Thinking and Thanking

By Victor Lee Austin

Whenever we have new readings for an old feast, as we do today with the Revised Common Lectionary, we have an opportunity to hear old things in a new way. John chapter 6 may be familiar to many of you; it is the chapter that begins with Jesus miraculously feeding the 5,000. But it’s new for us to hear it at the Eucharist on Thanksgiving Day. Similarly, the Philippians passage is new to this context.

With the question of what insights we might glean today about thanksgiving, I’d like to linger over two moments in these readings. First: You seek me, says Jesus, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.And second: bring everything to God, Paul says; in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Jesus fed 5,000 with just a handful of barley loaves; the vast crowd’s hunger was completely satisfied, and lots of bread was left over, uneaten. This was, the Gospel writer tells us, a sign. The next day, the crowd hears some news, goes around the lake, and finds Jesus on the other side. Instead of feeding them again with more bread, Jesus criticizes them. You aren’t seeking me for the right reason, he says; you had your fill of bread, and you are looking for more. Your problem is you didn’t see the sign.

What does Jesus mean about signs?

Or maybe we should ask, how is bread given to us? It was a present, but how is a present a sign?

We who speak English have a bit of an advantage here, because our words think and thank differ by but a single vowel, and in fact they come from the same root. To give thanks is, in fact, a kind of thinking. Namely this: when you think about something that’s been given to you, you “think” the gift as gift and thus you “think through” the gift to the giver. Thanksgiving is what happens when we think a gift as gift.

Now consider how this happens when we take a present to a child or a parent or a friend. The present (if it is a good present) brings happiness. And the recipient (if she is a good recipient) thinks through the present to see the love that it conveys. For that’s what’s really going on: when we give presents, we are showing love.

When the 5,000 who had been fed to satiety woke up the next morning, they did not think through the miraculous feeding of the previous afternoon. They did not see the sign. That is, they did not see that Jesus was showing them love. And in particular, they did not see the deep meaning of Jesus’ love.

For the barley loaves given to those people were signs of the air and the sunshine, the hills and the trees, streams and pastures—and they were signs of the stars and the planets, the great vastness of space—and they were signs of stoves and kitchens, of bakeries and markets, of highways and byways, of the human capacity to make and bake, to contribute and share.

The barley loaves were signs of everything that upholds and surrounds the human world in which we live. Think, Jesus is saying to the crowd on the next day; think what you’ve been given, think through what you’ve been given. To be human is to see that everything, everything, everything is a gift, and the only truly human way to live in this world is to be thankful.

Now that was a way of putting it, as Eliot might say, and I think we know it’s true. But there is also in the world a lot of need, a lot of hurt, a lot of want. So I turn to that line from today’s epistle, when Saint Paul tells us to bring everything to God. In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. In everything: not just in joy, but in sorrow; not just in plenty, but in want; in seasons high and low, in everything …  let your requests be made known to God.

Repeatedly, as if he were afraid we wouldn’t get it, Paul emphasizes that prayer is a nothing-held-back exchange. We don’t prepare our face to meet God. There is no makeup to be put on here. We don’t edit our wish list before we take it to God. And the reason is that if you really want to pray to God you have to take yourself to him just as you are. Whatever your requests are, in everything let God know what you want.

Your husband has cancer and you don’t know how you’ll get along after he dies: let that be known to God.

There is a mentally ill person on the sidewalk who wants to engage you in conversation and you don’t know how in the world she can be helped: let that be known to God.

And so on and so on: Paul has said it before and said it in many ways; I think we get it. But today he makes it harder, perhaps, by adding just a couple of words, a short prepositional phrase. See if you pick it up: in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. With thanksgiving! Don’t just take your troubles to God, your needs, your sorrows; take them to God without editing and without makeup, yes, but still, with thanksgiving. How, I wonder in particular, does a person take deep sorrows to God with thanksgiving?

Is it: because in everything, there is something that is sheer gift that is underneath it all? If your husband is dying, he is still your husband, and he as such is a gift to you. The person who is mentally ill and beyond possibility of your care is still another human being, and just so, a gift to you. Before your stomach can growl from the emptiness of hunger, it is your stomach, and just so it is God’s gift to you.

You may not like your body. You may not like your neighbor. You may not like the situation you are in. But before you could have all these dissatisfactions and wants, you were given existence. God looked out into a universe without you and said, Let this person be.

Which is to say, we think through what we are and where we are, we think through everything, and we find that we give thanks.

So we take it all to God, or at least we should! We take it all to God, in everything, with prayers and supplications we put all our requests before God, but: with thanksgiving. It is really true, it is meet and right, in all times and in all places to give thanks to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So think. See the sign. Happy Thanksgiving.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.


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