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God gives us abundant gifts
Sermon Preached at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by the Rev. Tom Pumphrey, November 26, 2020
Thanksgiving, Year A, Deuteronomy 8:7-18; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

Deuteronomy 8:7-18 (NRSV): Moses said to all Israel: For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.

Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 (NRSV): The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV): On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Happy Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is such a wonderful holiday. Even though our family gatherings this year aren’t quite what they normally are, we are still thankful for God’s blessings to us. Many people are thankful for their jobs, their friends, their health. Personally, I am especially thankful for one thing this year: Tall Fescue.

Now, I suppose it might be strange to be thankful for something as simple as green grass, but green grass is not always what we find in our lawns. For four years, I battled crabgrass in our yard in Pennsylvania. From time to time, I could get fescue to grow, but the crabgrass was relentless! It covered everything, and left dead brown patches in the winter after it died away from the frost, making way for more weeds. Or making way for seeds of Tall Fescue, seeds that I eagerly planted in hopes that the crabgrass would relent, and the tall fescue would flourish.

Well, here in Georgia, the battle continues. Some folks like zoysia grass because it handles the summer heat well. But the yankee in me just can’t abide by brown grass in the winter. So I spray and weed and till and seed and water, and pray that the fescue will live in my lawn again. And this fall—it is living there! After several tries, this fall, the fescue is green and thriving. Praise God for this small gift of green grass! It brings a smile to my face.

When the ancient Israelites were thankful for green and growing things, it wasn’t just ornamental turf grass. The seed they planted and cut for harvest was food—wheat and barley, crops to feed their families with their daily bread. They had wandered in the wilderness, arid and barren, where not even crabgrass would grow. And they came to a land that was not theirs, a land with abundant resources that God gave them so that they might be blessed, and thrive and multiply.

Our readings today are about thankfulness, but more than that, they are about God’s abundant gifts to us. Jesus heals ten lepers of their horrible disease. The Corinthians shared in supporting their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. The Psalmist praises God for the rain and the fields and the crops and livestock that bless his people. God gives abundantly to us, and we share in God’s joy as we receive his blessings and thank him for all he has done for us.

Jesus’ healing of the lepers is an interesting case. Lepers were not only sick, but they were outcast, quarantined from society, disconnected from human fellowship. So when they cry out for healing, they need healing not just in their bodies, but in their souls as well. Jesus heals the ten of them and sends them to the priests. If the priests inspect them and find them healed, then they can pronounce them clean, and their quarantine is over. But look what happens with these lepers Jesus heals. Nine continue on their way, but one turns back to Jesus to give thanks and to worship him.

Thanksgiving is such an important part of the Christian life because it engages us in relationship with each other and in relationship with God. The leper who was healed and gave thanks connected with Jesus, recognized Jesus as who he is and worshipped him. Notice that God asks his people to remember him long after their time in the wilderness so that he may confirm his covenant with them. Paul invites the Corinthians to give, not out of compulsion or with reluctance, but out of joy for what God has done for them, so that others might share in that joy too. Giving thanks to God draws us closer to God and helps strengthen our covenant with God.

Of course, this is a difficult year for the Thanksgiving holiday. Many family gatherings are not happening. Some in our extended families are sick this year, some have died. Some are at high risk if they get COVID, and many parts of the country are already seeing a spike in new cases. So we’re not gathering the same way this year.

And most of us are acutely aware of things that we have missed this year. This worship service is online, and not in person. We sing our praises to God separately and not together. Schools have been disrupted and the economy upended. The virus is kind of like crabgrass. Stubborn and sneaky and slow to go away.

So can we be thankful this year? I believe we can. We can be thankful because in the midst of these real losses, God is still at work bringing new growth and new resilience to us. God is still alive and reaching into our lives, seeking a closer relationship with us. God still blesses us with abundant gifts, whether we see them or not. Thanksgiving—giving thanks—is about recognizing these blessings as gifts from God, and turning toward God to share in his joy and discover more of God’s abundance.

Despite all the challenges of 2020, God still gives us abundant gifts. God gives us friends and family with whom we share joy, whether they are with us face to face, or far away or separated by a screen. God gives us ministry in this church that continues to thrive even without being in the building together. God gives us food in abundance, shelter, health, and peace unique in human history. Like the Israelites settling in the promised land, we could easily forget, after a few generations, how blessed we are in this land, and we could easily forget God who gave us these blessings out of love for us.

Certainly, these times are not perfect. No, there is still illness and prejudice and division and hunger and a lot of healing to do. But God has not abandoned us. Indeed, God has given us a place of great abundance—abundance that can answer those needs. And God continues to bless us each day, to guide us to a deeper peace, to empower us to heal and strengthen and feed and reconcile.

God’s gift of himself in Jesus is the best gift of all. He came to us in Jesus to live a human life with all its suffering and death, and to redeem all that suffering and death for us. He lived and died for us and rose again to new life that we might have new life in him. And he gives us the Holy Spirit so that the power and presence of God can be close to us, whatever the circumstances. God gives us abundant gifts. And when we thank God for his gifts to us, we turn our hearts closer to him, and we enter more deeply into his joy.

Something tells me that next summer, the crabgrass will be back. I will still have to weed and spray and till and water and seed again. But as I tend the garden God has given me, I will also rejoice a little more, thankful for this year’s green grass, thankful that God loves us enough to bless us, even with small gifts of beauty and life. And the weeding will be a little less, and the fescue a little more green, and the peace of God will dwell a little more deeply as I remember God’s abundant gifts to us and give thanks.

May God heal the losses you feel. May God show you the growing, thriving gifts that he has given you. May God refresh you with his joy enough to share with others as you give thanks this year.

Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus our Lord.