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As we prepare for Thanksgiving, I think back on that other fall holiday, the one that’s a huge deal if you have kids in public school: Halloween.
This Halloween in the Grano family, things did not go as planned.
And I ask you, as we head into this Thanksgiving week, with the hopes of so many of us so high we are certain to feel let down, hopes for a wonderful time of getting together with family we don’t see enough, for a delicious meal where everything has been cooked to perfection, for a Lions win—
I ask you, have you ever had a holiday where everything went right?
I’m hoping to learn from the experience of Grano Halloween 2016.
We drove an hour to the pumpkin patch only to learn it was closed, so we bought a pumpkin off a table, which we could have done at Kroger down the street without wasting half a tank of gas. So I brought home the pumpkin, and said, ok, Diana, let’s carve it, but she had zero interest and got so whiny that the kids up in front of TV and sliced into our pumpkins all by myself—only to be met by a disgusting rotted goo inside scarier than any ghost or ghoul. But since it was now 4pm I dutifully began slicing, washing out the insides–I actually had to hose the thing out in the backyard–and trying to simultaneously make dinner, eventually giving up and ordering pizza. Then, at 5pm, I went to make sure the kids were still alive, and discovered that JP had created some goo himself that made the rotting pumpkin look appealing. His Elmo costume was a HAZMAT affair, so I went into storage and found one of Diana’s old costumes and put it on him. Thankfully, Diana had gone through a Batman phase rather than a princess phase; the costume was two sizes too large, and JP has no idea who Batman is, but no matter! We lined up for the perfect family photo, but between the screaming kids, the dog, and the mass chaos, we were unable to get one of everyone in the frame, let alone looking at the camera (that’s Dan’s leg on the right).
Off we went. We divided and conquered this year, because JP, as a human tornado, requires full attention. He ran up to every house and yelled, trick or treat! And held out his hand for candy. And I said, “JP, what do you say?” And what did he say? He said, “more.”
I had to laugh.
But then I started to think–how many times do we do this?
God hands us a blessing, and we say, “more?” I have a great husband, great kids, and a dog–but I want the “perfect” Halloween photo. We have food to eat and beds to sleep in: we talk about other places we’d rather eat and sleep. We have friends and family who love us: we talk about how nobody pays enough attention to us. We live in the least violent time in human history: we still feel unsafe. Even if you don’t like the current political situation—which, I deeply empathize with you—we experience a freedom our ancestors would have died for, and many of them did. We are free to worship the way we choose, to say whatever we want, to vote however we feel, and that, my friends, is quite a thing. But even as I say this, I can hear the voices in my own head saying, “but.” Why do we do that? Why do we say “but?” We reached out to God, and God handed us more blessings that we can name. Why do we shout at God, “more?” Why have we transformed our national day of Thanksgiving into a time to run over other people in department stores buying stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have?
Because we have forgotten how to say, “Thank you.”
Saying “thank you,” saying grace before meals, taking time to be grateful for what we have…these are habits grounded in good religion and good manners, two institutions our culture currently considers passé. But for thousands of years, people believed that thanking God daily was essential to life. You came to the house of worship not to ask God for more but to thank God for this. You believed in being grateful not because you felt like it but because God commanded you to give thanks, and He probably knew what was good for you better than you did.
Psalm 118 is one of the most important psalms of thanksgiving in our Bible. There’s a lot of discussion and debate about when it was written. We know it was after a great victory, but which victory? The Exodus? The Conquest? The Exile? My answer is, yes. We know that verse 14 is taken directly from the lips of Miriam after the Exodus (it’s a quote from Exodus 15). Actually, text-critical authors believe that these words are some of the oldest in the Bible, and come straight from the days of Moses. Could it not be that later authors added to those words as God continued to act in the community, the way that we add verses to our hymnal today?
This ancient hymn is all about God’s love and repeats over and over, “His steadfast love endures forever.” But I suggest today a different translation. This is not a love based on feeling. The Hebrew word “hesed” carries with it the sense of God’s covenant. A covenant was a legally binding contract; you would have a witness, and you would seal the covenant with a sacrifice. Today, in a present-day contract, one party gives a promise in exchange for another party’s promise or action. If one person breaks the contract, the other doesn’t have to perform. But generally, ancient covenants were unconditional. Each party commits to a certain action, regardless of whether the other party keeps the covenant. Unlike most present-day contracts, covenants had no expiration date. The parties were understood to be bound by the covenant until death (or forever, in the case of covenants with God). God has undertaken a covenant to love and care for his people if, and when, they screw up. The Bible translates “hesed” as “steadfast love,” but another way of saying it would be “legally binding love” or “love you can’t back out of, no matter how much you might want to,” or “love that will not let you go.” Unshakeable, unbreakable love that is without condition. Covenant love. God has promised to love us and care for us no matter what.
Psalm 118 comes from a battle, and that fact gives me pause. Because I feel like, in some ways, we’ve just been through a major battle in this country. And after a battle, even if you won, wouldn’t you feel exhausted, depleted, daunted by the task ahead? But that’s not what this Psalm reflects. This Psalm focuses completely, wholly, totally on giving thanks for God’s covenant love. withou
It’s worth noting that our national holiday of Thanksgiving was also instituted by Abraham Lincoln only four months after the Battle of Gettysburg. I think it is worth considering his words today: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God…no human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”
Think of how many new widows and orphans there were that November. Think of how the country was in chaos, torn apart at the seams; no one knew how it would end, and people were still in chains. Lincoln’s own party and people had begun to doubt him. And his response was to give thanks!
In the same way that Lincoln called for all people to give thanks, this Psalm lists the people of Israel by name, pulling them into a great national cheer: let Israel say, his love endures forever! Let the house of Aaron say, his love endures forever! You in the cheap seats in the back: his love endures forever! Over in the peanut gallery: his love endures forever!
The Psalm goes on to say. Verse 5 can’t quite be captured in the translation either: it says, “I was in distress, and the Lord set me in a broad place.” The sense of the Hebrew is that the psalmist was boxed in, trapped; literally the verse might be translated, “I was between a rock and a hard place, and you gave me some breathing room.” Anyone here ever experienced that?
Then the author exclaims that it is better to trust in God than to put your faith in people or princes. Politics will not save us. The government has not promised you its covenant love. But the Creator of the universe actually has. Does that speak to anyone today?
The psalm then goes on to describe how nations tried to destroy God’s people, and God cut them off. Now these verses should make the guys squirm in their seats—because the Hebrew word for cut off here is the same word as for circumcision. The people trusted God; they sacrificed a tender part of themselves to the Lord—and God did not forget. God loves us with a love you can’t back out of! A covenant love.
And finally, verse 14 is that verse I told you about, taken directly from the lips of Miriam: “The Lord is my strength and my might, he has become my salvation.” This is such an amazing verse from the lips of a faithful woman. What Miriam said is that the Lord was always our strength. God was always the source of our food and shelter, our lives and our livelihood. But God has now done more than that. God has become our salvation. God has shown us that he will never forsake us, not in life, not in death; that he loves us with a covenant love, and he will draw us out of our pain and sorrow and will not stop until we reach the promised land.
Or maybe it will just make more sense if I tell you that when Miriam says, “salvation,” the word she is using is Yeshua. You’ve heard it in its more common Greek form: “Jesus.”
God kept his promise to love us even at great sacrifice to himself. He has demonstrated that even when we least deserve it, even when we are ungrateful, angry shoppers, kids reaching out our hands and shouting “more,” he will give us more. He will give us everything. He will give us his own son on a platter, because he loves us with a love you can’t back out of. He loves us with a covenant love.
It’s hard to accept that you are loved that much. Somewhere in ourselves we don’t want to trust this love–because we think we don’t deserve it. We can’t believe God loves us enough to take care of us, no matter what. That’s why we worry. But listen to the words of Jesus: “It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you these things.” (Luke 12) God has decided that we will have these blessings, and who are we to argue with God? We can never pay God back, we can never earn these great blessings. So what can we do?
What do you say, J.P.?
Just say “thank you.” Just take a moment to appreciate all the good we have today.
Stop asking for more, and give thanks for this.
This chaotic, messy, less-than-perfect thing called life. It’s not everything we wanted, not everything we planned, but it’s enough.
Who are we kidding? It’s more than enough.
It’s more.
So let the church say:
His love endures forever.
Let the people anxious about cooking say:
His love endures forever.
Let the people anxious about the Lions say:
His love endures forever.
Let the frazzled parents, who wonder if they’ll be able to sit down, say:
His love endures forever.
Let the grandmas and grandpas, who wonder if they’ll be able to get back up after they sit down, say:
His love endures forever.
Let the people Jesus died for say:
His love endures forever.
So it is, and so may it ever be.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

One Comment

  1. Susan Smith, AKA Minga

    habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God…wow…say no more. Says it all. Working on the practice of gratitude. My current goal is to be more specific in my gratitude journal. And to write in it daily!

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