Sunday, October 07, 2007

Living Amongst the Ruins of the City: On Learning to Give Thanks

A Thanksgiving Day Sermon
The Anglican Parish of Almaguin-Emsdale
Oct. 7, 2007
Lam. 1:1-6; Lam. 3:19-26; 2 Tim. 1:1-14; Lk. 17:5-10

Lord of Creation, you who spoke light out of darkness, speak life into us this morning so that we may live lives of thanksgiving so that the world may know You. Amen.

We like Thanksgiving, don’t we? It’s a time of celebration and joyfulness for all that we have in abundance. Giving thanks is almost as natural as breathing, or at least it should be. Someone opens a door for you, you respond automatically with ‘thank you’. But we had to be taught to be thankful. When someone gave you a gift as a child, your parents hopefully taught you to offer them a heartfelt ‘thank you’. Well, our Scripture readings today, specifically the readings from the book of Lamentations, teach us that being thankful is not an easy or trivial thing to do, they challenge us to re-think what it means to be thankful in a world like ours—and in fact, I want to suggest that living a life of thanksgiving requires a lot of effort, and like all things worth working for, is itself an art form, a learned skill, it's something we all keep on learning—and this morning, the Hebrew poets of lament are our teachers.

In our reading from the book of Lamentations, we have what seems to be the exact opposite of giving thanks—we are here witnesses to the ancient Hebrew practice of poetic lament, that literary performance which gave public testimony to the deep grief of the Hebrew people over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Israel, as a people, had experienced something they never expected, they lived through the ruin and devastation of Jerusalem and more pointedly, they experienced the annihilation of the Temple—the very thing that gave their lives, as Jews, meaning.

But nevertheless, in the middle of the poet’s darkest reflections—and even T.S. Eliot, at his most somber, doesn’t approach the sense of melancholy and sorrow expressed here by this Hebrew poet—even in the middle of all of this, the poet is able to articulate: ‘But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’. Even in the midst of the tumultuousness of its life, Israel is grateful to her God for his goodness and his provision; even amongst the ruins of the city, Israel learns to give thanks, to acknowledge its hope in God’s mercy, his faithfulness and his steadfast love. The poet, in our canticle, comes to a resolution only as they reflect on God’s provision and his care for his people; the poet is able to wrestle life out of death because of God’s steadfast love.

Following the literary movement of this poet, from the depths of lament to hopefulness of God’s provision, I’m reminded of one of the most moving scenes in modern cinema, from Roberto Benigni’s 1998 movie Life is Beautiful—a movie which takes place during the rise of fascism in Italy during WWII. I’m reminded of the scene where the father and his young son are in the concentration camp, in the most horrible circumstances one can imagine. The father wants to protect his son from the reality of what they are facing and so tells him that the whole thing is just a big game and that the manual labour that he performs every day is just really a competition. In this way the father, a man who can find humor in the most bleak of situations, shields his son from the horrors of the camp which, in the end, saves the son. Here is a man, who in the heart of darkness, is so thankful and grateful for the life of his son, that he struggles to find the beauty of life in order to protect him. He is able to wrestle life out of death so that his son might have hope and not despair.

This is the reality of our lives as Christians, this is what the gospel of thanksgiving is all about! Thanksgiving, giving thanks to God in the middle of the hard things of our existence is an art learned in the living of it; true, deep biblical thanksgiving is a chastened gratitude for what God has given us, for what he had taken us through and for what he will take us through. The celebration of Thanksgiving is more than a one day affair, much more than a long-weekend spent with the family, but something, as Christians, that we live out with our lives, one day at a time.

It’s easy to thank God before meals and for our families (well, most of the time), or for prosperity and health or for the beauty of creation—but after this it gets a little difficult. It’s not an easy thing to live lives of thanksgiving when we have obstacles to be overcome, lessons to be learned, when we need to endure hardship, or to live with those people in our lives who are more thorns than they are roses. Sometimes it’s much easier to become disillusioned with our lives and so become bitter. But this morning, it is not a glib or superficial ‘thank you’ that we offer to God, but we offer our very lives in gratitude to God, as damaged, as broken and as bruised as our lives may be—we live them in thanksgiving to a God who struggled to find life in the heart of darkness, who wrestled life out of death in the life of his resurrected Son so that we might have hope and not despair. True thanksgiving is gratitude born in the full view of all the realities of life, in view of joy & sorrow, of love & brokenness, of pleasure & pain, of gratitude & lament, of life & of death.

So, as we prepare to come to this altar this morning, as we come to perform the church’s most central act of thanksgiving in celebrating the Eucharist—and eucharist itself literally means ‘gratitude’ or ‘thanksgiving’—let’s offer our thanks for God’s wonderful provision and for his beautiful creation we see all around us—for the marvelous colours of this fall season and for a bountiful harvest, but most of all, let us offer our thanks to God for wrestling life out of death.


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