Wednesday, November 23, 2016
National Day of Thanksgiving
Luke 12:13-21; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Deuteronomy 26:1-11
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
There is a philosophical school of thought that claims that human beings cannot truly perform a purely altruistic act. What this means is that, when we act altruistically, that is, when we give to charity, help someone in need, speak kindly of someone, or even think good thoughts about others, our thoughts, words, and deeds are always, inescapably, tainted by some degree of egoism or selfish concern for the benefit of ourselves and our selfish interests. For example, one who volunteers in assisting the poor, the elderly, or those who are physically or mentally handicapped may, albeit subconsciously, focus upon the needs of others in order to forget about or to dismiss their own painful neediness and vulnerabilities. Similarly, one who comforts another who is hurting or praises someone who has done well may, albeit subconsciously, do so, in part, for the sake of the good feelings it gives them or for the public acclamation and praise such actions elicit from others. Now, I know that you will undoubtedly consider this an overly negative and pessimistic way of viewing things, and that you most likely will deny that your charitable giving and service, and your praise of those who do good and perform well, is in any small way motivated by self-interest – I feel the same way! Nevertheless, this is in concord with the teaching of Scripture, that even the best of our works of thought, word, and deed are but filthy rags, tainted and corrupted by sinful concupiscence that enslaves our fallen flesh and its desires, passions, and motives. This concupiscence is generally referred to as Original Sin and it is all-encompassing and enslaving. Concupiscence is what St. Paul wrestled with when he confessed that the good he desired to do according to his newborn spirit and faith, he did not do, while the evil that he desired not to do, he continually found himself doing. This is also what Jesus had in mind when he rebuked his disciples saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
However, our concupiscence affects more than merely our ability to show true altruism, truly selfless love, mercy, and compassion to others, it also affects our ability to be truly grateful and to truly offer, give, and show thankfulness. There is always a small part of us that believes that we have earned, deserved, and merited the good things that we have. After all, we work hard to earn money with which to purchase our homes, cars, clothing, food, education, comfort, reputation, retirement, health, and everything else we have. No doubt, our western American worldview and values of independence and freedom foster and perpetuate in us this sense that we have no one to thank but ourselves. Now, I am not making a case for socialism or any political mechanism that would force you to give and to share. Indeed, if the contradiction in such thinking is not obvious, charity by force is not charity! No, but the point I am trying to make is that you must freely give of what you have freely received, without compulsion, resentment, sorrow, or any such thing. Neither must we offer up thanks and show gratitude under compulsion, but such is the natural faith-response of one who recognizes and confesses that all he has comes to him as a gracious gift of God through Jesus Christ. This is, in fact, what we confess in the First Article of the Creed when we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Luther explains this article in terms of the First Article gifts we receive from God because of His true and pure altruism and goodness: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.” Under a system of Socialism or some other tyranny, it would be the government that grants all these things to you, for which you, by fear of law and compulsion of punishment, must submit and oblige. Not so with your gracious and merciful Creator, God, and LORD who gives all these things even to those who do not fear, love, and trust in Him.
I think we often consider giving thanks to God as a debt that we owe to Him. Therefore, we do it reluctantly and under compulsion in fear of punishment or in the false belief that we earn and merit His favor by showing mercy and by giving thanks. This is the work of the devil who, with his lies and deceit, takes your concupiscence and corruption and uses it to twist your heart and minds to think in such a way. In this way, the devil tempts you to self-righteousness, that you do well and have merited, earned, and deserved His favor and blessings, or into despair that you have not, and cannot have, done enough.
In our Old Testament reading tonight, the LORD tells the children of Israel how they should consider all the things they possess, by means of a confessional creed. Before they make their thank offering they are to confess, “A wandering Aramean [Jacob] was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Only then, following this confession, were the Israelites to present their offerings of the first fruits of the land and the harvest the LORD had given them. Truly, we continue this worship of the LORD in our Divine Service still today. We still make confession of our sins and of our unworthiness before we are able to return to the LORD thanksgiving and praise for all that He has done. Indeed, before we return to the LORD thanksgiving and praise, we are first forgiven, restored, refreshed, nourished, and strengthened by Him with the gifts of Christ in Word and Sacrament. Only then do we have something to return to the LORD in thanksgiving and praise, a portion of the goodness and blessing He has poured out upon us.
Such is our Lord’s teaching in tonight’s Gospel reading as well. In response to a man who desired to use the force of Law to make his brother share his inheritance, Jesus told a parable about a foolish man who selfishly put his fear, love, and trust in his labors and the material wealth he had stored up for himself in perishable grain. The LORD had blessed him with such a tremendous harvest that he could not store all his grain. Rather than give thanks to the LORD and share from the abundance to help others and glorify the Name of the LORD, the fool decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to house the grain, and then rest in comfort and peace upon his works. But then, the rug is pulled out from under him, and the LORD called back what he had given, even the man’s life. Then, what became of his grain and wealth in which he trusted? It spoiled, or it fell into the hands of others who did not earn it. The lesson being this: All wealth and health and even life come to you by the grace, love, and mercy of your LORD. It is all His, given to you that you may be a faithful steward of the goods entrusted to you in service of your family and your neighbor to the glory of God. When you freely share and give of what the LORD has freely given you, you make a confession of your faith in Him and you glorify Him. When you return thanks to Him, again you confess that He is your LORD and God, the Creator and Giver of all things, and you glorify Him. In a very true sense, returning thanks to God is obedience under the First Commandment, “You shall have no other Gods.” For, we must confess that we too often put our fear, love, and trust in material possessions and wealth, in reputation and health, and in fleshly and worldly things that do not, will not, and cannot last. Too often we make the gifts of God’s grace to be our gods.
Truly this Divine Service is catechetical, teaching us and reminding us that all we have is a gift of God’s grace, and that He fills us to overflowing with His abundant grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness so that these overflow in our lives, words, and deeds towards others to the glory of His most Holy Name. In this Holy Eucharist, a word which means “Thanksgiving,” we both receive His gifts and return thanks to Him, reminding, reinforcing, and equipping us for the proper stewardship of His gifts as we live daily in our vocations. “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.” Let us give thanks unto the LORD our God for He is good and His steadfast love endures forever.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.