A Dependent, Compassionate Thanksgiving
This sermon was prepared for the interfaith community Thanksgiving service of the Mount Olive Clergy Association.
A Sermon on Psalm 103:1-14
When I think about giving thanks, I cannot help but think about my youngest child. Not just because I am thankful for him – although I certainly am – but because of an adorable phase that he went through when he was about 2-3 years old.
During this phase, he said “thank you” for EVERYTHING. He would thank me for giving him food, and hugs, and for reading to him… normal stuff that we encourage our children to be thankful for.
He would also say “thank you” for more unexpected things… like washing off the magic marker that HE had used to draw all over himself. There is something very disarming about a naughty little boy smiling at you innocently and lisping: “Tank you make me clean, Mommy!”
But my favorite classic Maddox-thank-you came reliably every time I strapped him into his car seat. He would grin up at me while I tightened the straps, and say: “Tank you keep me safe, Mommy!”
My sweet little toddler had figured out something about gratitude that I think is often missed by our cultural celebrations of Thanksgiving:
Those celebrations can sometimes feel like an artificial effort to just focus on the good – what are the things we have, what makes us happy? We should be thankful for those things. Let’s all go around the table and say what we are thankful for. And, of course, we should take time for gratitude. It is a good and affirming practice to share our thanks...
But the power of deep thanksgiving is about more than saying what makes us happy; it comes from the recognition of dependence – the knowledge of receiving something we cannot create for ourselves.
At two years old, my son had figured out that gratitude is intimately connected to need. He knew that he couldn’t keep himself safe in the car. He didn’t have the strength or the muscle control to tighten his own car seat straps. So, when I provided that protection for him, his experience of his need being met reliably produced a spontaneous, joyful “thank you!”
His gratitude wasn’t just about what he HAD, it was about what he RECEIVED.
The psalm we heard this evening reflects this same kind of gratitude – exhorting us bless God for the gifts that meet our deepest need.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all God’s benefits— who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…”
Redemption from the pit…
That last one might make for an awkward moment at the Thanksgiving table ritual, but maybe that awkwardness itself could be redemptive.
What if this Thanksgiving – when we all sit around the dinner table sharing what we are thankful for – what if we talked about the painful places in our lives where God has met us?
What if we confessed the reality of our deep need, and how God meets those needs?
Could that kind of honesty about the connection between pain and gratitude deepen the power of our thanksgiving practices? Could it even give permission to us all to name the needs we usually try to hide, and to believe that those needs are not a source of shame, but rather an opportunity to open ourselves to a God who can actually crown us with steadfast love and mercy?
The pairing of thanksgiving with the recognition of pain, is something that is highlighted by one of my favorite theologians from my own Lutheran tradition, Gordon Lathrop. He argues that it is important to balance thanksgiving and lament in our worship, because either one on their own misses a crucial part of the story about how God works in our lives.
He writes: “Thanksgiving alone might be misunderstood to be an acceptance of the status quo, as if the truly religious heart would rise above all actual material suffering to perceive some unearthly religious meaning and so to praise God for all conditions and realities, as if there were no need of God’s promise or God’s future.
“Lament alone could be a refusal of comfort and of hope, a choice to hold on to bitterness, as if there were no truth to God’s past / giving grounds for hope. Even the great lament psalms of the psalter speak the truth of the community’s need in the context of praise and hope. (scriptural) prayer is the lively juxtaposition of praise with beseeching.”
Praise with beseeching. The joy of thanksgiving, grounded in the recognition that the present is NOT perfect.
Psalm 103 is not a Psalm of lament, but it does meld praise with the recognition of deep need, even pain. The thanksgiving of this psalm claims the hope of God’s promise, rather than pretending that we don’t need that promise desperately. And in so doing, it creates space for us to acknowledge that thanksgiving is interwoven with heartache.
The heartache of our sin, which depends on God’s forgiveness.
The heartache of oppression, which depends on God’s vindication and justice.
The heartache of our own frail nature – the nature of the dust from which we are made, which depends on the compassionate response of God, who knows us and loves us like a parent.
Psalm 103 names these pains – of sin, and oppression, and our dust nature – because these are part of the experience of being human. These realities do not nullify our gratitude; rather they are inextricably connected to our Thanksgiving. They speak to the need for what can only be received, never just possessed. They witness to the dependent nature of thanksgiving.
And they are also closely connected to the way that we offer thanks for blessing in our lives when others are NOT experiencing blessing.
That’s one of the tricky areas of giving thanks, isn’t it – the uneasiness of enjoying our own blessings when we know that others are caught in lament. We can rejoice that “The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed” when that vindication is already achieved … but what about when we are confronted by the pain of those who are still suffering?... people experiencing poverty, or racism, or discrimination, or violence… how do we offer thanks, when we know that justice has not yet come for others? It can feel callous to offer our thanks in the face of their pain.
But gratitude is deeply important in that context as well.
Social researcher Brene Brown writes about the importance of gratitude among those who want to reach out to others who are in pain. She shares this about the insights she learned from interviewing trauma survivors.
(the survivors report that) “When you are grateful for what you have, I know you understand the magnitude or what I have lost....” Dr. Brown further explains that: “when we surrender our own joy to make those in pain feel less alone or to make ourselves feel less guilty or somehow more committed, we deplete ourselves of what it takes to feel fully alive and fueled by purpose. And sometimes when we can’t acknowledge the pain of others while experiencing our own joy, we close our eyes, insulate ourselves, pretend there’s nothing we can to do make things better, and opt out of helping others.”
This contemporary research witnesses to the ancient wisdom of the Psalm: It is good and right to speak joy and lament together… to meld thanksgiving with the recognition of pain.
We need thanksgiving the most when we confront the reality of need – either our own or that of others.
We need the joy that makes us fully alive and fueled by purpose so that we can do what God calls and empowers us to do in response to pain.
And, we need the recognition that what we need most can come to us only as a gift – from our God whose love and mercy is steadfast, for us and for others.
So, this week, as we offer our deeply necessary, life-giving, love-extending thanks, let us take a cue from the echoes of my son’s toddler voice. Let us say, with the depths of child trust – “Thank you God, for keeping us safe - for all the blessings we can see and all the need You have met."
And when we see that not everyone shares our safety and blessings, let us neither close our eyes, nor reject our own joy. Let us rather pray, and seek, and work that God’s steadfast love extend to all.
For: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
Thanks be to God
 Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993, p.57. Quote modified to replace “biblical” with “scriptural” in deference to the interfaith setting of this sermon.
 Brene Brown, “Braving the Wilderness,” 2017.