Isaiah 5:1-7; Phil 3:4b-14; Matt 21:33-46
So, Happy Thanksgiving! It’s a bit odd to say that right after the readings for today, don’t you think? As a whole, our readings are not ones that inspire us with a great deal of thanks. Given the awful event in Vegas last week, the violence of our readings hits home, making it really difficult to truly give thanks. We know that giving thanks is our “duty,” as we hear at the beginning of Holy Communion, and yet it can sometimes feel impossible to give thanks “at all times and in all places,” as we also hear.
This particularly can be the case when we have difficult and painful memories of things that have happened in our own past. For some of us, there are times in the past––short or long––that are intensely painful and continue to wound us even today. We can’t possibly feel thankful for that because those events or the lives we’ve lived in the past are so painful to us that we want a complete break from them, and we reject them completely. We might feel sadness, or bitterness, or even outright anger. But not thankful.
Those painful pasts are behind our readings for today. Isaiah was written during a time of intense political upheaval: there were military invasions by neighbouring countries, the king at the time, Hezekiah, had turned away from following God’s will, and the people were taking advantage of one another and not living as God’s community. Isaiah appears to be trying to understand God’s presence in what was a very oppressive time in Israel and Judah’s past.
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew was trying to figure out the same thing, although in a different context. In Matthew, the Christian community was struggling to understand why their own leaders, the priests in the Temple, didn’t protect one of their own - Jesus. They felt betrayed by the very ones who were supposed to take care of them––in Matthew’s parable, the murderous tenants refer specifically to the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, and not to all the people of Israel. The priests were supposed to take care of the people - not sell them out to Rome. The community of Christians that the Gospel of Matthew was written for were living about 50 years after the death of Jesus and only a few decades after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their recent past was incredibly painful for them, and they lay responsibility for that at the feet of their leaders. They were hurt and angry. They were not thankful.
And, of course, there’s Paul, and his letter to the Philippians. Paul, too, has his own painful past to wrestle with, and he has no one to blame but himself. His pain comes from realizing that he was responsible for the persecution of Christians. From realizing that the zealousness of his own faith caused so much pain to those whom he came to love in Christ. We often think that Paul hated his past because he was Jewish, but that’s not the case. Paul hates his past because at that time in his Jewish life he was violent towards Christ’s brothers and sisters. He is thankful for his Jewish righteousness, but in no way is he thankful for the way in which he lived out that righteousness by persecuting Christians. In that respect, he wants to completely break with his past.
I’m guessing that most of us here can identify with at least one of these situations, whether it is the deep regret over our country’s past, and even present, treatment of its own people, or the feelings of betrayal and confusion over a previous leader’s actions. Or maybe we can identify with Paul’s awareness that in our own lives we have caused deep pain to someone we love. And when we’re faced with these things, it is a challenge to honestly and authentically give thanks “at all times and in all places”––to say “Happy Thanksgiving!” and really, truly, fully mean it.
So what do we do? We’re supposed to give thanks, but our past makes that thanks imperfect. Inauthentic. We could say, “Well, that was in the past, and it’s time to move on, and today’s a new day, and let’s focus on the good things happening now, and give thanks for that.” And that is a perfectly legitimate response. Sometimes, that’s what we need to do to keep moving forward. But other times, that’s not enough. Other times, the pain from the past is too deep or too fresh to allow us to move on, and the dissonance between the past and the present has us feeling inauthentic in our thanksgiving. And so, again, we ask, what do we do? How do we give thanks, as is our duty, without erasing the past from our memory or feeling like we’re somehow being dishonest in our thanks?
It so happens that the apostle Paul, actually, offers us a way forward. In our reading, Paul acknowledges his past of persecution as a loss. A total write-off. Nothing redeeming about it. But he adds that he is pressing on “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” There is something about being in Christ that allows Paul both to face the pain of his past and to give thanks for his life today. And if we look at the letter to the Ephesians, attributed to Paul, we read that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Paul means Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:16) Paul and the new Christian community experience that, in Christ, the pains of the past persecution are gathered up in the new love that they share for one another. Paul looks to reconciliation in Christ to move forward. Paul finds the source of reconciliation, and the reason he can give thanks, not in himself, but in Christ.
It’s important to note that the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t get to that point. We know now that Jesus actually shared a lot in common with the Pharisees - a belief in resurrection after death, a recognition that the heart of Torah or the law is love for one’s neighbour, and a willingness to adapt religious observances for the times. But the community of Matthew’s Gospel wasn’t able to get to a place of being thankful for the Pharisees and priests who let Jesus die. Maybe it was too fresh for them. Maybe they hadn’t yet read Paul’s words to the churches. They weren’t able to find reconciliation and give full and perfect thanks to Christ.
All of this is where we sit in our lives. Maybe you’ve been able to give your past to God and experience Christ’s reconciliation as Paul does. Maybe you see that your past has led you to today, and that you’ve grown in reflecting on those events and commending them to God, and so you’re able to fully and sincerely give thanks. But maybe not. Maybe you identify with Matthew’s community, and feel the pain of a tremendous loss and betrayed relationships and carry that forever. Maybe your thanks is only partial, with resentment or bitterness or anger or pain or even a desire for violent retribution lying underneath. Maybe, like me, you alternate between Paul and Matthew, finding thanks easy at one moment and difficult at another.
But what Paul says to the church in Ephesians, and he says it again in his letter to the Colossians, is our Good News. The truth is that ultimately it is not us who reconciles our past and our present, but God through Christ. God does not expect that our thanksgiving will be perfect. Rather, God perfects our thanksgivings. And this is how we are able to give thanks, at all times and in all places, in the middle of every situation in which we find ourselves. Not because we somehow miraculously transcend the disappointments and betrayals of our live, but because even that partial thanks, that 10% thanks, is made perfect as God receives it. This may be why God actually asks us to give thanks even when we feel least thankful. So that we will experience that it is not that we must be perfectly thankful when we come before God, but that God makes us perfect as we do so. And this is something to be thankful for. This is how we can say “Thanks be to God,” and “Happy Thanksgiving,” even when we don’t fully and truly mean it. Because, in Christ, God reconciles our imperfect thanks, making them, and us, perfect. Thanks be to God. Amen.