“Negative Thanksgiving”

Rev. James Singleton

Luke 18:9-14, 1 Timothy 2:1
November 18, 2012

There is a golden oldie story about a bishop who was invited to speak at Yale and took for his text the four letters

Y A L E. He spoke for twenty minutes on Y, which stood for Youth, and the audience was unimpressed. Undaunted, he carried on for fifteen minutes on A for Ambition, by which time he had lost the entire audience. But being a man of determination he went on for twelve minutes on L for Loyalty, by which time the audience was about to break up. He concluded with a nine-minute lecture on E for Energy. When he finished, the choir filed down the center isle.

The visiting bishop followed, and in the last pew he found a student, still on bended knee. When the student rose, the visiting bishop said, “Young man, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me what it was I said that moved you so deeply.” The young man replied, “Yes, of course. I was just offering thanks that I go to Yale rather than to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Since this is Thanksgiving Sunday it should come as no surprise that the sermon is about giving thanks. But as our story illustrates, there is thanksgiving and then there is thanksgiving. In fact, our story is an illustration of the same form of negative thanksgiving that Jesus talked about in his story concerning the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In Jesus’ story of the Pharisee we come to learn that there is a form of thanksgiving that is not acceptable in God’s eyes.

Jesus tells that a Pharisee, a good religious man, and a tax collector, a man who had a reputation for cheating and being not such a good religious man, both went up to the temple to pray. And the prayer of the good religious man was primarily a prayer of thanksgiving that began, “God, I thank you.” So far so good. But the good religious man continued to explain what he was thankful for. He was thankful for not being like this poor wretch of a man standing next to him. He was thankful for being better and more blessed than this man.

The tax collector does not even feel worthy to be there in the presence of God praying. He knows what he has done wrong and the only prayer he can muster is a humble, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

The thing to notice today is that the good religious man’s prayer of thanksgiving was unacceptable to Jesus. It was a thanksgiving that was selfish; arrogant; self-righteous and above all blind. I say blind because the good religious man looked at the tax collector and saw nothing in him to give thanks for. But Jesus looked at the tax collector and gave thanks for his humility and sincerity.

Sometimes the people that we judge to be negatives and want to disassociate ourselves from can be a source of thanksgiving if we only would see them from a different perspective.

In Paul’s Letter to Timothy, Paul urges us to do just that when he makes this statement, “First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.” Everyone. If only the Pharisee would have received that assignment from Paul and been forced to give thanks, not for how he was different from the tax collector but give thanks for the tax collector, he just might have learned something about humility and what is acceptable in God’s eyes.

Today we are being challenged to take a good hard look at those people in our lives whom we usually want to distance ourselves from and feel thankful that we are not like them, and find a reason to be thankful for them. Can we be a people who are not content with negative thanksgiving but who offer thanksgiving for everyone?

Most people this week will be giving thanks for their material blessings and thanks that they are not like those who have very little. Thank God we are not like those who live on the Jersey shore! Can we be a people who do something more than that? Can we give thanks for those who do not have the material blessings that we have and see them as people who deserve more than our pity?

The poor and unfortunate remind us that we are our brother’s keeper. They challenge us to break out of our little self-centered world to give, care, and open up that Christ might minister through us to those in need. We cling so tightly and desperately to the things of this world, but those who have lost everything remind us that even when that happens, there is still God and hope that never forsakes us.

Rather than giving thanks simply for not being like the less fortunate, let us give thanks for them and what they teach us—that trust cannot be placed solely in earthly things that can so easily be taken away, but must be given to the God who is above all things that can never be taken away.

There will be many this week who will give thanks for their good health and good fortune and that they are not like those who are suffering from a disease or illness or the death of a loved one. But can we give thanks for people who are suffering or grieving, because it is in such people that we usually see courage, faith, and hope in its most raw and intense form? Those who suffer can move and inspire us like few others can. They remind us that God is a Rock, a Good Shepherd, a Comforter, and, above all, a Savior.

In the Beacon Journal on November 2, 2012 was a story about Joan Uronis who at the age of 62 is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The article, however, wasn’t about pity but rather it was about thanksgiving.

Joan said, “I look at Alzheimer’s as a gift I have been given by God to do with what I want to do with and use it for the good of others…You can say, ‘Poor me, pity me. And my life is over, and what am I going to do now? And then I die.

“Or you can die to live…I have a lot of life ahead of me and I have a lot of things to do. I can’t change the course of my disease, but hopefully I can be a voice for those who have a later stage and can’t talk.”

I don’t thank God I’m not like her. I thank God for her and thank God for what she teaches me about facing adversity with faith.

We all have people we don’t get along with and who don’t particularly like us. And few people will bother to offer up any thanks for such thorns in the side that criticize and anger them. Mostly we are going to feel thankful that we are not like them!

But can we be a people who give thanks even for our critics because they all too often have a pretty good reason why they criticize? Such people see in us the log in our own eye that we overlook because we are so intent upon concentrating on the speck that is in their eye.

When we give thanks for that difficult person in our life and even for that person who has hurt us and caused us pain we are forced to accept the truth that we are not perfect, they are not perfect, and all of us are saved by the grace of God.

There will be a lot of in-laws sitting next to one another around the dinner table this week, but very few prayers of thanksgiving for each other will be spoken. Mostly the atmosphere will be one of tolerance and tongue biting.

Can we be a people who actually give thanks for our in-laws? A family is more than simply people we choose to surround ourselves with. A family is diverse and Christ calls us to love our family members whom we have not chosen and who are not like us, but are our brothers and sisters nonetheless.

We are called to embrace all around our table as Christ embraced all around his table, from the Beloved disciple John to the out-law Judas.

Or you may find yourself sitting at the table passing the mashed potatoes to someone of the other political persuasion from you who is making comments about the recent election that cause you to want to throw those mashed potatoes rather than pass them. This nation has become so divisive that it seems all we do is thank God we are not like the people on the other side of the isle.

But this thanksgiving can we give thanks for each other as Americans because it is our differences that keep this nation from a dictatorship and it is through our different perspectives that we are reminded that God does not simply look and act and think like me and I am not the center of the universe or the trove of all truth.

Thanksgiving is more than simply being thankful for having more than another or not being like someone else. Thanksgiving is a time to look around and see just how other people, even people we least expect, bless our lives and bring God to us.

I doubt that those Pilgrims sat down at that first Thanksgiving meal and said, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like these savage Indians.” I suspect they prayed, “Lord, we thank you for these Indians who helped save our lives and through whom your mercy touches us.”

In this cynical age when we have grown suspicious of each other; when hearts have hardened; when it is not politically correct to reach out to those different from our group; when people are becoming more self-centered, be careful that Thanksgiving doesn’t simply become another form of our selfish ways. It is easy to be thankful simply for not being like those we hate or pity or disagree with or are prejudiced against or see as beneath us. That’s negative thanksgiving—being thankful for what we are not.

As Christians, we are called upon to offer up Thanksgiving for everyone. That’s not an easy task, but then Jesus’ way is never the easy way. After all, it was for everyone that Jesus died on the cross, and this meal called Eucharist, meaning Thanksgiving, is open to all.

So the question that remains is this: whom do you want to distance or distinguish yourself from and what is it about that person that you can be thankful for and from whom you can learn something about life and about God?



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