True worship

Sermon for Thanksgiving
Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 17:11-19

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God,” writes the author of the book of Deuteronomy. “Take care… that when you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied”—when you’ve hit a sort of sweet spot of settled comfort and prosperity, in other words—take care that you “do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”

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Deuteronomy is a book set on a threshold, as the freed Hebrew slaves prepare to move from the wilderness and into the land of promise; as they prepare to shift from being a people formed and shaped by forty years of wilderness wanderings to becoming a settled and land-based nation called Israel. It is cast as the instructions of the great transformational leader Moses to a people on the boundary of an enormous shift. Moses will not cross over into that land of promise with them—they will instead be led by Joshua—so before they begin to make that move he’s got some things to say to them. Thirty-four chapters of things to say to them, which culminates with his blessing of them (Deut. 33:1-29), and then ends with an account of his death and burial.

These are boundary texts, of what might be called a “liminal” moment in the life of a people. They have a shared experience of what has gone before, and a shared promise of what lies ahead, yet as they stand on the threshold of that move they need to stop and listen and be recalled to first things. “Take care that you do not forget…”

They had been elated when they first escaped from slavery in Egypt, yet as they turned from the banks of the Red Sea to face the Sinai Desert eyebrows began to be raised. You’ve brought us here, Moses? As told in the book of Exodus, by “the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt” a deep and anxious discontent has set in:

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus 16: 2-3)

Never mind that in Egypt they’d been slaves; never mind that they’d been working their fingers to the bone trying to fill the Pharaoh’s impossible demands for more and more and more bricks… in Egypt, “we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” Really? Don’t you remember how hungry you were? How tired and beaten down and brutalized you were? You really wish you were back in Egypt?

It is when they are at Mount Sinai and Moses has disappeared up the mountain to receive the covenant law that they convince Aaron they need a more solid and tangible god than the one Moses keeps telling them about. Everyone’s jewelry is collected and melted down, and soon the infamous golden calf is made… now that’s a god to which we can really relate. That’s the kind of god we saw all around us back in Egypt, and now we’ve got one of our own.

You might remember how that little episode turns out. The long and short of it is that it is going to take this people forty years in that wilderness to get that kind thinking out of their collective system. With the notable exception of Joshua, that first generation of freed slaves has completely died out when the time comes to finally leave the wilderness and move into the land of promise. And because this generation knows of Egypt and slavery only second hand—from the stories that had been told them by their parents and grandparents—the cautionary message of this text from Deuteronomy becomes all the more urgent. “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied… Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’”

This is hugely insightful text, in terms of getting at something that seems rather embedded in human nature. So often when things are not going well—when people find themselves in wilderness and desert terrain—they blame someone or something else. It is the fault of the government, the economy, the “system”, even God. “Why is God doing this to me?” Then again, sometimes when people face those tough times, they find that they make it through precisely by falling back on the sustaining presence of God’s Spirit, and on the kindness and support of friends and family and church community; by permitting themselves to be carried and held, and by acknowledging their contingency. “I can’t do this alone.”

Funny thing, though, is that so very often when things are going really well—when we “eat bread without scarcity” and “lack nothing” as the Deuteronomist phrases it—we forget our fundamental contingency and buy into the myth of the self-made person. I’m successful because of my own capacities and capabilities; I’ve earned this, and I deserve it… whatever form “it” takes. And at least by implication this suggests that the state others are in is also of their own making, which means the pain or poverty or struggles of other people is not my fault, and certainly not my responsibility.

But we’re not self-made, not one of us. We are contingent in all kinds of ways; where and when we were born, how we were raised, what opportunities for school and work were presented us at key moments, what was happening in the world all around us. The list could go on and on, and to fail to recognize that is the first step toward believing that, “My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.”

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship, and he responded by pointing to the story of the Samaritan leper who returned to Jesus to give thanks for his healing. Though there were ten healed, only the Samaritan came back to Jesus. “[And] Jesus said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well,’” or as the King James Version translate is, “thy faith hath made thee whole.” As David Lose writes in his commentary on this passage,

By the end of the story, all ten are made well. But one has something more. He has seen Jesus, recognized his blessing and rejoiced in it, and changed his course of action and behavior. And because he sees what has happened, the leper is not just healed, but is made whole, restored, drawn back into relationship with God and humanity.

For Luther, it was that action of stopping and seeing that something had changed, and then returning to give thanks, that characterizes true worship.

The contemporary Canadian Thanksgiving holiday is a largely secularized one, really only vestigially connected to its roots in the English church tradition of an autumn harvest festival. Sure, people still decorate with those ornamental pumpkins, gourds, and squashes, which rather ironically are not even edible. And sure, families gather for those big turkey dinners, which are often punctuated by some very general remarks about being “thankful” even in homes of people who have little or no belief in the God to whom thanks might be given.

Not that there is anything wrong with gathering with friends and family to feast, yet for those of us who are positioned in a community of faith, maybe a big part of the force of this weekend is to acknowledge our basic contingency; to stop and see, and return back to give thanks to Jesus, in recognition that we are not self-made or constituted as “whole” on our own, but rather are in so many ways inter-connected. And to see, too, that we are recipients of life from the great Giver and Sustainer of all things.

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