Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve 2017. The texts are the healing of the lepers in Luke 17:11-19 and Deuteronomy 8:7-18.
How many of you are familiar with the phrase, “count your blessings”?
There’s a classic hymn from 1897 called “Count Your Blessings” that you might familiar with at least the chorus.
“Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God has done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God has done.”
That’s a great reminder for Thanksgiving, isn’t it? What’s fascinating in that hymn, though, are the verses.
The first verse talks about times when you feel tossed upon life’s billows by the tempest, or when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost. The second verse asks if you’re ever burdened with a load of care, or bearing a heavy cross. The last verse talks about not getting discouraged amid great or small conflicts. In all of those times, count your blessings.
And it’s true. Counting your blessings and giving thanks is important when life is tough, when you’re feeling discouraged. Intentionally stopping to notice God’s blessings in a crisis can be a way to find a silver lining in a dark cloud.
As a nation, our Thanksgiving holiday goes back, of course, to the Pilgrims in 1621, celebrating their first successful corn harvest. They stopped to give thanks to God for the harvest as a sign of hope that they could survive in this harsh foreign land where they had been facing starvation.
As a national holiday, Thanksgiving goes back to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War, asking God to heal the wounds of this nation.
In the midst of the worst conflict our country has ever seen, the nation needed to pause to count its blessings and remember that God was still good. As important as remembering our blessings is when things are hard or falling apart, I suspect it is at least as challenging if not even harder to remember to count our blessings when things are going well.
In our reading tonight from Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are about to enter the promised land. They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years after escaping from centuries of slavery in Egypt, and as they’re excited, standing there on the brink of their new land, Moses gives them a warning.
When you get into this new land—this rich, good land flowing with milk and honey, with fig trees and pomegranates and abundant riches—when you get into it and you’re thriving, take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.
When things are going right, it’s so tempting to take credit for it ourselves, isn’t it? In our culture, we’re taught that if you try hard enough you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make something of yourself.
We get that pounded into us as the American dream, and then when we succeed, it’s really easy to look back and say, “Well, I must have tried hard enough. I must have done enough to succeed. Look what I did.” It’s awfully easy to take credit for ourselves, to do exactly what Deuteronomy warns against. Verse 17: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’”
Don’t misunderstand: Working hard is good. The point is not to be lazy or be a freeloader or anything like that. There’s nothing wrong with pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and taking advantage of the opportunities that come up.
The point is to recognize that our opportunities are a gift from God. Whatever abilities any of us have come first from God. Instead of taking credit for ourselves, the point is to give credit and thanks to God. Count your blessings and realize not only that you have them, but that your blessings are from God. Then, when you’ve counted your blessings, recognizing that they’re a gift temporarily trusted to you, give thanks to God for them.
And giving thanks doesn’t just mean having a sort of warm, fuzzy feeling. In the gospel reading we just heard, giving thanks is an action. It’s something you do. It involves some effort.
In the story, there were ten lepers who were healed, but only one of them went to the effort to come back and give thanks. Does that mean the other nine were ungrateful? Not necessarily. They might have been just as grateful, but they didn’t do anything about it.
Actually, I have some sympathy for them. Imagine how they felt when their friend came back later and said, “So, I went back to see Jesus and thank him, and he was pretty disappointed none of you guys came back.” Probably a pretty awkward conversation.
I’m really good at comebacks, thinking of things to say later, after a conversation has moved on. I’d tell you about a good example, but I don’t have one. I’ll probably think of it later.
But I’ve definitely had times when someone has done something for me and I’ve realized later that I should have thanked them. If you’re like that too, here’s your chance to prepare. How will you give thanks this week? How will you show your friends, your family, your neighbors that you appreciate them?
I’ve been trying this year to be more intentional about expressing my thanks by writing a few thank you notes each week. I have no idea if people read them and hold on to them or toss them right away, or even if they get lost in the mail, but it’s worth it to me to stop and reflect on who I’m grateful to and then to make the effort to let them know, instead of just taking them for granted.
This is about more than just thanking other people, though. How do you give thanks to God?
One way is to simply pray, to tell God what you’re thankful for. We’re doing that tonight, and I hope that prayer is a part of your Thanksgiving celebration tomorrow. Another way is to pass on God’s blessings. In the last few weeks in worship, we’ve heard about the kinds of things God cares about, seeking justice, serving the poor, standing up for the oppressed. This weekend, we’ll hear about how when we serve others, especially those who appear to be the least, we’re really serving God.
Our next hymn gives an inspiring vision of how to give thanks to God. Pay attention to the words as we sing. It’s a beautiful prayer.
Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my hands and let them move at the impulse of thy love.
Take my voice and let me sing for my king.
Take my silver and my gold and my intellect, and use it as you choose.
Take my will and my heart and my love and my whole being.
We are called to live our whole lives giving thanks to God. As you celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I challenge you to find a way to give thanks, not to just abstractly think about it, but to tangibly do something.
Count your blessings, and show your gratitude.