THANKSGIVING AND PSALM 118
Edited transcription of a sermon delivered extemporaneously by Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock on November 26, 2008 after Thanksgiving Prayers at Holy Transfiguration Chapel, Madison, Wisconsin
It begins, “O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is gracious, because his mercy endures forever.”
One of the things that we know about God just from that verse is that God is gracious. That means He is full of grace and that He has grace to give. We give thanks to Him for that, and for His mercy that is forever.. Why do we give thanks to Him? His mercy endures forever. In other words, we cannot do enough to earn His mercy. It’s going to continue. We give thanks to God all the time for His mercy.
Then the Psalmist writes, “Let Israel now confess that he is gracious and that his mercy endures forever. Let the house of Aaron now confess that his mercy endureth forever. Yea, let them now fear that the Lord confess that his mercy endures forever.” Everybody should be confessing this. “Confessing,” in this context, means to speak it out loud. Confession is supposed to be spoken out loud. So when you confess something, you’re speaking it out loud. It’s important that we do this once in a while. The psalm continues.
“I called upon the Lord in trouble and the Lord heard me.” So part of what we can be grateful for is that when we’re in trouble, we call upon God and He hears us.
“The Lord is on my side, I will not fear what man does to me. The Lord taketh my part with them that help me, therefore shall I see my desire upon my enemies.” In other words, we don’t have to worry about taking care of those people who are against us. God will take care of them.
“It is better to trust in the Lord than put any confidence in human kind.” This is an important thing for us to understand about being grateful at our Thanksgiving - that even when somebody gives us something or if we get something from somebody, it is actually because of God’s mercy that it’s available. Because without God’s mercy, with each of us after each other’s stuff, after each other’s belongings, each other’s prestige, each other’s pride, in other words, without God, without a better way of life, without a loving kindness that God gives to us inside our hearts, we cannot get that which is good from anywhere else. We will be fighting all the time. We will be at war. We will be at each other’s throats. We will want to have more. I want what you have. You want what I have. Then people start taking it. So it is obvious that any goodness that comes to us is part of God’s mercy. It has to be part of God’s mercy as it does not seem flow from us without divine intervention. So we’re grateful for everything that someone else gives us. Our proper response when somebody gives something to us is, “To God be thanks,” and “Oh, and thank you, too.” The primary source of all good is God.
And this Psalm goes further about this idea. It talks about enemies and how they attack, and then it says: “The Lord is my strength, and my song, and has become my salvation.” My strength is everything that I can do, every endurance that I endure, everything I’m able to do beyond what I think I’m capable of doing – that’s strength.
And what is “my song?” When do you sing? When can you sing? When you’re happy or when you’re trying to be elevated or when you’re emotional? So the Lord will become your strength and song, which is to say your voice in a way that communicates more than just the words or thoughts, but also emotions and even spiritual concerns. That is what our song is. “And has become my salvation,” that is become the way of my saving; in other words (salve being ointment), a way to heal me. The Lord has become a way that I endure, persevere; the way that I’m able to communicate spiritually beyond just thinking and emotions and also become the way that I heal.
“The voice of joy and help is in the dwellings of the righteous, the right hand of the Lord brings mighty things to pass.” So God does great things and the right hand of God has preeminence, which means that He is before anything that’s eminent. In other words, He’s on top of the principalities, He’s on top of the government, He’s on top – His arm can move greater than all of those together - the governments, economies, soft markets, jobs and all those things - so we rely on this greater force. “The right hand of God bringeth mighty things to pass.”
Then the Psalmist says this, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” So part of the reason we’re alive is to say, “This is the Lord’s doing.” The good stuff that’s happening is because of God. Without that good stuff, we would all just be miserable and suffering at each other’s expense. So we live to declare the works of God everywhere.
If we feel that we’ve had a hard time, we say, like the Psalmist, “The Lord has chastened and corrected me, but he has not given me over to death.” He’s given me a second chance. He’s given me another opportunity and for that I’m grateful. So regardless of whatever mistake I’ve made, I wake up and say, “Okay, now I can do something else. I’m grateful for that.”
“Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may go into them.” I say to God, like the Psalmist, “Show me the way that I may go into those gates.” I give thanks to the Lord for this way of living that’s outside of bitterness and vengeance of enemies; not only the enemies outside of us, but the enemies inside of us. Not just those that we can identify, but those that are invisible. There are lots of things that attack us: random thoughts, or ideas, or people, or ideas about things, or people we never met before, people who vandalize or do other things. There are lots of ways that enemies are around and about and we know that the Lord has become our salvation.
The Psalm continues, “I will thank thee; for thou hast heard me, and art become my salvation. The same stone which the builders rejected has become the corner.” The rejected becomes the cornerstone, the foundation. So this is an opportunity, this redemption being offered by rejection.
“This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” In other words, we are witnesses to it and we exclaim, “Wow! Look at that!” He took the very thing that I wouldn’t probably used for anything, that was useless, and made the very foundation of the temple, made the foundation of our temple, the foundation of everything that we will build upon. So whatever hardship we’re going through, regardless of what enemies are after us, that time of hardship is also something to be grateful, because that very thing becomes the foundation for a glorious temple for the glory of God. “And it’s marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Remember, in Genesis, the very first thing God creates is day and night, the cycle of a day. We participate in the cycle of the day, and in the present moment, in other words, today. Today is the Lord’s Day. We are grateful for it, we rejoice in it, because it is God’s doing, it is God that is in charge. God created us, God put the cycles in motion, God’s in charge and we have nothing but deep gratitude for that because we know that whatever we do, whatever anyone else does, are not going to endure if they not of God, of good. Those things that are not part of God’s original creation will pass as the temporary always do.
And so we have this opportunity to live in God’s day even though we are here in this world and separated, even though we have plenty of things to regret, plenty of things to be afraid of and plenty of things to correct. We can still live in today – God’s day is today. “This is the day the Lord has made and we will rejoice and be glad in it. Help me now, O Lord.” Not only do we recognize that, but we add, “Help me.” Obviously, David, the psalm writer, understands our human nature. We get notions of God, but we need God to help us to be participants in what is His. So he writes, “Help me, God.”
And “Send us now prosperity.” Don’t be afraid of that we may have to endure, we may have to suffer, because there’s also prosperity, and we ask him for that.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and then he tells us “we wished you providence in that the house of the Lord.”
Now toward the end of the Psalm, “God is the Lord who hath showed us light, bind the sacrifice with cords, yea, the horns of the altar.” That means that we bring something of what we think is ours to give back to God. Part of what we’re grateful for, part of how we show our gratitude as we say, “This all belongs to you, God! It’s so wonderful that you let me have it for now. But, you know, the best part of it belongs to you. Here it is. And in gratitude I give it.” Even to this day, we do this in the Orthodox churches. People don’t bring animals to be sacrificed anymore. They bring anything that’s the best of whatever they have, and give it to the church, to God.
In other words, the idea that whatever we had that is good is already of God. This is why it should be used for God’s work. This is very much like how Christ directs us: if we have something and our brethren have need of it, we should be sharing. The same thing is true with our gratitude to God.
And finally the Psalm says, “Thou art my God, and I will thank thee.” In other words, we made God ours. God is already the God over everything. But we have to decide that He is our God.
Then, “O give thanks to the Lord; for He is gracious, and His mercy endures forever.” We’re back at the beginning. When we pay attention to all these things in our lives, we’ll see God working in all these things. And even if we are astray, even if we’re pummeled by enemies, even if we’re having disease or illness or sickness or problems with our minds or problems with our thinking or problems with our workload or our concentration or whatever kinds of problems that we may have in this world, it is by being grateful to God in His graciousness, knowing that His mercy endures longer than we will ever have to endure anything beyond our capacity to endure. In other words, His blessing is upon us if we participate and make this the Lord’s day. It is the Lord’s day. Everyday is the Lord’s day. When the sun comes up and when it sets and when there’s nighttime that cycle that God created the very first day of Creation, separating the dark from the light. Genesis called that the first day. We can participate in that day every day and it is the Lord’s and we are glad in it. So, we have a lot to be thankful for in our Thanksgiving Day.