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For What Shall We Give Thanks?

Daniel E. H. Bryant
Union Thanksgiving Service
Central Presbyterian Church
Eugene, Oregon
November 24, 1992

Amos 4:1-5, Luke 13:1-5, I Thessalonians 1:2-10

Shortly after Pilgrims landed a congregational minister acquired a mule for use in his ministry. He named the mule "Grace." He was so thankful for this aid to his calling tasks that he would begin each trip by thanking God for providing him with the mule. And so Grace learned that "Thank God" meant to go. When they reached their destination, the minister would again give a prayer of thanks, concluding with "Amen." And so the mule learned that "Amen" meant to stop.

Before long, the congregation prospered and purchased a horse for their minister. Having no need of Grace, the minister sold him to a new Presbyterian man in town. The minister explained the necessary commands to the Presbyterian and with a "Thank God", mule and rider were off. It was such a nice day and the ride so enjoyable, that before long the new owner forgot all else, until he realized the road came to a dead end at the edge of a high cliff. "Whoa!" he told the mule, but the mule did not whoa. "Stop!" he commanded, but the mule did not stop. Frantically pulling on the reigns, the Presbyterian yelled out a desperate prayer: "O God, please save me!--Amen." With that the mule came to an abrupt stop. There stood he and Grace looking over the edge of the mighty precipice. Breathing a sigh of relief, he uttered, "Thank God." Fortunately, being a Calvinist, we can say that he was predestined to fall from Grace!

With the turkeys and relatives--or should I say the relatives and other turkeys--waiting to be stuffed, it is time for us to ponder, for what shall we give thanks? When you receive a gift, you say thank you as a way of acknowledging the giver as well as the gift. On Thanksgiving we return thanks to God, the Giver, for all that God has provided us. So what can we say that God has given us? I know many who would say that all we have is from God. I would like to know, does that include the awful tie I received as a gift last year?

Who do we thank for the invitation of the Oregon Ducks to the Independence Bowl, God or the Oregon State Beavers for being a worse team? And what about our political leaders? Did God give us BOTH Democrats and Republicans? If so, what was God thinking when God created Ross Perot? You can read that one two different ways. Either God has had enough of Republicans and Democrats or God has a sense of humor.

Like you I am thankful for many things: my home, my job, my family, good health, freedom, to be a citizen of this country and to be here in Eugene rather than Somalia or Bosnia. I am thankful for all these things, I am just not sure which to attribute to God. A case in point is this prayer I discovered a few years ago, a prayer of thanksgiving one might hear from any pulpit:

"Before you, O Lord, heavenly Father, we remember our leader and President on his birthday. We thank you that in this decisive hour you have laid the destiny of our nation in his strong hands. We ask you to continue to help him find the right way in the difficult tasks that yet lay before our nation and to lead all things to a good end. And help all of us to be ready under his leadership for every task and every sacrifice and in obedience to your will to fulfill our duty in the place to which we are called."

I doubt many of us would have difficulty with that prayer. Many of us have said such prayers. Nor would we be surprised to learn that it was published in 1940 for churches to use that year. It was, after all, a time when many nations, including our own, needed and appreciated strong leadership from our leaders. What is surprising and may be shocking is that this prayer was not written for FDR's birthday or Winston Churchill's, but Adolf Hitler's. Many good, German Christians sincerely believed that God sent Hitler to them during a very difficult time in their nation.

You see, I want to challenge the notion that God gives us everything, from presidents to presents. For if we credit God, that makes God responsible the ways things are which in turn justifies status quo. It is, after all, God's will. I cannot believe, however, that God is responsible for the current state of the world or that God is satisfied with the status quo.

Amos was very critical of the status quo. Using sharp satire, he points out clearly that all material possessions are not provided by God. Amos understood that it simply was not appropriate to thank God for an abundance of material goods when others had few or none.

Likewise Jesus tells the parable of a very religious man who prayed in the temple, "Thank you God that I am not like that sinner." In the same fashion we often pray, "Thank you God that we are not like those hungry people."

Paul, on the other hand, knew how to give appropriate thanks. Each of his letters begins with a word of thanksgiving. For the Corinthians he gives thanks to God for their abundance of spiritual gifts. To the Philippians he expresses thanks to God for their support of his ministry. Then in our text this evening he gives thanks for the example set by the Thessalonians for turning from the worship of idols to the one true and living God.

Knowing the difference between what is appropriate to credit to God's doing and what is not, requires that we, like Amos, Jesus and Paul, know something about how God works in this world. To credit God for prosperity, as we typically do at this time of year, suggests that God has chosen some to be prosperous, and some not, that God has chosen us to be prosperous Americans and others to be starving Somalians. I have a lot of difficulty with that kind of theology as I think did Amos.

As I told our congregation on Sunday, the majority of things I possess are things that I, for the most part, earned. Certainly not all, but a good deal I worked for. The gifts we have from God, however, are not things we can earn, nor are they things we can possess. The true gifts from God are unpossessable, like the earth, the air we breathe, our children, and God's love.

You do not show love by giving things to people. Women having been trying to tell us men that for years. (That does not mean you can suddenly get cheap this Christmas!) No, you show your love by the nature and quality of your relationships. God does not give us things, material goods, to show us how much she loves us. Rather God teaches us to love each other as he loves us, to relate to each other--the earth, our children and families, to our own past and future--in ways that are nurturing, affirming and sustaining. It is in our relationships to others, not things, that we give and receive love.

I also a have problem with the idea that I often hear, that God saves some from premature death but not others, or even that God wills some to die at a young age to spare them some greater tragedy. When an high school friend was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident and then subsequently died from internal injuries, a well-meaning Christian, who did not know my friend, told me, "It is God's will. He was an athlete and would have been so miserable." I know that such comments are supposed to be comforting, but I was not comforted. Instead it made me angry, but not at God as I know many people are who have been told such things. No, I was angry that people could think so little of God that God either couldn't or wouldn't intervene before the accident took place to save a live, but would intervene afterwards to take a life. To me, that was not fair or just. Though I was only 17, I instinctively knew that the God I worshipped was a greater God than that.

When a young Lutheran minister's wife was killed in an hiking accident, the paramedic on the scene, upon learning the husband's profession, said, "I guess you know better than anyone that God has a purpose for everything." Replied the minister to, I suspect, a rather shocked paramedic, "If God has a purpose for this, that purpose stinks."

Like that minister, I cannot believe that God operates by pulling strings, making decisions on who dies and who lives, or who has food and who doesn't, who will be rich and who will be poor. Jesus makes pretty clear in Luke 13 that God does not choose who dies in accidents nor do I believe God chooses who succeeds in life.

We need to take more seriously the example of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God for understanding how God works in world. Just as Jesus invited the disciples to follow, the Samaritan woman at the well to drink of the living water, the 5,000 to partake of a few loaves and fishes, the cripple to walk and the blind to see--invitations any of them could have refused, as did rich young ruler when Jesus invited him to give all he had to the poor and to follow him, so too we are invited to choose from myriad of options, some given by God, some by the world. God does not make choices for us. God invites, we choose.

Further, from Christ we learn something about the nature of the choices offered to us by God--choices that promote and enhance life, not just for us, but for all humanity and all creation-- choices to bring about wholeness and salvation, choices to allow for greater freedom and better possibilities for all.

The Deuteronomist tells us, "I set before you this day life and death ..., therefore, choose life that you and your descendants may live." God desires that we choose life. Sometimes I wonder which we have chosen. Given all the waste and debt we are leaving behind for our descendants, which have we chosen for them?

We have the freedom to choose political leaders, something more countries are gaining today. But the result of our choices in the last decade has been a profound shift of wealth, making the richest 5th 38% richer while the poorest fifth--who have the least to lose--5% poorer. Is that the direction you intend? Is it the direction God intends? It is the one we have chosen.

There is a big difference between the freedom to choose and the choices we make. We thank God for that freedom, but if our choices do not reflect God's will, can we credit God for the results of those choices? I do not believe God intends for the rich to get richer or the poor poorer, or for people to live in ill-equipped campsites because there is too little affordable housing or for heads of households to try to support a family on $4.75/hr. It is a sin when CEOs making 10 to 100 times as much employ parents on minimum wage or slightly more. It should be a crime as well.

I believe there are other possibilities that we have not considered. Did anyone in the 5,000 consider that 5 loaves and two fish could feed the entire crowd? Did Mary and Martha consider that Jesus could raise Lazarus after he had died? Did anyone believe God could raise Jesus from the dead? And whoever thought that idol-worshipping Gentiles in Asia Minor would become examples of faithfulness for the whole world?

There are untold possibilities of all kinds for each and everyone of our lives, including our common life as a community, nation, and world. If I read the Gospels correctly and understand the message of Jesus, then I do not believe we have begun to tap the power of the possibilities God gives to us.

For too long our choices have been determined by the way things were done before, or by fear of change or by selfish and short-sighted visions. But if our freedom to choose has any meaning, then our choices cannot be solely determined by those things. Our future is much more than the sum of our past and present. That is at least part of what the resurrection is all about. The future is wide open.

Jesus demonstrated that God offers to us possibilities beyond our experience, choices that will enable each of us to break away from the doldrums of repetition, business as usual and a destiny of meaningless misery; choices that may not allow us to wholly determine our destiny, but will have major impact on it; choices that can bring much greater enjoyment and riches for all humanity.

Most of us are here tonight because we once made a choice to turn our lives over to God and to follow Christ. Some may feel that that choice has determined all else, believing that is what it means to turn one's life over to God, to let God make all the choices for you. Many good people live that way. I invite you to consider another possibility, however, that once we become in tune with God and God's way of working in the world, following Christ does not determine all other choices, rather it gives us a whole new world of choices and possibilities. If we do not exercise our freedom to choose amongst those choices, our choices will be made for us--but they will not be made by God. That is why things are the way they are instead of way they could be, as I believe God intends them to be.

Let us then give thanks this Thanksgiving, let us give thanks that we have been given more possibilities, possibly more than any other generation, time or place to enhance life, to communicate God's love and to create a world where God's presence is felt throughout. I am confident that the more we choose those life-given possibilities, the more blessings there will be for all to share.



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