Date: November 23, 2008
Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps 100; Eph 1:15-23; Matt 25:31-46
Author: Isaac Villegas
When Steve and Sandra sit down for dinner, they have to do one thing before they can eat. They have to say what they are grateful for. That shouldn’t be too hard, right? Well, I ate with them recently and they made me do it to. And I have to admit that I had a hard time coming up with something to say. Maybe because I had a bad day. Maybe because I was caught off guard and couldn’t think quickly enough. Or maybe it’s because I don’t know how to be grateful. That’s worrisome.
It’s especially worrisome given how important gratitude is for some of our passages today. Let’s start with Psalm 100. Let me read verse 4: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless is name.” There’s lots of gratitude going on there—giving thanks to God. Then there’s our passage from Ephesians. Verse 16, “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” Gratitude for people—I give thanks for you, Paul says.
Gratitude is also an important part of our service today because we will be celebrating communion. And the oldest name given to this practice is a Greek word from the bible: Eucharist, and it means, “thanksgiving”—eucharisteo means, I give thanks. It’s the word the Apostle Paul uses in I Corinthians 11, when we find our words of institution that we repeat during our communion celebration: “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said…” Jesus hands out the bread after he gives thanks. Communion is about gratitude.
What does it mean to be grateful? What does it mean to give thanks to God? What does it mean to call our communion meal a “thanksgiving,” the thanksgiving feast?
What does it mean for Paul to tell people, “I give thanks for you?” When was the last time you said that to someone? Not that you are grateful for what someone did—like, thanks for the delicious dinner, or thanks for doing the dishes, or thanks for advice. All of that is good. But Paul is saying, “I thank God for you”—nothing about what you’ve done, or what you’ve given me, but simply, I thank God for you. When was the last time someone told you, “I thank God for you”?
What does it mean to be grateful?
There are people who cross the border from Mexico into the United States. They walk across miles of desert, sometimes in the middle of the summer. Lots of them die—die of heat exhaustion or dehydration. So, Christian Peacemaker Teams and Mennonite Central Committee set up stations in the middle of the desert with water and food—to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, as our passage from Matthew 25 talks about.
Think about their gratitude; put yourself in their place. You are in the middle of the desert, on the verge of death, of dehydration. For hours all you knew was your need—water, food, shelter from the scorching sun. You were your need—all you can think about is water. You see tent in the distance. The closer it gets, the more you realize that it’s not another mirage, but the real deal. You drink, you eat, you rest. You are grateful for water, grateful for life. Your whole life resounds with gratitude. Every cell of your body cries out with gratitude. You are your gratitude.
What are you grateful for?
As we all know, Christians aren’t very much different than everyone else. I mean, we all know people who are better persons than we are—they do more good in the world, and they seem to live out some of our Christian convictions better than we do.
But that isn’t anything we should get too worked up about. Instead, we should be grateful that people are out there doing good work. They are not our competition. We are not in a competition of doing good things for the world. That’s not what it means to be Christian.
Instead, gratitude is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. Christians are people who live in gratitude, a gratitude that runs through every fiber of our body. Christians are people who say that our very lives are testimonies of gratitude to the One who gave us life. We are people who come together every Sunday to say thank you to God—thank you for life, for gifts, for each other, for grace, for forgiveness, even for trials. We say thank you because we believe that we are held in existence, that all of creation is held in existence, by God’s merciful hands.
We believe that God is giving us life, forming our lives, in the midst of all those natural processes. God’s hand is always present, at work, giving new life. We are grateful for our very being; we are thankful for the material, the matter, the soil, the flows of energy, which are suffused with God’s presence. We are people who make it a point to confess that all the randomness, the chance occurrences, which brought us into existence are the work of God. Life is precious because it is God-breathed; we are born of a God who is in love with us.
To say that we are born of God isn’t to diminish the labor of our mothers, or to set up God as an alternative to mothers. We all know that pregnancy and labor are very tangible, fleshy and messy. I’m sure Celia can testify to what it means to bear a child. And I’m sure Martha and Rebecca have a thing or two to say about how pregnancy is real, no figment of their imagination. And we all know that there isn’t an alternative to pregnancy. God doesn’t create us apart from these natural and wonderful processes. God is at work in the midst of them.
To believe that God is our creator is not to imagine a God that works separately from the pregnancy of Celia or Rebecca or Martha or any of our mothers. God is at work in the womb. God is at work in Rebecca and Martha, in the duration of pregnancy. God works in and through their loving care—as they give their bodies, as they give their vitamins and proteins and whatever else happens, to the formation of a child in their womb.
And God uses the work of our hands as well. In a few moments our mothers and soon to be mothers will eat the food you made, the work of your hands. That yummy food is part of your participation in the formation of these children. And all of this—your cooking, their eating, the loving care of fathers and mothers and friends—all of it is how God creates life, it’s how God continually creates and sustains life. God’s creation didn’t end at the beginning of time. To believe that God is our creator is to see this all too human activity as flowing from the merciful hands of God. That’s is the substance of our faith.
We are led astray by the way some talk about creation, the creation of the world, as something that happened a long time ago. Many talk as if their doctrine of creation has to do with what exactly happened at the beginning of time—how did life emerge, how many days or years did it take, and so on.
But that just scratches the surface of what it means to believe that God is the creator. Because “Creation isn’t a theory about how things started… [I]t’s a way of seeing everything in relation to God” (Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 37). It’s a way of recognizing that God is at work in and with our care for one another. Life happens, love happens, in our midst, because God is love, because God is our very life.
Part of the problem is that we don’t take the Psalms as important for our understanding of creation as Genesis 1 and 2. Everyone wants to read Genesis 1 and 2—“in the beginning”—as the place to figure out what’s significant about creation, God’s creation of us and the plants and animals and land and sea and earth. But we don’t acknowledge often enough that God’s creative activity is acknowledged throughout Scripture—like in our Psalm, which is probably older, more ancient, than the Genesis accounts of creation.
Let me read verse 3 or Psalm 100: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” God made us, God creates us, we are God’s people, God sustains us like a shepherd cares for his sheep. To believe that God is the creator is not simply a statement about the beginning of the world; instead, it means God is at work in the random messiness of life, breathing forth new life, light in the midst of darkness, love in the midst of destruction, hope in the midst of misery.
What are you grateful for?
Christians are people who give their lives to answering that question. Our lives are our attempt to discover how to say thank you to God and to all the ways God gives life. Christians are people who confess the depths of their needs—that our needs go all the way down, all the way down into the depths of God’s love.
But this is the work of faith, and it’s hard work. It’s hard to confess that we are needful people—that we are in need—when we seem to be able to care for ourselves. It’s quite foreign in our world to confess that we need others for our very life, we need others to sustain us. No one wants to appear vulnerable. We hide our weaknesses from each other. In a world where only the fit survive, we don’t want to appear weak.
That’s why our passage from Matthew 25 is so strange. Our king is weak, utterly dependent, completely in need. Verse 34: “Then the king will say… ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”
The creator has a face, the face of Christ, which appears to us in the weak, the least of these, the ones who are intimately familiar with their need. We learn gratitude when we are honest about our need, our emptiness without feeling the love of another, which is the love of God. That’s the unceasing task of the Christian: to plumb the depths of our need, to see that we are nothing but need, completely dependent. We are like the babies in Martha and Rebecca’s wombs—held in existence by the gracious care of our creator.
Why is this good news? It’s good news because our need is also a gift. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is to say, “I can’t do it on my own; I need you.” Christians are people who confess our neediness, our complete dependence on God’s grace, and offer our neediness as a gift to others. We becomes spaces of need, where others can feel welcomed and needed. Then we, like Paul in our passage from Ephesians, can say to someone, “I do not cease to give thanks for you”—I am grateful, from the depths of my being, for you, for the grace of God that you are, for the gift of God that you are, for the love of God that you are, I thank God for you.
In a little while we will celebrate communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, our thanksgiving feast. The meal helps us see and feel our dependence, our neediness. No one serves herself or himself. We hold out our hands like beggars. We wait in line like people do in bread lines, awaiting a handout. Even the two people who serve us the bread and cup have to wait till everyone else has eaten. Then they serve one another. They don’t break off their own piece they want—they receive from the hand of another. Communion is how a display of our neediness, and a way to learn that our neediness is sometimes the greatest gift we can offer.
And, most of all, communion is our thanksgiving, it’s our Eucharist. We eat from the Lord’s Table, spiritual food for our nourishment. We receive the gift of God’s sacrifice of love for us—that God gave his life that we may have life. Communion is where we discover the depths of our need, the depths of God’s love for us, and the depths of our gratitude. Like Paul, we come to say, “I do not cease to give thanks for you.” For God in Christ feeds us; we are his beloved sheep.