Preacher: Katharine H. Henry
Date: May 2, 2021

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Scripture: Psalm 136

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Good morning! When I think about “thanks” as one of the three essential prayers, the first thing that comes to mind is saying grace before a meal--thanking God for the food we are, or I am, about to eat. I grew up in a family who ate dinner together almost every night. We always said grace before the meal, and still do when we are together. Usually my father or mother would say it. Something like, “Dear Lord, Thank you for this food and all our many blessings. Amen.” It is easy for a meaningful ritual practice to become rote and lose much of its meaning, if we aren’t intentional about it. On special occasions, my mom will often ask God to keep someone safe as they travel or thank God for the person whose birthday it is. In larger gatherings, often my grandmother Martha would say grace, as she is one of the most outwardly religious people in the family. Sometimes we sing our grace--I’ve learned this from Martha as well as in Girl Scouts and at church camp. As a child, I loved the Johnny Appleseed grace: “O, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need…” This actually sounds like Psalm 136 verse 25, which reads, “You are the one who provides food for all things. Your love is everlasting!” When I am by myself, I sometimes forget to say grace or do so distractedly. I thank God best when I do so communally, with others. Since meeting my partner Thomas, we have said grace before almost every meal we’ve shared. We thank God for the food in front of us and those who got it to us, for the opportunity to cook together, for the beautiful day, the walk we took. We pray for our families and those in need (the “help” prayer Kent preached about last week). We thank God for each other. Most of the time, we are pretty thoughtful about these shared prayers of thanksgiving. 


Psalm 136 is also a communal prayer of thanksgiving. Although the dating and composition of individual psalms is difficult to determine, this psalm was an expression of the community of ancient Israel, most likely written for use in worship. This psalm recalls creation and reflects on Israel’s salvation history, that of their liberation from the powers of Egypt and their entrance into and claiming of the land of Canaan. 


In 1989, Mary F. Copeland wrote “An African-American Heritage Version of Psalm 136.” These are some of the lines from Copeland’s version: 


“1. Tell it! What the good Lord has done. He's been so good; for His Amazing Grace is our Blessed Assurance forever.

2. Tell it! About the "personal, passionate and powerful" "God of our weary years";

for His Amazing Grace is our Blessed Assurance forever.

3. Say it! "He is King of kings and Lord of lords and no one can hinder Him";

for His Amazing Grace is our Blessed Assurance forever.

4. Who alone "works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform"; for His Amazing Grace is our Blessed Assurance forever.

5. Who "will make a way somehow" and "is blessing us right now"; for His Amazing Grace is our Blessed Assurance forever.

20. From the rape of Africa to back to Africa; from Black Abolitionists to Black Nationalists;

from Montgomery to Memphis, freedom rides to a Stride Toward Freedom; for His Amazing Grace is our Blessed Assurance forever.

21. From "The Souls of Black Folk" to Black Panthers to Black is Beautiful to Black and Proud to Black Power; from Black Theology to Black Religion and Black Radicalism to "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian";

for His Amazing Grace is our Blessed Assurance forever.

26. Oh, give thanks to our Precious Lord,

who causes us to remember: "Nothing but a God!"

who causes us to reflect: "How we got over"

who causes us to affirm: "We shall overcome!"

who causes us to believe: "He's coming back again, so soon";

for His Amazing Grace is our Blessed Assurance forever.” 


This is an example of creative hermeneutics--or biblical interpretation from the context of a particular community. In this Psalm 136, Copeland outlines significant events in African-American--and simply American--history. She thanks God for seeing God’s people through again and again! 


In his book Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, Thomas G. Long expresses that psalms are, most often, products of communal worship, and are meant to be used in communal worship. He writes, “... the psalms are poems which eventually came to be sung, chanted, or recited over and over again in worship, and thus were stylized to fit into the liturgical context.” Long quotes Patrick D. Miller, Jr., who writes that the psalms “have functioned in the worship of the community of faith, Jewish and Christian, widely, extensively, and without break.” (44) 



How would Psalm 136 sound coming from our communities today? Maybe United Parish would pray these things, many of which are quotes from you all, collected by the Stewardship team: 


“God, Thanks… 

For all the blessings You have bestowed on us, especially for my health and the health of my family and friends. Your love is everlasting! 

For the laughter and imagination of children

For my loving family

For our beautiful church community. Your love is everlasting! 

For the unrelenting bravery and work of healthcare providers. 

For essential workers in every area of society. Your love is everlasting! 

For not letting us get away with ignoring injustice. Your love is everlasting! 

For allowing us to be the church in your vast Creation. Your love is everlasting! 

For all the ways that technology has helped us stay connected through the pandemic.

For leading my family to United Parish and the loving community we have found here. Your love is everlasting! 

For your spiritual sustenance that has helped the United Parish community to survive and thrive through the challenges of the pandemic, learning new ways to be church. Your love is everlasting! 

That we have struggled and harnessed technology that will serve us even after the time of separation. Help us find the right balance for its use going forward as we pray, study, sing and do the work of the church together. Your love is everlasting!” 


According to Anne Lamott, “Thanks” is an essential prayer because it leads to what she calls “a crazy thought: What more can I give?” (62). Maybe when we thank God, and when we ask God to help us do better, we find it within ourselves to let someone in front of our car in traffic. Maybe no one notices our small kindness, or maybe they do. EIther way, we feel better about ourselves and experience God’s grace. And bit by bit this may lead to a rushing-in of thanksgiving! Lamott quotes e. e. cummings in one of my favorite poems (65): “i thank You God for most this amazing / day.” When I hear that poem, I think of days like today, as I record this sermon on Saturday, May 1: 

I got to eat a bagel and drink coffee: I thank you God for most this amazing day!

I heard from my dad, who is recovering well from surgery: I thank you God! 

I got the second shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. I thank you God! 

I walked around the Arnold Arboretum in community with beloveds of United Parish, to raise money for the Walk for Hunger: cummings writes, “i thank you God….. for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky” 


So maybe this thanks leads me to call my family more often. Maybe it leads me to reinvigorate my passion for alleviating food insecurity and hunger. Maybe it leads me to ministries of climate activism and outdoor worship! And then more thanks! And more help, thanks, and even wow! 


It is worth considering that not everything in Psalm 136 is necessarily morally or ethically right. The writer/s thanks God for the killing of Egypt’s firstborns, including children! And for other deaths in the process of Israel’s liberation. On this topic John J. Collins writes, “The book of Psalms is not a book of moral instruction. It is primarily a record of ancient Israel and Judah at prayer. Countless generations of Jews and Christians have felt the words of the Psalter appropriate to express their own prayers and feelings. The need to express feelings, however, is no guarantee that those feelings are edifying or that they can serve as moral guidelines.” I recall womanist BIblical scholar Renita Weems, who criticizes the negative view of Egyptians in the Exodus story, reminding us that liberation for some is not the same as true liberation for all! 

If you remember anything about Psalm 136, I hope you will remember that it is a prayer of thanksgiving FROM a community, FOR communities. So today and every day, Let’s give thanks- to God and to one another and even to ourselves- in and for community! We thank you, God, for this precious day!