Sermon October 10 Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Thanksgiving Rev. Betsy Hogan
What kind of people do we want to be?
It's sort of a big existential question, isn't it. It kind of drives us immediately into contemplating broad categories and essential virtues.
And nearly always, because we're products of Western culture, we tend to construe that question and undertake its contemplation from a personal perspective, rather than from a collective perspective.
What kind of people do we want to be – but we instinctively, and without even realizing it perhaps, translate it for our own consideration into the personal. What kind of person do I want to be.
And then we fill in the blanks. I want to be generous, I want to be kind, I want to be a good friend, a loving parent, a helpful neighbour.
Or, what kind of person do I want to be? I want to be settled, I want to be content, I want to be courageous, patient, grounded, grateful.
And then we work at it. Being this person we want to be. Trying to shape our actions, be honest with ourselves when we falter, take big breaths and try again. In the secular world we get New Year's Resolutions and Personal Goals and Strategic Plans – in faith-world it's spiritual practice, meditation or prayer, the cycle of the weekly sabbath, "new every morning is thy love" –
But all these are essentially about articulating our hopes for what we'll do with this one wild and precious life, as the poet Mary Oliver puts it, and then aiming for those hopes with varying degrees of energy and intent and success. Two steps forward and one step back, perhaps, but we chug along.
We chug along. And there's no question that we chug along more "effectively" and far more "efficiently" if we pause periodically, whether annually on New Year's Eve or weekly on a Sunday morning or at the end of each day or the turning of the seasons, to remind ourselves and reground ourselves and reorient ourselves toward the answer to that question: What kind of person do I want to be?
We don't have an origin myth, particularly, for Thanksgiving in Canada. No pilgrims on Mayflowers pausing briefly in their building of a fearsome New Jerusalem to eat turkey with the Abenaki and make promises they weren't going to keep. The closest we might get would Champlain and Membertou, co-hosting great feasts in what's now Annapolis Royal – but it's probably just as well that didn't gain much narrative traction.
Because instead, our Thanksgiving can just be about harvest, can just be about that pause for contemplation, can just be about gratitude and generosity and trust.
What kind of people do we want to be? On Thanksgiving, every year, we remind ourselves and reground ourselves and reorient ourselves toward this answer to that question:
We want to be people who are grateful, who are generous, who are trusting. Who understand that we didn't make this bounty we enjoy, that it's a gift in which ultimately we have to trust, for which ultimately we should be grateful, and with which ultimately we should be generous.
And so we pause. Every year at harvest time. We articulate our gratitude, we reaffirm our trust, we struggle mightily with both when we're surrounded by so much bounty when others have nothing, and then we recommit to being generous.
It's why these festivals matter. It's why these traditions take root. Because we need, it's part of the human condition, we need the ritual revisitation of that question. We need the annual contemplation driving us back toward the broad categories and essential values embodied in our answers: what kind of people do we want to be?
And then we turn to the passage in Deuteronomy that we heard earlier, in which Moses lays out for the people of Israel the shape and traditions of the very SAME ritual revisitation of that question, the annual harvest festival of the first fruits –
And Moses' answer is kind of interesting!
Not that Moses doesn't want the people to be trusting and grateful and generous, not in the least! But at the same time, there's a bit of a twist.
Because the festival of the "first fruits" that's described here, the commandment to present with gratitude the "first fruits" of the harvest, that tradition and its language has been associated for so long with our own Thanksgiving at harvest time, that we don't always pay attention to what it actually means.
And what it means is actually quite specific.
It's a ritual of laying down on the altar – exactly as we do here, as an offering of thanksgiving later given to people in need – it's a ritual of laying down on the altar NOT the bounty of the harvest or the extra of the harvest or the purpose-bought gift of the harvest because we care about people who are hungry and we want to share –
But the very first fruits of the harvest. Those first ripe tomatoes. The first fully grown cucumbers. The first ripe blackberries and red apples and orange pumpkins and ears of corn. The ones that arrive first, and we've been waiting for ages. The ones that arrive first, and we literally have no idea if any more will follow. Or if something will happen. Or if there WILL in the end be enough.
THAT's the offering called forth by Moses in this ritual. The very first fruits. Right off the top. Because this thanksgiving ritual as described in Deuteronomy, it isn't about gratitude for harvest bounty. It's about gratitude there's a harvest at all.
But crucially, it's more specific than that. It's a commandment to the people to say thank you for that harvest... when all they've seen is one day. And they can HOPE there's more to come and it'll all be good and there'll be enough – but where Moses pauses things for the people is right off the top, at the very beginning.
This pause to immediately be thankful when all they've seen is one day.
It's very striking, this thanksgiving ritual described in Deuteronomy. And it's worth remembering that it's the thanksgiving ritual that Jesus and his disciples and his first followers were still observing a thousand years after Moses, all their lives as faithful Jews.
Because "what kind of people do we want to be": this would have been the thanksgiving ritual that shaped the consciousness and faithfulness of the Judaism that Jesus himself was shaped by. This would have been the thanksgiving ritual that shaped his whole idea of gratitude. That he then manifested for us as Christians in his own life and message.
This was the thanksgiving ritual with which God through Moses shaped God's people into the kind of people who say thank you for harvest right off the top, when all there is is the first fruits, when all that's seen is one day.
It's the thanksgiving ritual reflected in the one prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, taught us, in which we say 'give us this day our daily bread'. Because what kind of people did he hope that we'd be? The kind who know that just that alone, what there is today, that's enough for gratitude.
It can be a challenge. It does demand trust to let ourselves simply feel gratitude for what IS. When what may be is entirely uncertain and no guarantees. But that's what we're being challenged with.
To want to be that kind of people. God being our helper. Amen.