O God, take my lips and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
“Gratitude” becomes a buzzword every year around mid November. We see it on jewelry commercials, see it on grocery-store billboards, and hear it on radio advertisements. There is almost no way to avoid a word so inextricably bound to our cultural vocabulary. As with most widely used words in the American vocabulary, “gratitude” runs the risk of losing its revolutionary nature.
In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, we heard how the people of Israel were given specific instructions about how and when to present their first fruits before God. Deuteronomy’s vision for a sacrifice of gratitude is both simple and complex. The offering is given to the priest, and then the worshiper responds with a retelling of the Abraham and Exodus stories.
This seems a bit odd to our modern ears. Why go through the trouble of retelling a story that’s been heard thousands of time before? Why recount the mighty deeds of God in the history of Israel? Why contextualize the land of the fruits being offered to God? Those are all valuable questions, but one even more pertinent may be: Why not? Why not recall God’s track record of grace in the life of Israel?
It is easy to assume that the people of Israel were just as inclined as we are to forget the divine origin of their numerous gifts as the people of God. They were inclined, like we are, to imagine themselves as the source and end of all they had.
They had to be reminded of the ways in which God fulfilled God’s promises to their ancestors. They had to be reminded of God’s faithfulness.
At the center of God’s personality is a profound generosity. When it comes to blessing and loving the human family, God holds nothing back. Everything we have is a gift from God, because everything we have belongs to God.
This reality of profound generosity stands at the center of today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is attempting to escape a crowd of listeners when they suddenly appear at his side. They ask him when he arrived on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and he says, “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted.”
That statement alone is proof that Jesus needs new public relations!
After another exchange of questions, the crowd asks, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
It is obvious that this crowd was familiar with the Exodus story. What they weren’t familiar with, though, is the starring role Jesus had played in sustaining the people of Israel on their trek toward the Promised Land.
“It wasn’t Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. … I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In an instant, Jesus inserts himself into Israel’s collective history, as the life-sustaining Presence who guided them through desolation to liberation. In an instant, Jesus connects himself to the God who brought Israel “out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” the God who showers down manna from heaven and leads Israel into a land filled with good things, even milk and honey.
Gratitude is tricky. It can easily become a cumbersome process of making a mental list of things one is thankful for or another source of feelings of spiritual inadequacy. Gratitude, in the vision of Jesus and today’s Deuteronomy reading, is much deeper than a list; it is a way of life that grows out of God’s faithfulness to Israel.
While our consumer culture tells us to be grateful for the stuff of life, God invites us to share in profound gratitude for life itself. “When you offer your first fruits to the priest,” says God. “Remember the land from which the fruit comes. Remember that I gave you this land.”
This fruit-bearing, promise-keeping, wilderness-wandering, faithful God is the fountain of life, the source of all goodness. On the surface, this sounds right. But when the surface is scratched, it challenges everything American culture assumes about assets. We have things because we want things. We have things because we work hard for things. We buy things because people will like our things.
The challenge of God in Deuteronomy and in Jesus Christ is this, though: Rethink your gratitude. Are you grateful for things, or are you grateful for people? Are you grateful for the things that make life convenient, or are you grateful for life itself?
What if God had never delivered Israel from Egypt or Jesus hadn’t ever given himself as manna in the wilderness? What would the people of God had given thanks for? Each other? The dust? Breath? Life?
Israel’s “maybe” leads today’s people of God, assembled here, to give thanks and recall all that God has done for, with and through us, to place ourselves in the ongoing narrative of gratitude. It forces us to practice a counterintuitive, countercultural Thanksgiving, giving thanks not for our bounty and excess, but giving thanks for life’s most basic gifts: bread and wine and each other. It forces us to acknowledge Jesus’ presence at the center of it all: sustaining and nourishing us as the manna of God.
So, pilgrims on this journey of gratitude: Remember all that God has done, and give thanks.