Festivals in ancient Greece in honor of Demeter (dime'tur), goddess of the fields, in Rome for Ceres (ser'ez), goddess of agriculture, and even the English Harvest Home of antiquity are all celebrations of plenty. No so America's Thanksgiving. It came after only a single year's growth, and it gave thanks a scanty yield. But whether you're giving thanks for plenty or little is not how thanksgiving is to be judged. It's judged by what gets your thanks.
Thanks is for the birds. My mom would use the expression that something was "for the birds" meaning something was useless or trivial. Here I mean it literally; for some like Old Ed thanks goes no higher than the birds. Almost every Friday evening, Old Ed came to a favorite pier with a bucket of fresh shrimp. He walked all the way to the end and before long he was mobbed by seagulls. Old Ed stood there tossing shrimp to the birds as they wheeled, dove, and ate. And as he tossed he'd mutter, "Thank you. Thank you." You might think he's crazy, and in a way he is and in a way he's not.
Old Ed is none other than Eddie Rickenbacker, the Medal of Honor winning World War I flying ace. In World War II the government sent him on a goodwill tour of the Pacific theater. The B-17 on which he was a passenger got off course, ran out of fuel, and had to be ditched in the sea. Rickenbacker said for days they floated on a raft fighting sun, sharks, and most of all hunger. On the 8th day the rations ran out. They had a simple service and prayed for a miracle.
That afternoon they were dozing when Rickenbacker felt something land on his cap. Slowly he moved his hand upward and then with a flash grabbed the squawking bird. He tore the feathers off and he and the eight men with him made a slight but lifesaving meal of that bird. Then using the intestines for bait, they caught fish which gave them more food and more bait. After 16 more days at sea they were rescued. Rickenbacker lived for 30 more years, and he never forgot the sacrifice of that first seagull. So in his old age he'd totter down to the pier with shrimp to say thanks ("Old Ed," Good News Newsletter, July-August 2009, 2-3).
What a great story, but do you get the point? If all Rickenbacker did was say thanks to the seagulls, it really was for the birds in both a literal and a figurative way. He was mistaking the gift for the Giver. The ravens that came to feed Elijah during drought were commanded by the Lord to feed him. The great fish that swallowed and spit Jonah back up was commanded by the Lord to do both. Likewise, the changing weather pattern is not to be thanked for rain but the Lord. An uptick in the economy isn't to be credited to the hand of man but God.
A sure fire test to see whether you're thanking the gift or God the Giver is if your thankfulness waxes and wanes according to whether gifts are given or withheld. Doesn't this test makes sinners of us all? Whose heart doesn't lift at a doctor's good report? Whose spirits aren't crushed with a poor one? Whose heart doesn't more easily overflow when their pocketbook does? Sometimes my heart feels like a Thanksgiving machine with instructions: To receive thanks insert money, blessings, good things. How sinful! How shameful!
Thanks is for the birds if your Thanksgiving is based on the gifts rather than the Giver. Jesus, however, would say thanks is from the birds. In the Gospel reading He says, "Look at the birds of the air." Literally Jesus says, "Look to the birds of the air." In Luke He uses the more intense word for "look," contemplate, ogle.
Contemplate those birds at your feeder or in your tree. Without a care in the world, they sing their praises to the God who created them. On the coldest, stormiest, driest of days, I've heard the birds singing. Stupid birds. Don't they know how precarious their lives really are. The average lifespan of any of your backyard birds is no more than 18 months. When you hit one with your car, your cat drags one in, or it breaks its neck on your window, you might sigh for a moment, but O well what should a lousy bird expect? Yes, but why then do they sing?
Contemplate, study, ogle those backyard birds, but don't stop with the birds go to the Father who feeds them. That's where Jesus takes you. "Look at the birds of the air:..your heavenly Father feeds them." Later in Matthew 10 Jesus says "not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father." Atheistic, unbelieving, materialistic people, have no problem seeing Mother Nature behind the scenes, yet we Christians have trouble seeing our heavenly Father. But it's not an impersonal force that feeds the birds or sends them to your feeder or to feed Elijah or Rickenbacker, it's the hand of your Father.
God is the Father of birds by creation. He's our Father too by creation. He didn't just make the first man and woman by hand, but "He has made me," we confess in our Catechism. He knit us together in our mother's womb. The heavenly Father takes care of all that He has made whether that be birds, believers, or even unbelievers. Yes, God makes His sun to shine and His rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. He doesn't take care of us because we trust Him, serve Him, or love Him. On the contrary, all of His feeding, protecting and giving comes to people without any merit or worthiness in them.
Contemplate the birds. Their heavenly Father is yours too. The hand that feeds them, feeds you. And surely He takes better care of people than birds. In the words of Jesus, "Are you not of more value than they?" Sure you are. The Father didn't send His only beloved Son into the flesh of birds. He didn't take on the law of birds. He didn't suffer and die in place of birds but "for us men and our salvation." Since the Fall we were like birds with clipped wings, not able to fly to our Father in heaven. We weren't even able to make it into the trees but were condemned to a life on the ground where sin, death, and the Devil could pounce on us. But Jesus fluttered down out of the heaven, to take upon Himself the burden of keeping all the laws. And then He willingly accepted the punishment we deserve for breaking those laws. The Father turned over His Son to have His beard pulled out like so many feathers; His body wringed like the neck of a bird; and as holy Jesus' heart raced like that of a captive bird, His Father killed Him instead of you.
Thanks directed toward gifts rather than the giver is for the birds, but true thanks can come from the birds, and it gives you wings. Think of those Red Bull commercials where the weary, depressed, spent individual drinks a can of Red Bull and wings sprout from his back and off he flies. A caution here. I am not saying that your saying "thanks" is like Midas' touch. Thanks doesn't magically turn evil into good, but thanks to the Father who created you and redeemed you soars above the present situation regardless of what that might be: good, bad, indifferent.
This is how the prophet Habakkuk lived as mighty Babylon was coming into its own. Habakkuk was shown that as God had used Assyria to punish Israel for her idolatry, so He would use Babylon to punish Judah for hers. The prophet saw the approaching bad times, even as we might see them coming in age, sickness, finances, or people. In his book Habakkuk struggles with what is coming, but he closes with these words: "Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The LORD God is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to go on the heights."
Do you see the prophet soaring above the evil, the hardship, the uncertainty to His Father in heaven to His Lord? He's saying what we do each Sunday, "Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth." And, when I call upon you to "Lift up your hearts," to soar above the dirt, and the grit, and the mud and mire, we find out how when I say, "Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God," and you respond, "It is meet and right so do." In fact, the Gloria in Excelsis in the Divine Service where we in ever soaring words "give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory," takes our thoughts off ourselves to our God who reigns far above for our sake's.
With God as our Father and Christ as our brother, we can soar above the sins that would entangle us, our conscience that would convict us, and the Devil who would condemn us. We've been washed in the Blood of the Lamb. The sin that mired our feathers, the guilt that hung around our neck like a lead weight, and the Devil who laughed at the prospect of us ever flying again, have been taken away by Christ the crucified.
Thanks be to God we have been forgiven, we've been saved; we're flying all the way to heaven itself. Thanks be to God that we have a Father in heaven who loves us more than His own dear Son. Thanks be to God that we will always have His forgiveness, life, and salvation no matter what else we lack. Not our sinfulness; not our death; not the Devil's condemnation can take them away from us.
The Chinese have a proverb. "When you drink from the stream remember the spring." The environmentalist, the greenies, and the climate change activists love that thought, but their spring is Planet Earth or Mother Nature. Let Thanksgiving for whatever you have and don't have in the world and all that you always have in heaven take you above your stream whether it be a torrent or a trickle to the spring. And may you see that the spring itself flows only because it has been tapped by a bloody cross pounded into the ground. So whatever comes to you by way of the stream has mingled with it the blood of Jesus which sanctifies and blesses it to your good and God's glory. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20091125)