"BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD"
Deuteronomy 8:1, 7-20 November 23, 1997
Luke 18:9-14 Byron C. Bangert
Twelve years ago, at the time of my first Thanksgiving in Bloomington, James Reston began his newspaper column with the following words:
No thoughtful citizen of the United States can reflect on the sufferings of the world in the year 1985 without counting the blessings of America on Thanksgiving Day.
It was a year of natural disasters in Mexico and Colombia, of famine in Ethiopia and sub-Saharan Africa that could take more lives than the first World War, of calamitous wars along the Persian Gulf and in Southeast Asia and terrorism in the skies and seas.
It was also a year of widespread unemployment in Western Europe . . , of millions of refugees scrambling from one country to another, often illegally, of political tension and of an arms race costing over $700 billion in this year alone.
1985 is far enough past that I can no longer recall some of the events that Reston had in mind as he wrote his column. Were he writing the column this week, some of the major events and places would be changed. The worst wars this past year seem to have been in Africa, the worst terrorism in Egypt and the Middle East, the worst natural disasters in Indonesia and the East Indies. By comparison, it still seems that we Americans have fared very well.
Reston went on to observe in 1985 that we Americans have a lot to be thankful for, but we have forgotten the foundation. He reminded us of the religious heritage that we first received from the Puritans and our founding forebears. He argued that the spirit and strength of our democracy was rooted in the conviction that we belong to our Creator, and this gives to every individual an inalienable standing as a person. Government is thereby obliged to practice the rule of law and good faith, not that of political expediency, and to regard its citizens as persons, not as things, not as instruments of power and ambition. Reston concluded with a reminder that the blessings of America have yet to be made available to all our citizens, and that one of the reasons for this has been a failure to understand that the security and defense of the nation do not rest solely upon massive military might. In our preoccupation with our own material power, we have forgotten the true source of our strength.
What Reston wrote in 1985 could just as well be written today. We also have a lot to be thankful for in 1997. But we continue to forget the foundation. The numbers of unemployed in America today are down, but the gap between rich and poor has only widened, and there are still far too many millions living below the poverty line. Budget deficits have diminished, but each year still finds the national debt to be the biggest in the history of the Republic, and politicians clamor for votes with their proposals to lower taxes. Huge military expenditures persist while hunger abounds throughout the nation and the world. As a nation we have been blessed, but our future is in jeopardy because we do not seem to know wherein our greatness lies.
On October 3, 1863, during the height of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the last Thursday of November to be "a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens." Lincoln must have read the 8th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy before giving these words to history. His proclamation read, in part:
We know that by [God's] divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.
But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.
"Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God," says Moses to Israel in our Old Testament text. "When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them . . . and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . . Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." But remember the LORD your God . . ."
Abraham Lincoln, in making his 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation, did not exalt himself. He did not exalt the North over the South. He did not exalt the nation. He simply called upon the people to remember their God, and to understand that they possessed no superior wisdom or virtue. Rather, they owed everything that they had received to their Creator God, by whose gracious hand they had been preserved and multiplied and enriched and strengthened, and by whose hand of judgment they were now subjected to the calamities of their own sin. Lincoln understood that no amount of wealth or power could preserve the nation. It would have to return to its foundation. It would have to turn to God. It would have to acknowledge its dependence upon the Creator.
There are several possible lessons here that cannot be explored this morning. There are also some difficulties in taking Lincoln's words from over a century ago and trying to apply them to a nation that is increasingly multi-cultural, a nation whose citizens understand God in many different ways. At the heart of Lincoln's profound perception of the human condition, however, lies this basic religious insight: that who and what we are, and what we have made of ourselves, are never simply a human accomplishment. In the words of the 100th psalm, "It is God who has made us, and not we ourselves." Or, to put it in more distinctly Christians terms, we are who we are and we have what we have by the grace of God.
So far, so good. But here comes the hard part. It is so easy to turn this basic religious insight into another form of pride. It is so easy for our thanksgiving to become another way of exalting ourselves. Abraham Lincoln did not do that. James Reston tried not to do that. Is it possible for us to give thanks for who and what we are, without thereby exalting ourselves?
Consider this: What does someone mean who says, "Thank God I'm an American?" Does he or she mean just what he or she says? Or is there an unspoken exaltation in these words? Does "Thank God I'm an American" mean "I'm proud to be an American"? And if it does, why? Why should anyone be proud to be part of a country they hardly brought into being? It was not our power or might that made our country what it is, it was not our doing that made our country beautiful, or prosperous, or democratic, or anything else that we cherish or desire. Too often the full text of what is being said goes something like this: "Thank God I'm an American, a member of the richest, most powerful, most enlightened, most righteous, positively best nation on the earth--and not a member of some "evil Empire" or some unenlightened, poverty-stricken, backwater country whose citizens hardly know their left hand from their right."
Can we be thankful about who we are and what we have without exalting ourselves, and without putting others down? Can we sing, "Thank God, I'm a country boy," without meaning, "and not some fast-talking, crooked-dealing, city slicker"? Can we say, "Thank God, I'm a Hoosier" without adding "and not someone who lacks those basic midwestern values"? Can some of us say, "Thank God, I'm white," while others say, "Thank God, I'm black--or Hispanic, or Asian, or whatever"?--and why would we want to say something like that in the first place? Would any of us say, "Thank God, I'm a woman, or a man, or straight, or gay?"--and if so, what are we really saying?
Now, since none of us had any say about where we were born, or with what ethnic or racial or gender identity or genetic endowment we came into this world, isn't it a bit peculiar that these are ways in which we learn to take special pride in ourselves? Isn't it strange that these are ways we use to exalt ourselves? Isn't it strange that these are ways in which we learn, at least sometimes, to feel superior, and to thank God that we are not like others who are different from ourselves? It might make sense to take special pride in our own accomplishments, but why exalt ourselves about things with which we had little or nothing to do?
Jesus once told a parable that leaves no room for pride even about those things that we have accomplished. It is a parable about a religious man and a tax collector. The religious man was highly devout. The tax collector was more despised than any agent of the IRS. They both went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee offered a prayer of thanksgiving: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." Now, this Pharisee was being honest. And no doubt he was honestly thankful to be who he was, and to have accomplished what he had accomplished. But his prayer was filled with pride. It was an exercise in self-exaltation. He gave himself most, if not all, of the credit for what he had made of himself. He was largely unaware of the grace of God in his life. He was not so much thankful to God as he was smug about himself.
The tax collector, of course, tells a different story. Standing off to the side, not daring to lift his eyes, beating his breast, he cries out, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Of course, he was a sinner. Of course, he had nothing to brag about. But Jesus makes it clear he knew how to pray to God much better than the Pharisee. This man returned home set right with God, but not the other. "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Christianity has long taught, but we need constantly to be reminded, that the greatest sin of the religious person is pride. Our culture is terribly confused about this. We are constantly told that pride is good. That is not quite right. A certain kind of self-esteem is good. A recognition of your value as a person is good. A proper love of yourself is good. But pride, as Christianity has understood it, is something else. Pride is taking the credit for yourself. Pride is the exaltation of yourself, usually over others. You do not have to be religious to understand that most of who you are and what you are able to accomplish is not your own doing--it is a matter of what was given you in your genetic makeup and cultural inheritance, of what was shared with you by your parents and loved ones, of what was passed on to you by your society and your community and all the institutions and traditions and practices of those who have gone before you. The person who is proud of who he is and what he has and what he has accomplished fails to grasp that the very ability to attain whatever he has attained is a matter of what he has been given. The person who takes such pride in her place in the world cannot be properly thankful to God.
The Pharisee looked over at the tax collector and said something like, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." I know, it is possible to say this in all humility. Even so, there is something deeply wrong about this way of looking at another. It assumes an absence of God's grace in the life of the other. A subtle claim is thereby made for oneself. It may be nothing more than that, but often a subtle judgment is also being passed.
Surely the Pharisee failed to regard the tax collector as a fellow child of God. The tax collector did not look to him like someone who could also be party to the grace of God. In his self-exaltation, he thought that he possessed a superior claim upon that grace. Setting himself apart from others, the Pharisee took his exalted status to be, not simply a sign of God's favor, but a token of his own merit. It was not enough for him to be grateful to God for who he was and what he had been able to attain. It was not enough for him to say, with true humility, "But for the grace of God!" No. He had to compare himself with another, to look at the other and say, "There!" Not like that tax collector over there: "There is someone not favored like I. There is someone less deserving."
The Pharisee might have simply thanked God for what he had been given. Why compare himself with anyone? Because he saw himself as specially favored. He claimed the credit for himself. And thus he saw no reason for God to regard the other. Exalting himself, he passed judgment against the tax collector. Little did he know or understand that in so doing it was he, though devoutly religious, who was excluding himself from the realization of God's grace.
In our offerings of thanksgiving, let us try simply to thank God for all we have been given. AMEN.