Monday, November 22, 2010

Living Gratefully in an Age of Ungratefulness

Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Killeen, TX, the     Rev. Paul Moore

Mark Mitchell in a new book called "Ingratitude and the Death of Freedom" insightfully notes: "We can choose to be friendly regardless of how others treat us. We can choose to act justly even if we have been wronged. But gratitude is different. It's a response to goodness." The Christian recognizes that all goodness begins with God, so that John Calvin can write that gratitude goes to the heart of the Christian response to God. In theological terms we call it contingency. Our being is contingent on something else. Our society, our nation, our church, even creation itself is contingent on something, and that something is the ongoing, continuous providential involvement of the divine will in the existence of things. In other words, the fact that you are, that you are what you are, and have what you have, is an active action of God, right now, on your behalf, and the writer of Genesis puts in the mouth of God those timeless words about God's creative work, "And behold, it was very good."

Contingency sits uneasily on the contemporary soul. Mostly, we are too busy to think that deeply. In the 1930's two brothers by the last name of McDonald invented something new in the food industry. They took the common hamburger and mechanized its production. They hired cheap labor and trained each person to perform one function, produced exactly the same burger in the same process, and sold it at rock-bottom prices. In doing so they invented fast food, and launched an epoch. Food became no longer an occasion for social interaction, it dropped its symbolic value as a reminder of providential provision. It became a cog in the wheel of keeping the machine called our bodies greased and fueled.

They would not have been successful if we had not already begun to think of our bodies as merely machines. The industrial revolution had already bequeathed us a demythologized existence. The fact that we are was severed from the why, allowing us to see our bodies as sources of activities that we can sell to make a living. And so now we do not ask where our food comes from, or how it was produced, we are just happy to buy it at low prices, unconcerned with the international consequences of the government subsidies involved, or the illegal workforce and its characteristic abuses, or the lack of concern for the environment and eventually, our very health. We do not consider that of the 12.1 billion bushels of corn produced by the U.S. in 2008, according to the USDA:

  • 5.25 billion bu. - Livestock feed
  • 3.65 billion bu. - Ethanol production
  • 1.85 billion bu. – Exports
  • 943 million bu. - Production of Starch, Corn Oil, Sweeteners (HFCS, etc.)
  • 327 million bu. - Human consumption - grits, corn flower, corn meal, beverage alcohol

We ate 3% of the corn crop. We used more corn to feed livestock than anything else (43%), of which the lions' share went to cows in feedlots. Feedlots produce 17% of the greenhouse gasses produced by humans in the world. Cows were not designed to eat corn, creating huge health issues for feedlot operators that are not always resolved by the time the beef gets to the supermarkets. If we are merely machines we can market none of this matters. But if we are something else, something more, if we are called to live in relationship with our Creator, with one another and with the rest of creation, it may very well matter a great deal.

More profoundly, if we can think of ourselves as a commodity, then our egos become the agents who buy, sell and manage that commodity. An agent works for the bottom line of the commodity involved. The idea that there might be a higher authority to which to respond is an inconvenient bother. It's much more useful to think of ourselves as captains of our own souls.

Our faith tells us that we are more than just machines we can market at will. We are contingent: We are creations, bearing the image of the Creator and for that reason alone, holy, called into holy relationships with the Creator, with one another, and with the rest of creation, and commissioned with a divine mandate in the world—holy work for a holy people.

The importance of this day called "Thanksgiving" for the Christian then, lies as much in our self-definition as in our feasts. We are the people who recognize our contingency, who make time out to think deeply. At the heart of our worship is a meal for which the "why" and the "how" are of the essence. The Eucharist for the Christian is the primordial meal, the one that is meant to orient us to every meal. It is not merely to fuel and oil a spiritual machine as it cranks through this life into the next. It is a recognition of the source of our eternal hope, in the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The bread that we eat represents not just Christ, but ourselves as His body and His constant provision of all we need, materially, socially and spiritually. The wine that we partake is not merely the memory of a cruel death, but the Spirit that we all share, the Spirit that forgives us as we forgive our debtors in the same spirit. The very word "Eucharist" means "Thanksgiving." We are a people whose central act of worship is an act of transforming gratitude.

And so it is right this day to give thanks to God for the goodness of creation—our creation as much as the turkeys on our tables, to take time to look at where our food comes from and how we eat it—ultimately as well as immediately, and to determine how to live profoundly gratefully in the earth.

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