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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Week: Day 4--Habitual Thanksgiving

November 28, 2013 – Thanksgiving Day, Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35

© 2013 Evan D. Garner

This is the text of today's sermon. The audio can be heard here.

I’ve made a mental note to be sure to work on something with my kids over the next few weeks. Before Christmas gets here, I need to help them practice pretending to be thankful. Last weekend, my parents and Elizabeth’s parents came into town to celebrate Edison’s birthday. An unusually patient four-year-old, Edison waited all morning and well into the afternoon before finally asking if we could open his presents. We all gathered in the den, and he tore into the box that Elizabeth’s parents had brought him. After opening the top, he reached inside and pulled out…some pajamas. “Say thank you!” Elizabeth told him. “Mumble mumble,” he barely eeked out. “No, Edison, look at GG and Papa Vic and tell them thank you.” He sighed heavily. “Thank you,” he breathed out in a monotone expression of thankless boredom.

Turning back to the box, he pulled out his next gift—a winter coat with gloves and a hat. Then a book. Then he opened my parents’ present to him—more clothes and some sheets for his bed. With each new gift, his already absent gratitude waned. Finally, his face lit up as he received one toy—nothing special but at least it wasn’t more clothes. A boisterous “thank you” confirmed two things: 1) he really was grateful for the Batmobile and 2) he didn’t care at all for anything else he had received. Even the grandparents said to each other, “Well, I guess he wasn’t looking for clothes, huh?”

The truth is that with a little practice you can fake gratitude, but you can’t make yourself grateful. You can pretend. You can smile. You can say a convincing, “It’s just what I always wanted!” But you can’t choose to be thankful. You can’t manufacture thankfulness. Either you’re grateful for what you have, or you’re not. Sometimes, when you open up a package of socks on Christmas morning, the best you can do is fake it. So why, then, do I make my son say “Thank you” for presents he clearly doesn’t like? Is it just to be polite, or is there a more important motive here?

During the month of November, lots of people on Facebook have been posting something that they are thankful for each day. Day one: my family. Day two: my job. Day three: my church. At first, I didn’t like it. It felt like all of these people were pretending to be thankful just because it’s November. It seemed like they were more interested in being a part of a fad than really being grateful for the blessings in their lives. I mentioned my skepticism and cynicism to a colleague who said, “Well, at least they aren’t using Facebook to complain about what’s wrong with the world like they usually do.” Good point. Score one for a month of thanksgivings. But there’s something more important going on here.

We can’t choose to be thankful, but we can practice thanksgiving until it takes hold in our hearts, which is exactly what today’s Old Testament reading is about.

The Book of Deuteronomy is a story of great transition in the history of Israel. After being set free from slavery in Egypt, God’s people journeyed through the wilderness for forty years. And, during those forty years, they discovered what it meant to have a relationship with the God of their ancestors. Moses was given the Law on Mt. Sinai. God fed them with manna and gave them water to drink. He protected them and guided them toward the Promised Land. And, now that they had forged an identity as God’s chosen people, they prepared to enter the territory that had been promised to Abraham so long ago. Yet, before they set foot in their new home, Moses had some important instructions for them:

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.’ (Deut. 26:1-3)

In other words, after you get settled and have a chance to till the ground and plant your crops and harvest them, don’t forget to say thank you. It doesn’t matter whether you mean it. And it doesn’t matter that everyone else will be doing it, too. No matter what, set aside that time to give thanks to God for all the blessings he has given you. Isn’t that what’s happening on Facebook? Aren’t the people who are posting their daily thanksgivings doing exactly what Moses told his people to do. A week or so ago, when I read that this was the lesson for Thanksgiving Day, I left my cynicism behind. We are all supposed to tell our story of gratitude—even if it’s just because it’s the month of November—even if it’s just because it’s the cool thing to do for Thanksgiving. Do we really need a better excuse than that to be thankful?

We know that we’re supposed to be thankful—not just on Thanksgiving but all the time. But sometimes, like when everyone keeps giving us clothes for our birthday, being thankful isn’t easy. But we’ve got to start somewhere, and the fourth Thursday in November is as good a place to start as any. We can’t simply decide to be grateful, but we can practice until it comes naturally. So what should we do? Give thanks whether we mean it or not. Say thank you. Write a thank you note. Smile and say that you love that ridiculous sweater.  Make a list of all the things in your life that you’re supposed to be thankful for, and then post it on Facebook. Even if we’re simply going through the motions or doing what everyone else wants us to do, habits can make a difference.

Become a habitual thanker. Tell God what you’re grateful for every single day. Share that appreciation with others around you. Let the practice of Thanksgiving take root in your heart so that it might grow into a real spirit of gratitude.

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