Homily for Thanksgiving Day, 2003
St. Agnes Church, Cincinnati
(Based on Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Mark 5:18-20)
Of all the feasts we celebrate perhaps Thanksgiving is the most clear and direct. We have received everything, and so we come to give thanks. Period.
I'd like to add just two points from our readings, in order to help us be clear about exactly what we are doing. About the full meaning of 'giving thanks.'
In the reading from Deuteronomy we come upon the Israelites when they have finally come to the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert. After all the pain and hardship they have been through, they have finally arrived at the land which had been promised to them.
Moses takes great pains to list all the incredible benefits that this land has to offer to them. In great detail he speaks of all the different foods of the land, and even of the minerals they can develop. It's a rich picture. But he adds a caution. There is a risk in having all this material blessing.
The risk is one of the greatest dangers to a spiritual life. The land is so abundant that they could be inclined to forget. They could forget where it all came from, they could forget who they really are. And worse, they could be lulled into thinking that they had brought it all about, that they had won the victory themselves. They are challenged to remember (what we do in every Eucharist): to remember that it is all gift. That it was the Lord, the faithful One, who had accompanied them at every step along the way. That were simply the servants of the Lord's project.
The picture is very contemporary, you know. You and I live in the greatest prosperity any people has known in the history of humanity. You and I may not be 'rich' by our country's standards but as a people we enjoy blessings very few have known, either in the past or around our globe today.
We can read. We have the power and the resources to expand our minds beyond all imagining. We can come to this church and worship our God as we please, without fear. We have the power to speak out and say what we want to, without fear of being forcibly and violently silenced. We have the power to choose those whom we will entrust to lead us.
In the midst of this abundance it is easy to forget where it all comes from. We live in an entitlement society, where one group after another stakes its claim to be entitled to one blessing or another, where children grow up believing it is all owed to them.
In truth, none of us is entitled to anything: to wealth, to live itself. It is all gift. And part of Thanksgiving is to hand on that precious truth to the coming generation, to our children. We did not make ourselves; we did not fashion this lovely creation; we have not liberated ourselves from all our addictions and chains. For all we have we remain beggars.
This world and all its blessings are meant to be sacrament: something visible and tangible that draws us to itself only to challenge us to pass through it or beyond it to the infinite love which it embodies. And it is so easy to use it instead as an idol, as something at which we stop, as something that becomes god for us.
Our second reading is one of my favorite little stories in the Gospels. We may hear the story of the healing which preceded the events of today's reading but the 'second half of the story' is usually left out.
Here is this tragic, pathetic figure, tormented by demons and ostracized by society. He lives out in the wilderness, in one cave or another. Where he does violence to himself, bruising and cutting himself with rocks out of sheer torment. And this healer, Jesus, comes and frees him from his demons.
And that's where our little story begins. What a natural response he gives: His whole life has been transformed by this nomad preacher, so what other response would you or I have than to ask to join him? We would want to be at his side for the rest of our lives.
So natural. But Jesus answers, "No." That's not the way his kingdom works. That's not the manifestation of full thanksgiving. No, what you are called to do if you are genuinely thankful and really appreciate what has happened to you -- is to go back into the city, to tell your neighbors the Good News of what the Lord has done to you. Staying with the Master is a romantic seduction; being sent on mission is the challenge of thanksgiving.
As we receive the Lord in Communion today I suggest that our prayer might focus on two gifts. The gift of remembrance, the gift of seeing this world as a sacrament or God's infinite care and love and constant fidelity to the promise of the covenant. And the gift to see ourselves called to be bearers of the Good News, as evangelists of that love. Go tell it on the mountain!