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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 6/21/2015

Today is the first day of summer, as of 12:38 this afternoon anyway; it’s also Father’s Day. But…while it’s still about five months away, today I’m thinking about Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving although as I’ve admitted in at least one Thanksgiving sermon I’ve done, the reasons I like it don’t have much to do with giving thanks. It’s more about the smell of turkey filling the house, the late fall, gray skies and bare trees which strangely enough I like, football, collective memories of Thanksgivings past, things like that.

Today though, the psalm brings Thanksgiving to mind because it is about giving thanks. “O give thanks to the Lord for the Lord is good, for God’s mercy endures forever.” That’s the first verse and it’s a refrain that is heard in many other psalms as well; thanks for God’s mercy or steadfast love or, in Hebrew, God’s hesed. If I had to pick one word of Hebrew that I think everyone should know, that’s the word, hesed, and it is central to Psalm 107.

In our reading though, following the introductory verses, we then jump ahead to the fourth of four case studies that the psalmist uses to illustrate how the Lord has transformed situations of danger, suffering and death into possibilities for new life. The case study we get involves a great storm on the sea, an obvious connection to today’s gospel reading, with the psalmist’s response to deliverance from the storm being…thanks.

This theme of giving thanks might not seem like a big deal. Saying thank you is an accepted social custom, pretty much universal, one that contributes to good manners and civility. Parents teach their kids to say “Thank you,” pretty much from the time they can talk. I always notice it on Halloween when the parent down on the sidewalk listens to make sure the child says “Thank you.” The convention of giving thanks seems obvious, but then we live in a culture that values being self-sufficient, not dependent on anyone else where security rests in planning well and taking responsibility for yourself.

Giving thanks to God in such a culture becomes counter-cultural because to do so acknowledges that you’re not self-sufficient. Adopting an attitude of thanksgiving represents an alternative way to approach life, one that goes against the grain of accepted values. That may be why our Thanksgiving holiday has become more about the trappings that I mentioned earlier with any thanks that is given being offered more to ourselves and each other for being such good people. But perhaps it’s not just because of our self-sufficient culture and values; perhaps giving thanks to God has always represented an alternative approach to life.

In the Old Testament, one of the most characteristic ways the people of Israel addressed the Lord was in thanksgiving, like in today’s psalm. It was an element of what set them apart. In fact, it could be said that as they gave thanks they introduced and imagined a different version of reality, a version in which their God, the Lord was at the center, a God worthy of thanks for gifts that had been given.

With that giving of thanks came the important recognition that they were not self-sufficient, that there was this holy other in whom they could express joy and wonder…and gratitude. As I said, this all might seem rather self-evident, not a big deal, especially for a group gathered for worship on a summer Sunday morning; but in practice relinquishing an attitude of self sufficiency can be hard to do. We don’t give up that ground easily.

In worship though, that is exactly what we do. We give up that ground of self-sufficiency and, like the people of Israel, we proclaim a different reality, a different truth than that which the dominant culture offers. In that regard, Psalm 107 serves us well too, particularly in how it highlights two major reasons for giving thanks.

First of all there is thanks for God’s hesed that I mentioned earlier, that word that most often gets translated as steadfast love, sometimes mercy, sometimes faithfulness. Hesed though is an example of a Hebrew word which is hard to translate adequately; no one word quite does it. Hesed has to do with tenacious commitment in a relationship. It’s a resolve to be loyal to those with whom one is in relationship, no matter what. In a psalm of thanksgiving it has to do with the Lord’s tenacious commitment, the Lord’s commitment to his people despite the inclination of those people to be less than tenacious in their commitment to the Lord.

If we were asked to come up with words that describe God we might be more likely to respond with the “O” words, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, words that express God’s power. The Hebrew people were more inclined to describe God using words of relationship, with hesed being one of the words most frequently used. For me personally, hesed has become a word that is very meaningful in my own understanding of my relationship with God as I think it’s a word that points us to the grace that is so fundamental to who we are as Lutherans, grace that makes the relationship dependent on God’s love not on us being good enough and earning our way.

Thanksgiving starts then, with thanks to God for abounding in hesed, abounding in steadfast love. But in the psalm, that steadfast love is also revealed in specific, concrete acts of deliverance. In each of the case studies a need is identified, there is a cry to the Lord, rescue is enacted and then, thanks is the response. As I said, we only get the fourth case study today, the storm at sea that connects the psalm to the gospel. In fact it seems that with the way Mark wrote his account of Jesus calming the storm he might well have had this psalm in mind.

Using this storm imagery though, we could say that the psalm and the gospel are about delivery from the storms of life, whatever they may be. We’ve all been in those situations, especially the ones where any sense of self-sufficiency is gone, your personal resources are exhausted and you’re at the mercy of the storm. But…somehow you make it; you reach that safe harbor and…you give thanks.

As I was thinking about this though, I wondered, are there times when we might even give thanks for the storm itself, not in the midst of it certainly, but maybe later, after things have played out?

I’ve been out in a kayak in waves that were large enough to make me uncomfortable but I’ve never really been in a storm at sea. I’ve read about it though. I don’t know if there are any other Patrick O’Brian fans out there but he wrote a series of 20 ½ novels (he died in the middle of #21) about Captain Jack Aubrey and the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800’s; they’re acclaimed as the greatest historical novels ever written. It took me a few tries to get into the first one, but once I did I was hooked; I’ve read the whole series twice. They are beautifully written and you learn a lot about what life was like on a warship of that era. Some of you might have seen the movie Master and Commander that was out 10 or 12 years ago starring Russell Crowe as Captain Jack.

Anyway, one of the things I learned was that sometimes a ship could be caught in a storm where all the captain and crew could do was to take down all the sails and ride it out, let the wind and the waves have their way with the ship. Any sense of control and self-sufficiency was gone. They were at the mercy of the storm. Now, to be sure, such things didn’t always end well; the ocean floor and I suppose the floor of the Great Lakes too, is littered with the evidence. But there were cases when ships did ride out the storm successfully without major damage or loss. The downside was that the storm may have taken them off course, hundreds of miles away from where they wanted to be.

The storms of life can do that too; you make it through, but your geography has changed, be it physical or emotional or spiritual or all of the above. It’s no fun when you’re going through it, but you sometimes find that in the end, it wasn’t a bad thing but instead it provided growth or insights or perspectives that you wouldn’t have found if your course hadn’t been changed. It might not be the safe harbor you thought you were headed for, but deliverance was provided.

Another intriguing aspect of Psalm 107 is that while the Lord provides deliverance, he is also the author of the storm. “God spoke and a stormy wind arose.” Granted, thinking of God as the one who causes the storms of life raises a difficult theological question. It’s the question at the heart of Job’s struggle. Like him, we might find that there is no real answer to the question other than to acknowledge, as God reminded Job, that there are just some things that we can’t understand, things that we don’t have to understand. When you think about it…maybe we can give thanks for that too.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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