The biblical model of gratitude is a spiritual practice that can nourish us through all seasons of life.
Vicar Bristol Reading
Day of Thanksgiving, Year C
Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35
Beloved in Christ, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Gratitude is having a moment. It’s trendy to be thankful these days.
Numerous self-help gurus suggest keeping a daily gratitude journal, writing down a few things you’re thankful for every single day. Doing so, they say, is a quick and easy way to “fix your mindset,” and “spark joy.” In other words: it will make you feel better! And it’s true. Social science research has actually shown that practicing gratitude regularly does have a positive impact on your health. People who write thank you notes, for instance, report increased happiness scores. I’m not sure how that’s measured exactly, but it certainly sounds like a good thing.
It’s great that people are promoting gratitude, and it’s fascinating that science seems to back up traditional ethical wisdom. But, to be honest, all of this actually makes me a little nervous… Is gratitude only valuable when it makes us feel good? Do we want to measure our morality by what increases our happiness scores?
Gratitude should be more than just an emotional experience.
Sometimes we do feel thankful, but sometimes we don’t. In difficult seasons of life that are filled with grief or pain, sometimes the feeling of gratitude is hard to come by. We’re in that stretch of time now that’s known as “the holiday season,” which can be particularly painful those who are experiencing loss or loneliness. We don’t have to be grateful for our suffering. We can, though, be grateful through our suffering, And that requires an understanding of gratitude that’s more than just feeling good.
Another concern I have with this trendy kind of thankfulness is that it can hide issues of injustice and inequity.
The hashtag #blessed is ubiquitous on social media, but it’s often used in response to a life of ease or wealth. People feel #blessed when they go on cushy vacations or can afford a fancy new gadget. Yet, the biblical concept of blessing goes much deeper than creature comforts. Jesus declares that it is the poor and hungry who are blessed. This clearly calls us to understand blessing in a way that looks beyond the possessions and privilege of this life.
I want to be clear: It is okay to be grateful when we are happy or enjoying the nice things we have! And – gratitude is still valuable even when that’s not the case.
Our scriptural texts this morning underscore this idea. Paul writes in Philippians that we should rejoice always, in all circumstances; he says we should bring everything to God with thankful prayer, not only the parts of our lives that are going well. That kind of gratitude isn’t optional or occasional. It’s a spiritual discipline. It’s not a feeling, but a practice, something that we commit to doing no matter what our present situation is like.
And then there’s the Deuteronomy text, which doesn’t just encourage giving thanks in all circumstances; it actually gives elaborate and specific instructions for how to do so. Even though Deuteronomy is an ancient text, from a completely different culture than our own, its prescribed process for giving thanks is still relevant. It even comes in four basic steps!
Number one: offer your first fruits in thanks to God.
The text means this literally, as in “bring some of the first crops that you harvest,” but this applies even to those of us who aren’t farmers. Offering your first fruits means you don’t leave gratitude to the bottom of your to-do list, something you do once you’ve covered all your other needs, paid all your other bills, completed all your other chores. Gratitude takes precedence.
For some people this means budgeting in a way that prioritizes charitable giving. For others, this means honoring commitments to volunteer their time, even when their schedules are full. Or, this can be as simple as pausing before you even get out of bed in the morning to breathe slowly in a moment of thanks for a new day. The point is not what you do but how you do it. Make gratitude a practice, and make it an important one.
Second, the Deuteronomy text says to give thanks where God dwells.
Well, great! You’re all here in church on Thanksgiving morning, so must have this one down! In the context of Deuteronomy, the place of worship wasn’t yet a permanent building like this, because the Israelite community was still a wandering one. This is why the text says, “Go to the place that God will choose as a dwelling.” Even though we do have a building, this instruction to go wherever God dwells speaks to the reality that God dwells so many places in the world, beyond the walls of any church. Anywhere you practice gratitude, it is an act of worship. Any time you give thanks, it is a form of prayer. The mystic teacher Meister Eckhart actually wrote, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” In this way, we connect gratitude to awe and wonder. We are attentive to where God’s spirit is present and moving in the world. The whole earth is making joyful noise to God, the Psalmist says (Psalm 100:1), and when we join our voices to that chorus of praise, we are practicing gratitude.
So, make thankfulness a priority, recognize gratitude as an act of worship, and third: tell the story of what God has done for you.
Gratitude to God is meant to be shared, to be communal. The Deuteronomy text gives us model by recounting a story the ancient Israelites told:
My ancestors were wandering in a barren, dry wilderness, and famine almost killed them! But – God brought them into Egypt, where there was enough food. Then my ancestors were enslaved by the Egyptians! But – God heard their cries and rescued them. Then my ancestors ended up back in the wilderness, again struggling to survive. But – God showed them the way through and gave them a land of their own, a Promised Land that was lush and fruitful, Because God did these things, my ancestors survived and I am here now, on this good land, able to grow enough food to feed my family. I am thankful because God always sustained my ancestors and God always sustains me.
Even when things got really difficult– especially when things got really difficult– the Israelites told this story about how God had provided for them again and again. The church still tells this story today: you hear it often in our scriptures, our hymns, our liturgy. You hear this story in our prayers during Eucharist because it is about God’s provision. God feeds us – not only with physical sustenance, but also, as Jesus reminds us, with the bread of life that nourishes our souls.
God has provided for us spiritually in so many ways: through the gifts of the sacraments and the wisdom of the Word; through the sure promise of grace, the forgiveness of sins; through the guidance and comfort of God’s Spirit. Gratitude is our joyful response to God’s faithfulness and sufficiency.
The story you tell doesn’t have to be about ancestors wandering around in the desert. It can just be about the ways God’s spirit is moving in your life. How has God transformed your family, your marriage, your friendships? How has God been at work in your home, in your workplace, in your travels? How has God been speaking in your prayer life, in your learning, in your rest Telling these stories is part of giving thanks, part of practicing gratitude.
And finally, in the Deuteronomy text the culmination of this pattern of thanksgiving is a big celebratory meal. That’s the fourth step.
Sounds fitting in our American context, although I don’t imagine the ancient Israelites were eating much turkey. The biblical imperative is also clear that this meal isn’t just a party for family and friends; it’s a radical welcome for everyone. The text specifically says that “aliens who reside among you” should be invited. Those who cannot provide for themselves should be generously provided for. Caring for the hungry and poor, the ones Jesus called blessed, is a central part of this practice of gratitude. Even as they wandered in the wilderness, God called the people to share whatever they had. Now we are called to that task. Our thankful celebrations for all that God has done for us should always turn us outward to be signs of God’s justice and generosity in the world.
As we gather around our tables this holiday season, may we be cultivate a practice of gratitude that nourishes us for service, remembering that, at God’s table, all are welcome and there is always enough for everyone.