This sermon was given at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Thanksgiving Day 2013.
It is based on the Old Testament reading for Thanksgiving Day in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
I think this is a pretty remarkable day. We gather here on a regular basis to give thanks. The word “Eucharist” in fact means “thanksgiving.” So every Sunday and Wednesday, and many other times during the year, we are here giving thanks together. Today we are joined in this moment of thanksgiving by people all across this country, unified, giving thanks together. I think that’s pretty remarkable.
There is another thing that we are all doing together today. We are telling stories. I am pretty sure that we will all be gathered around tables later in the day today, reliving memories, recounting blessed and wonderful moments we have spent together, telling the stories of the last year, the stories that give us identity and shape who we are. Many of us will even take turns, making our way around the table, offering something that we are thankful for before we begin to pass the food.
The telling of stories isn’t a remarkable thing for us. We tell our story every time we gather together in this place. But the fact that people all over this nation are unified in this opportunity, in this moment of story telling today… I think that’s pretty remarkable.
I think that this remarkable moment, this remarkable coincidence of joint thanksgiving and story telling creates a wonderful opportunity for us, for you and me, for the people of God, because we have a pretty remarkable story to tell.
The people of Israel thought that they were going home. They had sojourned in Egypt, captives, for over four hundred years. They had escaped from Egypt and the armies of the Pharaoh through the Red Sea and they found themselves in the wilderness on their way to the land that God had promised to them. Then something happened. They didn’t arrive right away. Their route was not “as the crow flies.” In fact it was a wandering, circuitous mess through the desert. For forty years the people of Israel circled around and missed the mark, making wrong turns, getting back on the path over an over again as they tried to find their way home.
Today, as we join them, in the narrative from the book of Deuteronomy, they are on the bank of the river, they are ready to take possession of the land that God has promised them. The excitement must have been palpable. Then their leader and their guide, Moses, says “Wait a minute. I’ve got about thirty four chapters of text to deliver to you before we can enter the promised land.
Moses give them about five chapters of autobiographical history; his history with them, a stiff necked and rebellious people, whom he had wished at times were not his burden to bear. And then for twenty chapters he reminds them of the law. He reminds them of the things that God had called them to do and to be. And then, in chapter twenty six, as he is wrapping up this recitation of the law he describes a ritual that they are to perform in the inner sanctuary once a year; a ritual of thanksgiving where the first fruits of the land are placed before the altar, given to God in thanksgiving for all of the gifts that God had given to them.
I think that it’s important to recognize that the land was a symbol and a sign of their relationship with God, that they were in fact God’s chosen people. So the first fruit of the land was an especially appropriate gift to be given in thanksgiving.
The ritual that Moses gives to the people of Israel is very specific and clear about the words that are to be said at the moment when the basket of first fruits is given to God before the altar. There are only three places in all of the Old Testament where the people of Israel are given specific words to say in a formal liturgical setting and moment. Two of those recitations are given in this morning’s reading.
As the basket is given to the Priest who is in office at the time the people are instructed to say,
“Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us” (Deuteronomy 26:3b).
I know that the promise is true because I ma here. And I am a member of this family, of this tribe, of this people, whom God has called out for a special vocation: to be a light to the nations.
Then as the basket is placed before the altar they are to say,
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26: 5b-10a).
Moses is afraid, standing there on the edge of the promised land, that the people of Israel will forget the lessons that they have learned as they wandered in the wilderness. He is afraid that as they move into this land flowing with milk and honey, and the hardships melt away, the people will forget who brought them to this place. So he is asking them to do a very specific thing to remind themselves of who they are and whose they are. He is asking them to give thanks and to tell the story.
Biblical scholars refer to this moment in the book of Deuteronomy as a creedal statement. This is who we are. This is what we believe. And it is this story of exile, of liberation, and the story of God’s promises to us being fulfilled by our possession of this land that defines who we are as a people. Moses knows that the way to remember who we are and whose we are is to give thanks and to tell the story.
I hope that you recognize a pattern in this reading because we are a bout to do the same thing. We will stand in a few moments and recite the Nicene Creed. We will say that the promises that God has made to us are true and that we are recipients of those promises. We will say that we believe that God is. We will make our offering here at this altar. And before we share the meal together, before we celebrate, we will tell the story of salvation history.
Listen closely to the Eucharistic Prayer and you will hear the story of God’s work in the world’ form creation through the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. We will be telling our story as a people in much the same way that the people of Israel were called to tell their story as they gave their offerings to God in thanksgiving for what God had given them.
When I stared out this morning I said I believe we are being presented with a wonderful opportunity today as our family, our tribe, our nation gathers to give thanks and to tell stories. Now this is something that is particularly difficult for us and I know that it might be challenging…
As we gather around the table later today, and it has been the tradition in my family for a long time to go around the table one at a time and name something that we are thankful for, what would it be like if in addition to naming what we are thankful for we also articulated where God was for us in that moment? A secular moment, something that people all across this nation are gathering to do today, could become something more for us and for anyone who joins us at our table; an affirmation and a recognition that God is at the center of our lives. That the things that we have come from God, are gifts from God, and that God is so deeply ingrained in who and what we are that we can’t begin to imagine that God is not there, when we are giving thanks, when we are telling our stories, when we break bread together.
Oh yeah… that wonderful opportunity? It’s about evangelism, which is not an easy word for Episcopalians to say. But it is a word that we need to embrace. And this is a moment of evangelism for us. This is a moment for us to deepen our faith, to recognize what is at the core of who we are, and to share that with one another in an intimate and familial setting. Perhaps if we practice this enough in those comfortable moments we will even be able to do it in moments when we are not so sure how it will be received, in moments where it is a little more uncomfortable to share who and what we are. Perhaps in that moment we will be fulfilling our vocation as heirs of the promises that were made to our forefathers and will be able to become a light to all the nations.