My Own Strength and Abilities

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
November 23, 2014—Thanksgiving Sunday
Deuteronomy 8:7–18; Luke 17:11–19 CEB

Illustration by Alex Gamcsik

Deuteronomy 8:7–18 • “…because the LORD your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills; a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without any shortage—you won’t lack a thing there—a land where stone is hard as iron and where you will mine copper from the hills. You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the LORD your God in the wonderful land that he’s given you.
But watch yourself! Don’t forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commands or his case laws or his regulations that I am commanding you right now. When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the LORD your God: the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery; the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water; the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock; the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end.
Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the LORD your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.

Luke 17:11–19 • On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”
When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

 

I. BEGINNING

Imagine for a moment that at the age of thirty-five you were captured by foreigners who took you back to their homeland as a curiosity. Imagine further that when you arrive in this foreign land you are taken in by the financial backers of expedition that captured you and given a place to live and trained to speak the foreigners’ language.

After ten years, you get the chance to return home only to be captured by another group of foreigners and sold into slavery in yet another country. After the intervention of some religious folks, you are able to escape and eventually even to get back to your native country. Only once you get there, you discover that pretty much everyone from your hometown has died from a terrible disease.

You decide to live in a neighboring town and within a year or so learn that yet another group of the same foreigners who had captured you twice (and probably were the source of that disease), is living in your old town. How inclined might you be to help those folks if they were in need?

Most of us would probably not be terribly enthusiastic about being of help. And yet, we would not be here this evening reflecting on Thanksgiving had someone not done exactly that.

For this was the story of a Patuxet Indian named Tisquantum, whom we usually know by the name of Squanto. [1] Taken into captivity twice by English expeditions and once sold into slavery in Spain, he nevertheless was able to work his way back to New England only to find his entire tribe dead of a plague. Taking up residence with the neighboring Wampanoag, he became a primary instrument for the salvation of the puritan settlers of the Plymouth colony, a group from the very people who had likely caused most of his suffering.

II. THE PILGRIMS

Of these intrepid explorers making up the Plymouth colony, author Bill Bryson wrote:

It would be difficult to imagine a group of people more ill-suited to a life in the wilderness. … They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey. One William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and thirteen pairs of boots. Yet they failed to bring a single cow or horse, plow or fishing line. [2]

None of them, except perhaps Captain Miles Standish, knew how to hunt. And since “farmer” meant one who owned land rather than worked it, even the “farmers” on the Mayflower were of little help.

Of the 102 pilgrims, 6 died in the first two weeks. Eight in the next month, seventeen more in February, 13 more in March. By April, just 54 out of the 102 were left to begin the colony, half of them children.

For the first couple of months, every time they tried to make contact with the natives, the Indians ran off. Eventually they were visited by Samoset, himself new to the area, and his friend: Tisquantum from the local Wampanoag tribe. Tisquantum and Samoset showed the pilgrims how to plant corn and catch wildfowl, and helped them to establish friendly relations with the local chief. Thanks to the teaching of Samoset and Tisquantum, (made possible due to the highly improbable fact that these men already spoke English) the pilgrims survived their first year, had a plentiful harvest. At the end of the year, they joined with the Wampanoags in a feast to give thanks for the harvest and for God’s providence, that we still commemorate as Thanksgiving.

III.  THE TEXT

The Book of Deuteronomy is probably the oldest book of the Torah and contains in it a particular theology that we find throughout some of the following books: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings. And that “Deuteronomistic” theology is one of faithfulness to the covenant in order that things might go well for the people in the land.

And so much of the teaching of Deuteronomy is oriented toward that end: remember the covenant with God so that it may go well for you in the land you are about to enter.

The text we heard read earlier is a part of Moses’ instructions to the people on a related point: once things go well, don’t forget what it was that got you there:

But watch yourself! Don’t forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commands or his case laws or his regulations that I am commanding you right now. When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the LORD your God … Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the LORD your God!

“Don’t think to yourself, ‘My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me.’”

I think that’s what I like about the story of the pilgrims: it is obvious that it was not through their own strength and abilities that they prospered, not unless candlesnuffers are much more useful to farming than we generally suppose.

No, the reality is that but for the providential arrival of a man who happened to speak English only because he’d been abducted twice by their people and who was living in the region only after his entire people had died, they would likely all have died. As one who has a 10th-great-grandmother among that group, I would not be here but for him. If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is.

IV. THANKSGIVING

And yet, the pilgrims’ lesson doesn’t always endure for us. We are so easily tempted into thinking that we are the masters of our own destiny and fortune. And even when the provision of aid from others is made clear, we can still be blind to it, as with the one celebrity who said in recent years “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No.” [3] Somehow forgetting in the second part of his statement the very help he identifies in the first part.

But part of this is a symptom of our culture where we are told that we are supposed to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps and it is shameful to have to rely on “handouts” from others. It becomes harder to remember to be thankful because we so easily convince ourselves that we have no one to be thankful to but ourselves. It makes me wonder about the nine other people that Jesus healed in tonight’s Gospel lesson. In that story ten lepers come to be cleaned and Jesus heals them telling them to go show themselves to the priests. However, of the ten, only one returns to thank Jesus, and that one was a Samaritan, a non-Jew. Jesus wonders where the other nine are. I wonder if they weren’t home telling their families, “Look what I did today!”

It’s a thoroughly problematic way of thinking both in terms of Christian faith but also for our spiritual welfare. Leaving aside for the moment the clear commands to live lives of thankfulness—from the commands of Deuteronomy to Jesus’ teaching to the letters of Paul to the liturgy of the Great Thanksgiving—the reality is that no one can make it on their own. No one. We are all of us dependent upon others. We need our parents to feed us. We need to be surrounded by language speakers in order to learn how to speak. We need to be taught to read, taught to use numerals, taught to dress ourselves. Taught to clean ourselves. Seriously, compared to a colt, born walking, we humans are a helpless lot right from the get go.

And that even continues into adulthood. I don’t make the clothing that I wear; I am dependent on others for that. Sure, I use my money to buy them, but that is money I earned because other people taught me a marketable skill to earn a living. I’m a group project of all the people who have ever come into my life and helped me out along the way.

But what happens to us when we realize that we need help but have already become convinced that we’re not supposed to need help? A great sense of unworthiness can creep in and we begin to feel that we’re not quite as good as others. When we feel that our own strength and abilities aren’t enough we feel as if we are failures.

But here’s the thing: our own strength and abilities aren’t enough. They never have been.

What the text from Deuteronomy reminds us is that while we will be tempted to think we have done everything ourselves, the reality is that everything we have comes from God, who is the source of our abilities, the source of our talents, the source of the people who come into our lives, the source of the kindness that people share with one another. We may experience it in different ways: whether it be as the loving parents who teach us, the as food stamps we receive, or English-speaking Indians who help us in times of need. [4]

V.   END

The Deuteronomistic tradition was constantly reminding the people to stay faithful to God and not to fall into the trap of idolatry. If there is an idolatry loose upon the world today it is the idolatry of self and the cult of the self-made individual.

We will be tempted throughout our lives to look at the good things we have and say, “My own strength and abilities have produced all this.” We will be inclined to think that others should just simply work as hard as we did and they too will have what we have. And yet, the scriptures are calling us not to lives of self-satisfaction, but of self-sacrifice and thanksgiving. To be grateful for the good things we have, that we might not have had (or might not always have). To be the agents of providence—like Tisquantum—for others in their times of need. To witness to our common dependence on God and one another.

This week we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving, a commemoration of that first harvest that kept the Plymouth colony alive. A harvest that would have been impossible had the Pilgrims relied on their own strength and abilities, rather than on the grace of a former captive and slave who nevertheless saw fit to aid the very people whose kinsmen had captured him in the first place.

It is a reminder that we will always be tempted to worship at the altar of self, but Christ calls us to worship at the altar of grace, the altar of the God who loves us regardless of our strength and abilities, and who calls us to love one another in all our times of joy and sorrow, of famine and plenty. Who calls us to live lives of thanksgiving not just in commemoration of the Pilgrims’ run-in with grace, but every day, in commemoration of our own.

 


 

Notes

[1] Squanto. [Internet]. 2014. The Biography.com website. Available from: http://www.biography.com/people/squanto-9491327

[2] Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue : English & How It Got That Way. 1st ed. New York: W. Morrow, 1990.

[3] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/political-animal/2011_07/the_craig_t_nelson_problem030622.php

[4] This in no way should be construed as saying that those who do not experience these things do not experience God’s grace. This is an illustrative list, not an exhaustive one. Likewise the theology of this sermon is situational, not systematic.