A few weeks ago, a woman stopped by the church to talk to me about an idea she had to help the unhoused in the Winona community. She and I serve on the poverty roundtable together and she is full of ideas and energy. Anyway, that particular afternoon she had her young son with her. He was probably four and had inherited his mother’s energy. The idea of sitting around a pastor’s office while two grown-ups talk about how to advocate for more public transportation in Winona was not the way he wanted to spend his afternoon. At first, the only thing he could find to occupy his time was to use the metal singing bowl I have on my desk as a drum, which was a bit wearing on the ears. But, then I remembered I have a cabinet full of toys in my office. I opened the cabinet door and he very quickly (and quietly) had created a vibrant community of dinosaurs ruled by a stuffed doll who used a small ping pong set to reinforce her reign. Later, as my meeting wrapped up, we all worked together to put the toys away and the mother turned to her young son and said, “What do you say?” He looked right at his mother and said a hearty, “thank you.” “Don’t thank me,” she reminded her son, “thank her for letting you play with her toys.” So he turned his bright smile to me and gave me a big “thank you.” And the three of us went about our day just a little more cheerful.
“What do you say?” How often have we heard a parent or grandparent say that to a child? How often have we said that to a young person in our lives when they are given something, or paid a compliment, or have a cabinet full of toys relieved to them? “What do you say?” We want our children to develop the habit of saying thank you, so we prompt them with a not so subtle, “What do you say?” until the habit takes hold and children easily offer thank you’s. Reading today’s scripture, I can hear in the undertones of what Jesus is teaching, a not so subtle, “what do you say?” to the crowds.
This moment in the ministry of Jesus Christ as told in the Book of John, comes right after he has fed a crowd of 5000 people – starting with nothing more than two fish and five loaves of bread. While that miracle is not the primary focus for today, it is vital we remember that this crowd has just experienced something extraordinary. And, more importantly, I think, they have just experienced a miracle that was so tangible it literally filled their stomachs. During a time and place in our world when eating until filled was a rarity for most people, that feeding miracle was one that got the crowd’s attention. So, even after Jesus had left and moved on, they tracked him down. “Why did you leave?” they ask him “and come all the way over here?” Jesus looks at the crowds and says to them, “you came looking for me not because you recognized God in what just happened, but because you ate your fill and you want to do it again. You came looking for more,” he says. “You came because you didn’t get the point. You followed me all the way over here because you want more, not because you want to thank God.” I can picture Jesus with an exasperated face, hands on hips just the way my grandmother used to do, and saying “What do you say?” Because so far, there hadn’t been a thank you.
Throughout Jesus ministry, he is trying to teach his disciples and the crowds that follow him that God is indeed at work in their lives. That God is the reason for the miracles. That God is the reason why we should love our neighbor just as we love ourselves. It’s not just about following the rules perfectly, it is not about capitulating to the people in power, Jesus says over and over again, it is about understanding that God is at work in our lives and it is our job to amplify God’s presence in the world. But all the crowds could see was someone who had filled their stomachs. “This is just like Moses,” they exclaim! “Moses filled our ancestor’s stomachs while they wandered in the desert. Keep doing this for us Jesus and we will praise you forever!” “Don’t thank me,” Jesus says, “thank God. God gave your ancestors manna from Heaven while they wandered in the desert. God turned those fives loaves and two fish into a feast for the multitudes. It’s not about me,” Jesus tries to impress on the people, “and it is not even about having full stomachs. It is about God. Thank God.”
Meister Eckhart, a German mystic and theologian, is reputed to have said that if the only prayer we ever say is “thank you,” that will be enough. I tend to agree. Giving thanks, or thanksgiving as we like to say this time of year, is a spiritual practice that reinforces for us, each time we do it, that we are interconnected with one another and with God. A simple thank you to someone who holds a door for us is a way to remind ourselves and them that we are part of a much larger community, and a little interdependence is good. A profound prayer of thanks to God for a moment of joy and blessing that stops us in our tracks is a reminder that God is present and active in our lives. If all we ever say is “thank you,” that will be enough.
But that is what is so tricky. Because, while it is easy to say, and a reminder that we have been getting since we are children, it is not just about the act or words of giving thanks. It is about the internalization of why we do it in the first place. We prompt our children with a “what do you say?” to help them learn the habit of saying thank you. And it is vital we teach our children good manners, if only because it will help them navigate the world with just a bit more ease. But the downside is, we can get into the habit of saying an empty thank you to our neighbor or to God and not be moved by the experience. What would giving thanks look like when done with God at the center?
Thanksgiving is the virtue of interdependence, the recognition that our achievements are not fully our own, but emerge from a network of relationships that sustain and shape us, giving us the materials from which we create our experiences moment by moment. Thanksgiving as a spiritual practice reminds us that all our gifts are communal as well individual. Our creativity and freedom, our ability to choose the good and noble, have their origins in forces larger than ourselves — God, this good earth, and persons who have guided, protected, inspired, and nurtured us.
Many Americans are tempted these days to circle the wagons and care only for our own, whether in terms of school, property, or civic responsibility. While we always have an obligation to ourselves, our gifts and talents are meant to be shared with the wider community. Thanksgiving reminds us that we are in this together; that our personal fulfillment is connected to the well-being of others, including people we may never meet.
Thanksgiving is the virtue of abundance. It looks at life in terms of possibility. It imagines a meal for a multitude in five loaves and two fish. It visualizes a few civil rights marchers taking the first steps to equal protection for all Americans. It believes that pausing a moment to reach out, at just the right time, can transform a person’s life. Giving thanks should never be the end of a conversation or interaction, in fact it should be the beginning. It should open our hearts to create new possibilities, new connections, and renew old ones. Thanksgiving looks at this world, recognizes God at the center of it, and reveals the abundance of our lives. It reveals that there is indeed so much to be thankful for, so much to thank God for.
One of my favorite thanksgiving stories centers on an elderly woman, now deceased, who shared her daily habit with her pastor, who later shared it to me. Each morning, as she took her walk, she gave thanks for the many blessings in her life. Though she walked slowly through her neighborhood, burdened by the aging process and the grief accompanying her years as a widow, she confessed that she never ran out of things for which to be thankful for. Her simple practice of thanksgiving shaped how she lived her life, faced aging, and related to others. Her simple practice of saying thank you to God for each of the small miracles she experienced each day continually reminded her of God’s presence in her life. When she felt isolated and alone, her daily walks in gratitude allowed her to be reminded once again that God was always with her.
If the only prayer you say is “thank you,” that will be enough. And, “thank you” can be said over and over again not just to God for the blessings of this day, but to everyone whose life touches yours in a creative way. Such gratitude opens us to new blessings, but more importantly opens our hands to bless others — through a kind word as well as our time, talent, and treasure. Because when we realize the impact of a kind act that someone does for us, no matter how small, we remember again that our kind acts are just as profound. Giving thanks for each of those small and simple gifts compels us do the same. And that cycle of giving and thanking is what makes real the Kingdom of God.
Gratitude is the gift of “yes” — yes to life, yes to blessing, yes to God, yes to possibility, and yes to others. In God’s Kingdom, the Holy Spirit is constantly flowing through us, and we are constantly receiving and giving – and gratitude is the awareness that we can shape our lives to bless and heal and love out of the bounty we have received. So, throughout the day give “thanks” — remember those who have supported you and upon whom you depend today; notice your interactions with others; and look for the movements of God in each of those moments. This is a wonderful life that beckons us to give thanks at every turn.
“What do we say?” We say “thank you” to God. We say “thank you” to our neighbor. We say “thank you” not just because it is the polite thing to do, but because it is an act of devotion and praise. It is an act that reminds us we are connected to one another through the Holy Spirit of God. This Thanksgiving, no matter where we might be or who we might be with, let us not just give thanks for the meal before us, but for God who has provided. Let us not just give thanks for the gathering of community, but also for the Spirit which draws us together. Let us give thanks for all that God provides. Amen.