Saying “Thank You”

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on March 10, 2013. 

Long ago, when I was in seminary,  I remember going with some other seminarians  to a little shoe repair shop  just up Ninth Avenue from the seminary.  In olden days, I should explain,  people used to get their shoes repaired instead of throwing them out. So we took some shoes  that had long ago seen better days  and the cobbler, who was Greek  and spoke with a heavy accent,  told us to come back in a week. So a week later we went back and there were our shoes looking far better than before and we were told the price  and we paid  and the shoe maker started to hand us our shoes.  But as we reached for them he held them back  and said “Say Thank you.”  “Thank you,” we said. “No,” he said, “in Greek: Eucharisto.  You study Greek; why can’t you say Thank you in Greek?”

Thinking back, it occurs to me  that he might have been under contract  to the New Testament department  at the seminary  because he taught an unforgettable lesson.  Thinking back, it also occurs to me  that he might have been working  for the theology department  because he was teaching one of the most  fundamental lessons of the universe  and one we instinctively  teach our own children: say “Thank you.”  Every child beginning to talk  learns to say “Mama” and “Dada “ and then “Bye-bye,”  and then we move on to theology and tell them to say “Thank you.”

But theology isn’t easy,  and we find ourselves year after year  repeating the lesson:  Did you say “Thank you?”  “Now go back and say “Thank you.”  And how many Christmases are spoiled  by the requirement of writing thank you letters to distant relatives?  One day of happiness  and then days and days of nagging reminders:  “Write those thank you letters.”

I won’t tell you which of our children it was  who finally, dutifully wrote:  “Dear Grandma and Granddaddy,  Thank you very much for the two dollars you sent me for Christmas.  My other grandparents sent me five dollars.”

Very early on,  almost as instinctively as a mother bird teaches fledglings to fly, We begin to teach our children theology.  We teach them that saying “Thank you” changes things; that saying “thank you”  lies at the core of right relationships. We know it almost instinctively. We learn it with our first words.  And yet – being human, being fallen,  being always somewhat alienated  from the world we live in –  we never completely get it right.  Again and again we find out too late  that we failed to say “Thank you” to someone who wanted to hear it  or didn’t say it in a way that was heard  or assumed someone knew we were thankful  when they didn’t know.  And that also changes things.  Saying “Thank you”  changes relationships for the better.  Not saying “Thank you”  leaves relationships bent and twisted and broken.

We come here today simply to say “Thank you.”  The primary title given this service  in the Prayer Book is the “Holy Eucharist.”  The modern Greek pronunciation  of that ancient Greek word is “eph-karisto,”  as I learned from the cobbler,  but it’s the same word that we pronounce  as Eucharist in English.  And it means “Thank you.”  Holy Eucharist is “Holy Thank you.” Some parishes have always held that title up.  But the service itself has always said it Even when we called it something else whether we called it the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion or Mass, it’s all about “Thank you.” When we come to the critical point,  when the bread and wine are on the altar  and we are ready to go on, the priest says,  “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”  “Let us say thank you to the Lord our God.”  And everyone responds, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.”  “It is right to say ‘Thank you’ to God.”  And then begins the longest prayer of the service  reciting the reasons  why it is right to say “Thank you” to God.

This service, the Eucharist,  is a kind of  “Thank you” letter from us to our creator,  a “Thank you” from ourselves  and from all the rest of creation  that hasn’t yet learned how to speak  or hasn’t yet learned the importance of these words. “We give you thanks because…” Follow the Prayer of Consecration today  with that in mind. Read through the alternative prayers of consecration sometime to see how they highlight our thankfulness to God in different ways.  And then notice how at the center of all of them  we give thanks for something  that you might think we should rather  ask forgiveness for:  the death of Jesus on the cross.

Thankfulness, we begin to see,  is not all ice cream and Christmas presents. Thankfulness embraces  the whole spectrum of human life,  the betrayals as well as the faithfulness,  the suffering as well as the joy,  the crucifixion as well as the resurrection. “For in the night in which he was betrayed …. he gave thanks…”  And so he did.  And because of it, we, too, begin to learn  to give thanks  for the whole of our existence  and to leave nothing out  however unthankful we may feel at the time. And notice that when we come to give God thanks  God gives us the best gift of all  and we go away more thankful than when we came.

I think it’s one of the best developments in the church,  in our common life,  that more and more often  when people come to marry,  they do so in the context of the Eucharist.  And what could be more appropriate?  What greater occasion could there be  to give God thanks?  And what better way to put things in perspective  than by remembering  that however much we love each other,  God loves us much more.  We begin a new life not centered on each other  but centered on God.  And what better way  to begin a lifetime of shared meals  than to share this meal  at which God himself is our host?

But even more, I think,  it’s one of the best developments  in our common life  that more and more often when someone dies,  we set the funeral service  in the context of the Eucharist.  What could be more appropriate?  What greater occasion could there be to give God thanks?  Here at the darkest moment of life  we are able to remember the promise  that death is not the end but the beginning.  And what better way to begin a new phase of life,  a new aspect of our relationship with each other,  than to share that life which is never divided,  by which we are bound together for all eternity?

So thankfulness, then, is not fundamentally  a matter of how we feel.  Sure, we’re thankful at weddings  and we may sometimes be thankful at funerals –  thankful for release from suffering,  thankful for a good life  we’ve been privileged to share –  but there are surely times  when none of that superficial thankfulness  is there,  times like that evening when a little group of friends  gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem  in an atmosphere of fear  and impending doom  and were told that death was imminent.  Why, then, would one give thanks?  Why would you give thanks when all you have hoped for  is about to be taken away?  Why would one give thanks when a child has died,  when a young man has died of AIDS,  when a young woman dies in childbirth?  Even, yes, even when children have been senselessly gunned down in a schoolroom. What is there then to give thanks for? Yet that is what Jesus commanded we do. And what could be more appropriate.  Indeed, what could be more essential? Isn’t it in fact, at those times most of all  that we know what it is to be thankful:  thankful that we do know  that in spite of all these events  there is a God who loves us  and cares for us enough to die for us himself,  that even in such tragedy  God can accomplish his purpose.

How, I often wonder, can people go on with their lives who don’t know that? The gospel of a God who loves us is exactly the good news  we need at such times  and for which we could hardly fail to be thankful  most of all when our need is greatest.  It’s easy to be thankful when the sun is shining  but not very meaningful.  It’s when we’re feeling harassed and defeated  and depressed beyond measure  that thankfulness is real,  that the gospel is real,  and that our work and our lives and our faith  are truly measured.

If you study the gospel carefully  you may notice that sometimes it says  Jesus gave thanks for the bread and the wine and sometimes it says he blessed them.  Sometimes it’s simply a matter of translation and sometimes it reflects two different words  that are almost interchangeable. But I think we tend to hear the words differently.  We have this notion that to bless things  makes them different  but to give thanks for things doesn’t.  I bless this medal and that makes it holy  but I thank you for giving me this medal  and that’s just being polite.  isn’t that how we think?  But that’s not the Biblical perspective.  In the Bible to give thanks is to bless:  it’s the same thing. You don’t bless the food,  you bless God for giving you the food.  Just as you don’t give thanks to the new bicycle  that Uncle Fred gave you for Christmas;  you thank Uncle Fred for his gift.

Here on Sunday at the altar,  we give thanks to God for bread and wine  and the life and death and resurrection  of Jesus.  But when you give thanks,  when you bless God for these gifts,  things are changed.  When you give thanks to God,  everything is changed:  bread and wine are changed,  you and I are changed,  sorrows and joys are changed,  the world we live in is changed:  because God is present and we know it. The bread and wine become the focal point  of a presence that enters our lives  and through us transforms the world.  Saying thank you changes things.  Blessing God changes things.  Try it. Try giving thanks to God for all God’s gifts,  even in the midst of pain,  even in the midst of things that you think you can’t bear. Let this Eucharist,  this focal point of our relationship with God  be the model and foundation  on which your life is built.  Give thanks;  lift up your hearts;  let the presence of Christ in you,  let thankfulness transform the world.

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