Texts: Psalm 65; Luke 17:11-19
It is hard to be thankful today. But the reasons are not the obvious ones. It is not really because there are various buffoons in positions of power. It is not really because we can’t visit our friends and family. It is not really because we lack the moral strength to say “Thank you.”
The reason it’s hard to be thankful is not because here in the fall of 2020 the world has suddenly become an especially bad place. There is evil in the world, but that is not why it is hard to be thankful.
The reason it’s hard to be thankful is because the world we experience is one-dimensional and machine-like. It is nearly impossible give thanks when you do not perceive that you have received a gift. The problem is less about the world out there, than it is about the tools through which we experience that world.
Imagine trying to photograph the beauty of fall without color technology. Imagine trying to measure pressure with only a ruler. Imagine trying to count without numbers. Imagine trying to observe distant galaxies with a frying pan. It’s hard to be thankful because the equipment that makes gratitude possible is rare.
The Christian theological tradition has long affirmed that God interacts with the world in at least two ways. One way is explained in our reading from Luke’s gospel.
Jesus and his students were heading to Jerusalem. Their route took them through a small village. As they walked between the houses they were approached by a group of people who were obviously diseased. (What’s worse than being diseased? The stigma of being “obviously diseased.”)
Luke tells us that the two groups kept their distance from each other. Because of this distance, those afflicted by disease had to call out loudly, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Jesus healed them. Actually, he told them to go and get their symptoms checked. It was as they moved to obey this instruction that they were healed. Their healing came interwoven with their obedience.
At this, one of them, but only one, a foreigner, praised God with a loud voice. Then he turned back to thank Jesus for this stunning gift. To the original readers of Luke’s gospel, the fact that it was a foreigner who expressed gratitude was significant. The healing offered to the world, through Jesus, wasn’t only for insiders.
So this is one way in which God interacts with the world. It’s dramatic, and seems to interrupt the natural machinery.
Some months ago I experienced an unmistakable sense that I should pray for a specific person. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me very often. Later that same day I received a phone call about that precise person—who was in a difficult situation indeed. Oddly enough, that has happened to me twice in recent months. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I take it to be one of those flickers that suggests the world is more than a machine.
This is where we tend to look for God, in the unexplainable. If there can be no other explanation, we think, then God is at work.
Yet our theological tradition has always said there is another place we should look for God’s work in the world. It’s within and through the natural machinery itself. This is the stuff of sunrise and rain. It’s the stuff of yet another successful harvest. This other form of God’s work is that which is extended to people everywhere. Sometime we call it common grace. We see this in the fact that a single seed is packed with enough data to build an entire plant.
The poet of Psalm 65 sees the world in this way. He sees the fruit of God’s presence in the everyday:
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges, softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your beauty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain.
They shout and sing together for joy.
We would be hard-pressed to write anything like that today. More than 100 years ago Max Weber saw the way things were going. He observed that our time is characterized by a disenchantment of the world. We lack the equipment to see God at work in the usualness of things.
We assume that the only causes worth talking about are those we see in the natural machinery. Our imaginations have been limited; our ability to see purpose and blessing in the world has been turned off. We look for galaxies with a frying pan. We gauge pressure with a ruler. We try to count without numbers.
And so it is that without the tools of the psalmist we are unable to muster gratitude. Like people who have never lived on the prairies we find ourselves unable to appreciate that there might be more to the sky than what we see through our single window.
Consider the grateful foreigner of Luke’s gospel again:
I cannot help but wonder if that individual might not have been better prepared to understand what had happened to him than was the rest of the group. Maybe it was because, as a foreigner, he didn’t expect it. Maybe he was able to appreciate God’s care because he didn’t feel entitled to it. Because he assumed less, he was able to better understand what had happened to him. And let’s be clear, his gratitude signals the fact that his experience was richer than that of his friends. He was not making anything up, but simply experiencing the same things as his friends is a more well-rounded way.
Being thankful for all that we have been given doesn’t require us to be willfully ignorant of how the world works. But if our minds have been overly closed and if our world overly disenchanted it will be impossible for us to see that we have been given anything at all. And our experience of the world be the poorer for it.
So bring on the cooks. Bring on the musicians. Bring on the screenwriters. Bring on the poets. Bring on everyone that can help us experience the world as the rich gift that it truly is. We need to notice. We need a sense of awe.
We need this, not because we don’t understand nature’s machinery, but because we do. We need this because God’s good world is capable of marveling and intriguing us if only we can see it in it’s fullness, sparkling with divine light and charged with divine purpose.
Closing a sermon with a poem is cliché, but today I’m afraid I must:
Here’s “Meditation on a Grapefruit,” by Craig Arnold https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/52980/meditation-on-a-grapefruit
The work of the poet, biblical and otherwise, helps us notice. It helps us see the world more fully. It exposes the gift for what it is. It invites wonder and gratitude.
Oh God, by the power of your Spirit, may it be so with us, even now in the fall of 2020. Amen.