Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever.”
Gratitude is at the core of our identity as the people of God. God has created us and continually provides for us. Even when times get tough in our broken world, when we’re hungry and thirsty and our soul is fainting within us (v. 5), God hears our cries and delivers us. The Israelite people certainly knew their share of troubles – being slaves in Egypt, wandering in the desert for forty years, going into exile, and so on – but yet the Psalms, their prayerbook that gave shape to their life together was filled with prayers of thanksgiving like today’s reading from Psalm 107 that celebrate the goodness and the provision of God.
And yet, gratitude is one of the most difficult virtues for us to cultivate in the Western world. Why is this? Above all, we are extraordinarily wealthy; we have the resources and technologies to take care of almost all our needs, and thus it is easy for us to lose sight of God’s provision. Additionally, we are immersed in a sea of advertising every day that fuels our ingratitude by reminding us of all the things that we don’t have, but that we should want. We also are so far removed from agriculture that we easily lose sight of God’s providing through creation for our most basic need, food.
So what can we, as Westerners, learn about gratitude from the Israelite people of the Old Testament?
Above all, we need to see ourselves as a people that God has gathered and among whom God is working, not just as a collection of autonomous individuals. Autonomy only serves to fuel our ingratitude; creation has been formed by God to be an interdependent whole. If we have isolated ourselves, we will find little comfort when hard times hit, as they inevitably will. In sharing life together in the local church communities to which God has called us, we come to see God’s provision for us in our brothers and sisters (and also to see how God uses us to provide for others).
Secondly, as the ancient Israelite people did in psalms and prayers like this one, we need to tell stories of God’s goodness, faithfulness and provision. Although there is adeep need for connection with God’s work in the historic people of God through liturgy and songs, there is also a deep need for local forms of worship that energize our hearts and minds with the very particular stories of God’s provision for us as a church community in our specific places. Our praise and thanksgiving to God should not just come in the broadest, most abstract sense – though I do believe there is a place for celebrating a God that is at work reconciling all creation at all places and all times; we need to find creative ways to tell stories that remind us regularly that God is always providing for us, and our neighbors, in our particular place.
We also need to recover regular practices of feasting together, as the Israelite people did. In the Eucharist – the very name of which means thanksgiving – we have hints and vestiges of the feasts of Israel. John Howard Yoder has argued poignantly that when Jesus instructed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” the this referred neither to eating the Passover meal nor to taking the symbolic bread and cup (a practice that developed later in church history), but rather to sharing a common meal together. Sharing a meal together, Yoder notes, is an economic practice; by eating together we demonstrate in a real and tangible way God’s provision for our needs – or at least our need to eat. And in connection with the previous point, the table is also a natural place for the sharing of stories, for telling and listening to what God is doing in our midst, and for strategizing how we might take our next baby steps together toward being a mature body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-16).
Finally, we need to learn from the ancient Israelites about our identity as a Sabbath people. Sabbath serves to remind us that God is sovereign and that it is God who provides for us. In our age of wealth and abundant technology, we need Sabbath practices to turn our attention back to God as provider. Certainly, there is justifiably much reaction today toward the legalistic ways in which Sabbath has been practiced historically, so it is a practice that is often ignored. And when it is discussed, the focus is typically on individual or family practices of Sabbath, which may help some people to live more healthfully but ultimately only serve to promote further fragmentation. Sabbath was intended as a corporate practice, and today there is a deep need to recover Sabbath practices that are shared at the heart of our life together as church communities.
The convictions and practices of ancient Israel that I have described here have much overlap and many synergies among themselves. Taken together, they point us in the direction of the deeper and richer life of interdependence for which we were created. May we be attentive to the ways in which God forms and shapes the people of God, in Israel and in the history of the Church; may we become a people that are attentive to the super-abundance of God’s provision in our daily lives; and may we become a people that is known above all for our gratitude!
(Photo credit – Brent Aldrich, Englewood Christian Church. Used with permission. )