Our Thanksgiving to God and Christ’s Thanksgiving for Us

Readings for Thanksgiving Day

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Psalm 65

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Luke 17:11-19

This sermon was preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley CA on Thanksgiving November 24, 2011.

You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.

As a freshman at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, I used to participate in class-wide games of ‘Capture the Flag’ which always inspired me to crawl through dense bushes and thick shrubs in order to sneak up on the opposing team’s flag. Although I enjoyed feeling like a stealth and sly ninja, I was never actually successful with this strategy. And one time, instead of capturing the flag, I ended up catching a pretty nasty case of poison oak, all over my body. Without going into all the gruesome details of this particular rash, I’ll simply say that, for two weeks, the majority of my skin looked like that of an uncooked turkey. The social isolation that I experienced along with the constant irritation and inflammation made me a very unhappy camper as well as an unpleasant roommate. I actually remember praying for healing and looking forward to the day when the poison oak would be gone. I told myself, “As soon as this goes away, I will appreciate every single day that I don’t have poison oak.” Eventually, of course, the poison oak receded and I emerged happily from my dorm of isolation and aloe vera, no longer looking like an uncooked turkey. However, before I could even give thanks to God and relish the joy of having a poison-oak-free body, my thoughts quickly went towards other things in my life that were not completely perfect. Although God responded to my prayers for healing, my response to God’s healing was to find new things to be frustrated about. This sounds silly, just as silly as the nine lepers in the Gospel who failed to thank the One who healed them. Often this is the case for me: as soon as God answers my prayers, I move onto the next thing to complain about.

Now, as I’ve preached before, there are certainly times to complain and lament and kvetch to God, but every time we refuse or forget to thank God we forfeit an opportunity to experience abundance right now. There is a Sufi saying: “Abundance can be had simply by consciously receiving what already has been given.”[1] Giving thanks to God helps us to receive what has already been given in order to experience abundant life.

One way that today’s readings invite us to experience this abundance is by bidding us to give thanks after we receive a gift from God. This sounds obvious. Most of us say “thank you” after receiving a gift from someone else. However, the Gospel passage and my poison oak experience remind us of the human tendency to forget to thank God after receiving what we want (and what we just asked for). I suspect that many of us will thank God before enjoying our great Thanksgiving feast later today, but I wonder how many of us will thank God after we have had our fill.

“You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.” The Jewish rabbis have read this verse from Deuteronomy as a command to say grace after meals. In Hebrew, these post-meals prayers are called the birkat hamazon (the Blessing after meals). And I just learned that, in Yiddish, praying this way is called “benching” (not belching) but benching from the Yiddish “bentschn” (to bless). In their Prayers after Meals, Jewish people thank God for the food, for the land from which the food came and for God’s goodness, the source of both the food and the land. So although Scripture invites us to kvetch, it also bids us to bench. In the Talmud, the rabbis debate about the details of these prayers and one rabbi asked, “The Torah commands us to give thanks after eating, but how do we you know that we should give thanks before eating?” Rabbi Aqiva answered, “That’s no question. If we are commanded to give thanks when we are satisfied, how much more so when we are hungry! So,” Rabbi Aqiva concludes, “It is common sense – we should not enjoy anything in this world without giving thanks to our Creator.”[2] So the spirit of Birkat Hamazon (benching) is to thank God for everything, all the time.

In the Gospel reading, the one healed leper follows in the spirit of Birkat Hamazon when he returns to Jesus and thanks him: “He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” In the Greek, the word for “thanked” is euchariston. Eucharist is our thanksgiving to God, which is what we are participating in right now. Although we as a nation commemorate this day as a day of Thanksgiving, we as Christians commemorate each Sunday as a Day of Thanksgiving. We gather together here to give thanks for all of God’s blessings, for the thousand little things that go right every day, for the abundance in our lives that fills us.

Catholic nun Teresa Okure explains that the Eucharist is actually more than us giving thanks to God. “Eucharist,” according to Sister Teresa, “[is] Christ’s own thanksgiving to God for us, his body and blood.”[3] In the Eucharist, Christ gives his body and blood to us in thanksgiving for us.  We get a glimpse of Christ’s thanksgiving for us in the Gospel when Jesus honors the gratitude of the healed leper and affirms his faith. He tells the thankful leper “Your faith has made you well” and in doing so, Jesus makes a connection between our faith and our gratitude. These two go hand in hand. Priest and professor Don Saliers says, “Christian prayer, whether in the gathered assembly or in solitude, is first and last praising and giving thanks to God.”[4] And the German mystic Meister Eckhart understood gratitude and the Christian faith to be so connected that he said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘Thank you,’ it would be enough.”

So in the spirit of Birkat Hamazon, I invite us all to offer thanks after our feast today, to offer thanks for the food, the land and the goodness of God. And in that same spirit, I invite us to practice giving thanks in all things, remembering that “it is very meet, right and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, in all places, give thanks unto the Lord.” And as we partake of the body and blood this morning, let us also remember to enjoy Christ’s own thanksgiving for us. Amen.

[1] Maggie Oman Shannon, The Way We Pray: Prayer Practices from Around the World (Berkeley: Conari Press, 2001), 40.

[2] I paraphrased the following discussions from the Gemara of Chapter 6 of Tractate Berakhot from the Order Zeraim: “What is the [scriptural] basis for this? It is as the rabbis taught: Holy – Praises to the LORD (Leviticus 19:24) – this teaches that [the fruit] requires blessing both before and after [eating]. On this basis Rabbi Aqiva said that a person should not taste anything before blessing [God].” And then later in the discussion: “[Deuteronomy 8:10] says that you should bless after [eating]; how do you know that you should bless after [eating]; how do you know that you should bless before? That’s no question, since we could argue from minor to major: If you have to bless [God] when you are satisfied, how much more so when you are hungry!…So [, abandon the search for a scriptural basis! We conclude that] it is common sense – a person should not enjoy anything in this world without blessing [his Creator].” The Talmud: A Selection, ed. Norman Solomon (London: Penguin, 2009), 28, 30-31.

[3] Teresa Okure, SHCJ, “What is Truth?” from The Anglican Theological Review 93:3 Summer 2011, 412.

[4] Don Saliers, “Liturgy Teaching Us to Pray: Christian Liturgy and Grateful Lives of Prayer” from Liturgy and Spirituality in Context: Perspectives on Prayer and Culture, ed. Eleanor Bernstein, C.S.J (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press), 62.


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