Returning Thanks

(My sermon from Thanksgiving Eve at Bruton Parish Church. The lectionary readings are here:

So, here we are again at Thanksgiving, the holiday that is about abundance. My childhood Thanksgiving table always featured a cornucopia overflowing with wax vegetables and fruit. We had a huge turkey and many side dishes on the table, including my mom’s cornbread dressing which is the best dressing there is. We ate a lot. And sometimes we raked a bunch of leaves and/or watched a lot of football and movies on TV. There was lots of everything and we felt thankful for it and said we were thankful for it as we sat at our loaded table or on the couch nodding off with full bellies.

When I was growing up, the words that were said before we ate a meal - every meal, not just the one on Thanksgiving - were called “the blessing.” The blessing was always said by my dad, unless he was not at home in which case it was said by my mother. Generally we said that we were asking the blessing rather than saying it, because we were asking God to bless the food and to bless us to God’s service, albeit rather tersely.

This, of course, is an ancient practice, pronouncing blessing before meals. But originally the blessing was not on the food but something to be said about God. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth,” goes the traditional Jewish prayer before eating. Our Book of Common Prayer offers this version of grace before meals: “Blessed are you, O Lord God, King of the Universe, for you give us food to sustain our lives and make our hearts glad; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This prayer is not about blessing the food but acknowledging the blessedness of the one who has provided all that we have. This is an ancient and beautiful custom.

Also when I was growing up, I discovered that some other families said other things at meal times. And they called what they said something different, too. They didn’t say that we were saying or asking the blessing. They said that they were “returning thanks.” It was still the father or the head of the household or the host who was expected to do this, but sometimes if an esteemed visitor was present, the local minister or an elder relation, that person was asked to “return thanks.”

Because of the kind of child I was, I just tossed that idea off as odd. That’s not how we do it, I thought. We don’t ask anyone to return thanks. What the heck does that mean anyway, giving thanks back? We ask the blessing.

I have to say, however, now that I’m supposedly a grownup, while I’m all about saying that God is blessed for providing for us so abundantly - and I think we should say that every day and not just at meals - having a daily custom of “returning thanks” - of giving thanks back - seems like a good idea. 

I’m sure God doesn’t mind feeling called blessed. I’m sure God doesn’t mind us feeling thankful. I’m sure God doesn’t mind us saying thank you for our food. I’m sure God doesn’t mind us enjoying good meals and savoring family time. But I wonder if God wonders if we understand how we could be transformed and thus transform the world by considering Thanksgiving not only as the beginning of the holiday season, a day to give thanks, but as a spiritual practice. A way to live. A verb rather than a noun.

What if Thanksgiving were not just about saying thanks and feeling thankful but practicing thankful-ness through generosity, hospitality, compassion, and stewardship? About returning thanks not by just pointing up at God with a big smile but by living out in the world around us our thankfulness for the abundance we have been blessed with? 

God is great and God is good and it is right to give God thanks and praise. But God also wants us to become our true selves, who we were made to be, and becoming our true selves involves spiritual practices. Prayer is definitely a spiritual practice; attending church and receiving communion is a spiritual practice. Walking labyrinths or reading Scripture and lectio divina are spiritual practices. 

And so is generous giving, of our selves and of our resources. We are transformed by spiritual practices. Giving, like other spiritual practices, helps our souls grow. This is how we become who we were made to be.

“Returning thanks” as a spiritual practice means not just giving things away but giving ourselves away, fearlessly living out the Gospel in the world around us in response to God’s graciousness - to SHOW God’s graciousness to a world that sorely needs to see it.

I am moved by this sea of grocery bags in front of me. [The parish collected three hundred bags of groceries for the local food pantry.] You have done this. You have given of your resources to feed the hungry in our community. Hundreds of people are going to be able to eat because of this. I’m going to bless these groceries in a few minutes, but they don’t really need my blessing. You yourselves have blessed them through your giving.

Let’s not stop here, though. Let’s not just do our bit during the holidays but begin to think about how we can return thanks to God through practicing generosity all the time. Let us take on returning thanks as a spiritual practice, giving ourselves away for the sake of Jesus, who, after all, gave everything he had for us.


Bill Bynum said…
Thanks for another of your cogent, timely sermons.