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, www.cac.org, 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.

Impossible Questions: a sermon for Thanksgiving and Confirmation

In observing Jesus’ teaching style in this text (Matthew 6:24-34), indeed throughout the gospels, notice all the questions he asks.

Normally, you would think the student is the only one who asks questions of the teacher, not the other way around. Jesus, the Rabbi, or Teacher, asks questions to reinforce his point. In fact, Jesus is employing a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.

There are at least two kinds of questions employed by the wisdom writers of the Hebrew scriptures: The first, is the rhetorical type, the one with the obvious answer. The obvious answer is leading to either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

For example, “Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one’s feet?” (Proverbs 6:28); “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1)? To answer these questions, you don’t need to study the night before.

Now, Jesus’ teachings include some rhetorical questions, such as: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10); “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). No brainer, right? Either yes or no.

We have a large three-panelled window at the front of our house. Recently we placed my reading chair beside it so I can enjoy the natural lighting and look outside. Periodically a bird would hit one of the side panels with a loud ‘thump’ and we would jump each time a bird slammed into it, offering a prayer for the poor bird’s well-being.

One day we noticed a good-sized crack making its way from the top corner of the centre panel. And we called in the window-guy. As he was removing the large centre panel window, he asked for my help. It wasn’t easy getting it out of the frame. Even with the vinyl strips removed we needed to do a lot of jimmying to get that frame out.

“This panel was installed too tightly,” he mused. “That may be the cause of the problem. Windows need to have some give, some space to move. Otherwise when something hits it, it’ll break.”

Rhetorical questions are like that window that have no give. Today, rhetorical questions don’t get much traction in meaningful conversation let alone as an effective teaching method. Like the window too tightly installed, there’s no wiggle room. Laced with presumption, rhetorical questions are often used as cheap shots in a fight: “Do you think I was going to say anything in response to that stupid thing you did?” “Duh! Isn’t it obvious you should not have done that?”

Rhetorical questions are also not very helpful in dealing with crises. When someone struggles, asking them rhetorical questions presumes ‘they should know better.’ I remember sitting in a church assembly years ago when the bishop forbade the use of rhetorical questions in the debate we were having.

Given the trouble associated with this style of asking questions, you can breathe a sigh of relief because–maybe you’ve already noticed– rhetorical questioning isn’t the type of question used in today’s text. But, don’t breathe too easily just yet. Because Jesus’ distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his “impossible questions.”[1]

His impossible questions made him a subversive teacher who often undercut the comfortable assumptions of his audience. His teaching and use of questions were more in the style of Ecclesiastes and Job, rather than the sunnier outlook of Proverbs. Some examples of impossible questions we see in Ecclesiastes and Job:

“How can the wise die just like the fools?” (Eccl 2:16); “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22); “Where is the way of the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (Job 38:19-20). Not so easy, these questions are, to answer. Even impossible, in light of reality for many people. Nothing neat and tidy about answers to these kinds of questions.

Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. Who likes to do that? It’s easier to be fixed and unyielding with clear-cut proofs and rules. It’s easier to repel the questions with sure-fire answers. If we don’t yield or bend, however, we will crack under the pressure of our own doing and the challenges of life that come to us all.

  • “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27; Luke 9:25).
  • “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
  • “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
  • “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)

Indeed, Jesus uses sayings that conform to traditional wisdom like the beatitudes and proverbs. But he uses them not to resolve conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to questions one’s own values and assumptions.

Not a very popular technique. No wonder the authorities got nervous and eventually did away with Jesus.

Questions are indeed indicators that learning can happen. Of course, just because we ask questions, or questions are asked of us, doesn’t mean we will respond positively to them. Just because we ask questions to which are provided answers, rhetorical or otherwise, doesn’t mean we will take the next step forward, ourselves, with our growth, healing and transformation.

We will likely stumble out of the gate. And continue to stumble on the path of life. And sometimes get stuck in the mud. But just because we can’t fathom how to emerge from the shackles of our own humanity, our own failings, our own weaknesses, doesn’t mean all is lost. Doesn’t mean the journey is not worth taking.

Jesus stirs the pot. And continues to do so. But because he believes in us. Because Jesus believes in our growth, in our transformation. Because Jesus is anchored in his divine self, Jesus is free “to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world … and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time.”[2]

Jesus nudges us and beckons us forward on the journey, refusing to abandon us when we get stuck. He goes ahead on the muddy path. In shine and shower, wind storm and in the calm stretches. And, on the way, can we learn to let go of the false absolutes and idolatries in our lives? Can we release our preoccupation with worry, for example, to hang on too tightly to the emotional securities of material wealth, which seems to be the message of the passage today? But I would extend this to worries about what awaits after  we let go of anything that we have held on too tightly in our lives?

Every time we worship and every time we say the Creed together, we are being confirmed in faith. We have a confirmation every Sunday! And the one being confirmed is YOU!

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear to the confirmation classes year after year, just because you are saying ‘yes’ today, just because you are saying the words of affirmation of baptism printed on the sheet in your hands, just because you are standing up at the front of the church doesn’t mean:

  • You’ve got it all figured out
  • You have all the answers to all the questions of faith
  • You are finished on this journey of learning
  • You have nothing more to learn
  • You will now never again make any mistakes nor experience any hardship

You keep on keeping on, as they say, not because the church is perfect. Listen, if you haven’t figured that out yet let me emphasize again: the church is not perfect. The church will continue to be full of people who are far from perfect. You stay on the journey NOT because the church or its leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. Your faith and your participation in a life and journey of faith is not validated by the church to which you belong, but by the God who loves you and us despite all our failings.

If anything, what you are doing today is bearing witness to the need to keep on the journey. You are standing with the rest of us, calling for us to stay the course alongside you. By your witness today you are calling the rest of us not to stop asking questions. Not to stop doubting from time to time. Not to stop saying once in while, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure I believe that. What’s that all about?” Not to stop looking up and asking for help from time to time. Not to give up, on the journey.

Your window of faith will last intact a lot longer when there continues to be ‘give’ around the frame of your beliefs.

Jesus suggests to us that knowing all the answers and not making mistakes is not the point of the faithful life. Rather, it is the imperfect yet faithful following on the journey that makes all the difference.

Despite all that is wrong, God is still there.

We stay on the path not because it is easy. But for those moments of grace. We do this for those moments of joy where we notice the pinpricks of light across the dark canvas of our world.

Where forgiveness melts cold hearts.

Where mercy triumphs over condemnation.

Where love embraces the weary traveller.

Thank you, God.

 

[1]Alyce Mckenzie, No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34 (patheos.com, February 21, 2011)

[2]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation,3 October 2018 (www.cac.org/Meditations@cac.org)