The Surplus of God's Grace

Today may be Thanksgiving Day, but for those in the retail world, minds are already set on tomorrow. Like dogs dreaming of catching squirrels and cats of catching mice, retailers are likely immersed, as we speak, in spectacular visions of the hordes of people lined up outside department store doors, waiting with bated breath for the beginning of the great shopping race on Black Friday. In a day of Amazon and widespread electronic shopping, the traditional notion of Black Friday, that day of shoppers’ heaven—or hell—is almost anachronistic. Many businesses are offering pre-Black Friday deals in the quest to maximize profits this holiday season, and  Cyber Monday is an added bonus. Black Friday is actually no longer confined to rigid shopping hours on the day after Thanksgiving. A survey from last year revealed that 11 percent of Americans apparently shop on mobile phones during Thanksgiving Day feasting.[1] I imagine a significant number of people will begin the shopping frenzy late this evening, happily buttressed by the tryptophan coursing through their veins.

I was surprised to find out that Black Friday is a term that supposedly originated here in Philadelphia in 1961, initially referring to the heavy foot and road traffic on the day after Thanksgiving. Over time as this moniker became more popular, it came to represent the reality of businesses reeling in profits, and so moving from being “in the red” financially, to being “in the black.”

If you think about it a bit, the occurrence of Black Friday right after Thanksgiving Day is quite odd. It is rather like having a much-needed massage and then immediately throwing your back out. Thanksgiving, it seems, is one of the few days left in the secular calendar on which there are few obligations other than eating and spending time with family and friends. Most businesses are closed. There is no need to buy, wrap, and give gifts to people. Thanksgiving is, in large part, a day to revel in the present moment, to live in the here and now. It is, in some sense, the closest our secular culture gets to true sabbath rest. Thanksgiving Day is a most welcome, rare pause in a pace of life that is running at sonic speed.

But Black Friday is well-nigh the complete opposite of Thanksgiving sabbath. Black Friday is defined by shoppers’ mania, with people lining up outside department stores while it’s still dark, hoping to be the first ones into the store without being trampled in the wild-eyed lust for cheap purchases. Black Friday is not restful; it seems to be characterized by anxiety. It also assumes a scarcity mentality. Marketing and commercials play on the generalized fear of not having enough—not having enough toys for children, not having enough clothes, not having enough pairs of shoes, not having enough things, whatever they may be. A Black Friday mindset assumes a starting place of “in the red,” with the ever-present hope of moving across that indefinable line into “the black” where just a few more possessions might give you long-desired fulfillment. But the truth is that this coveted place of contentment, of being fully sated, is never achieved, because when it comes to material possessions, things bought in department stores, and the latest technological devices, it will never be enough. That is as certain as the sun’s rising.

And so, this prevalent attitude of scarcity is the greatest argument in favor of celebrating Thanksgiving. It is the principal reason that we should honor and keep, as we do today, one of our prayer book’s holy days. Our culture, however secular it may be, needs Thanksgiving, too. And we, as Christians need to be constantly reminded that our very lives as followers of Christ should be centered on the act of giving thanks. It is, after all, what we do every time we gather at Mass, when we celebrate the Eucharist together, that glorious and ceaseless eternal act of thanksgiving.

For the simple but profound act of giving thanks whether in our individual private prayers or together as a worshiping community here at Mass, reminds us that because of God’s bountiful grace and love, we are never “in the red.” We are always “in the black.” Because God’s grace, goodness, and promises to us are limitless, we are never truly in need. In our relationship with God, our starting place is one of abundance, not scarcity. And that is such good news.

This is what we hear from our Lord himself when he tells us in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry about our lives, not to worry about food, not to worry about our bodies or what we will wear. All these worries and anxieties about material things prevent us from living in the present moment and, most of all, from resting in profound thanks for what we do have. They distract us from focusing on the essence of God’s kingdom. This ceaseless fretting can suck us into a vicious cycle of negativity and despair, which undermines any sense of trust in God’s gracious goodness and providence. Worry about material provisions puts us at the center of things rather than God. Because Jesus tells us that if we merely trust in God, what we need will be given to us. In God’s kingdom, we are always dealing with surplus situations, not deficit situations.

At the same time, Jesus’s words in Matthew’s Gospel might seem a bit impractical and idealistic. For we know from merely watching the evening news, reading the paper, or walking around Center City, that there are many people who seem to be starting from deficit situations. We know that people in this very city go to bed hungry each night. We know from the large number of people who came last week to this place to be sized for boots that there are plenty of God’s children who need proper shoes and clothing. And so, how can these people not worry about their futures?

Surely, the heart of God bleeds at the situations of those around us who are in need. But recognizing the real material poverty of some of our brothers and sisters doesn’t mean that they are necessarily defined by a scarcity mentality or that they constantly see themselves living “in the red.” I suspect that there are many who lack material staples of life who still live with a perpetual spirit of thanksgiving, because they know that even in spite of their lack of tangible things, God has blessed them in various ways. They know how to be thankful for what, to the more fortunate, might seem like small blessings but are indeed great riches. They instinctively know that in the richness of God’s providence, they are always “in the black,” and from this gratitude, the world can learn.

You see, the ultimate gift of gratitude is that it shapes us into people who are able to bask in the knowledge that we are precious in God’s eyes, no matter what, no matter how vast our wardrobe or how sumptuous our meals. Knowing our worth in God’s eyes frees us to be at peace knowing that it is enough simply to be loved by him, right here, right now, in spite of what we might need in the future. But ingratitude does the exact opposite, for it is a fraud. Ingratitude is a liar and a deceiver that tells us that we are never good enough. It tells us that, like those in the frenzied lines outside stores on Black Friday, we must be first in line to get the best deal with God. Ingratitude torments us with the lies that we are never good enough, that what we do never measures up to what it should be, and that somehow God will love us less as a result.

But Jesus offers us the good news that worrying, fretting, and being consumed with anxiety about measuring up is not true living. Truly living means being ever present in a posture of thanksgiving towards God, the Creator and Maker of a splendid creation that was called good. We may be sinners in need of God’s redeeming grace, we may live in a world that is fractured by division, greed, and lust, and we may inhabit a culture that lives like one perpetual Black Friday, but Jesus assures us that who we are and what we have, under God’s benevolent care, is enough. For we are sinners simultaneously longing for redemption and reveling in gratitude for God’s many blessings. Our true home is in the surplus of God’s grace and forgiveness. Because we are a people of thanksgiving, and when it comes to our relationship with God, we are never living “in the red.”

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
22 November 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on November 26, 2018 .