Thanks-giving Worship
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
24 November, 2019
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Philippians 4:4-9

For the past several weeks, we’ve been reflecting on the Holy Habit of Worship.  Last week, we spent some time thinking about how we might be more attentive to worshiping God in our daily life, beyond Sunday services—forming practices or habits that help us to stay trained on God as the sovereign power guiding our life, not giving in to the more insistent, but false, powers of this world.

A couple weeks ago, I invited you to talk with each other about what worship means to you and to write down some of your thoughts.  One of you shared: “People talk about giving thanks and worshiping sometimes as though they are separate acts, but I cannot understand how they are separate.”  I agree, and I think Scripture also agrees: thanks-giving is an essential component and act of worship.

Remember, in our first week of looking at the Holy Habit, we learned that the root meaning of Worship is: “to render due worth and obedience to a supreme power or authority.”  And, we also recognized, the only way to render due worth and obedience to the Source of our life and all else that is, is to offer our entire life to honoring God and pursuing God’s interests above our own.

It makes sense that the first act of honoring God is to express our gratitude—for the life we have, for all the things we enjoy, even for the hard things that challenge us to grow and change for the better.  The things that require us to work at submitting to the Power greater than our own ego or self-interest.  Saying “thank you” demonstrates that we’ve noticed what we’ve received; that we recognize its value, that we honor the gift as well as the Giver.

Two weekends ago, eight other women and I spent a night at a wonderful lake house in a gorgeous setting owned by some friends of mine.  As any of the women who went on that retreat will tell you, the gift of that space was lavish; had my friends asked us to pay a market rate to rent it, we couldn’t have held the overnight event there.  My friends invited us to use the space completely free of charge because they know what a special space it is—how it provides countless ways to encounter God, and each other, and our shared faith, in meaningful ways.

But here’s another important realization about the gift my friends offered: Their gift of that space was an expression of their gratitude for what they know they’ve been blessed with.  They share generously with others as a way of honoring and thanking God for the abundance they recognize they’ve been given.  By sharing from whatever abundance we have in ways that bless others and foster deeper relationship with God and others, we honor God.  Sharing their space was an act of worship—an expression of gratitude through giving.  It was a worshipful act of thanks-filled giving.

Although I sent them an arrangement of flowers, as well as verbal and written expressions of gratitude, there’s no way we could return to my friends what they provided for us.  Similarly, they would say, that there’s no way they could ever return to God the fullness of what has been given to them.  They can only share from the abundance they’ve received in ways that help others to enjoy divine blessing as well.  That is the essence of worship that is grateful thanks-giving.

Last week, we discussed ways to keep ourselves focused on our worship of God above all the other powers and forces and voices that clamor for our attention and devotion once we leave this sanctuary.  I started my reflection by recounting the story of King David, who serves as one of the Old Testament’s most powerful characters of human faith.  And by human faith, I mean he had moments of greatness, and moments where he seriously messed up with God and others.  But the best thing about David’s story is the best thing about our story (because we, too, have moments when we live out our faith in ways we feel good about, and moments when we get off-track).  The best thing about David’s story (and ours) is that God’s grace is infinitely more persistent than we are.  And, despite our proclivity to head off in destructive directions, God keeps pursuing us with love, keeps trying to welcome us back into life-affirming relationship, keeps inviting us to start again, to trust more completely in the power of Love at work in and through us to deliver everything our souls truly desire.  Among the things that were suggested for keeping ourselves focused on worship in our daily living was making God the first thing we focus on in the morning: committing all our activities that day to pursuing God’s agenda and not our own.  That’s what God was consistently inviting the Israelites to do through the prophets and other spiritual leaders.

Our first reading this morning was from the book of Deuteronomy, which is basically a re-iteration of God’s laws, and of the people’s Covenant with God.  After years of tent-dwelling in the wilderness, the Israelites were just about to enter Canaan, the land God had pledged to their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah (and the bountiful offspring they were also guaranteed).  These descendants were ready to claim the divine promise, after years of having their faith in God tried and tested.  It had been years, decades even, of the people hoping but doubting, seriously wondering whether God was truly with them, and whether God would surely provide for them—especially when things were difficult.  It was years, even generations, of neglecting to thank and honor God, instead hoarding things and claiming that they were personally responsible for their success or any abundance they experienced as sojourners in a spiritual and geographical wilderness.

Now, as they’re poised to take possession of the place that God had promised to them, champing at the bit to get settled into houses that didn’t flap and flutter in the wind, to claim parcels of property that allowed for neat, cultivated gardens ringed by a fence and a few trees, Moses instructs the people to honor God, to demonstrate their true worship and submission to God above all others in three specific ways:

First was to make an offering to God.  This story makes it clear that our worship of God involves thankful- giving as a first act; gratitude expressed with more than rote or perfunctory words.  We acknowledge God’s relentless love and faithfulness toward us, we demonstrate our worship of God first and above all others by giving, not of our left-overs, Moses says, but of our first-fruits.  In today’s world, where despite inhabiting a farming community, it’s likely that our first-fruits will not be a basket filled with vegetation—though certainly that could be some of it, as it certainly is this morning.  The point of emphasizing first-fruits is that, when our offering to God is our first thought or act, then we don’t forget where our gifts have come from and we’re more inclined to pay attention so that all we produce is aimed toward accomplishing God’s purposes.  When we only remember to give a gift to God at the end of the harvest, it’s not as likely that we’ve prioritized God’s purposes in quite the same way.

The second act of worship, Moses instructed the Israelites, was to remember out loud—to recount both to the priest (another person) and before God in prayer—their history.  When we actively recall aloud, when we pass along the story of God’s faithfulness and salvation in trying moments, we become increasingly confident that God will continue to provide; it becomes easier to direct our ultimate faith and trust, our genuine worship, toward God above all others.

And finally, Moses says, worship that expresses gratitude to God involves sharing a feast that includes others—specifically, others who might not otherwise experience or appreciate the abundance we’ve been blessed to enjoy.  He concludes his instructions, saying, “Then you and your family must celebrate by eating a meal at the place of worship to thank the LORD your God for giving you such a good harvest.  And remember to invite the Levites and the foreigners who live in your town.”[1] Throughout the Scriptures, God’s commands have consistently included reaching out to those whom it would be easier to ignore or push away; those whom we resist associating with.  This is how we remember that we are all children of God.

After our 10:30 worship service today, a number of our young people and some adults will work together at Brookdale Farm’s distribution center and will sort all of the food that you’ve so generously shared today, as well as a lot of other non-perishables from the Scouting for Food drive that happened a couple weeks ago. They will produce about 40 banana boxes filled with food.  Each box will also include a whole turkey, a freshly-baked pie, and a card that our Sunday School children have helped to create, wishing the recipients a Happy Thanksgiving.

All of these boxes will go to families who have children at Hollis-Brookline High School or Middle School, at the Hollis Primary School, or Marguerites’ Place or Tolles Street Mission in Nashua, and a couple places in Brookline—all families who would otherwise not be able to afford to enjoy such a feast.  Furthermore, I want to add that in addition to providing food, and time in sorting, there are a number of people who are giving of their time, care and attention and transportation in order to deliver these boxes.

These all represent offerings to God, acts of worship which not only bless the receivers, but they also bless the givers because each one of us who has contributed knows that love is being spread in the world; we are living out the words we pray, that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

         As we enter into this Thanksgiving week, I’ve provided a few opportunities for you to reflect on ways that you might engage your Holy Habit of Worship in the coming days.  On your Takeaway insert, you’ll see space where you can write:
Three things I am thankful for (which I don’t necessarily think of each year at Thanksgiving);

         Two ways I will GIVE as an expression of my THANKS-GIVING; and

         One way I will worship differently during Thanks-giving Week.

It may not be possible for all of us to follow Moses’ instructions precisely across the coming days and week.  But at the very least, I hope that each of us might find ways to deepen our daily attentiveness to honoring and worshiping the God who has given us an abundance that includes every good thing we enjoy, and an equal or greater abundance of things we scarcely notice that bring us joy and meaning in each day.  And now, as I’ve done in previous years, I’d like to invite anyone who wants to share in the presence of this community something that you thank God for; you may speak up now… [sharing gratitudes]

[1] Deuteronomy 26:11

 

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC