Sermon: “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” (Nov. 20, 2016) [Dt. 26:1-11]

 

Have you ever gone through a difficult time and wondered how you were going to make it through?  What helped you get through it?

When times are hard and you feel hopeless, when the way has grown so dark all you want to do is curl up and binge-watch Netflix…sometimes it helps to remember difficult times in the past when you’ve made it through, when God has shown up in powerful ways… circumstances from which you have emerged stronger and more faithful.

That likely was the intent of whoever wrote Deuteronomy.  Deuteronomy was written in the 8th century BCE when once-sovereign nations Israel and Judah had become vassals of Assyria.  Israel soon would be conquered.  Judah would last another 150 years.  But even for them, in the 8th century the writing was on the wall—everything the people had hoped for and assumed (their presence and sovereignty in the land God had promised them) was being lost.

What might encourage people who felt like they were losing everything?  What would give them hope that, even in this changed landscape, they would survive?

The writers of Deuteronomy supposed they could do it by remembering where they’d been in the past, how far they’d come…and how God had been with them every step of the way.

The writers set the scene on the eastern bank of the Jordan River just as the people are about to enter into the promised land.  Moses is giving his final instructions before they cross over.  He tells them to do two things.  First, the people are to bring first fruits as an offering of thanksgiving to God….which is kind of beautiful, if you think about it.  What better symbol of one’s presence in the promised land than food grown in the soil of that land?

The second thing Moses instructs the people to do is, as they hand the basket of first fruits to the priest, to recite the story of their history with God.  “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean… we went to Egypt and became a great nation…God delivered us from oppression and brought us to this promised land.”

So, for people who believed that God had given them the promised land (a land they were in the process of losing), the writers of Deuteronomy sought to remind them of the time when they’d had no land and God still had been with them….and to be thankful for that fact.

The same can be true for us.  When we wake up in a strange land, far from all the things that once brought us comfort, far from the place where we knew who we were, we can find our way forward by remembering our past and how we’ve gotten through hard things before, how God has been with us every step of the way.  If God helped us then, won’t God help us now?  The future might look scary, even bleak.  But some things never change, among them, God’s deep and abiding love for us, God’s hope for our wholeness.  If we can tap back into our identity as God’s beloved people, we’ll figure out how to get to—how to create—a more hopeful future.

A few weeks ago, I was struggling.  In prayer I said to God, “The way has grown so dark.”  I sensed this response:  “Light the path with thank yous.”  My response to God’s response?  “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Holy One?”  At that point, I didn’t see even one thing about which to be thankful.

Then I read the story of Doochie Wilkinson, who lived in the 9th Ward of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.

That Sunday in late August 2005, Doochie decided to wait out the storm while his daughter took his elderly mother to the Superdome.  When Doochie awoke Monday morning, he stepped outside.  The sun was shining and all was calm.  The storm had done a lot of damage, but he was okay.  He offered a prayer of thanks to God for getting him through the storm, then asked God’s help for those who were recovering from it.

A few minutes after he stepped back inside the house, Doochie heard the sound of running water.  The 6 inches of water on the ground outside grew to a foot.  Water began rushing into his house.  In just 20 minutes, the water level rose from his feet to his chin.

Doochie’s account of the next two days is grueling.  He floated for a while in the water, bumping into cars and trees.  He was hit by a bench.  His leg got caught in a fence and was badly hurt.  Thanks to two tires that floated his way, he was able to make it to an elementary school, where others were seeking refuge.  While trying to put out a flag to let rescuers know he and the others were there, the heavy window fell on one hand, injuring his fingers.

Eventually, Doochie was rescued and taken to the Superdome.  As he describes it, it was a horrific experience—random gunfire, robbery, ill-equipped volunteers who left as soon as they saw the circumstances.  The adjacent sports arena—where those needing medical assistance could get help—was better organized.  Even so, Doochie wasn’t able to get the help he needed.  Eventually, he was taken by ambulance to the airport and flown to San Antonio with other people needing medical attention.

Doochie’s account of his experiences in the aftermath of Katrina is gut-wrenching.  After each devastating thing, another just-as-devastating thing happens.  It makes for exhausting reading… except for one thing.  Doochie’s account is laced with prayers.  As you might guess, he asks God’s help on a few occasions, but most of his prayers are prayers of gratitude for others—for people who share food or invite him into their rescue boat, for the little boy who told authorities Doochie was his uncle so he could join them on the plane.  Every time I read another of Doochie’s prayers, I thought, Really?  How can you possibly still be praying—especially prayers of gratitude—with everything that’s happening to you?

By the time Tuesday evening rolls around, you can tell from Doochie’s account that he’s wrung out.  He doesn’t know where his family is, he’s in tremendous pain, and is utterly exhausted.  The bed he’d been promised at the rescue center was given to someone else while he’d been assisting other people.

“I didn’t have a place to lay my head,” Doochie says.  “So I just walked to a back office and leaned against the wall.  I became very tearful, and my heart was very, very sad.”   It’s obvious from his account that Doochie is a person of deep faith and prayer.  But by Tuesday night, he didn’t have anything left.

That’s when a social worker showed up.  As it turns out, Doochie had stumbled into the social services area for people who were having mental problems.  Of the social worker, Doochie writes, “She saw I was full to the brim with grief, so she had compassion enough to tell me, ‘Look, you can sit here.  You can go in this cubicle…There should be a blanket in there.  Just rest yourself.’  Then she said, “God brought you this far, and you’ve been through what you’ve been through in the flood.  God will make a way for you.”

“God bless her,” Doochie said.  “She gave me a cubicle with a fold-up cot and blanket, and that helped me make it through the night.”  From that point, Doochie is taken to a hospital where his injuries and high blood pressure are tended to.  A day or two later he reconnects with his family who had evacuated to Dallas, Texas.

Today, if you’re struggling with despair, if you’re puzzling over a landscape that looks very different, if it feels like life is just one disastrous occurrence after another, remember the words of that social worker, words with which the writers of Deuteronomy would agree:  “God brought you this far.  God will make a way for you.”  And don’t forget to light the path with Thank yous.

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2016

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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