GRACE AND GRATITUDE

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

November 26, 2017; Thanksgiving

Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Luke 17:11-19

 

“…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…”

Deuteronomy 8:14

 

Well, I hope you had a good Thanksgiving. We did, over at the manse. Ben and Ania, our two kids, are far away — Ben in Japan and Ania in Colorado — but we have no shortage of nieces and nephews and other assorted relatives, not to mention a few friends dragged along by the relatives… suffice it to say, we had a full house!

Best of all, Claire and I didn’t have to cook! (Well, not much.) We’ve been traveling the past couple of Thanksgivings, and during that time the nieces and nephews carried on in our absence. They’ve gotten to be so good at cooking the turkey — my old job — that, this year, they said, “You two just relax, we can handle it.” And they did! All I had to do was say grace — something, believe me, I can handle.

In the run-up to the holiday this year, talking to church members and others I encountered around town, I heard more than one person voice a thought I’ve often had myself about Thanksgiving — something that makes it one of my favorite holidays. That “something” is the fact that nobody’s figured out a way to commercialize it. Most other holidays — Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Halloween — are no longer just days, but whole seasons in the world of retail. No sooner do the store displays for one holiday shopping season go down, than the displays for the next one go up.

But not Thanksgiving. Stuck right in there between Halloween and Christmas, it generates a little flurry of attention in the grocery store — turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce — but laying in those provisions isn’t going to break most people’s bank account. For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s still relatively simple, even pure in its own way. Friends, family, food — a little football, for those who are fans — and an opportunity to say “thank you”: which, if we can manage to do that honestly and with simplicity, generates a boomerang blessing that comes back to warm our own hearts.

*****

          To the founders of our feast — the Pilgrims of Plymouth — there wasn’t a lot to be thankful for, materially speaking. Mostly, they were thankful for survival: that they didn’t freeze or starve to death, as so many members of their company had, that first dreadful winter. Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the book, Mayflower, points out how that first Thanksgiving feast looked and tasted nothing like the obligatory menu today — or, at least, very little like it…

“The Pilgrims,” he writes, “did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other’s hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on. Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement with five freshly killed deer. Even if all the Pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages — stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown — simmered invitingly.

In addition to ducks and deer, there was, according to [Governor] Bradford, ‘good store of wild turkeys’ in the fall of 1621….”

So, yes, there may have been the occasional turkey on the menu, but venison was the main course. There were other things on the menu, besides — but not so many of the familiar Thanksgiving favorites. Philbrick continues:

“The Pilgrims may have also added fish to their meal of birds and deer. In fall, striped bass, bluefish, and cod were abundant. Perhaps most important to the Pilgrims was that with a recently harvested barley crop, it was now possible to brew beer. Alas, the Pilgrims were without pumpkin pies or cranberry sauce. There were also no forks, which did not appear at Plymouth until the last decades of the seventeenth century. The Pilgrims ate with their fingers and their knives.”[1]

But for them, it wasn’t about the food. They were grateful for something far more important to them: the grace of God in Jesus Christ. These Calvinist ancestors of ours had traveled halfway across the world, in a couple of leaky old tubs that had seen better days. The smallest of their two ships, the Speedwell, was all of 25 feet wide amidships. One hundred twenty passengers undertook that perilous journey into trackless wilderness because only there, they believed, could they practice their faith unmolested by governments that wanted them to believe differently.

Their God had promised their Israelite ancestors to lead them through 40 years of wilderness wanderings to a land flowing with milk and honey. The Pilgrims’ own journey from England to that Native American feast had taken them just over one year. There wasn’t much milk or honey in their diets just yet, but the venison stew and striped bass tasted pretty good to them, all the same.

*****

          Even though our Thanksgiving holiday is relatively pure and unsullied by commercialism, what a gulf there still is between the experience of the Pilgrims and that of most Americans, celebrating a contemporary Thanksgiving! Besides the menu, the difference is in the nature of the gratitude.

If you want a graphic illustration of the gap between the spiritual and the secular Thanksgiving, you can fine none better than the image on your bulletin cover this morning. Take it out and have a look at it.

The picture you see there — painted by the famous Saturday Evening Post illustrator, Norman Rockwell — isn’t a Thanksgiving holiday painting. But it is about giving thanks. Its title is “Saying Grace.” Rockwell painted it in 1951, for a Saturday Evening Post cover. What you’ve got in your hands is a detail from the larger painting, the image that forms its very center.

The setting of the painting is perfectly ordinary. It’s a humble diner, the sort of place they used to call a luncheonette (or, in less kindly terms, a greasy spoon). Piping hot coffee in a chipped ceramic mug. Eggs cooked to order. Ham and cheese on rye. And don’t you dare ask if they have any Grey Poupon.

It looks like it may be raining outside. Or maybe the window’s just covered with grime. What you can see through it looks like a bleak industrial cityscape, in tones of sepia and gray.

Two figures have attracted the gaze of everyone else in the restaurant — especially, in this detail view, the two young men on the left, idly smoking their cigarettes and sipping their coffee. To the right is a grandmother, her hands clasped in prayer. Joining her in that simple act of piety is a young boy, her grandson no doubt.

What’s so interesting to me about this painting is the expression on the faces of the young men. They’re looking at the woman and the boy with a sort of slack-jawed fascination. There’s a certain grudging respect in their steady gaze: curiosity at a scene they evidently haven’t looked upon in quite some time. There’s a wistfulness, almost, in the expressions on their faces: a hint of dim, half-forgotten memories of a faith they may have once known something about, but which they seem to have left behind.

The setting of this painting, and the clothing the characters are wearing, may belong to 1951 or thereabouts, but in every other respect it’s pretty up-to-date. Painting more than 60 years ago, Rockwell somehow captures the predicament of religion in America today. How many Thanksgiving meals in 2017, I wonder, began with a table grace at all? And how many of those that did featured a prayer that was little more than a celebration of “the good life” as most people today conceive it to be — a catalogue of material wealth with little indication of the part the Creator-God, and God’s son Jesus our Savior,  plays in our lives?

There’s an interesting backstory to this painting, by the way. The Saturday Evening Post paid Norman Rockwell a handsome fee of $3,500 to paint it. In today’s monet, adjusted for inflation, that translates out to over $32,000. Not bad for a single painting.

But the real story is in what happened next. Rockwell gave the painting to his good friend Kenneth J. Stuart, art director of the Saturday Evening Post. It hung in Stuart’s Connecticut living room for the rest of his life, and when he died in 1993, his three sons put it up for auction. Saying Grace — this humble painting about a frumpy old woman offering up an ordinary table grace — sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $46 million dollars. The private collector who bought it has never been identified.

America’s religious devotion may be growing increasingly lukewarm, but it would seem nostalgia about the old ways is still worth something.

*****

          We have, in our scripture reading from Deuteronomy chapter 8, a perfect way of addressing this dilemma. These are instructions for the people of Israel, now established — after 40 years of wilderness wandering — in the storied land of milk and honey.

“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God,” warns the author. Don’t fail “to keep God’s commandments.”

These are words addressed to a prosperous, prideful people:

“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…”

Remember where you come from, the author is saying. Remember who you are — and whose you are. Remember those ancestors of yours who crossed the ocean on a leaky boat, survived a winter of starvation and counted themselves lucky when the native inhabitants showed up with some venison stew for dinner. Remember those more recent ancestors as well, who lived through the Depression and knew what a blessing it was to sit at a lunch counter with strangers and drink hot coffee from a cracked cup and maybe have a quarter to buy a sandwich to go with it.

Some of us complain about hard times today, but if you put it all in perspective, any deficit we may happen to have in our bank accounts is not our most serious problem. (At least we’ve got bank accounts.) Isn’t our problem, rather,  the deficit in our gratitude?

*****

          As we sing our next hymn, let’s try to pay off a little of that gratitude deficit. “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.” We are followers of Jesus Christ, and so we know a good deal about that thing called “grace”: that marvelous way in which the Lord meets us at that place where we fall exhausted, convinced we can go no further: and how God raises us up, sets us on the road once again and leads us safely home.

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.

[1]Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower (Viking, 2006), pp. 117-118.