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.

True thanksgiving

Oxtongue Lake, Algonquin Highlands, 24 Sept 2021, photo by Martin Malina
“True Thanksgiving” audio sermon by Martin Malina

“Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? … Look at the birds of the air …

Are you not of more value than they?” 

(Jesus, Matthew 6:25-26) 

This text is the Gospel assigned for Thanksgiving Day.[1] What I find curious is that on Thanksgiving we give thanks, normally, for the material things we have – shelter, food, and the abundance of physical blessings …

And I don’t hear Jesus saying that food and clothing are unimportant to people of faith. Jesus isn’t downplaying our material world. Jesus isn’t saying we should not pay attention to the ‘stuff’ of this world. 

Yet, Jesus seems to be saying more, here. That true thanksgiving goes beyond being grateful for what we have; that true thanksgiving is celebrating who we are: Look at the birds of the air … Are you not of more value than they?” 

In this text, Jesus draws attention to our hearts and seeks to build us up as beloved children of God, created in God’s very own image. We have, if anything, value in who we are and the faith we express “genuinely”; who we are is “more precious than gold.”[2]

I was reading about one of the quietest rooms on earth at Orfield Labs in Minneapolis. Originally these ‘dead rooms’ were built in the Second World War to test communications systems. Basically, you step into one of these rooms and it’s much more, or less literally, than getting a bit of peace and quiet away from a hectic, noisy day in the city.

A typical room you sleep in at night that is quiet measures about 30 decibels. Even when we perceive it to be quiet, there is still sound bouncing off walls and surfaces around us. But the ‘dead room’ in Minneapolis measures at negative (-) 9 decibels. In this room there is absolutely no echo as the walls of the chamber absorb any and all sound. The effect on a human being is startling, to say the least.

The longest anyone has ever lasted in this room is 45 minutes. All you will hear inside this room are your organs—your heart beating, air and blood rushing through your system. After about 30 minutes of only hearing your body normally functioning and nothing else, you will begin to hallucinate. The negative silence can drive you, literally, crazy.

When you remove any external source of sound, and only hear what’s coming from within you, it’s too much for us to handle. It’s like we cannot bear for long facing, confronting and dealing with what comes from inside of us when there is nothing coming at us from without.

It’s like at best we feel uncomfortable facing ourselves; at worst, we only see bad things inside of us—our sin. At worst, we would do harm by the negative and judgemental words we tell ourselves, and the habits we fall into that are often unhealthy. If it’s only about what’s inside of us would God take delight in us?

Living in a world where so much of who we are is defined and determined by our external circumstances presents a real challenge to our faith. Jesus knows this. If there is anything in the New Testament about which Jesus speaks harshly, or dualistically (either-or), it’s about money. “You cannot serve both God and wealth; you cannot serve two masters,” Jesus says in the verse immediately preceding the Gospel text for today. 

Jesus speaks absolutely about money because he knows what we are going to do. He already knows our natural inclination to place most of our worth and value on those external things. He already knows that we are primarily motivated by counting, weighing, measuring and deserving – these are activities whose motivation comes from outside of us. And he already knows that as long as we ally ourselves with this world of earning and losing, we’ll always be comparing, competing, envying, or climbing.[3] We will continue to be driven from without. And be continually restless and discontented. 

So, he says: 

“Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? … Look at the birds of the air …Are you not of more value than they?”

Our value, our worth, is based not on what we have, but who we are. Not on bank accounts, investments, clothes and financial portfolios. And Jesus says this not only that we would love ourselves first, but so that we would confer the same value on others. So, our love and care for others is not based on what they have earned but on who they are in God’s eyes.

So, Jesus is about re-calibrating the engine of our hearts. Contrary to the lure of material wealth, success and meritocracy, the generating motor that keeps us going in this life is inside of us, where God’s Spirit indwells. The primary engine is neither a lure or a threat from outside us. Rather, we are drawn from within, where the Spirit nudges us and strengthens us.

We are of more value than the birds of the air. God does take delight in us, as we are. We are of more value without needing to store up riches on earth. Because we know we have an inherent dignity within, a dignity shared with all human beings.

“Deep calls to deep”, the Psalmist sings.[4] Our inner source is not to be feared nor tolerated nor ignored in our externally over-stimulated lives. And if ever you find yourself twisting in the winds of material concerns and worries, just stop to listen to your heart beat. Do you hear it now? Stop to listen to the involuntary rush of air, breathing into your lungs and breathing out. Do you feel it?

Our hearts continue to beat and pump blood, faithfully, even when we don’t notice. Our lungs continue to draw air, faithfully. We don’t need quiet rooms to appreciate that. Our inner source is beloved. And it is a gift. It is at this deeper level where we find our place and our true connection with others in this world.

A cause for humble and true thanksgiving.

[1] Matthew 6:24,25-34

[2] 1 Peter 1:7

[3] Richard Rohr, “We Cannot Serve Two Masters” in What Do We Do With Money? (Daily Meditations,, 20 September 2021)

[4] Psalm 42:7

Be a blessing

But remember the Lord your God,  For it is God who gives you power to get wealth, So that God may confirm the covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as God is doing today. (Deuteronomy 8:18)

It is popular to express thanksgiving with the words, “I am so blessed”. In fact my social media feeds are populated with this sentiment which expresses a gratitude for graces both large and small.

The gathering of dearly loved family to celebrate a birthday or anniversary … “I am so blessed.”

An ‘all clear’ diagnosis from a nagging health problem … “I am so blessed.”

The gift of money or financial support during tough times … “I am so blessed.”

The regular commitment from a friend to phone you when you’re having a bad day … “I am so blessed.”

Even as we count our blessings – and maybe these appear rather basic and simple in a year that has brought us so much upheaval and disruption – the message of the Gospel can challenge us, shock us.

The text from Deuteronomy mentions the ‘covenant’. The covenant between God and people was first established with Abraham. When Abraham received the promise of blessings from God, he was to do something with that. Yes, Abraham was ‘so blessed’, he can pray. His descendants would number the stars in the sky, so promised God. [1]But that blessing was meant to be given to others. God said to Abraham, “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[2]

We know what being shocked feels like. The pandemic has shocked our systems. And for people in various situations, the way the world has changed has asked from each of us something different. The pandemic has shocked our lives. So much so we are in survival mode and our top priority becomes self-preservation. 

Yet it is precisely at those times when we are knee-jerked into circling the wagons and narrowing our focus into self-centred strategies for living – for whatever reasons – we need to consider again how it is we live our faith. And who we are, really.

Because the truth is – and social scientists and psychologists have all corroborated these in findings – that “our most enduring happiness does not come from what we gain [for ourselves] but rather from what we give away, offering who we are and what we have to bless others.”[3]

The blessings we receive as individuals have a wider destination. The blessings given to us are meant for others, in some way. We, as individuals, are not the final repository of a blessing. If we feel ‘so blessed’, then we need to do something for others with that blessing. What we receive has a broader purpose, a destination far beyond our private interests alone. We may not even be able to comprehend right now the fruit of those seeds we plant.

The ancient story is told[4]of the seeker of Christ who yearns to travel far to encounter and experience the presence of Jesus. She believes she can do so by going to the Holy Land and retracing the steps of man Jesus, Son of God, who walked the earth over two thousand years ago.

But she realizes that the journey to Jerusalem will be expensive. She would need to ask for financial help and save money for many years before she could afford to go. Then, nearing the end of her life she finally has enough money to go on her ‘bucket list’ trip. 

As she exits her house to leave for her journey to Jerusalem she meets the cleaning service for her apartment. Normally he keeps his head down, carrying his supplies into the building. But this time, he looks up and calls out, noticing her suitcase: “Where are you going today?”

“On a journey,” she replies, “to meet someone special.”

“I have a wife and children who I haven’t seen for years. They live overseas. And my son is sick. Whoever you are meeting, ma’am,” the cleaner continues, “is very lucky to have you.”

The seeker stops in her tracks. She takes a deep breath, nods and turns around back into her house. She doesn’t go on her trip. She has abandoned her quest for the remote. Because she has just met Christ right outside her door. 

The next day when the cleaner comes into the building she stops him in the foyer and tells him. “I know someone who works for refugee sponsorship. I will give all I have saved for this trip towards applying for your family to see you face-to-face again.” The man listens to this news, with tears in his eyes.

“We must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)

I pray that we can be a blessing to one another, and to the world that God so loved. 

[1]Genesis 15:5

[2]Genesis 12:1-3

[3]Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul (Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), p.136-137.

[4]Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (New York: Bantam Books, 2002),  p.119,266; I’ve adapted it, so our modern ears can more readily access its meaning.