Among the many things which I like about living in America is this day – Thanksgiving. My family and friends in England don’t know quite what it is. They sort of combine it with the 4th of July and think it’s a kind of thanksgiving for having got rid of the British! But I’ve explained it to them now, and they even phone and wish me Happy Thanksgiving. So, what is Thanksgiving about? If it’s not thanks for getting rid of the British, what is it about? It’s got to be more than just the prelude to the biggest shopping spree of the year!
Thanksgiving’s got something to do with this story of a woman out shopping on Black Friday. She was in the middle of the packed mall, and felt the need of a coffee break, So she bought herself a little bag of cookies, put them in her shopping bag, and got in line for a coffee. She found a place to sit at one of the crowded tables, took the lid off her coffee, and taking out a magazine she relaxed and began to sip her coffee and read. Across the table from her a man sat reading a newspaper.
After a minute or two she reached out and took a cookie. As she did, the man across the table reached out and took one, too. She was a bit shocked at his rudeness, but didn’t say anything. A few minutes later she took another cookie. Once again, the man did so, too. Now she got upset, but still didn’t like to say anything.
After a couple more sips of coffee she once again took another cookie. So did the man. She was really upset now – especially as there was now only one cookie left. Apparently the man also realized there was only one cookie left. Before she could say anything, he took it, broke it in half, offered half to her, and proceeded to eat the other half himself. Then he smiled at her, and putting the paper under his arm, rose and walked off. She was so angry. How dare he help himself to my cookies! Her coffee break ruined, she folded her magazine and opened her shopping bag, and there… discovered her own unopened bag of cookies!
That’s what Thanksgiving is about. That woman had been so angry that the man had been helping himself to her cookies. Then, when she looked in her shopping bag, she realizes that they weren’t really hers at all, but were a gift – shared generously and with a smile. And that truth is what the reading today from the Book of Deuteronomy is all about. After 40 years in the wilderness the children of Israel are poised to enter the Promised Land. “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, flowing with streams, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and honey.” But, says God, don’t forget the most important thing: When you’ve eaten your fill and built fine houses, don’t exalt yourself and forget that it was the Lord who gave you all these good things.
That is what today is about. It is about not forgetting, about remembering that everything we have, everything we are, is a gift from God. It does not belong to us. We do not belong to ourselves. Our wealth, our talents, our very life, is not ours – not our possession – they have been given to us as a gift – from our generous God. But how quickly we forget. How easily we become possessive, acquisitive, angry, when another seems to have what we want or threatens to take what is ours.
I grew up with two brothers and a sister. I remember our poor mother trying to cut up the cake at tea time into absolutely equal portions. Woe betide her if one of us got a larger piece – or a piece with extra chocolate on the end. With eagle eyes one of us would chant, “It’s not fair! Michael’s got more than me.” That’s hard wired in us. Perhaps Saint Augustine’s right and it’s early signs of original sin. But it’s deep inside all of us. It’s not fair! It’s mine!
So how do we keep before us this truth, how do we not forget that everything we have has been given to us freely by our good and generous God? The Scriptures tell us quite clearly – and time and time again. The key is thanksgiving. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures for ever,” says the Psalmist(Ps 107:1). Give thanks to God, urges Saint Paul, “give thanks to God the Father at all times, and for everything – in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.(Eph 5:20) But it doesn’t come naturally. Trying to get a bigger piece of cake with more chocolate on comes naturally. We have to practice.
The best time to practice thanksgiving is as soon as you wake up. When the alarm goes off on Monday morning, instead of groaning and instead of allowing waves of anxiety or weariness wash over you as you think of all the things you have to do that day, at once, say thank you God for the gift of a new day. And then maybe think at once of at least five things to be thankful for – your health, your family, a roof over your head… Name them, and say thank you God. And before you know it, something has changed inside you. God loves to be thanked. When we give thanks, God changes us; he softens our hearts, and we become more generous towards others, and towards ourselves. We are converted through thanksgiving.
So why not now ask yourself, what five things am I most grateful for this morning? Remember those five things – and when you come up to receive God’s wondrous gift of himself in bread and wine, offer to God your five thanksgivings. God loves to be thanked, and God loves to bless us and lavish us with gifts.
As I began this homily I was wondering why I so like Thanksgiving Day. Now I know. Because it is at the heart of it all. It is about remembering that all of life is a gift from God. It is about worshipping our gracious God, who broke all the limits of generosity by giving us the gift of his Son.
It is about saying thank you. Thank you.
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