Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

We had a great, unexpected discussion at Episcopal 101 on Sunday night about the kinds of sacrifice we make in celebrating Eucharist. I said the word eucharist means “thanksgiving” – that giving thanks is what the liturgy is all about, and that living in thanksgiving is what God really wants from us. This is phrased in an interesting way in Scripture and in one of the offertory sentences used in Eucharist: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High” (Psalms 50:14).

In the psalm, the writer is thinking about what kind of worship God desires. Like the prophets, the writer of the psalm says we have to be careful to ensure that worship isn’t simply about going through the motions of divine appeasement or, worse, deluding ourselves into believing that our lives are sufficiently holy because we’ve shown up and “done church.” It’s not the sacrifice of bulls and goats (or hymns and sermons) that pleases God necessarily. What pleases God is the orientation of the one offering the sacrifice, making it a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” for the life of relationship, with God and neighbor, with which we’re blessed.

And, taking it one step further, I think the choice of the word “sacrifice” is important, too. At least for me, honoring God for our blessings begins as an act of discipline, an intentional practice intended to build a habit. Many of us, deep down, believe that we are what we are and have what we have fundamentally because of our own talents, hard work, intelligence, perseverance, etc. Especially in our culture, which values so highly the effort and character of the individual, it’s tempting to believe that we are our own sources of blessing. Realizing otherwise might hurt just a little – and at least for some of us, it probably should.

The idea of thanksgiving being a sacrifice struck at least one class member as rather odd. She said that, for her, being thankful didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. Given the blessings of life and the wonder of God’s creation, being thankful seemed to her the most natural of responses.

I think she is blessed in a way maybe she didn’t even realize – blessed with eyes to see and a heart to know what is very difficult for many of us to get: that the lives we live are neither our entitlements nor the results of our own efforts, but gifts from God instead.

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