(a sermon for November 20, 2016, the Last Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and James 1:17-27)
Well, all I’ve got to say is… finally! At long last it’s almost Thanksgiving Day; and man, do we ever need it now!
Honestly, what with all the turmoil surrounding the recent elections (to say nothing of the months and months of division and rancor that led up to it all!), if ever there was a year that we desperately needed this particular holiday, it’s certainly been this one! I mean, no matter where you come down on what’s happened, these days have been, to say the very least, stressful and overwhelming; and that doesn’t yet seem to be getting a whole lot better! I’m cognizant that these days even our worship has had a certain intensity about it; in which our songs and prayers has taken on a slightly different tone than perhaps they have before, especially given the context of everything that’s been going on. And that’s not only appropriate, it’s good that our worship can encompass all of this and more; it just seems to me that right about now as persons, as people and as a nation we would all do very well to simply stop what we’re doing, take a collective breath, pause and reflect for a time on the amazing bounty of our blessings, and yes… sit down and eat some turkey!
If I might borrow a line from a song of the season, albeit one for the next season that’s coming: “Yes, we need a little thanksgiving… right this very minute!”
Now, you already know that I love Thanksgiving just by virtue of what’s on the menu (!), but actually, I do have to say that I also love this holiday because of the relative simplicity of it. I love what the Rev. Victor Pentz, the recently retired pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta (and a favorite preacher of mine), has written about Thanksgiving: he says that “this holiday is busy and full, yet you don’t have to refinance your home to celebrate Thanksgiving. All you have to do is let your children watch parades in the morning while you watch football all afternoon, and pretend everyone likes turkey.” (Pretend? I think not!) “Thanksgiving,” Pentz goes on to say, “is about simple things. It is about country and family [and being together], and it’s about sunshine and soil combining to produce the miracle of life.”
And, might I add here, it’s also about making a joyful noise. Because friends, whether it happens at a great feast surrounded by all manner of family and friends, or if it’s shared quietly around a table with just a loved one or two, Thanksgiving celebrations are moments designed to take time out of our regular daily routine: so that we might truly 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, and who has generously and gracefully gifted us “with every perfect gift… from above.” Thanksgiving is our time “to bring a heart of thanks” to the God whom we adore; it is to say “thank you” and to say it aloud; it is to again acknowledge and affirm God’s many blessings in our lives and in our nation, both in times of joy as well as in those of challenge; and yes, it is our time to worship the Lord our God with joyful praise, perchance in the process reconnecting with who we are and have always been in relationship to God: pilgrims… pilgrims on a journey of life and faith.
And if you’re thinking that’s an awful lot to fit into a word or two spoken around the table before the food gets cold… you’re right. But then, Thanksgiving – true Thanksgiving – is meant to be more than a table grace or an exercise in good manners; and ultimately, it’s more than a national observance, or even the fulfillment of religious ritual or obligation. In faith, you see, Thanksgiving is to be about true gratitude; and gratitude, properly shown or expressed, is an admonition to heartfelt action. It is to proclaim, by word and deed, belief and behavior our full and sincere thanks to God!
In other words, to use the words of James that are found in our Epistle for this morning, our true Thanksgiving is for us to become by our very lives “a kind of first fruits of [God’s] creatures,” a real and sacrificial gift of ourselves as a means of gratitude. This is the simple truth that lay at the heart of all our celebrating this week, and the reason it’s so very important and essential for us, especially now – it’s the “reason for the season,” as it were – but here’s the thing: the sad truth is that for all our focus on the rituals of turkey feasting, family reunions and the inevitable “Black Friday” preparations, we’ve risked forgetting all that.
Some years ago now, in preparation for a service much like this one, I came across a commentary on Thanksgiving Sunday written by an American missionary doing ministry in Managua, Nicaragua. Actually, I use the term “commentary” kind of loosely; in truth, what this man had written was a no holds barred rant on the sorry state of the world, most especially regarding the deplorable self-centeredness of Americans. The man wrote, with no small amount of anger and bitterness, this long diatribe about just how overfed we are in this country; about our “privileged consumption” of fossil fuels; and how abhorrent it was that “most of the world’s fun and leisure,” medical attention and the majority of the world’s “fancy pharmaceuticals” belong to such a privileged few; all of which stands in utter contrast to what you see amongst the poor in places like Nicaragua and throughout the world.
It was heavy and disturbing stuff, and not at all warm and fuzzy (!) for the Sunday before Thanksgiving; but it was also wasn’t entirely wrong, and more than a little humbling; and so with great trepidation I decided to share some of this man’s thoughts, albeit a bit softened for Sunday morning consumption, with the congregation that week. Now, I was prepared for some of the folks in the pews to not like what this man (and by extension, I) had to say, especially so close to “Turkey Day;” and indeed, there were a whole lot who didn’t. But what surprised me were the few who suggested that maybe I hadn’t gone far enough! After all, as one person said to me afterward, “How can we fully appreciate our abundance if we do not know not first know and understand deprivation?” To paraphrase (courtesy of The Message) James, “Real religion,” and, might I add, true Thanksgiving, “the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.”
The truth is that there is great biblical precedent for this kind of thinking: did you happen to notice, for instance, in this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy that there’s a real sense of movement in that particular passage? This is one piece of scripture that smoothly moves us from remembrance to thanksgiving to action to pilgrimage; those 11 verses literally take us somewhere. The whole thing is framed by a ritual of gratitude performed by the ancestor of “a wandering Aramean” who “went down to Egypt and lived there an alien” and as a slave; and then who 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;” and brought to a land “flowing with milk and honey.”
What we have here is the remembrance of the deprivation and desolation that came before, along with thanksgiving for the incredible blessing and care of the LORD that has come in the here and now now; because you can’t know where you are until you understand where you’ve been! How can you truly appreciate and “celebrate all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house,” if you can’t (or won’t) recall how it was before? So God provides the movement – from deprivation to abundance, from isolation and oppression to liberation and community – but then, and here’s the thing, there’s even more; for along with this there’s also a movement toward action, in God’s people bringing forth the “first of the fruit of the ground” that the Lord had given. In other words, an offering of the first and best of the harvest that would not have been possible without the blessing of the Lord; without that movement from deprivation to abundance.
Gratitude does not happen without true awareness of the value of the gift; but moreover, it is not complete without the appropriate response. Our thanks for what we have been given can never be separate from the giving of ourselves in loving response. To put a finer point on this, our word thanksgiving can correctly be read as two words: thanks and giving; which is the same relationship that exists between gratitude and action; faith and works; hearing the word and doing the word. As people of God, these qualities always go together; it is how we truly live out of what we believe; without both as part of our faith expression, we risk forgetting who we are. As James aptly put it hundreds of years later, “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
You see, putting aside all the other rituals and traditions of this particular holiday, the reason we come together as families and friends, and as a nation this Thursday is so that we might really “do” something in gratitude for our abundance of blessings. It’s the same reason that as the church, we are ever and always called to reach out beyond ourselves to those in need. What we’re doing is taking our thanks unto God and moving it toward the giving of ourselves for the sake of his son Jesus Christ. And whether it comes in the form of filling up a box with groceries, bringing games to the residents at Fellowship Housing or simply in receiving an offering every Sunday so that God’s work can continue to be done in this place, it all amounts to the giving of ourselves as an active thanks for all that the Lord has done and continues to do for us. It’s giving… thanks. It’s thanks… giving. Thanks… Giving. Thanksgiving!
We are blessed, you know… and on every level. However discouraged or overwhelmed or apprehensive any of us happen to be about now; the fact remains that every generation that has gone on before has also faced its share of challenges, has sought the Lord’s presence and blessing for the “living of these days,” and were guided along every good and hopeful pathway; and this year is no exception to that. We are “the Wandering Aremeans” of this time and place and our God is even now moving us forward. And so you and I ought to be giving thanks for all of our many blessings: for every good meal we get to eat; for every cold night that we lay warm and secure at home in our own beds; for every fresh breath of life that enters our lungs.
And let us give thanks to God for making us the congregation we are here at East Church, and for giving each one of us so many opportunities to actively be disciples of Jesus Christ in Concord, New Hampshire and beyond, because it’s not just who we’re meant to be, it’s also what we’re meant to do! It’s about thanks and giving; and so let our thanks to God move in ways in which we find new and exciting ways to love and serve others in Christ’s name.
Beloved, may your feasting this Thursday be joyous… and filled with copious amounts of leftovers! May the conversations you have with those around you this week be filled with laughter, and may the memories you share (and create) be good and uplifting and meaningful… and may it all be a whole lot of fun as well! But above all, may each one of us be truly thankful for what we’ve been given; and may our gratitude be reflected in lives lived in true righteousness and sacrificial love.
Happy Thanksgiving, my dear friends.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry