October 8, 2017 | Deuteronomy 8: 7-14 a) | Reverend Nancy Talbot
Writer Anne Lamott says that for her, most of the time, gratitude is the rush of relief that comes when she realizes she has dodged a bullet. Most of us can relate. Gratitude is the breath we exhale when the officer has failed to notice we were going 100 in a 60 km per hour zone. It’s the sigh we let go when it turns out our children were just hiding in the bathroom stall and have not actually been abducted by a stranger. It’s release that comes when we find out the test results say it isn’t cancer after all, or it is but it’s not terminal and there is a treatment. Gratitude for most of us is the kind of thanks being offered this weekend by the people of Williams Lake whose homes didn’t burn down this summer and by the hundreds of people who dodged real bullets in Vegas this week.
It’s the thanks we come to almost automatically when we stop holding our breath and realize, things could have been so much worse than they are. Thank God! Thank God everybody’s safe, thank God you’re alive, thank God I don’t have to pay that huge fine for speeding!
It’s a meaningful kind of gratitude because it takes outside of ourselves even if only for a short while. It acknowledges the fragility of life and the way that ultimately we are not in charge. It expresses our need for God and our need for grace. But it is not the gratitude we are being invited into this morning, at least not through our scripture reading. This morning we are being invited to remember and give thanks when things are going well, for needs that have been met, for land that is abundant, for water that is gushing and honey that is sweet. This morning we are being invited to remember and give thanks for those things we are not in need of because they have been already given.
The reading from the book of Deuteronomy comes from that time in the life of the people of Israel when they have finally reached what’s referred to in scripture as the promised land. After escaping Egypt and wandering around in the desert for 40 years they have finally settled in the land of Canaan where they are now beginning to flourish. The days of slavery are behind them. The lack of food and drink, the discouragement and despair is over. The land in which they are finally living is a good and abundant land.
If you yourself have lived through hard times you might recognize yourself in this story. It’s the story of immigrants who have left everything behind to begin life in a new land and have succeeded over time. It’s the story of those of you who lived through the depression, coming out the other end of it to see prosperity return to the land in a way you could never have imagined. It’s the story of any of us who have ever wandered through a dark and desperate time in our lives, parched for life-giving meaning, starved for mercy and grace, miraculously finding ourselves in a place of restoration and renewal.
And the reason we are being invited to remember to give thanks in these circumstances of goodness and abundance, taking care not to forget the Lord our God and exalting ourselves instead is because of the danger that can befall us when we don’t remember: the danger of thinking we got to where we arrived, or we have what we have, because we did it all by ourselves or because we earned it or we deserved it or because we are somehow entitled to have what we have.
The reason these are dangerous thoughts is because when we have them it isn’t long before we find ourselves clutching and hoarding and protecting what we have and defending the land that we feel we are entitled to live on. Somewhere along the line when that begins to happen, what we have never seems to be quite enough and instead of living out of a wellspring of gratitude for what we do have, we find ourselves living out of the emptiness of what is lacking.
I love the story about what billionaire Howard Hughes said once when he was asked how much money it would take to make him happy, “just a little bit more” he reportedly replied.
Countries go to war over their sense of entitlement, what some even say is their God given right to the land. It’s what’s still happening in Israel and Palestine. Nations get torn apart over disagreements about whose land is whose. Look at our own broken relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people. It happens in families as well. Dad dies and one sibling ends up taking another to court because somehow they decide they deserve more of Dad’s money than their sister or brother.
One of the curious things about the passage we heard read from Deuteronomy this morning is that it connects the goodness of the land not just with remembering where it came from but with the admonition that the way to remember and therefore to continue to prosper in the land is by keeping the commandments, ordinances and statutes laid out by Moses.
I was tempted to pass over that part of the passage this morning because after all who wants to come to church on Thanksgiving Sunday and be told if you just keep the10 commandments you’ll be rich? If only it were true!
But then I found myself wondering if there isn’t something about the commandments and ordinances being referred that isn’t just about following a set of rules to stay in God’s good books or to gain material wealth.
Here at the church, when we introduce the children to what’s traditionally called the 10 commandments, we don’t refer to them in that way. Instead we call them the 10 best ways for living. We take those 10 ways and we divide them into three parts: ways that are about Loving God, ways that are about Loving People and ways that help us know God loves us.
One of the ways we talk about loving God is to put God first in our lives, to remember that no material thing is more important than love, relationships and grace. One of the ways we talk about loving other people is not to want what they have but to be grateful for what we have. One of the ways we talk about God loving us is by keeping Sabbath, taking an intentional period of time every day or every week where we pause to remember all that we have been given and to appreciate our God given gifts.
It sounds so simple when we teach it to the children but it can be so hard to practice, oddly enough, especially when life is going well and we are busy doing all the good things we have to do and there is barely even time to breathe, or to let out a sigh of relief to say “thank God I’m still alive.”
And yet I think that’s what this passage from Deuteronomy is trying to get us to do, to allow gratitude not just to be something we say at the end of the day when we have dodged another tragic moment in life, but to allow the simple practice of being grateful to shape and form our living.
One of the things I find fascinating about the Hebrew Bible is that over the course of the long narrative, the people of Israel keep moving in and out of the promised land. Sometimes things are good and plentiful and sometimes things are difficult and scarce. I love the way this speaks to the rhythm and flow of life itself. But I can’t help but wonder if often the promised land, the good land we all desire isn’t actually the land in which we are always living, if only we had eyes to see it and hearts to claim it.
Earlier this week, I asked our worship team: Where or what is the good land God has provided in your life, the place where you are fed and nurtured, the places where you flourish. Where is the good land for you?
My response to that question the other night was literally the land around us, the incredible beauty in which we live and the way it renews my Spirit. For others it was time spent with family and friends, for one person it was silence, for another the companionship of people along the way in times of challenge. For someone else it was music.
What is the good land God has given you to notice and appreciate this thanksgiving Sunday?
Anne Lamott, whose own sense of gratitude is mostly the rush of relief that comes when she has dodged a bullet, tells this story of the day she spent with her friends Barbara and Susie. “Barbara has Lou Gehrig’s disease. As I have pointed out to her, Lou Gehrig’s is the one disease you are supposed to actively try to avoid. But she went ahead and got a full-blown case, which has come to mean she she uses a walker, feeding tubes, and a computerized speaking device called Kate that works through her iPad.
So Susie drove us to see the Pacific Ocean from above San Francisco’s Moraga steps. I had not yet settled down into what is true – that Barbara is pretty sick and getting worse – so I sat in a state of jovial nervousness in the backseat, feeling alone and useless and superficial. When we arrived, the view was socked in with fog. We gamely got out of the car anyway, and on top of everything – the Lou Gehrig’s, the vichyssoise fog, my anxious sorrow – there was one of those mean winds that pricks at your body and your mind and your very being.
It was all hopeless. I had no choice but to pray. This is all a mess, I said to God. I love these two women so much, and I had had such high hopes for connection and joy today: Help.
And I got my divine revelation: We all needed to get back into the car, immediately.
This took a while, as there is not much immediately when you’re with someone who has ALS. But at some point, warmth and golden sun flooded through the car windows, and Susie drove us around the neighborhood, and from inside we took in the brilliant gardens of succulents and crazy bright splashy exotic petals. We found the one perfect spot at the foot of the steps, where we could spend as much time as we liked looking up directly at the magical mosaic on the tall, steep steps….
….We all got so happy. We talked about real things for an hour: life, death, families, feeding tubes, faith. I asked Barbara, who does not eat food anymore, “What are you most grateful for these days?” She typed on her iPad and Kate’s mechanical voice spoke for her: “The beauty of nature, the birds and flowers, the beauty of friends.””*
Good land even in the midst of a life that appears to be barren.
So let us give thanks for the land we have been given, for the bounty of life and the giver of all that is good.
*Anne Lamott “Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers” Riverhead Books, 2012.