The Power of Thanksgiving
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the Stewardship Theme:
Changing the World: Who Else Has the Privilege to do that?
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
November 22, 2020
1Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
This morning I want to offer you some thoughts on the “power of thanksgiving.” As we prepare for this holiday and I was thinking about the act of giving thanks that phrase came to mind: “the power of thanksgiving.” As I thought about what that meant the Spirit led me to thinking about the words of Micah who described what God demands of us. As I thought about that the three main things God tells us are central to our faith I learned something more about power and about thanksgiving. Let me try to share that with you now.
The first thought I had was that “power” and thanksgiving don’t seem to go together, but now, having thought more, I believe the act of thanksgiving is a very powerful act. But it is also a very different meaning of power than we usually think of. Our society thinks of power as coercive. Our examples of power are usually held up as someone who can force others to do what they don’t want to do. If you have enough guns you are powerful. If you can manipulate the political process to get what you want you are powerful. If you can make someone else cower in fear of you we think that is power. I believe God is constantly challenging us to rethink and change our concepts of power.
We say God is “all-powerful” and we think God would use power the way we would. So we have images of God coming with “armies” of angels and supernatural nuclear harps and smiting our enemies. Some Christians seem to imagine Jesus coming back with an AK47 and mowing down nonbelievers and others we hate and sending them off to an eternal suffering. None of these images seem to square with how we normally conceive of or talk about or read in Scripture about Jesus or God. Now, granted there are images of these sorts of things, but by and large think about these questions.
If God believes in using power the way we do, why would God be born as a helpless, poor infant, in a backwater village in a powerless, occupied nation? Why would God send the Holy Family into exile as illegal immigrants into a foreign country to protect them from the threat of the so-called “king” of the land? Why would God allow his son to be executed in the most terrible way possible at the time, accused of political crimes, and rejected by the leaders of his own religion? None of these demonstrate a “powerful” God the way we normally think of power. Maybe God knows real power takes a different form, a different path.
As I thought about this those words of Micah jumped into my head. Micah reported that God said “this is what I demand of you, o Mortal, that you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Let me break down how I think they reveal the real meaning of power and the real power of thanksgiving for us to contemplate this Thanksgiving season. I want to take them in reverse order because I learned that almost every reason we often use for giving thanks needs changing. And, by the way, the Psalm gives us the best reasons for giving thanks, but I will get to that in a minute.
To walk humbly with God is almost impossible for many of us. We think of being humble, again, in our society as a weakness. We think of it as a sign of “powerlessness.” We elect people who project that they are strong. We spend endless dollars on a “strong army” we make fun of people who we call “humble.” But the wise person knows that being humble isn’t a matter of being weak. It is a matter of knowing that our real strength comes from far beyond us – from God. We have discovered a God who redefines power and strength as creative, not destructive, self-giving, not greedy and grasping at false forms of greatness. The truly humble person does not need boast about how wonderful, or smart, or powerful they are because they know a God whose wonders, and wisdom, and will bring blessings to others not just praise for oneself. We praise God not because God needs our praise to feel good, but because we need to praise God and we want to praise God if we truly understand the source of every blessing, the source of life, of love, of hope, of everything that matters and is of any value comes spiritually from God.
Nehemiah was a person of power and influence. He was a cupbearer for the king. He had great influence over the king who had defeated the armies and taken the people of Israel into exile. But instead of using his power for himself, Nehemiah used the power and influence he had to get the king to allow the people to return to their land and rebuild it. And instead of asking for the power to rule over them he asked to go there and help them, to help them rebuild. He went as a servant to the best interests of the people not himself. When he got back and discovered that those who still had power in Israel were using it for their own profit and privilege he was outraged. The people with money were lending it at usurious rates. They were demanding payback in the form of enslaving the people and even taking their children from them and selling them into slavery. Instead of taking part in this miserable profiteering, Nehemiah called the people together and demanded these loan sharks that governed the city stand before the people and hear God’s judgment on them. He told them God hated what they were doing, and he demanded that they stop and that they return the ill-gained profits, release the people, and humble themselves. And they did. Did Nehemiah do it for his own glory? No. In his prayers he confesses his own sin before God and asks God to forgive him and the people for doing the things that led to their enslavement, the injustices that caused them to be hauled off into exile and to help him rebuild the city to honor God, to glorify God. He prayed, “Remember me with favor, O God, for all I have done for these people.” He did not do it for the glory of people or of God, but simply to be remembered by God for what he did for the people, not for himself. Real thanksgiving comes from knowing that the power of God is the source of all we have and that real power is never used for selfish reasons. And when we are able to give thanks to God for what we have done for others, we will experience the real power of thanksgiving.
To love mercy, as Micah reminds us God demands, is again a very different definition of power from our usual definitions. We think of power as the power to “step on the neck” of an enemy. We think of power like Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid. For those of you who haven’t watched that movie or its revival on television, Cobra Kai was the “dojo” the training center for the bad guys in the movie. The motto was “show no mercy.” Interestingly, the top student for Cobra Kai, who was beaten in the championship in spite of his cheating ways and his commitment to “no mercy,” is rethinking that motto. He is seeking to change his ways. He is realizing that showing “no mercy” is no way to live.
For Christians our Lord Jesus is the real example of the power of mercy. Jesus shows mercy to the foreign woman of a different religion by healing her sick daughter. He shows mercy to the Roman soldier, healing his son. He shows mercy to the woman about to be stoned by the judgmental religious people for her adultery. They are ready to kill her but he challenges them saying, “let the one of you without sin be the one to cast the first stone.” The real power of mercy is that it releases the one who is hurting and the one who shows the mercy. It releases a great freedom. It releases a new future where the one in need of a merciful word or action and it gives the one who shows that mercy a feeling of what real power is in God’s eyes: power to free others, to bless others, to find new ways to live free of hate, and fear, and anger.
And then Micah reminds us that to do what God demands includes to “do justice.” To do justice is almost always the opposite of the way power is used and the way power is glorified in our culture today. I see examples all the time of people gloating because the “got one over” on someone. I hear politicians proclaim how those who don’t support them don’t deserve government services because they don’t support that politician! I find that incredibly evil and sad in a nation that supposedly stands on the value that all people – not just men – are create equal, are in other words, of equal value, regardless of whether they voted red or blue or paisley. To do what is just, fair, right for all people ought to be the goal of every Christian. Our Savior was crucified unjustly. Our ancestors in the faith were persecuted unjustly, and some still are today, for their faith. When Christians support public policies that treat foreigners inhumanely, prosecutes the poor for not being able to pay fines and fees, or refuses to “do justice” for all people I wonder who they really worship.
Real power comes when we understand just exactly why God demands that we walk humbly with God, that we love mercy enough to give it to all people, and when we do what is just in our private lives, and in our public life. Those values are the source of our faith in a God who is good, generous, and who models those virtues in his relationship with us. They are the definition of the life of Jesus and his death on the cross. They remind us that his resurrection is a promise that one day all creation will be defined by those values of justice, mercy, and humble souls who demonstrate the power of God in their everyday lives, all the time.
The Psalm writer speaks the benediction for the whole book of Psalms. As we prepare to celebrate a “Thanksgiving” holiday the Psalm writer urges all the earth, creation and humanity too, to “Make a joyful sound to the real God.” Let us celebrate thanksgiving by lifting our voices and our lives as a song of praise to God. It invites us to worship the real God with glad hearts to sing as if we were in God’s own chapel in heaven and to know that God made us, provides for us as if we were sheep in God’s own pasture. It invites us to come before God with thanksgiving and praise, not for God’s sake, or God’s profit, but for our own. When we give thanks we experience the real meaning of God’s power that comes from steadfast love, not from armies or wealth or political power. The power of God is in that steadfast, never-failing love, a love that is faithful to all generations. In the very act of thanksgiving we discover the power it has to change our lives. And when we change our lives to live by the values of Jesus Christ, who modeled the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, then we will change the world. True greatness is in real power, and real power is rooted in love, and real love is rooted in God, who revealed that love to us in Jesus Christ. When that is the center of why we give thanks, our thanksgivings will be powerful, powerful enough that steadfast love will finally be the power that rules the world. AMEN.