Remember and Give Thanks: A Sermon on Deuteronomy 8:7-20
Second Congregational Church, Westfield MA Sunday November 23, 2014
Ecumenical Thanksgiving service with Central Baptist, First United Methodist, 2nd Congregational , Episcopal Church of the Atonement and the Ferst Interfaith Center at Westfield State University, Westfield
“I may not here omite how, notwithstand all their great paines and industrie, and the great hops of a large cropp, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them, by a great drought which continued from the 3. weeke in May, till about the midle of July, without any raine, and with great heat (for the most parte), insomuch as the come begane to wither away, though it was set with fishe, the moysture wherof helped it much. Yet at length it begane to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were partched like withered hay, part wherof was never recovered. Upon which they sett a parte a solemne day of humilliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervente prayer, in this great distrese. And he was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to thier owne and the Indeans admiration, that lived amongest them. For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hotte, and not a cloud or any signe of raine I to be seen, yet toward evening it begane to overcast, and shortly after to raine, with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, and blesing God. It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in that abundance, as that the earth was thorowly wete and soked therewith… Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed come and other fruits, as was wonderfull to see, and made the Indeans astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them shuch seasonable showers, with enterchange of faire warme weather, as, through his blessing, caused a fruitfull and liberall harvest, to their no small comforte and rejoycing. For which mercie (in time conveniente) they also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing. ~ Governor William Bradford in History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646
Let us pray…
If you know this, sing along with me.
“Ooooooh, the Lord’s been good to me/ and so I thank the Lord/ for giving me, the things I need/ the sun, the rain and the apple seed/ The Lord’s been good to me.”
Or maybe you were formed by Roman Catholic tradition and are used to saying “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord.”
Or maybe you are a little more Lutheran, and grew up saying “Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let these thy gifts to us be blessed. ”
Maybe you are a bit more Wesleyan and your grace goes something like this “Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless and grant that we, may feast in fellowship with Thee.”
Or do you do as my father learned at Boy Scout camp and shout “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat. “
I’m not sure why we can’t seem to say grace over a meal without rhyming, but it’s here, in Deuteronomy 8, where we get the general tradition of saying a blessing over a meal. The tenth verse reads, “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.”
In fact, this whole section from Deuteronomy is instruction about how to give thanks. We are deep into Moses’s farewell speech here on the edge of entering the Promised Land. 120-year-old Moses, the man has been wandering in the desert for a 1/3 of his life. It might be a bit long winded, maybe like your great uncle at the Thanksgiving table who keeps talking for a few minutes after the last person stopped paying attention, but it also seems like he’s entitled to it after 40 years in the desert.
And, oh, that land they are about to enter is glorious! Thick, lush, verdant ,with good things to eat. After all those years in the desert where the sand was constantly in your hair and between your toes, where the ground was “parched like withered hay,” and the land so dry that your skin cracked from the arid heat, the land of Canaan is “a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills” (Deut 8:7). Governor Bradford, in Plymouth Massachusetts in the summer of 1621, recounted how a great drought that threatened their crops and their very survival prompted a “solemn day of humiliation” to pray to God for relief and rain. When the rain came, “with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, and blesing God” the Pilgrims and the Indians “also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing.” In Plymouth, the land was restored and fruitful, like the promised landed for the Israelites.
And, oh! The good things to eat in the land! Moses keeps going, talking about all that will grow before them- “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” After all those years of manna, manna, manna in the wilderness, the people will have a diverse menu! Grapes and figs, and pomegranates so heavy with seeds about to burst that they bend the branches down with their weight. These first fruits will be the first fruits that the Israelites bring to God in the festival of Shavuot. A friend told me the story of the Thanksgiving when her sister tried to simplify the meal. There were 9 people coming to dinner, there would be just 9 dishes. And each person would bring the dish that was most important to them. 9 people, 9 dishes, it would be plenty! They showed up on Thanksgiving afternoon to feast only to discover 9 dishes of mashed potatoes. Manna, manna, manna, all those years of nothing but manna in the wilderness. Next year, we’re making a chart and everyone is getting assigned a dish so we don’t end up with an entire meal of potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.
There is land fertile to grow in, food varied to eat, stones with which to build, hills to mine and so you give God thanks “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (Deut 8:10).
But then, after verse 10, the monologue takes a turn. Moses starts warning the people. “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.” Remember, and do not forget. All that abundance and fruitfulness in the land of milk and honey gets really dangerous, really quick.
Verse 12 begins “When you have eaten your fill and have built find houses and lived in them, and when your herds and flock have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.” This is the danger.
Moses goes on in verse 17 “Do not say to yourself, ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, fir it is he who gives you the power to get wealth…” The Jewish commentator Nogah Hareuveni writes “the arduous physical labor involved in clearing the forest land …in building terraces on the mountain slopes, in clearing, plowing and planting the terraced land — all these could lead the Israelite farmer to say in his heart, “my power and the might of my hand have made me successful.”
True thanksgiving is not merely listing off what you’ve got, a laundry lists of objects, and purchases, and acquisitions. In the Biblical sense, thanksgiving has two parts, remembering and giving thanks. Remember what is was like without, and give thanks for what God has provided. Moses, from the edge of the Promised Land, has the vantage point to see the danger ahead. You might have so much, you will live so contentedly that you will forget God. You will forget where it came from. You will fool yourselves into believing that you did this.
And for those of us who are comfortable, or comfortable enough, that’s the danger isn’t it? We rush through our prayers of thanksgiving, running one word into the next (fast) “God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food,” We forget where it all came from. We get confused and think we did this. We confuse God’s blessings with our sense of self-sufficiency. We forget our family history of immigration and start cursing the newer immigrants who come to this good land looking for the same opportunities our ancestors did. We get confident that we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, forgetting all those that supported us along the way. …
In his commentary on this passage, the reformer John Wesley spoke of a “common profaneness” from those of us who become inured to the blessing of having sufficient food and drink before us. We expect food in the fridge and water out of the faucet and day after day when they are there, we forget to remember and give thanks to God.
That common profaneness caught me over the last few weeks. I’m so used to having a bed of my own to sleep in, a roof over my head, that I and many others were slow to react to the closing of the Long Island shelter in Boston that displaced again 700+ people without homes and those in addiction recovery programs. We who lived in homes had “eaten our fill and build fine homes and lived in them” and maybe even gave thanks for these blessings. But we failed to remember. We failed to remember that we too could be without, we too could be hungry and cold and worn. Maybe we didn’t say it out loud, but perhaps in the dark corners of our hearts lurked the sneaking suspicion that “my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth” and that those who did not have such comfort were un-deserving or un-productive. That’s how easy it is to forget, to let the common profaneness of having enough every day slip you into a state where you forget how truly extraordinary it is to have a roof over your head and a meal upon your table. Moses is pretty clear that the way to avoid taking your blessings for granted is to remember. Remember and do not forget, says our God. Here in Westfield, you have remembered how hard it is to be a teenager, and even how much harder it must be to go to school when you have no stable place to study, to sleep, to eat. You have remembered and did not forget and you are preparing apartments high school students without a stable home at Our House. Remember and do not forget, for you too were once teenagers in a strange land.
Maybe this is why we tell the same stories every year at Thanksgiving:
- Remember and do not forget how the drought threatened to starve us that first year in Plymouth Plantation.
- Remember and do not forget the year we had Thanksgiving on plastic plates in nursing home with food from the Boston Market in Detroit MI, as my aunt was dying
- Remember and do not forget the year that my cousin hid under the table the entire meal because there was cranberry chutney and not cranberry jelly
- Remember and do not forget the year that the neighbor carved not into the turkey but into his finger and spent it in the emergency room, or the year that grandma was so tragically drunk again she fell with the candied yams, or the year that you thought your uncle would make it home from Iraq but did not.
- Remember and do not forget all the things that we’ve gone through, and give thanks to God that we are alive to breath and eat and say a word of blessing this day.
Here is the invitation this Thanksgiving. When you sit down to the table, try to remember. Maybe you go around the table and tell a story of when you didn’t have enough. Maybe you tell of times when you were strangers in a strange land. Maybe all you do is sneak a breath before you pass the mashed potatoes, but remember and do not forget, the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Remember and do not forget, the God who blessed you with good food to eat and good land to grow it. Remember and do not forget the beloved of God who will be without food, without shelter, without a sense of God’s love as the nights grow colder. For the Lord our God has brought us out of Egypt. If this Thanksgiving, you eat your fill, remember and do not forget to bless the Lord. Aen.