+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Two weeks ago, when we explored the psalms of lament, I mentioned that it is sometimes possible to look back on our experiences of hardship and recognize the hand of God working to bring deliverance and healing and comfort. Today, we turn to the psalms of thanksgiving, a group of psalms that is precisely about the discernment of God’s power and presence in our lives. In Psalm 40, our text for today, the psalmist calls to mind a time that he was in need of God’s rescue, in need of divine intervention to save him from the hands of his enemies. In response to that need, God stoops down to pick the psalmist up, drawing him out of the pit, freeing him from the deepest muck and mire, and setting his feet upon a sturdy rock. The psalm of thanksgiving is a response to that deliverance, a song that declares God’s goodness and care for those who call upon God in time of trouble, a song that invites others to reflect on the times that they, too, had experienced God’s salvation.
That last characteristic of thanksgiving, the language of invitation, is particularly important, because it speaks to something that we’ve likely all experienced at one time or another: the contagious nature of gratitude. Think, for instance, about the well-loved ritual of sitting around the table on the fourth Thursday in November and taking turns sharing about those people and things for which we’re grateful. Sure, in some cases the fact that everyone can bring something up is due to the social pressure of not wanting to seem ungrateful. But more often than not, I think that the act of hearing others express their gratitude unlocks something in us. It tunes our hearts and minds to see the gifts and blessings that, perhaps, we’ve taken for granted. The language of thanksgiving blossoms and flourishes when it is expressed, and gratitude follows gratitude in a way that is really something to behold.
I’m convinced that this is the reason the psalmist goes out of his way to tell God of his refusal to keep the story of his deliverance to himself. Look again at the last couple of verses of this morning’s reading:
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
(Psa 40:9-10 NRS)
The psalmist knows that keeping his gratitude to himself does very little. He understands that his story will inspire trust and gratitude in others, that it will draw the entire congregation together in remembering God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, that those who are experiencing hardship and struggle can take heart in knowing that others have been brought through their times of trouble.
Brothers and sisters, gratitude – especially gratitude that is rightly directed to God – is a powerful thing. As I reflected on the idea of thanksgiving, I was struck by the convergence between the power of gratitude and the history that accompanied the composition of today’s closing hymn, a hymn that Doug and I selected six weeks ago with no idea of the deep resonance that it would hold today. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by the poet James Weldon Johnson in 1899, and set to music and performed for the first time as a song in 1900 on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The poem is a poignant expression of thanksgiving for the end of slavery in the United States and the progress that had been made toward liberation and equality during the era of Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War. It is a text that looks back over the difficult history of slavery and oppression with frank realism. It is a text that surveys the present with gratitude for distance that the African-American community has come. It is a text that looks with hope to the future, recognizing that the work of liberation is far from done, while also trusting that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., would say in later years, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Like Psalm 40, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a testament to the power of gratitude to inspire a community, to uplift a people who were experiencing hardship, to help people to see beyond their present circumstances by means of a persistent hope that better days were coming. Like Psalm 40, these words, once addressed to a particular community, now inspire others to give thanks for God’s provision of care in the past and of strength to meet the challenges of the present and future. Before we sing these words later in the service, I’d like to read them aloud, the way they were originally intended, as a way of helping us hear and appreciate them anew:
Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise high as the list’ning skies,
let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod
felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our parents sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
true to our God, true to our native land.
(Hymn #841, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)
In a similar way, many Lutheran Christians have drawn strength from the words of gratitude contained in perhaps our most famous and well-loved hymn: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46 is another song that speaks powerfully of gratitude for God’s deliverance, and it is a song that has sustained generations of the faithful – Lutheran and non-Lutheran alike:
A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious;|
he breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious.
The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe!
With craft and dreadful might he arms himself to fight.
On earth he has no equal.
No strength of ours can match his might! We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.
Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us,
we tremble not, unmoved we stand. They cannot overpower us.
Let this world’s tyrant rage; in battle we’ll engage!
His might is doomed to fail; God’s judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him.
God’s word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes who fear it;
for God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse,
though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours forever!
(Hymn #504, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ©1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress)
Brothers and sisters, today we rejoice in God’s deliverance, and in those songs of thanksgiving and trust that allow us to remember how God has sustained us in times of trouble and brought us to a new day of hope. This week, may the language of gratitude blossom in our own hearts, that we might call to mind the bountiful gifts of grace and favor that are ours in Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.