Late Thursday afternoon I gathered up some of the materials I thought I might need in preparation for this sermon, put them in a plastic bag, and took them home. It was only yesterday morning, as I was preparing to work on the sermon, that I noticed the wording on the outside of that bag. In big bold letters was the word "Thanks," and in smaller letters, "for shopping your college store." "Thanks" is a word we use all the time in some form or other--"thanks," "thank you," "many thanks," "hearty thanks," and sometimes "thank God".
There are many occasions for saying "thank you." It is one of those few expressions that seem essential to our relationships with others. Although I cannot speak well any language but English, I was thinking about all the various ways I have learned to say thank you: "gracias," or "muchas gracias"; "danke," or "vielen Dank," or "danke schön"; "merci" or "merci beaucoup"; "spaséba". There is no other expression that I know how to say in as many different ways. Only "please" and "hello" and "goodbye" come close. This suggests to me that the expression of thanks is fundamentally basic to our life together. It is something we positively need to know how to do. If we can say nothing else to one another, we ought to be able to say "thanks."
Saying thanks may sometimes be nothing more than a superficial ritual, a social lubricant to smooth our transactions with one another. But the pervasiveness of this expression in our life together surely reveals a deeper reality about ourselves, our relationships to one another, our relationship to the world about us. "Why do we thank?" asked theologian Paul Tillich. "What does it mean to give thanks and to receive thanks? Can this event of our daily life, and of daily religious life, be understood in its depth and elevated above automatic superficiality? . . . We might find that one of the most used and abused words of our language can become a revelation of the deeper levels of our being" [THE ETERNAL NOW].
As common and superficial as our expressions of thanks often are, we all know how important such thanks can be. Surely you know what it is to put yourself out, to go to some trouble, to make some sacrifice, to expend some time or labor or resource for someone else, and then not even to be thanked. There is some hurt, some injury, some pain of disregard, that attaches to such occasions when they are met with lack of gratitude and thanks. It is not without reason, and not merely for superficial reason, that parents try to teach their children from the earliest age on the importance of saying "thanks". As Shakespeare once put it, "I hate ingratitude more in a man than lying, vainness, babbling drunkenness, or any taint of vice whose strong corruption inhabits our frail blood." Ingratitude is a fundamental human failing.
Gratitude, then, seems to be fundamental to our full humanity. It is an expression and acknowledgment of the fact that we could not be who we are, or have what we have, without the contributions of others. We are not self-made or self-sufficient human beings. We receive the blessings and benefits of our lives at the hands of others, sometimes even at great cost to them.
When we think about giving thanks, usually it is precisely in connection with the blessings and benefits of our lives. An old Gospel hymn says, "Count your blessings, name them one by one." When we count our blessings, most of us can come up with a fairly long list: food, clothing, shelter, friends, freedom, family, health, strength, livelihood, enjoyable work, dependable income, the handiwork of creation, the beauties of human artistry, the delights of the senses, the benefactions of our neighbors, our social institutions, our churches, and our nation. This is a kind of "bottom-line" thanksgiving. When we add everything up, we find that we have a lot to be thankful for. There would be something terribly wrong if we were not thankful for these particular blessings of life. Most come to us at some expense. We should not assume that they are rightfully ours. We must not take them for granted. It would be ungracious of us to receive all these benefits and blessings of life without giving genuine thanks.
For the religious person, however, there is always a dilemma in this sort of "bottom-line" thanksgiving. The dilemma comes, first of all, from the fact that many have a much smaller bottom line of blessings for which to give thanks, and for some the bottom line seems to be "in the red." If some of us have more than others, does that mean that God has favored us more? If you are involved in an accident on the highway in which someone is killed, but you escape unscathed, shall you thank God for sparing your life although a fellow human being was not spared? If you possess the wit or the grit to get the better of another in a business deal or an athletic contest or an academic competition, shall you thank God for being dealt the stronger hand?
During the course of that awful conflict we call World War II, Franklin Elmer expressed this dilemma in his poem, "On Giving Thanks":
Shall I thank God
And for the safety
Of the place I lay my head?
In din of crashing worlds
Shot through with screams of pain,
I will do better far,
To thank my God
That I am strong enough
To share my bread,
Alert enough to tell
Those blinded by their woe
That I still see a star!
When hungry children
Shake with fright,
What can it mean to God
That I am safe tonight? [Franklin D. Elmer, Jr.; copyright, 1944,
by Christian Century Foundation]
On the one hand, we acknowledge that all the blessings and benefits of life come ultimately from the hand of God. Virtually every Sunday we sing, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." On the other hand, we can hardly assume that the way in which they are distributed reflects the mind or purpose or judgment of God. And so, to give thanks in gratitude to God is never simply a matter of counting our blessings. It can never be simply a measure of what we have.
For the religious person, our thanksgiving may be occasioned by the particular blessings of our lives, but it is ultimately rooted in relationship. Consider even the transactions we have with one another. Is it necessarily the gift for which we are thankful? I can think of lots of gifts that I could just as well have done without. But I would not have wanted to do without the givers! It is really the relationship that is established, and revealed, in giving that is most to be cherished. In the words of the poet, James Russell Lowell, "Not what we give, but what we share--For the gift without the giver is bare" ["The Vision of Sir Launfel," pt. 2, st. 8]. The greatest benefit and blessing we can receive in what we are given is not the gift itself, however needed it may be, but the relationship that is opened up to us with the giver.
So also with God and the gifts of God. We have two biblical texts this morning, both of them born out of trial and deprivation. Paul writes from prison to the Christians at Philippi. His circumstances are anything but favorable to his life and prosperity. Yet his letter is filled with a spirit of joy, on account of his affection for the Philippians and on account of the encouragement and strength that he derives from God. "I thank my God every time I remember you," he begins his letter [1:3]. And then, in our text near the end of his letter, he exclaims, "Rejoice in the LORD always; again I will say, Rejoice." These are the words of someone who has found himself sustained, upheld, able to transcend the circumstances of his current predicament, by virtue of a relationship to God and to a particular community of God's people with whom he shares a deep and abiding mutual affection. The unmistakable notes of gratitude, joy, and thanksgiving that reverberate throughout this letter clearly reveal the ground and source of his life to be in God, in whom his heart rejoices.
And the same is revealed in the testimony of that obscure minor prophet we know as Habakkuk. I still remember when I first heard a sermon on this morning's Old Testament text. It was over 26 years ago, and it left this abiding impression. The basis for joy and gratitude and thanksgiving simply cannot be equated with the circumstances of our lives. Habakkuk lived in what he found to be an awful time. His world was filled with violence and suffering, injustice and wrong: "Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?" he complains to God. "Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise" [1:3]. But Habakkuk finds no answer to his question. God does not explain, and the trouble does not go away. Habakkuk does, however, have a vision, a word that God will finally come in judgment against the destroyers. In response to this vision and this word are the words of our text:
"Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation."
Like Paul, this obscure prophet finds his salvation, his joy, the very power of his being, in God. And so, regardless of the outcome of the harvest, regardless of whether there is food for the livestock, irrespective of his own material fortunes, he voices his gratitude and praise. This prophet cherishes above all else his relationship with God. In the words of Norman DePuy, whose sermon it was I first heard preached on this text, "If the world today needs anything, it needs to be God possessed, the way old Habakkuk was. In our text we have pre-technological, pre-urban, pre-cosmopolitan, pre-Blue Cross, very minor prophet Habakkuk, leaping and jumping and crying out that his strength is in the Lord, that he joys in the Lord and that his feet are like the feet of a deer as he dances in the high places" [sermon, American Baptist Convention, 1972].
Instead of "bottom-line" thanksgiving, based on adding up all that we have to be thankful for, Habakkuk shows us a kind of "rock-bottom" thanksgiving. The true basis and foundation for our gratitude toward God is not to be found in what we possess, but in the relationship in which we are possessed. It is not God's gifts simply or alone, but God's own self, moving us to gratitude and praise.
The 14th-century Christian mystic Meister Eckart wrote, "If the only prayer you can say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice." This is another way to say that the most essential and fundamental response to God is one of gratitude and thanksgiving. Thanks be to God, from whom all blessings ultimately flow. But more basic still: Thanks be to God, without whom none of these blessings would matter. Thanks be to God, in whom we rejoice--because in God alone we live and move and have our very being. AMEN.