Monday, November 28, 2011
Not from abundance but from need proceeds the thankful heart...
Thanksgiving has become a hollow day. Read how the presidential proclamations have devolved from real calls to give thanks to God and the rehearsal of His manifold blessings to us and our nation... into to a pat on the back and the urge to share the bounty. But thanksgiving never was about a day. It was always an appeal to an attitude. It was born of the realization that we cannot credit ourselves for what we have. It is the national embodiment of the individual hearts humbly acknowledging that what we have is what we have been given.
Undoubtedly this Thanksgiving you will hear many calls to count your blessings. Perhaps you have heard them from me in the past. But I have grown weary of the calls to count our blessings. I am not convinced that counting your blessings does anything to make you grateful. Listing all the reasons why we should be thankful is gratitude born of shame and there is no glory to God in this. At the same time, we only need take a gander at other people’s situations and find ourselves depressed that we do not have all that they have. Or, worse, if we find that others have less, we can stand like the Pharisee in the presence of the Publican and thank God that we are not like others, but better... or at least better off. This is not thanksgiving either.
Real thanksgiving comes not from appreciating blessing but from the same perspective as repentance. It flows from our appreciation of our great poverty. It is not because we have much that we are called to be thankful for if this is the case, such a call to thanksgiving would disappear in poorer circumstances. With unemployment so high and the economy so uncertain, it might mean we could skip being thankful this year.
No, this year you will hear no call to count your blessings – at least from me. This year I call on you to instead count your unworthiness. For it is only from the perspective of being the unworthy and undeserving that we see the true treasure of God’s grace and gracious favor to us. And this we learn from an unlikely one who returned to Jesus to acknowledge his unworthiness of the inestimable gift that Jesus had given him with all that he knew to give Him – gratitude!
As Jesus entered the city, He saw from afar the lepers. These were people who had been segregated away from their family, friends, and community. Their illness was feared and so fear had ripped up family and stolen their culture and place in society from them. They were alone in their misery, consoled only by those who shared their plight. They knew better than to approach Jesus. So they cried out to Jesus from a respectful distance. “Lord, have mercy on me.” And so Jesus did. He told them to go and show themselves to the priests – who alone could sign off on their healing and enable them to rejoin their family and friends and community.
But one disobeyed Jesus. He was walking along to do as Jesus had told him when He saw the rush of healing grace flow through him and his dreaded disease gone. So he did not go to the priests. He could not. He was not moved by the blessing but by the awareness of his great poverty. What had he done to deserve or merit this miracle of grace? It kept him from any sense of peace or joy in this merciful gift of grace – until he returned to Jesus to lay down before Him in gratitude and thanksgiving. He was moved not by being impressed with the generosity of Jesus’ gift but by his own unworthiness.
The perspective of repentance bears the good fruit of a grateful and generous heart – something no list of blessings can every accomplish. So today I do not bid you to count your blessings but to think upon your unworthiness. God has given to you not because you are worthy but because of His great and steadfast love. The gift He has given you most of all is that He has esteemed you as His own child. He has heard your call for mercy and, like the lepers we just heard about, He has not turned away. He has come to you with grace sufficient for your every need.
Yet there were nine in the Gospel reading who received the gift of healing along with the one who was a Samaritan. They went to the priests. They got their approval to return home, to return to the community and to their place within the Temple and synagogue. Yet a part of me wonders if they did not end up like the Pharisee in the temple – forgetting their need and poverty, forgetting their own history, and satisfied that what they got from God is what they deserved.
This will surely kill off the grateful heart and wear down any faith that lives within us – the idea that all the good we have is what we deserved from God. So I bid you to return to your homes as the lepers who deserved nothing but who got everything in Christ. I challenge you to consider most of all not the blessings which may be greater or less than others but the poverty that deserves none of it. For in this humility and poverty is born true thanksgiving. For we were enemies of God, unrighteous, and proud and still He loved us – not with the momentary love of this blessing or that but with the everlasting love that took our place on the cross and in the empty tomb and delivered to us sinful lepers everlasting life.
America is no exceptional nation whom God loves more than most and we are not exceptional people whom He loves more than others. Pride of place will kill thanksgiving and kill faith every time. But in our confession of our need and unworthiness, the Spirit plants the true and blessed gift of a grateful and merry heart, that will not be deceived by abundance nor destroyed by lack. Amen.