Once I crashed my motorcycle, going around a bend. Hit a patch of gravel. Was wearing a helmet and didn’t wreck the bike or myself too much. Couple hours later when my mom had taken me to urgent care to get gravel cleaned out of my hand she remarked, “oh, you must have been saying so many thank you prayers that you’re okay.”
I don’t remember what I might have replied to my mom, but I do know that her remark caught me totally off-guard. I hadn’t thought to be grateful at all, though—of course—that made plenty of sense. I have to admit that I was in seminary then and spending plenty of other time thinking about God. Still it hadn’t even occurred to me in those couple hours to say any sort of prayer. Even now—in confessing my lack of thankfulness and prayerfulness in the face of calamity—I’m still working on it.
See, this takes practice, to be grateful to God. It isn’t based in any circumstances themselves, anything exceptional or miraculous or the appearance of some sort of unusual blessing, but is rather based in our habit and that shaping of our worldview. It is an unfolding attitude. A stretching, not of muscles, but of our awareness. You can grow in your ability to give thanks.
Now, I know there’s lots of other practice in these days. You practice perfecting your family’s heritage recipes for rutabaga or a favorite pie and you practice carving the turkey how you might remember your grandfather doing it. You practice living into some of these old roles. Or you find new practices, new ways of observing this day. It’s also a new practice at new places in life, when you come back from college for the first time and aren’t the same even though you’re around those same old people. In most cases, it takes practice and effort to be around family, to steer past the disagreements and dwell on the more congenial discussions. It does, indeed, take practice to be kind.
That’s all besides practicing your shot for hunting or your strategy for shopping or your skills on crowded roadways. Yes, in these days there is plenty to practice. And as we head into what often feels like the busiest time of the whole year, this may not seem like the best or most obvious moment to start some new training and work on a new practice, but I’m going to commend it to you anyway. Besides, there’s no deadline. You can keep at it. You can hold onto this sermon for next year if you’d prefer.
With this preparatory word nudging you toward gratitude, I’m just following our Bible reading for tonight. The passage from Deuteronomy has a couple of great, helpful aspects to it. First, the setting of this reading is an instruction from Moses before the people entered the Promised Land. I like that it is a preparatory instruction, because once they go into the Promised Land and plant their gardens and raise their families and try to establish order in their villages, life will get busy and they’ll be distracted. So the plan needs to come beforehand. In the same way, knowing that life will get busy and you’ll be distracted, tonight I’m giving you the heads up that you should be preparing to give thanks.
The second thing I like about that reading is that it’s also very rehearsed. Moses gives a little speech to recite, the bit about “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” It’s a funny little speech, because it’s peculiar to trace lineage as Aramean. It was the minorest detail. There’s no reason to say it like that. So why would you want to rehearse telling a family tree in that weird way? Maybe the unusual phrasing makes it stick for rehearsing gratitude. An odd origin story could mean you had no reason to expect all the good that’s come to you, even in the most gradual way through the generations.
The other thing I like about that rehearsed aspect is that Deuteronomy was actually compiled about a thousand years after Moses. So this became a method of saying, “we’ve been working on this forever. This is part of who we are and who we should be.”
It’s actually striking how much of that parallels the Thanksgiving tale we like to tell, of how our ancestors the Pilgrims came to a new land and were assisted by much wiser and kinder natives which led to giving gratitude. We like to repeat that story and rehearse that narrative even if those were only our ancestors in some peculiar, generic sense. And whether or not it was factually an event that happened, it still says this is part of who we are and who we should be.
That also highlights that practicing gratitude isn’t only opening our awareness to what has happened in the past and what we’ve already received and how much good has surrounded us. The practice of gratitude also opens up the future. For example, in Deuteronomy, remembering they themselves were runaway slaves meant an ongoing openness to other foreigners. As we keep rehearsing a nationalistic narrative of Pilgrim immigrants aided by Native Americans, we’re reminded that our rugged Euro-centric frontier individualism actually pales compared to the support of community for sustained wellbeing. Or, again, remembering we were immigrants makes us better able to see now that newly arrived refugees may well need help. Or, once more, it may engender a willingness for us to value natives, including at Standing Rock and to appreciate their concern for our shared natural environment.
Oh, but there I went and brought in current events and politics, even though you were hoping that such messy divisions might somehow be avoided at Thanksgiving gatherings, that somehow you’d be more thankful if you could avoid those conversations. You may even feel like some of the recent past of politics and current events and the state of our world has diminished your ability to give thanks.
But especially here I’m going to redouble my encouragement to you. If my mom thinks a motorcycle crash is a good time to say a thank you prayer, I’ll certainly tell you that working on this practice in the time ahead will surely struggle against despair and drown anger and offer inspiration against the politics of resentment. Start on your thanksgiving, even as you’re hoping for change and looking for ways to improve the system and longing for more.
This, after all, is precisely what the Apostle Paul commends to you this evening: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen