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A Place of Thanksgiving -- Psalm 78:1-8, Phil. 1:2-11 (Thanksgiving Sunday)





Back in August, when I started to sketch out the arc of this sermon series – A Place for You Here – I had all these Scriptures that the lectionary offers up. I was moving them around a bit – matching them up – Sunday by Sunday – thinking of how to shape our experience. And when I came to Thanksgiving – there was this lovely text from Philippians – I mean it doesn’t get lovelier than that, does it? “I thank my God for you every time I think of you.” In a series called A Place for You Here surely that will help us find our way to A Place of Thanksgiving. And, back then in August, we were still in our summer of Psalms, so I wrote in my notes next to Philippians 1 – “and Psalm 78.”

Well, a couple weeks ago, when I picked those Scriptures back up, and dove in for this Sunday – that Psalm 78 – well, it wouldn’t let me go. And what wouldn’t let me go is that the Psalm has as much to say about thanksgiving as the Philippians text – in a way that might be harder to hear, but that is no less true. So here’s what I propose: Let’s engage both texts – each with its own expression of thanksgiving – and see what we find, as we make our way to A Place of Thanksgiving.

Psalm 78 gives thanks to God by telling the story of God’s faithful presence in the story of a people. It’s a type of Psalm that may sound familiar. The Psalmist tells the story of how God was right there – in every adventure & misadventure - guiding & sustaining. God is good. All the time.


· We were in slavery in Egypt, and God brought us out into freedom. Give thanks to God for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.


· We were dying in the desert, and God brought water from a rock. Give thanks to God for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.


· We were taken into exile, and God brought us back home. Give thanks to God for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.


In this type of Psalm, the people (1) tell the story – (2) give thanks – and (3) then instruct each other to tell the story to their children, and to their children’s children – remembering the past as a way of living in the present and moving into the future.[1] God was always there. And always will be. Tell that story. Write it on your doorpost, bind it to the sleeve of your garments.[2]

Psalm 78 is that type of psalm. With a twist. Did you notice?

These psalms of thanksgiving typically admonish: Tell this story to your children. But this one – Psalm 78 – says “Don’t hide this story from your children.” Don’t hide it? What kind of story would they be tempted to hide? Well, take a look. Psalm 78 says, “I will open my mouth and tell a story; I will utter dark sayings from of old; don’t hide this from your children.”


And then the story that unfolds – well, it’s not pretty. They tell the truth. Our ancestors – God brought them up out of Egypt, but they forgot what God had done. God brought them out into freedom, and they then rebelled against God. God gave them water and bread, and they then demanded meat. They scoffed and said, “Ha! Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” And God did. But when God provided, they complained. When God set them free, they re-enslaved. In all God’s deliverance, they destroyed the world God had given. Their heart was not steadfast, even when God’s was. And even so, in all that, God was always there. Again. And again. Don’t hide this story from your children.

This Psalm recounts their story – and tells it true – so that the people can learn from it. As one writer puts it, in this Psalm, “memory has a clear function in warning the community to learn from its history.”[3] It is rehearsing the past so that the future might be better.[4] Don’t hide this from your children. Tell it true.

I’ve thought a good bit this week – tried to imagine – what it would be like to stand in this place and tell the traditional stories of American Thanksgiving. (And for those at home – a reminder that in this room, we are sitting in the midst of Peter Anderson’s amazing photography from his experiences at Standing Rock.)[5] Imagine that: Telling stories of happy pilgrims and happy Indians, living in peace and harmony – claiming that as our history – with the accountability of these faces... watching... telling us the story of yet another treaty with indigenous nations made and then broken; yet another story of the taking and trashing of land for profit. Do you remember that story that Peter told – how the tribes gave the pipeline officials a map of where the sacred sites were so that they could avoid those sites in their construction – and how the companies then used the maps to destroy those sites so there’d be nothing left to argue about. That story is told over there in the photo of the people rising up and facing down the bulldozers.



As we do our work, we are learning more and more how in so many ways we’ve been telling a whitewashed version of our history – to our national detriment, and to the detriment of those who continue to be harmed. There are school districts across the country reacting against teaching the harder parts of American history. A number of states and school districts have prohibited teaching about systemic racism; there’s a proposed law in South Carolina that would prohibit teaching any history that that creates "discomfort, guilt or anguish."[6]Don’t tell that history to our children – even if its realities continue to cause present-day harm. The problem with that is we then stay stuck in that same story. Not to mention that it’s not honest.

But this Psalm knows that real liberation begins by telling the story and telling it true.


· Our ancestors enslaved people. The brutality was unimaginable, and its harm continues in systems that perpetuate those original wrongs – and, look how God and the power of the human spirit have, even so, worked relentlessly to set people free.

· White colonizers stole indigenous land; made and broke treaties; tried to kill off a people – and even so, look at the witness of Standing Rock – and a people who show up every morning to be who they are – to stand against wrong – because it is the one life worth living

.

We can’t see the fullness of God’s liberating work in the world if we don’t say true things about how bad things really were – and are.

We could tell a story where everyone has always been happy, always treated each other fairly, and always got along. But the better, more interesting, more helpful story is the story of who we really are – and of the life we really live. All the stumbling and fumbling. God even there – God’s grace with us all the time, better than we deserve – more powerful than all that does us harm – including our own folly. In the mire and muck that we made of the world – even there – there was grace... abounding. Give thanks to God for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever. Even in the mire and the muck.

That’s where we find the Apostle Paul in this Philippians text.[7] In the mire and the muck. Now this is a quiz: Think back to the drama that played out here a few weeks ago – the Apostle Paul and his encounter with Leon. Remember? Now, when Paul is writing this letter to the Philippians, where is he? That’s right. He’s in prison. His story is not pretty. Apostle Paul been dashing all over the known world with this urgent good news – the liberating good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. His opponents have been at his heels – and the powers have finally reined him in – and shipped him off in chains to prison in Rome. Not a pretty story.[8]

And, the story he’s urgently proclaiming isn’t all that pretty either. This story of Jesus – it has at its heart a brutal crucifixion – that somehow issues forth into Resurrection. It’s a story that hurtles full on into death – real death – “It is finished” – and then somehow keeps moving on into life. Paul writes of all the powers arrayed against humanity – and dares to proclaim that in Christ we are more than conquerors. Arrested again and again, Paul writes, “It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

And here we find Paul – a prisoner in chains – and this little church he loves in Philippi sends him some help – probably some money – to buy him food – along with the companionship of the messenger who brings it. And Paul picks up his quill, and writes: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Out of the mire and the muck, notice what he’s grateful for.


· Paul expresses thanksgiving for the sharing – not just a sharing of this one gift – but the sharing of a life lived together. I thank my God every time I think of you. I thank God for your partnership in this work from the beginning. That’s actually the community word – Koinonia – for your partnership, for the community we share in this work, this life. I give God thanks.


· Paul expresses thanksgiving for the love. This is the Paul we usually hear yelling at someone. The man is intense – intense because something urgent and vital is at stake. But here, he’s downright tender. It’s right for me to feel like this because I have you in my heart. I long for you with the very compassion of Christ – what Christ feels for you, I feel for you.


· And then, sitting there in chains, Paul expresses thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest – for a harvest of right relationship. This sharing of life in the world. Whether I am in chains or free, I know that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion – through the mire and the muck, through this present suffering, beyond these chains.


The Apostle Paul reminds us that our experience of grace and gratitude is not in any way bound or determined or limited by circumstance. In Jesus Christ, God’s grace reaches us and embraces us even in the mire and the muck – and perhaps especially there. Gratitude wells up in us in response to that gift – to the gift of grace, neither expected nor earned. God’s love for us just because of who God is – and, of who we are to God – God’s own beloved in every circumstance.


Grace flows freely toward us, and our gratitude flows back out – in our own lives and in the life we live together. And this flowing back and forth, this encircling grace and gratitude – weaves us together, ever more closely knit in interdependence, mutuality, and love – a harvest of love and sharing.


That’s what we try to do here. We gather here in a challenging, but stunningly beautiful world – and we try to say true things – even about the hard things. We do that, so that we can face them together – with God, and each other, and all whom God loves – so that, in gratitude, we can lean into God’s grace.


For this full Fall season, we have been thinking about those words we say: Wherever you are on your journey, there is a place for you here. We have considered the journey and struggle of displaced people, immigrants who arrive in this bountiful country, and we are thinking some of how we might help them find safe shelter. We have looked unflinchingly at the stark realities of climate crisis and the unraveling we witness even now, and thought some of who we will be, and how we will live as the climate changes. We’ve named the struggles and tender places in our own lives – and thought some of what it means to deacon each other – to share life and tender mercy.


While we still have Peter’s photos around us, let’s remember one more story that Peter told. It was that photo in the dim light of a new day breaking in – where the Standing Rock community – the indigenous nations and the people there in solidarity as the pipeline powers bore down on them – each morning, they would go down to the river. The women would lead first – and line the steep path down to the river – helping each person down to the riverside. And then they would do it again, with the men lining the path. Hand to hand, helping each other down to the waters, at the dawning of a new day.


The Psalmist says – Don’t hide these stories from your children, for there is life there, overflowing. We are awfully bold in those words we say: Wherever you are in your journey, whatever circumstance brings you here today, there is a place for you here. May it be a place where we can say true things about our imperfect lives, so that we might be changed; a place where we experience the deepest belonging – to God and to each other; a place where God’s abounding grace and our gratitude flow out into the world in an abundant harvest of justice, love, and tender mercy.


The Apostle Paul writes – in words that we can hear and receive as our own: I give thanks to God every time I think of you, knowing – in every challenge and every circumstance – knowing that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in Christ Jesus.


Give thanks to God for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.


© 2023 Scott Clark



[1] For general background on this psalm and this type of psalm, see Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014); J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. iv(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996). [2] See Deuteronomy 6:6-9. [3] See Brueggemann, p.340. [4] Id., p.341. [5] For earlier sermon referencing this photo exhibit (and for a link to the video of Peter Anderson’s description of some of the photos), see https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/who-will-we-be-philippians-4-4-14-20th-sunday-after-pentecost [6] See https://www.npr.org/2022/02/03/1077878538/legislation-restricts-what-teachers-can-discuss [7] For general background on this text and Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, see Morna D. Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000). [8] See Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (trans. M.E. Boring) (New York: Baker Publishing Group, 2005).


Photo credit: Aaron Burden, used with permission via Unsplash

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