So here we go again: it’s Thanksgiving; time for long journeys home, big family gatherings, well-decorated tables groaning heavily beneath platters of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pies of every variety; and people groaning under the duress of having eaten way too much of it! It’s the yearly ritual of kids watching parades in the morning, grown-ups watching football all afternoon, and younger family members wondering if this will be the year, at long last, they’ll not be relegated to the dreaded “children’s table.” It’s laughter shared, good old stories getting retold yet again, and everybody taking a deep breath as the holiday season begins in earnest.
It can all get pretty busy, to be sure, and full of chaos if we let it; but at the heart of it, Thanksgiving is actually a pretty simple holiday, all about country and family and being together; about bountiful blessings and the miracle of life – and, above all, of taking time out of our daily routine to acknowledge and rejoice in the One who has given us our life, our health, our food; who has provided the bounty of the harvest and the blessings of freedom; who in all things in life and living, has generously and gracefully gifted us “with every perfect gift …from above.”
In that regard, I want to share a blessing with you this morning. It’s actually something that as near as I’ve been able to find out, dates back to the early 19th century and is credited to an Englishman by the name of William Bray. I’m not at all sure where I first heard it, but it’s something I’ve always loved and have never forgotten: it goes, “May you always have vinegar in a teaspoon, and honey in a ladle.” Vinegar in a teaspoon, honey in a ladle – in other words, as we assess our many blessings this Thanksgiving, may it be true that the sweetness of our lives be far greater than the sour.
And more than simply a blessing for you and me, this is an important prayer; because for a great many, life holds more than its share of sorrow, struggle and injustice. It might be the damage done by years of poverty, family dysfunction, or systemic failures we can’t even begin to track – or it might be the result of all manner of internal struggles; emotional scars inflicted long ago, physical challenges that are ongoing, as well as the kind of spiritual emptiness that seems to linger for years. The point is, and this is not to put a damper on any of our holiday celebrations, but it’s one thing for you and I to revel in our great abundance and celebrate our blessing; quite another for us to truly understand that for so many in the midst of such hardships, the sour taste of life’s vinegar can become overpowering indeed. Thanksgiving, it seems to me, is a time for us to be fervent in our prayer that the ladles of honey are shared by those who have only known the vinegar.
Therein lies the good news of our scripture today, friends – the great truth that God seeks to not only bless us in good times, but also and most especially in the midst of our struggles – giving us strength we need for our daily walk of faith; bringing us mercy and healing in those moments along the way when we are at our most despairing. Truly, because of God’s faithfulnessunto us, each and all of us are the recipients of limitless, graceful love in and through every experience and challenge of our lives. By God’s grace, we are, after a fashion, quite literally gifted with a life that’s “flowing with milk and honey.”
That’s the message at the heart of that reading from Deuteronomy we’ve shared this morning. I love the fact that this passage is meant to be the retelling of an old, powerful and very sacred story about life and of God’s many blessings. It actually begins as instruction; a ritual of gratitude for the land God has given “as an inheritance to possess” and as a place to settle. This is about stewardship, actually, about giving to God “the first of all the fruit in the ground” after the harvest. But then the whole thing is framed by the story of this “wandering Aremean,” who “went down to Egypt and lived there an alien” and as a slave, and then was brought out of Egypt by God “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power and with signs and wonders;” bringing him to a land “flowing with milk and honey.”
Ultimately, this passage is all about celebrating this great bounty that God has provided, but did you notice? In the story that recounts how they got there, they remember the deprivation and the desolation and the suffering that came before – but not because of have suffered through that agony, per se, but rather because of the incredible blessing and care of the Lord in bringing them safely through it!
It is indeed “honey in a ladle,” and the very knowledge of that, our awareness and acknowledgment that God is indeed the source of our blessings in joy and, especially in struggle, is true thanksgiving. When we think on these things; when we are truly thankful for what God has done and is doing, this is what creates and nurtures within us a gladness of heart that, even in moments that seem rife with the sour circumstances of life, will enable us, as Paul says to the Philippians, to “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
I’m reminded of a Thanksgiving many years back when our children were very young. Like everybody else, we were rushing around and trying hard to get things done so we could travel north to be with family for the holiday. It was while this was going on that we received a phone call from a former neighbor of ours in the town where we used to live, calling to let us know that she had caught some people with flashlights rummaging through the dark, empty house that we used to live in and that point, was renting out and trying to sell! She told us that whoever had broken in had long since run off, but we still called the police to check it out; they reported to us that there were no signs of forced entry because the doors had been left wide open, apparently by our now former tenants – oh, and by the way, the officer said, did you know that you have four inches of water in your basement?
Sooo… we got the doors secured and early the next morning, our thanksgiving trip postponed for the moment, I’m headed north to straighten things out and have a “conversation” with our Realtor. I’m telling you this because at one point that morning, in one of the most bizarre thanksgiving memories I’ll ever recall, I’m down in the cellar in that old house with my galoshes on, pulling the plug on the drainage pipe and pushing the water down with a broom. And I am not happy about it! As I’m fond of saying, “Ministers are cursed at times that they cannot curse at times,” but since I’m only human, I’m still grumbling like nobody’s business: I can’t believe this is happening to us! We’re never going to sell this stupid house, why did we ever buy it in the first place? We are headed right down the road to financial ruin, I just know it – how could things possibly get any worse than this! And let me tell you, in my ranting I’m really working up a rhythm with that broom!
But you know what? At some point in that rather inspired litany of venom, I suddenly became acutely aware that none of it was doing me or the situation any good whatsoever. It certainly wasn’t making me feel any better, and perhaps, really, all of this was simply my teaspoon of vinegar for the moment.
So I prayed. Not a formal prayer, mind you. No bowing of the head, no liturgical language – I just started talking: to God this time and not at God. And what I realized at that moment was that God was with me in that basement, and together as I continued pushing water down the drain we remembered many blessings that I’d received, counting them all “one by one,” realizing that not the least of which was the assurance that this, too, would pass.
Just a small moment of renewed peace in the middle of a minor storm – certainly not the worst one I’ve ever faced, but one that seemed pretty unsettling at the time; it was basically the same kind of storm that we all go through in this life. This one, however, I remember – because when I went down the stairs to face that that flooded basement, I was angry, fed up, and a tad bitter; but as I began to think on things in my life and my world that were true, and honorable, just and pure, pleasing and commendable; and began bringing everything to God in prayer and supplication, I discovered a spirit of thanksgiving beginning to take root and grow, and with that, my own spirit (and my attitude) began to change. I left there that day with a gladdened heart, able to rejoice in my life rather than curse it, and to quote a verse from the apocryphal book of Sirach, blessing the “God of all, who everywhere works great wonders, who fosters our growth from birth, and deals with us according to his mercy.”
May this blessing of growth and mercy also be yours as well, beloved. Yes, it’s Thanksgiving once again; and whatever joys or challenges are yours as you approach that table this year, I hope and pray that you will come to know God’s presence and love in such a way that you will think on these things and be truly thankful, rejoicing in the Lord always.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends, and thanks be to God from whom all blessings flow.
Amen and Amen!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry