A Thanksgiving Homily

Text: 2nd commandment, Psalm 50:1-23, Luke 17:11-19
As Lutherans we rally around the small catechism, but there are some other catechisms out there. Rita Fedick brought an Eastern Orthodox one to bible study last Thursday. The Westminster Shorter Catechism – a Reformed work of the Calvinist strain starts off with a classic question and answer. What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. That answer captures a truth that humans have been fighting against since the start.

Our first and primary relationship, duty, orientation, end is toward God. Augustine would say, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

And there are all kinds of diversions that we will come up with to deny that. From the simple – in the words of Billy Joel, I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…to the complex, great theological constructs whose end is to say “God didn’t really say that” when the clear words of the Bible “are that”.

One of the most pernicious of those diversions is Psalm 50 or 9 of 10 lepers. “Not for you sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.” The majority of the lepers went to the priests as Jesus and the law told them to do. And we should be clear here – God doesn’t say don’t do these things. The Psalmist doesn’t have God saying stop those sacrifices. Jesus tells the 10th leper to go. And elsewhere Jesus would say things like “you ought to have done [the tithe requirements] without neglecting justice and mercy and faithfulness”. Jesus was not against ritual itself – we baptize, we eat the Supper, we absolve sins, all at His direction. What he was against was magic by his name. The use of the name of God not toward our end…but toward our ends.

What you might be asking is how this eventually gets to a warm-fuzzy thanksgiving homily?

Well, I think it has to do with two types of stories we tell ourselves, a current kids movie and which of those two stories the best of American History likes to tell. One story we tell is the glory story. We’ve overcome, we’ve accomplished, by our knowledge, skills and abilities we’ve won the day and taken the medal.

There are traces of the glory story in American history. Anytime you hear Teddy Roosevelt talking about the man in the arena he’s telling a glory story. Both candidates in this past election like to tell glory stories. “I won” just might be the summarizing quote of a presidency. And Ayn Rand’s John Galt floated around team red. All narratives of glory.

Wreck-it Ralph, at the start is a simple glory, the Video Game Bad Guy Ralph wants to win a medal. And he’s told of a game where climbing and destroying things gets you a medal…two things he’s very good at. So he game jumps to “Hero’s Duty” and takes his medal.

The other story is the thanksgiving story – the one about grace. It would be easy to tell a glory story about the pilgrim’s journey and how they overcame oppression and won their rights and land by their heroism. But that is not how they talked about it. From the letters of Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony talking about the first Thanksgiving…”And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” Likewise in 1789 after the Revolutionary War and the Adoption of the Constitution, a glory story might be in order. But the act of the inaugural congress, proposed by Rep. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, reads “to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

Just to let you know that our fundamental arguments haven’t shifted that greatly, the act was originally opposed in Congress for three reasons: 1) Rep. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina objected on the grounds that a Thanksgiving was too European. He “did not like this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings” 2) Rep. Thomas Tudor Tucker, also of South Carolina, raised two further objections. “Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?” he asked. “If a day of thanksgiving must take place,” he said, “let it be done by the authority of the several States.” And 3) Proclaiming a day of Thanksgiving “is a religious matter,” he said, “and, as such, proscribed to us.”

As with things of grace “the Thanksgiving resolution passed—the precise vote is not recorded.” President Washington issued the proclamation starting with these words, “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God…”

As for Wreck-it Ralph, I’ll just say it has a great ending that is in perfect accord with the last verse of Psalm 50 – “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me, to the one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God”.

Glory stories are tempting, but they are ultimately hollow. Glory fades. That was not our end. Our end is to glorify God. “I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” is what the psalmist records.

The call of the gospel is to give thanks for the salvation of God. To order our ways rightly, in accord with the way we were created. We were created to tell stories of grace – stories of the deliverance of God, of the salvation of God…or as the Westminster Catechism would say of the enjoyment of God forever. Because unlike glory which fades, God’s grace in Jesus Christ is eternal. Amen.