‘In its welfare you will find your welfare.’ Jeremiah 29:7
The Dominicans are a religious order that began over 800 years ago. After each monk’s name are the letters, O.P. Order of Preachers.
Their specialty is to communicate the gospel and their work is study, teaching, and preaching. Their day is framed by community and private prayer as well as periods of silence. Most of the monks have PhDs in Philosophy or Theology and also in Psychology, Physics, Mathematics, and so on.
One of their mottos is veritas – the pursuit of truth. And especially as found in Jesus who is Truth.
So you can imagine what homilies by Dominicans may be like and
that no homily by a Dominican would be less than 30 minutes long.
Maybe that is the case but a Dominican recently said to me that a homily should not be more than 7 or 8 minutes long. People come to church with all sorts of things on their mind, he said. They have family problems or health problems or relationship problems or work problems or financial problems. They are looking for a word of encouragement, that God is with them in the struggle they are going through, and that He will help them get through another week. With all that is going on in their life, after 7 minutes they are no longer listening to the homily.
This from a member of the Order of Preachers! So I should try to heed this dear monk’s insight and not preach too long.
We come to church with things on our minds and we place ourselves in a situation to hear the story of God’s people who had things on their minds and struggles of their own.
Today, for example, in the reading of Jeremiah, we see the people of God in a strange land. Last week we had a reading from the Book of Lamentations, thought to have been written by Jeremiah, an eyewitness to the complete and utter destruction of beloved Jerusalem. The Temple and the royal court were now a heap of rumble burnt to the ground.
The Israelite people who have lived in the land since Joshua, and in Jerusalem since King David, more than 400 years, are now in exile in Babylon, modern day Iraq. They are refugees: more than refugees they are captives.
And then the word of the Lord comes to them in their time of ruin and devastation, captives huddled together in the land of their captors, and says,
7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
What a counterintuitive message! What a thing, we might think, to ask of a people who suffered so much at the hands of the Babylonians. ‘What? God wants us to seek the welfare of our captors and oppressors?’ Surely this can’t be!
But there we have it. Seek the welfare of Babylon and pray on its behalf.
The people are not there. In fact they are grieving for Jerusalem and asking how they can sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
And now they are asked to pray for their enemies and indeed to seek and act in such a way as to ensure Babylon’s welfare.
God’s ways are not our ways, said Isaiah.
The message is, ‘Yes, you have been exiled. But this exile will be for your good and your captor’s good.’
In its welfare will be your welfare.
The message of thanksgiving, in its biblical sense, is like that too. It is initially counterintuitive. Give and you will receive. Take the first fruits and give them to God.
And when you place your first fruits before God in the temple recall how small in number your were as a people, mere wandering Arameans, who ended up as slaves in Egypt, and who were brought by God into a land flowing with milk and honey.
In being thankful, symbolized by the offering of the first fruits, they are to recall the hard times and God’s help.
Once this is done they can go home and celebrate.
As the reading from Deuteronomy has it:
“So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”
Things are now good. You are now a great success. But recall when you were not. Give thanks to God by the offering of the first fruits and then celebrate – and not only with your own but with the alien!! The Other, the outsider, the marginalized, in your midst.
It is particular here. A specific people and a specific help from God.
But it has universal application. It is existential. We sum it up in the words of offertory in the Book of Common Prayer:
All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.
To seek the welfare of the Babylonians and to give thanks not only by word but by giving up the first fruits, and not the leftovers, of one’s resources, is not so easy.
Both require a profound and radical trust in God.
Our trust most often is in ourselves and our abilities. There is something right and proper about that.
It is as someone said, ‘We are what we produce.’
This is true but it is a low understanding of what it means to be human. Why? Because we have an innate value by being created in the image and likeness of God.
From a psychological perspective it is having a bias toward the positive. It is the optimism built into our DNA, something of what it means to be Made in the Image and Likeness of God. We are co-creators with God. But we are not called to be machines and always co-creating. We are called to sabbath as well. To rest. To dwell. To worship. To delight. To give thanks. To be!
Sabbath and Thanksgiving remind us we did not make ourselves and we are not made for ourselves.
As St. Augustine said, Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.
Thanksgiving points us, like it does with the Jewish people, back to God.
It reminds us of our transience here. We are also wandering Arameans. Everything is in motion. Nothing is still. As the Buddhist say all is impermanence.
This impermanence led a not so kind king to order his subjects to give him a gift that would make him sad when things were going great and happy when things were going badly. People trembled at the challenge. But one person said not to worry they had the perfect gift to meet the king’s request or demand. They made a ring from the finest gold and inscribed on it the words: “This too shall pass.”
The king was pleased.
Everything here passes. But thanksgiving points not to the futility of all things but to God, source and sustainer of it all, and the only permanence there is!
The Christian has this perspective and is captured by the phrase given us by St. Paul when writing to the Thessalonians:
In every circumstance of life be thankful; for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus respecting you.
It is an attitude of gratitude but also a radical confidence in God to bring all things to completion and fulfilment.
From the perspective of the Bible this has been built into the religious and everyday life of the Jewish people. Some of the greatest philanthropists in the world are Jewish people. It is rooted in their ritual of offering the first fruits – it comes from the religious teaching to give thanks to God who has given you your very life.
To give away there has to be something of a confidence that indeed this God is worthy of my offering.
If life is only survival of the fittest and dog eat dog then I am not likely to have a spirit of expressing my thanks by offering some of my hard earned treasure in an act of giving away for the benefit of others and as an expression of Thanksgiving.
We will need to be convinced that all this that we have is not from anyone but myself. I will need to have some perspective that my life comes from and is sustained by my creator. Of course I can be thankful without that and be a most humane individual sharing my goods with the less fortunate because I am grateful for all I have.
But take a closer look. The more we have the more we spend on ourselves. The more things are going our way the more we serve self.
Partly it is society telling us we need more and more. But mostly it is a spiritual issue.
It is the issue of clinging to what can’t be kept. The human journey here on earth is one of impermanence. It is all movement. It is all passing.
Thanksgiving, symbolized and actualized in the command to offer the first fruits to God, is to break from that clinging, that desperation to hold onto everything in the fight against lack and impermanence, and to discover that we are more that survivors of the fittest. We are the children of God, Our Father.
Thanksgiving, that act of bringing before God our first fruits, brings us back from the fields of our labour to the source of life here and life here after.
What a tragedy to miss this! To restrict ourselves to the temporal and impermanent.
A beloved father of a colleague died last week. I met his father at the late stage of his life when he was unable to communicate to me. I did not know him in his full productive life. Apart from his being my friend’s dad, I knew nothing about him really.
But this all changed when I went to the home of a parishioner who was a long time friend of his and he began to tell me about him. And then I was asked, ‘Do you know his work?’ And as I did not, the parishioner brought a book about the birds of Canada. All the illustrations, page after page of beautiful and exquisite painting of countless birds, were all done by my colleague’s dad.
His father’s life here was lived with great skill and accomplishment. But as with all of us, this life does not last forever. Our vitality and productivity passes.
Thanksgiving turns our eyes and hearts to the source and sustainer of it all. It teaches us that we are not the source of our life. We are stewards of it but not its source.
The leper in today’s gospel reading, upon seeing that he was healed ran back to give thanks, and in the process encountered the living God. He received more than physical healing he received salvation.
Thanksgiving is kind of like forgiveness, which is not so much to benefit the offender but to free from anger and resentment the offended and thereby allowing them to live their life. So thanksgiving has more benefit to us who offer it than to God who receives it. In our thanksgiving we encounter God, the Eternal One.
We can be like the nine who were healed but did not return to give thanks. They were certainly better off than they were before being healed. But there was a greater healing that their lack of gratitude caused them to miss.
Jesus asked the question, ‘Where are the other nine?’ Is it a judging question or a question based in compassion? A deeper concern for their deeper need?
‘What does it profit someone to gain the whole world but to lose their soul?’
It is Jesus who highlights the place of Thanksgiving.
Of the 10, all were Jewish except one, who was a Samaritan. The encounter with God is open to everyone.
The king’s ring is one that is rooted in this life and only this life. It acknowledges only impermanence. Good times end and bad times end.
But that is not what we are about. No, we are about something more, much more and it is in our genuine Thanksgiving that we discover our truest and eternal selves in God.
Happy Thanksgiving my sisters and brothers in Christ. In Him dwells the fullness of God and our life here and hereafter. He offered up all that he had so that we might be more than conquerors. In him we have come to an eternal home where the banquet never runs out.
The word Eucharist means Thanksgiving. Week after week we are fed from the table of Thanksgiving, where sin is forgiven and death is swallowed up in victory.