Monday, November 23, 2015

Giving Thanks

November 22nd, 2015         “Giving Thanks”      Rev. Heather Jepsen
Deuteronomy 26:1-15 with Philippians 4:4-9
          This morning is a special morning in the life of our church.  Today we come forward and offer our commitments to God, through the work of this church, in the coming year.  This act of liturgy and worship is a time honored tradition that believers have participated in for generation upon generation.
          Our reading from Deuteronomy tells the story of one of the earliest acts of worship in the history of Israel.  Even before the temple cult was well established, the Israelites had a deep practice of honoring God with the first fruits of their harvest.  Once a year, at the time of harvest, each person would enter the temple and present the best of what they had harvested before God. 
          The individual would then recite the liturgy, a statement from memory to remind them and the community where they had come from.  “I was a wanderer” they are called to remember, “and my people were a people who wandered.  The Lord plucked us up from wandering, the Lord chose us, and God placed us in a land flowing with milk and honey.”  The recitation is a reminder that everything the individual has is a gift from God.  Without God they would have nothing, without God they would be nothing.
          Oh, how I wish we had a tradition like this deeply rooted in our church.  Even better, I wish, like the Israelites, we had a tradition of practicing this as a nation.  There are several lessons for us in this reading that we need to be reminded of.  As a people, we need to remember that we all come from a wandering place.  Many of us in this nation need to remember than none of our ancestors are native to this land in which we now live.  There is a lot of talk in our country today about not letting in those who are from foreign lands.  Personally I think these folks could use a bit more Bible study as the scriptures so often remind us not only that we are all from foreign lands, but that we are all called to see ourselves, and our God, in the foreigner.  We are all called to welcome the stranger, and to share. 
          As modern people, we need to remember that everything that we have comes from God.  It seems to me that when what you possessed was tied to the land, and what the land produced was tied to the weather, then it may have been easier to remember that everything was a gift from God.  You were at the mercy of God in lean years as well as for bountiful crops.  It was God who gave the harvest, and so it was God who was owed back a tenth of the bounty.
          In our own time of paper money it seems as if our God is the stock market.  The stock market determines a bountiful harvest or a thin year; the stock market is our God.  And so when the year is over, if we have a bounty we give a tenth back to the market, we reinvest.  I don’t think that this is the God we should be worshipping.
          We live in a very myopic culture, a very self-centered, my needs first, kind of place.  And so we put ourselves before God.  I want to be sure I am comfortable in the way I live, and I want to be sure there is money enough to go around in my life.  Only then do I consider a gift to God, and a pledge to the church.  The Israelites gave of the first of their crop.  We often give of the remainder of our pennies.  And when we do so, we do so grudgingly.
          Scriptures like this call us out of ourselves.  They remind us that our faith teaches us to be generous.  I am certain that the Israelites had a harder life than we do.  I am certain that they could have used that extra 10%.  And yet they willingly shared it as an act of worship of God.  They offered their gifts in the temple and they offered their gifts to their neighbors.  They were instructed to share their bounty; “Give it to the orphans, the widows, and the refugees, so that they may eat their fill within your towns.”  We too, are called to share in such a way.
          The wonderful part about all this, or perhaps the hard part, is that we are called to offer these gifts in joy.  This offering is a joyful act of the worship of our Lord.  This week many of us will sit down with family and friends and we will give thanks for the year that we have had.  We will give thanks for bounty, we will give thanks for jobs, we will give thanks for health, and we will give thanks for friendship.  We will give thanks for those who have carried us through the hard days, and we will give thanks for those whom we have helped to carry.  This week we will gather with family, we will share, and we will smile.
          And so today, can we not do the same in worship?  Is this not a gathering with family, is this not a time to reflect, is this not an opportunity to share and give thanks for God’s many and varied blessings?  To share what we have with a smile?  Of course it is!
          Our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is a reminder that we are to approach God and celebrate in thanksgiving.  He extols us to rejoice in the Lord, to come before God with thanksgiving.  Even as we make requests for more blessings, we are to express our gratitude for the blessings that we have already received. 
          I love verse 8, where Paul encourages us to have a positive outlook.  The Common English Bible translates this as “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is worthy of praise.”  One could say, “Always look on the bright side of life”!  What a wonderful sentiment for us this week as we give our thanks to our God.
          When I was working with these texts this week I really wanted to model the liturgical acts of the Israelites.  I want us to remember who we are and where we have come from.  Just as the Israelites recited their faith, we too will confess our faith today.  Your bulletin insert contains portions of the Brief Statement of Faith from the Presbyterian Book of Confessions.  Before we make our offerings, we will confess our faith.
          After we make our confession we will then sing a hymn of praise and offering.  While we sing our hymn, I encourage you to bring your pledge, bring your offering for the Lord for the next year, and come forward.  Come to the front of the worship space and place your gift in the basket.  This is the way we worship our God, through words, and song, and the physical act of making our offering. 
          This week, as you gather with family and friends, I hope that you will reflect on these texts.  All of us were strangers, and all of us were welcomed by God.  Because of that, all of us are called to welcome the stranger in God’s name.  All of us have been richly blessed, and all of us are called to share.  May we share what we have with the church, with the stranger, with our family, and with our friends in joy and thanksgiving.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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