Thanksgiving and Irony

Here’s the message I gave this past Sunday. I am not going to be posting my sermons online as much as I have been in the past but since our recording software for the podcast had a major breakdown this last week I thought I’d put this here for those interested.

Thanksgiving is generally celebrated by most of us as a time to stop and give thanks to God for what we have. It’s a chance to really take inventory of our lives and remember that God is for us. These are all good things to do. But I have to admit, typically my own focus is generally more on eating turkey and seeing family than it is on the reflective part of this. I am disappointed if I go to someone’s house and there is no turkey, or only scraps left. Maybe I was too late or they didn’t make enough. Hey, I want my fair dose of tryptophan just as much as the next person!

And, thanksgiving, while we often talk about giving thanks to God, is not itself a religious holiday. It’s a day we have tried to make religious in some way, here I am preaching on it for example, but it is a civic holiday. It doesn’t celebrate any biblical story or tie us to important Christian themes like forgiveness, hope, love, generosity, justice, faith, and mercy.

And the bible gives us a lens to challenge not just civic holidays, but our whole lives. Scripture calls us to something more, expects something more than just a few pious words. And there really can be a disconnect with giving thanks and some of these other Christian themes. I imagine, for instance, Scrooge being quite thankful, even if in his own way, for all he had accumulated, all the while being part of the reason why others had less? He needs a faith to realize that what he has does not belong to him but to God and the justice to make things right. Or what about those who have suffered great loss and enter this season truly with very little, maybe what they need more than thankfulness is a little hope and mercy. And while there are many competing versions of the first thanksgiving, it is true that today for many native Americans this is not a holiday of celebrate but one that reminds them of what they lost and what was taken from them.

So I wonder if there are ways in which irony can at times be part of our own practice of giving thanks?

Now,  I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate and eat turkey, I have at least two days of turkey madness all lined up when we’ll be back in Ohio with our family in a couple weeks. But I have wondered if there are ways to think more Christianly about Thanksgiving. Mavis surely initiated that conversation last week and brought a really important message around this. Because it’s my conviction that the church always needs to examine what it does, what it joins with and why it does these things.

And not to mention that we as Quakers should always reflect a little differently on holidays as our earliest forebearers celebrated none. They felt that if something was holy enough to celebrate once a year, it was worthy of being celebrated every day of that year and becoming a central part of our lives.

And this might actually be our way forward. What does Thanksgiving have to do with the rest of my life, besides the turkey, and besides saying I’m thankful for a few things? Maybe there is someway that gratitude can penetrate my entire being, and actually transform the way I live, what I value, and what it is I am even thankful for.

Luke 21

In Luke 21 Jesus begins to give us an image for what this might look like.

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”

Here we see rich people dropping money into the treasury and then a widow, who was the weakest and most defenseless of member of society. And Jesus contrasts their two actions, I think in part to show that our thankfulness, our ability to appreciate what we have is tied to what we can give away. For the rich people in this story, they give only a little, they have to protect what they have earned, what they are entitled to after all. Whereas the widow with so little left is fully surrendered to the mercy and grace of God. This enables her to give far more out of her poverty than the rich can give out of their abundance.

[We’ll retun to this in a moment]

A Theology of Entitlement

I want to turn our focus for a moment to day. There is a philosophy, maybe it’s even a theology, that is it tells something about the God it worships, running rampant in America. I like to call it a theology of entitlement. We can find it everywhere, rich and poor from sea to shinning sea have bought into the Gosple of Entitlement, what’s mine is mine and I deserve it.

And strangely, this actually swings both ways. Because if something really good happens to someone we know, something deep down says either “I really deserved this, finally I am being paid back for all that hard work, etc.” Or the voice goes “you know you don’t deserve this, this is a complete hoax.” And the same goes for when bad things happen. Again there’s the conversation around what it is we deserve. Many people who have suffered terrible abuse, who have experience really trying situations at home or work often feel like they deserve it.

A theology of entitlement keeps the focus on us so we can protect what it is that we have, but ironically, it saps the life right out of us because a theology of entitlement ultimately is non-relational. It is self-serving rather than self-giving. It is following the way of the miser rather than the way of Jesus Christ and this is how we know it is a false Gospel and just bad theology.

To illustrate this point let’s look at one example:

Many of you have probably heard of Ayn Rand. Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged,” a book first published in 1957 hit the top ten sales on Amazon.com within the last few years since the economy began collapsing and the political powers shifted once again in Washington.

The book is about a totalitarian America where the economy has collapsed and the politicians are as bumbling as Laurel and Hardy. The underlying philosophy of the book is summed up by Rand as “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” (Tim King Sojourners November 2010, 21)

On the surface this may not sound like such a bad thing, I mean shouldn’t we all be happy?

But then we find that in her novels, writes Tim King of Sojourners, she regularly “condemns altruism (the practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others) and the giving of any sort of gifts. “Grace, by its very definition, cannot find any place within Rand’s philosophy. The idea of offering or receiving that which is “undeserved” is, by her definition, immoral.”

In other words, Rand’s 1,000 page book is extremely popular within our culture today and has been for 50 years and whether it is actually the thing that has influenced a theology of entitlement, or is a bi-product of it is hard to say, but what we can say is that it shows just how counter to the way of Jesus all of this really is.

[Rand has commented on just how different this theology is from Jesus’ when she said “ Jesus gave people ‘a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save on’s soul, one must love or help or live for others…This is a contradiction that cannot be resolved.’” Rand is correct on one key point here, Jesus did call people to love, help and live for others rather than for ourselves, but she is wrong in thinking this is a contradiction. The only contradiction here is that it contradicts much of what American culture is based on.]

Indifference

A theology of entitlement, a pop culture based on what we deserve permeates our society, and especially during the holidays. In this light, it’s not that surprising then that the day after we celebrate thanks for all that we have been blessed with, many Americans participate in the black Friday which is the biggest shopping day of the year (and the only day people literally get trampled to death to buy baby dolls). Is it that Thanksgiving is a holiday that covers up a theology of entitlement, a belief that what we have we deserve, and any self-giving act just takes away from all that we have worked for?

When this is the place form which we start it is not hard to imagine how we become so indifferent as a people. We become indifferent to other’s sufferings, people become obstacles to our own self-fulfilment, we focus on what is good for us and for out families. We live as thought God is a God of scarcity rather than a God of grace.

And if we return to the biblical text we can see this is more to the point of what Jesus is dealing with.

Luke 20 – The Temple

We need to back up a few verses to really understand what’s going on. Typically the two texts are taken together. The first part of the passage we see the legal experts the scribes as putting on a certain heir, they want to be a part of a certain class and social stratus of their society. But all that they do, their dress and their long prayers are just a pretext for devouring the widow’s homes.

Ched Myers writes, it is the “scribal piety that is revealed by Jesus to be only a thing veil of economic opportunism and exploitation.”

The second part of the passage, the passage with the widow and her two lepta (132 equals a day’s wage) is a commentary on this. The point here is that the entire religious structure is actually exploting the least of these, the widow gives her last two coins to a system that will not help her in any way. The temple has become counter to the mosaic law which called to love the stranger, the orphan and the widow:

[“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:17–19 NRSV)]

Jesus here then is pointing out not so much the widow’s piety, as the system that is set up and is benefiting on the weakest members of society.

Jesus’ challenge is to bring this pretext into the open, to point out the irony in the system and to call it into question. For Jesus, God is one who sides not with the temple or with the rich but with those whom are exploited by both.

A story about an Irish minister on Sunday morning is preparing for the service when a parishioner knocks on the door. The parishioner is all sweat and is obviously vary upset. There’s a family down the road. The mother is ill, the husband’s just lost his job, his mother lives with him, they’ve got three children. They don’t have any money at all and if they don’t pay the rent by 9am tomorrow the landlord is going to kick them out of the house even though it’s the middle of winter. You know we’ve really got to help them. So the minister says, “oh yea, yea. I’ll get some money, don’t worry about it.” But before he turns to go inside and get the money he asks, “ how do you know them?” The man responds, “Oh I’m their landlord.” (From Peter Rollins)

This is similar to what is going on in Luke’s passage. It is one hundred percent irony.

Thus “the temple is set against those, like the widow on whose behalf God has expressed particular care” (From Joel Green) (cf. 1 Kings 17).

Jesus challenges his hearers that “they could hear the message of revelation without heeding it. That we could know the truth without it changing who we are. We can go to church every Sunday but it doesn’t change what we wear, what we eat, who we help, how we spend our time, who it is spent with etc” (Rollins).

You can hear the message but not heed it.

For Jesus, the it is only the widow whose entire subjectivity has been transformed. She is the one who lives without this sense of irony.

Gratitude and Grace (emotional connection)

So then, where are we to go? So far I have described one for of thanksgiving with a sense of irony – where there is a disconnect between what we are thankful for and what it is that others do not have. I have also talked about the passage of Scripture where Jesus challenges this sense of irony and a theology of entitlement that is based on what we think we deserve.

We can choose to allow thanksgiving to penetrate our very being and work to become like the widow but what is needed? What is the antidote of all this?

It seems clear to me that the antidote is the opposite of entitlement, and the opposite of that is grace.

It is interesting that the root word for gratitude and grace are the same in the Greek language: Charis. Which can mean “to show kindness to someone, with the implication of graciousness on the part of the one showing such kindness.”

The widow is not indifferent. She gives out of her poverty, she is generous even though this is all she has, maybe all she has left period. Only in our poverty, only in our full surrender can we leave room for grace. Until we let go of all the stuff we hang onto, all the ways we comply with what is expected of us, will we be able to met grace in those unexpected moments.

This is often counter to our culture which is so often running in the other direction of grace trying to soak up all it can get.

There’s a story about an 18th century Jewish Rabbi from Berdychiv (Ukraine) who stood at the window looking at the people all rushing to and fro in the town square. He began to wonder why they were rushing around so frantically so he stops a young man and asks him “why are you running like this?” “Where are you running to?” The young man responds “Don’t you know, I’m running to make a living?” The rabbi stopped for a moment, touched his beard and said, “how come you are so sure that the living is in front of you, and you have to run to catch up with it. Maybe it is behind you and you’ve got to stop and let it catch up with you.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sachs)

If thanksgiving is going to keep us from indifference this year, then it needs to issue a call like the Rabbi has. So often we are too busy to stop and see what we already have, what grace is already present with us, what grace needs to be extended. If we are truly thankful for the grace we have in our lives, then won’t we also be a people who extend grace to others?

And haven’t we all experienced grace at one point in our lives or another both from God and from others? There are many of us here now who could use a little extra grace right now too. I know I have needed it lately.

Jesus practiced this kind of lifestyle that operates out of grace and love. It is a way of living that moves beyond self, from self-interest to self-giving. This is true grace, this is what it means to live a life of gratitude. It is a life that can give to people whether they deserve it or not. Jesus extends this kind of grace to all of us, and also calls us to extend this kind of grace to others. These two movements always are together in the Christian life (Seek the peace of the city, forgive us our debts, etc.).

He offers us the grace of love and forgiveness for all the places where we work against the goodness of his creation, where we, like the scribes in our passage, work against the call of God and disrupt the peace of God’s kingdom here on earth.

If God is a God of grace, a God who is not indifferent to the sufferings of those most needful among us, a God who actually sides with and blesses those who are most weak and needful among us, then doesn’t it follow that it is this theology that should mark who we are as a church, a theology that moves from self-interest to self-giving, from thanks to thanks-giving (2 Cor. 8:3-4).

Conclusion

And so where are we at in this story?

Are we like the scribes, still giving thanks but not realizing that what we have is in large part based on a sense of entitlement, and has come at the expense of others?

Are we like the rich who are indifferent to the widow and closed to the grace that comes from being surrendered?

Are we like the temple system that has a hand in taking advantage of the weak?

Are we like the widow and totally broke, everything we have is spent, we’re utterly broke whether literally or broke inside?

Each of these characters need grace, they may need it in different ways, but they are all in need of God’s grace to interrupt their lives.

Will we take the time this year to reflect on the ways in which we need grace? And the ways in which we have experienced God’s grace in the most unexpected (and undeserved) ways? And the ways that we might be the ones who can extend grace to others?

Thanksgiving then might be a time to reflect on irony, and this reflection might led us to a life that can celebrate both the thanks and the giving daily.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.