The gifts of God for the people of God: Thanks be to God!

audio sermon “Gifts of God for the People of God: Thanks be to God!” by Martin Malina

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all you lands! Serve the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with a song. Enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving and the courts with praise; give thanks …[1]

When things don’t go well, either we are faking it and being disingenuous. Or genuine people of faith are doing something else when they muster up the courage to give thanks amidst hardship. Which is it? And what is it—this quality of faith that I see in some who find themselves in dire circumstances? Yet they are able to draw on a deeper sense of God.

How can we be thankful? The hurricanes in Atlantic Canada and eastern seaboard of the southeastern U.S.; the ongoing war in Ukraine; the uncertainty surrounding a persistent, viral pandemic; political division like never before; a strained and depleted health care and public service industry. An economy pulled thin. As Pastor Doug Reble said last week: Difficult questions don’t offer easy answers.

How can we be thankful? Is it either /or? Either everything is peachy, so therefore we can give thanks? That the condition for thanksgiving is a perfect life, problem-free? No wonder there are so many atheists if that’s the way we think it’s supposed to be.

In the Olympic National Park in Washington State, it rains a lot. Nearly two-thirds of all the days in a year the mountains and valleys are covered by cloud and—in the case of the coast—marine fog. There are very few days when you can see for some distance.

Salish Sea Coast shrouded in marine fog (photo by Martin Malina, August 2022)

So, Jessica and I were thrilled when we were given a clear, sunshiny day to drive up into the mountains and hike into Hurricane Ridge, almost two thousand meters high. The vista from the top offered an expansive and impressive view of Mount Olympus to the south, and even Mount Baker far to the east.

The view from Hurricane Ridge – A clear day for Mount Olympus (photo by Martin Malina on Aug 12, 2022)

Mountains figure prominently in the Gospel of Matthew, which will be the focus Gospel next year. Stories of Jesus told by Matthew—important events in the life of Jesus— are told from the mountain top: The Mount of Jesus’ Temptation, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Mount of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Mount of Transfiguration and the Mount of Olives.[2]

The message of the Gospel, it seems, needs to be told from a five-thousand-foot perspective. We need some height to get the ‘big picture’. And yet, most of life is lived in the valley. Our perspective on life is viewed not from atop mountain ridges and airplanes thousands of feet in the air but from the ground, the bottom. Like in the Olympic National Park on the west coast—or the ‘wet’ coast—very few are the days in the year when the sky is clear and the mountains can be seen.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus tells his disciples: “I am the bread of life … it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven … which gives life to the world.”[3] They respond, “Give us this bread.” And we pray every week but especially on this Thanksgiving Sunday: “Give us today our daily bread.” 

The 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, wrote in the Small Catechism about this petition of the Lord’s Prayer. And in response to the question: What does this mean? Martin Luther writes: “In fact, God gives daily bread without our prayer, even to all evil people, but we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.”[4]

God gives daily bread without our prayer. Without our songs of thanksgiving. Without our joyful noise and gladness. God already gives it, gives us everything we need. 

When we stayed those nights on the coast of the Salish Sea at the north end of Olympic National Park, I would sit on the deck of our cabin overlooking the Strait separating Washington State from Vancouver Island. Every night was the same: The clouds shrouded the North Cascade Mountains far to the East. Sometimes the clouds were particularly white and puffy, reflecting the setting sun’s rays. 

But the last night we were there, the sky was clearer in the west where the sun was setting and shedding its brighter light towards the east. And that’s when I saw it for the first time in four nights: All along, we weren’t looking at puffy, white cumulus clouds to the East. We were looking at Mount Baker! That was a mountain there on the horizon line, not clouds! What we perceive when the fog lifts surprises us with a beauty that has always been there. We just don’t often recognize it as such.

Surprise, behind the fog (photo by Martin Malina, August 15, 2022)

That vision of God seen from below is a gift. Life and reality are so much bigger than us. Hope emerges from this broader vision. That vision from the ground can empower us to new heights in our own lives. “To recognize what our daily bread is,” as Luther wrote. And then, to go beyond satisfying just our own needs and wants. To perceive beyond the confines of our own difficult circumstances. And to strive toward that vision.

“Many people go without their share of daily bread. Throughout the world 690 million people are hungry. In Canada today, one in six children under the age of eighteen is food insecure. What about their daily bread? How can we share the bread of our tables with others?”[5] How can we touch the lives of others, in turn, with the love God would have us give, with thanks?

[1] Psalm 100, appointed for Thanksgiving Day in Canada (Revised Common Lectionary)

[2] Matthew 4, 5, 15:29-39, 17, 24.

[3] John 6:25-35.

[4] Cited in Donald W. Johnson & Susan C. Johnson, Praying the Catechism; Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021), p.94-95.

[5] Susan C. Johnson, ibid.

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