily: Thanksgiving Sunday, Oct 13 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Deuteronomy 8.7-18; Ps 65, 2 Cor 9.6-15, Luke 17.11-19
Image by Jypsyjen, Creative Commons