“The People Who Know How to Say Thank You”

In Braiding Sweetgrass, indigenous author and ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes her father’s ceremony of gratitude. Each year when she was growing up, their family camped in the Adirondacks for the whole summer. “I can picture my father,” she recalls,

in his red-checked wool shirt, standing atop the rocks above the lake. When he lifts the coffeepot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it’s time to pay attention. . . . He pours coffee out on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus.” [Tahawus is the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy] Then and only then does he pour out steaming cups of coffee for himself and my mother, who stands at the stove making pancakes. (p. 34)

Kimmerer reflects on her conflicted feelings about this ritual. Her father had to invent his own ceremony because the boarding schools stole from his parents the traditional knowledge of their people’s songs, prayers, and offerings of sacred tobacco. As a teen Kimmerer grew angry and sad about her family’s loss of language and ceremony. On the other hand, she says, when she finally experienced “the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge—the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco – I heard it as if in my father’s voice. The language was different but the heart was the same.” (p. 36) “At last,” she observes,

I thought that I understood the offering to the gods of Tahawus. It was, for me, the one thing that was not forgotten, that which could not be taken by history: the knowing that we belonged to the land, that we were the people who knew how to say thank you. (p. 37)

The poor widow in today’s story also belonged to a people who knew how to say thank you. Her community rooted itself in gratitude through the ancient ritual of tithing described in Deuteronomy, the practice of giving a portion of the harvest back to God. The widow; however, gave far more than a tithe when she made her offering. When she put those two coins in the temple treasury, she gave all she had, her whole life. What motivated her to do this? Should we admire this gift as an act of generosity? Is she setting forth a model for us to follow? Or should this sacrificial giving disturb us? Is it a sign she’s being manipulated? Was this how the religious authorities “devoured widows’ houses?” In Mark’s version, Jesus is telling the story, and he doesn’t say anything about why the widow did what she did.

As I considered the widow’s point of view, I thought that perhaps with her gift she was both expressing gratitude and protesting injustice. Letting go of her two last coins, she invested herself fully in the sacred way of mutual care and community flourishing that the law and the prophets envisioned, and Jesus embodied. She gave what she had for well-being of the community, and at the same time, she relied on the community for her well-being. It reminds me of the women of San Lucas, who, though they have very little, work through the women’s center to create a collective abundance through their support for each other and their community. Jewish law clearly states that God’s justice calls for protection of the vulnerable. This widow knew she should have been able to count on her faith community to be her safety net. Instead, the scribes exploited the poor. Perhaps the extravagance of the widow’s gift was meant to expose the hypocrisy of leaders who enriched themselves rather than investing in the common good.

I was talking with a younger colleague the other day, someone just starting out in ministry, about our financial giving, as pastors, for our congregations. I was surprised to hear this person say she doesn’t make an annual pledge to her church. At first this statement puzzled, and frankly, offended me. I have always believed that pastors are role models when it comes to tithing. How can we ask others to invest in the church, in a significant, even sacrificial way, unless we have first made our own investment? In a culture sickened by greed, materialism, and profound inequality, we can bear witness to the power of giving thanks by giving a portion of our income back to God. I believe that our society’s secrecy around money is destructive, and that this silence fosters a climate of injustice and exploitation. For all these reasons, as a pastor, I want to be open about my family’s giving and our relationship with money. In 2021, we will make pledges to our two congregations that represent about 8% of our income. We will offer an additional 4 or 5% of our income to other community organizations. Tithing doesn’t feel like a duty or a sacrifice to me. It feels joyful. It helps me live with a little less greed and a little more simplicity and trust. It is a satisfying, concrete way of making a difference in this world, of helping to fulfill the visions that inspire me.

At the same time, as my colleague explained her life with money, and her reasons for not pledging, I came to understand her choice. She said that her spouse’s income was unpredictable, the church’s compensation for her work was not adequate and generally, in their household, money was tight. For all these reasons, a pledge was not possible. She and her spouse give financially, in a variety of ways, to the church and the community, as they are able throughout the year. This conversation reminded me that my family’s practices around money and giving are shaped by a tremendous amount of privilege. We have two working adults with steady incomes. Both of us serve congregations who compensate us generously and justly.

My colleague’s honesty and vulnerability was a gift to me because it helped me see the rigidity of my assumptions and the lack of justice in my thinking. It prompted me to make space for another way to be a faithful contributor and leader. A poor widow’s gift enables us to imagine justice as a community of mutual support and flourishing. When it comes to our annual gifts for the church, I ask you to give what you can for the well-being of the congregation, and also to rely on the congregation for your well-being. The widow’s generosity and her demand for justice remind us that our relationships with money are diverse and complex. The lack of economic equity in our world is always at play as we wrestle with how to be faithful with our money. There is no one way to be generous or to show commitment. Sometimes the smallest gifts are the largest ones. Sometimes a couple of coins represent a person’s whole life.

I feel connected to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s account of the loss and recovery of her family’s traditional spirituality because I know that my ancestors in faith were responsible for this trauma. I know that the greed, violence and exploitation of colonialism has impaired our collective ability, as white Christians, to invest in the community of mutual support and flourishing our faith envisions. We, too, have become disconnected from our roots. We, too, have forgotten the language and the ceremonies of our ancestors. We, too, must wrestle with how to belong again to the land, the waters, the creatures and to our fellow humans.

Kimmerer asked her father how he came up with his ceremony of gratitude. He replied that it began by accident. The coffee grounds would get stuck in the spout of the pot and he would need to clear them out. She recalls,

It was as if he’d told me that the water didn’t change to wine—the whole web of gratitude, the whole story of remembrance was nothing more than the dumping of the grounds? “But, you know,” he said, “there weren’t always grounds to clear. It started out that way, but it became something else.” That is the power of ceremony: it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself?  A homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home. (pp. 37–38)

Amen.