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Category Archives: Old Testament

On the Way to the Holy Night: A Gospel of Peace

(a sermon for December 8, 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Romans 15:4-13)

Along the edge of our backyard at the parsonage is a fairly straight row of four or five very small pine trees.

Now, I don’t know if those trees had been intentionally planted there, either by our neighbor or perhaps one of the previous residents of our home, or if they’re there simply by virtue of nature’s own gracious silviculture; but I have to tell you that those little pine trees have long been an endless source of fascination for me.  For you see, when we moved in to the parsonage seven-plus years ago now, those pine trees were just the tiniest of saplings barely poking out of the soil; and I’ve been watching them grow ever since.

And the thing is, by my reckoning not a single one of those trees should even exist, much less continue, as it has, to grow taller and stronger from year to year!  To begin with, the soil isn’t all that great out there, and that particular spot doesn’t get a whole lot of sunshine; we’re barely able to make grass grow because it’s usually overrun by moss, not to mention surrounded by a fair number of other trees and the random incursion of an invasive plant species.  Moreover, whenever it rains to excess around here, especially when snow melts in the spring, that whole area floods quickly and easily; and I can personally vouch for the fact that over the years those trees have, however unintentionally, have nonetheless pretty much been mowed, raked and leaf-blown to within an inch of their very lives!  Simply put, there’s not a single reason that any of those little pine trees should even have survived (!) this long given everything they’ve been through; but in fact, they’ve thrived and much to my surprise little by little they just keep right on growing! And yes, I must confess here that I do find myself wondering what those trees might look like in another, say, 10 or 20 or even 50 years or so; because if those trees are growing this well now even as they’ve been forced push their way through all manner of environmental adversity, just imagine how tall and strong they’re going to be when in fullness they become all that God has created them to be… I mean, life being what it is I might not see it come to pass, but someone will; and when it happens, won’t it be amazing?

I’ve been reminded of those pine trees this week as I’ve been thinking about that opening verse of our Old Testament text for this morning from the 11th chapter of Isaiah, one that’s often heard especially in these days of Advent:  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.”

On the face of it, it’s an image not unfamiliar to those of us who dwell in this part of the world: a tiny seedling pushing out into the sunlight through the twisted rubble of blown down trees out deep in the woods; or else winding in and out of the crevices of old stone fences and glacial rocks.  Isaiah’s image of a green shoot sprouting out of an old, dead tree stump paints a perfect picture of life defiantly carrying on amidst all manner of adversity; it represents the good news of a promise made and how that promise will be, in due season, fulfilled.   But as Isaiah puts forth the vision, that’s only the beginning: Isaiah then continues on with all those beautiful and oh, so familiar images of wolves living with lambs, bears and cows eating side by side, “the calf and the lion and the fatling together, [with] a little child [leading] them;” the same child, presumably, who now can safely play around venomous snakes!

This is the vision that’s long been referred to as “the peaceable kingdom” and it’s the stuff of many a Christmas card;   but let’s be honest here: as we understand “nature’s way,” friends, it’s also a pretty unlikely vision!  Let’s face it: in this real world in which we live predators and prey generally do not co-exist all that well, lions are anything but vegetarian, and by and large there’s no toddler who has ever or would ever be allowed to “play over the hole of the asp.”  To quote the Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor and blogger out of Illinois, the truth is that in Isaiah’s vision, “the stakes are too high.  The consequence too great.  It is in the very nature of the snake to strike, the wolf to feast, the lion to enjoy a regular meal of red meat… like it or not, it is the natural order of things for the menagerie Isaiah describes.”  It’s one thing, after all, to suggest that there might be a fresh branch or two growing out of a composting stump, bringing forth at least a modicum of hope amidst adversity; but a world where life should utterly prevail against every possible peril, to say nothing of a triumph over that so-call “natural order of things” that regularly seems work against its very survival?  To live in a world so radically upended that love and care is the first order of all things…

…well, that’s just… that’s just… the Gospel (!)… which, by the very definition of the word, is good news, indeed.

Or, as it’s expressed in the words of the song, “Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.”

Actually, there’s much more to this vision of a “peaceable kingdom” than just the idea of lions and lambs sharing the same living space; and it begins with realizing that just prior to where we started reading this morning, we’re told that God, with “terrifying power” will have cut down the tallest of trees and that “the lofty will be brought low.” (10:33) “He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax,” says Isaiah, “and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”  So immediately there’s some context for the kind of natural growth that’s described in what we’ve read today; but there’s even more happening there than just that.

Historically speaking, you see, the nation of Israel had already been split into two kingdoms; the northern kingdom, which had been captured by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom of Judah which had been defeated by the Babylonians with the people taken into captivity.  For the most part, both Israel and Judah were now being led by ineffective and often corrupt leaders; any sense of equity or justice (if you could even call it that) was selective and arbitrary at best; and there was little conviction toward personal righteousness, nor any commitment to their faith or of worship, for the people had often and repeatedly turned from the Lord. It was for God’s people a time in which there was no true awareness of God’s shalom, that is, the whole peace of God (and by that we’re not merely referring to the absence of war but also the wholeness of life and living – health, prosperity, companionship, joy, and on and on – all of which is borne out of a deeper relationship with God.  So without that it’s most certainly a time of hopelessness and deep despair… and yet it’s in the very midst of this agony – with the nation of Judah left in ruins, the land and forests devastated and gone – that Isaiah’s vision is proclaimed: this soaring, wonderful vision of what God was about to do; a sure and certain promise of a bright future and of true peace.

And it’s a promise that starts with a ruler: one on whom “the spirit of the LORD shall rest,” and one who will most certainly be of the house and lineage of King David.  He will have “the spirit of wisdom and understanding… of counsel and might… of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.”   “With righteousness he shall judge the poor.”   As The Message goes on to translate it, “He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice…” – and I love this – “…each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.”  He will be Israel’s true Messiah – the one who, as Isaiah reports elsewhere, shall be named “Immanuel,” (7:14) which means “God with us” – who alone will be the one who is able to bring forth this “impossible possibility” of a peaceable kingdom to the world. In him, says Isaiah, this vision of “the earth [being] full of the knowledge of the Lord” will in due season become reality.

What we’re told here, you see, what we’re promised, is that in the end life… and true peace… will prevail.

Of course, we’re still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled… but then, I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?  The fact is that you and I live in a world that’s far removed from the vision of a peaceable kingdom, and in a time where on any given day, there’s news of yet another shooting, another act of terror, another episode of abuse and degradation, another example of neglect for the least and lowest in the world, and yet another instance of those who would employ the rhetoric of love only to justify attitudes and behaviors that are rife with anger and hatred.  Isaiah’s vision of the world dwelling in a true and living knowledge of the Lord remains as hopeful as it is glorious, but the sad truth is that it just doesn’t exist in our reality; or at least not yet.

But then that’s kind of the point of this advent season, isn’t it: an understanding – a lamentation, if you will — that all that we hope for in this world hasn’t happened… yet… but nonetheless continuing our hope-filled proclamation that it will in due season, because the Lord has promised it will be so.  And so we wait and watch and get ready for its coming.

This is what makes us “advent people,” beloved; this inner knowledge that the reality we are experiencing all around us is not the final reality of things.  I’m reminded here of a wonderful piece from a few years back written for the Christmas season by Garrison Keillor, in which he lamented the sorry state of the world but then added that faith was now more important than ever.  “What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time?” Keillor asked. “When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect… to walk on fences and sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing they hear is not the last word.”

I love that; because as “advent people,” we faithfully affirm that the current reality we see and hear around us – all the tragic woofing of warfare, hatred and rampant injustice – is not the last word, but rather we proclaim, boldly and joyfully, that the final word belongs to God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who has truly taught us to love one another, the one whose law is love, and whose gospel is peace.  It’s also a reminder to us, I think – as we heard in our Epistle reading this morning, from Romans – that since “by steadfastness and the encouragement of scriptures we… have hope,” it follows that we should live out of that same kind of steadfastness and encouragement, living “in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  In other words, if his law is love and his gospel peace, so it should also be ours as well: seeking to live our lives with the spirit of true wisdom and understanding; letting the decisions we make for ourselves and our world be girded with the benefit of good counsel and loving strength; and letting ou first priority be that we welcome one another – no matter who that “other” happens to be – as we ourselves have been welcomed: peaceably, with all the wholeness of God’s peace and of his grace, and ever and always after the manner of a child.

In one sense, I suppose, it might seem like kind of an inconsequential effort when measured against the overwhelming nature of the world’s realities.  Then again, as we’re already noticed in the advent candles, every newly lit candle adds just that m 2019  uch more light into the room.  Likewise, as you and I seek in anticipation of Christ’s coming to live unto his gospel of peace, suddenly we begin to experience how the old realities give way to a new and living vision, a marvelous and miraculous foretaste of how the future will be by God’s promise and plan. That makes all the difference as we move forward, beloved, because then we will be living “as if” it’s already come to pass… until that blessed moment of triumph when it does!

And that… will be amazing!

So, as our Advent waiting continues and we keeping making our way, ever closer, to the Holy Night of Bethlehem, let our prayer be the same as that which himself prayed as a blessing unto the Christians at Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

And, always, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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On the Way to the Holy Night: A Thrill of Hope

(a sermon for December 1, 2019, the 1st Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Isaiah 9:2-9 and Romans 13:11-14)

At a time of the year that is so traditionally bathed in all manner of light I’ve always found it interesting, and quite telling, that the season of Advent (and the celebration of Christmas that it anticipates) begins in darkness.

Not that that our modern world leaves a whole lot of room for darkness: being a lover of all things Christmas related, I’ve also taken notice that whereas most people used to wait until at least the day after Thanksgiving to light up their outdoor Christmas displays these days it’s not unusual to see Santa and his reindeer all lit up and “ready to glow” mid-way through November! In fact, when I was in Maine a few weeks back just after Halloween, I was driving down this back country road at just around dusk, came around this corner and by golly (!) there was this house with its yard filled to overflowing with inflatables and twinkling lights!  Too early?  Yes, probably… and too much?  Well, all I’ll say is “to each their own.”  Mostly, though, I feel about this the way I do about playing Christmas music “early;” like it’s such a short season to enjoy Christmas lights, so why not?  And besides, in these times in which we live who wouldn’t agree with the sentiment expressed in that song of the season, “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute… we may be rushing things but deck the halls again now!”  So I say, have at it… and Merry Christmas!

I will have to say, however, that over the years I’ve come to appreciate the notion that where Christmas lights are concerned, less is sometimes more and in the process makes, if you will, an “enlightening” statement of faith.  Years ago, back in my student pastor days, I spent more than a few December nights driving back from seminary classes, quite often along those back roads, and it’s funny what things you always remember: there was this farmhouse up toward Grindstone, Maine, set back from the road at the end of a long stretch of woods; where the people who lived there had taken an “understated approach” to their holiday decorating.  By that I mean they’d simply strung some colored lights around a waist-high evergreen tree and let it glow in the midst of the winter darkness.  Nothing unusual, I know; except that this little Christmas tree stood a long way apart from the house and barn, out in the pasture; at least a couple hundred yards away, if not more.  And that, of course, ignited my curiosity:  why had they done that?  Why wasn’t this Christmas tree standing closer to the farmhouse or out by the barn? Had they actually gone to all the trouble of stringing an extension cord that far out?  Was this a Christmas tree intended for this farmer’s herd of dairy cows or had it been set there for the pleasure of passing white tailed deer? I tell you, the possibilities of it staggered the imagination (!), and I was sorely tempted to pull in to this farmhouse, knock on their front door and ask the people who lived there to tell me all about it!

But as I thought further about it, it began to make perfect sense that they’d put their Christmas tree way out there in the middle of a darkened pasture; because this would most certainly be a spot where the brilliance of those lights could shine most prominently, piercing through the winter darkness and unalloyed by any and all distractions of the world surrounding it. Or, maybe the family in that house just wanted to be able to look out their living room window and simply bask in the beauty and wonder of a Christmas tree!  All I know is that this little tree immediately became an advent parable for me, the affirmation of a divine promise fulfilled and a reminder that no matter how dark it may have seemed to be, “the people who walked in darkness [had] seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light [had] shined.”

A thrill of hope, and a cause of rejoicing in a dark and weary world.

It’s important, I think, to take note of the fact that the season of Advent which begins this morning is not to be thought of as merely as a “Countdown to Christmas.”  This isn’t to say that these four weeks aren’t about waiting and watching for something to happen – after all, our very word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus which means “coming” – but there’s more to these four weeks of the Christian year than simply getting ready for December 25 to come.  Moreover, even though Advent is certainly about a symbolic waiting for the coming of the Christ child in the manger of Bethlehem, making room in our hearts for this wondrous gift of God given 2,000 years ago, it’s about even more than that.  The season of advent is also about a gift that is yet to come: our waiting for Christ’s return in glory and that moment when God’s amazing vision for his creation comes to full fruition; for that time when all that we have yearned for in faith and hope finally becomes a reality in the world and in our lives.  As we regularly proclaim in our times of communion, this is about the “mystery and wonder of our Christian faith” manifest in the sure and certain promise that “Christ will come again.”

Ultimately, you see, it’s this “coming” for which you and I are waiting and watching and preparing.  Author and New Testament scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk actually refers to this as seeing “the coming of Christ in double-exposure: looking forward to the second coming Christ in the future even as we look forward to celebrating the first going of Christ that lies in the past.”  But just as our “Way to the Holy Night” of Christmas Eve and Day begins not with shepherds, wise men or a heavenly chorus but rather with Isaiah’s promise of great light in a darkened world, so you and I who are dwelling in the midst of our own darkness also await, as the song says, “the breaking of a new and glorious morn.”

But make no mistake… that day is coming soon, and very soon.  In the words of our text for this morning, “the night is far gone, the day is near.”

In truth of fact, this relatively brief passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans amounts to what the Rev. Susan Eastman of Duke Divinity School refers to as an affirmation that “as Christians we are all ‘morning people.’”  Yes, it’s dark now, but “the time is just before dawn, the sky is brightening, the alarm is ringing, day is at hand.  It is time to rouse our minds from slumber, to be alert to what God is doing in the world, and to live in accordance with God’s coming salvation.”  “You know what time it is,” writes Paul, “how it is the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”  In other words, we know what God has already done in Jesus Christ; we know how the people who walked in darkness saw a great light, and we know that it will be so for us as well and that this light is very, very near to us indeed!  We are not people of the night; we are the people on whom light has shined, the ones for whom a child was born, the one who is named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  We are the ones who have been given salvation and the true light of life through the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are ones who, soon and very soon, will know the full and brilliant light of his glory; so, says Paul, as we await that moment in its fullness “let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices… for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Now, what’s interesting here about Paul’s advent promise of light is that it immediately connects it to, shall we say, a more ethical and moral stance in life.  “Let us live honorably as in the day,” says Paul, or as The Message bluntly translates it, “we can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight.” (One thing can be said for certain, friends: no matter what the translation of scripture happens to be, friends, nobody can ever accuse Paul of sugar-coating its truth!)  The point here is that if we are truly people of the light, then we need to live unto the fullness of God’s promises in the here and now so that our hearts might be truly ready for the day of wonder that is coming soon.  And the time for this is now; for you see, the darkness is passing into daylight and a new age is dawning.  So it behooves us, as believers and as true “advent people,” quoting The Message once again, that we need to “get out of bed and get dressed! Don’t loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute.  Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!”

Seems to me that’s not only a pretty good way to start out on our way to the Holy Night of Bethlehem, but also a clear directive as to living out our Christian faith in this twilight time between the darkness of these days and the “not yet but soon to come” great light of a new day.

There’s so much I love about this sacred season and most especially in the traditions of worship that we share together in this place, beginning with lighting the advent candles of hope, peace, joy, love.  I love how from week to week as we light those candles “advent-ually” (!) we have this full circle of light that, with the addition of the light of the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve, becomes the light that gets passed from person to person in thanks and praise for God’s light coming into this world in the guise of a child.  It’s one of the most beautiful and powerful times we share as a worshipping congregation, and I have to say that not only is it one of my favorite parts of Christmas, pastorally speaking it’s probably my favorite moment of the entire year, singing “Silent Night” and watching this sanctuary go from relative darkness to one filled with the glow of candlelight.  I love it because it’s the culmination of this advent journey we’ve taken to the manger of Bethlehem and the gift that’s been given us there; but I also love it because in the larger sense, it represents the great and holy light that has shone into the deep darkness of life and living, as well as a potent reminder that though even now that darkness can seem overwhelming to us to the point of seeming rather hopeless at times, nonetheless “the night is far gone, the day is near,” and in the advent of Christ there is a thrill of hope as the weary world rejoices… and in the process the pathway toward a new and better and blessed life opens up before us.

This light of HOPE and the thrill it brings is ours, yours and mine, beloved; and so, as our advent journey “on the way to the Holy Night” begins… so “let us [truly] lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

And as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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For All the Gifts Along the Way

(a sermon for November 24, 2019, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

Actually, as much as you all know I’ve always loved Thanksgiving Day (!), I must confess that most of those celebrations over the years have all pretty much melded together in my memory; a cornucopia, if you will, of many busy, sometimes even chaotic family gatherings and endless servings of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy (and stuffing, and sweet potato casserole, and peas and onions, and pies, and… well, you get the idea)!

There are, of course, a few memories that stand out: one of my earliest memories of Thanksgiving, for instance, was one spent at my grandparents’ house and how their table was elegantly and perfectly set with the fine china, polished silverware, and freshly pressed linen tablecloths and napkins, with a small crystal goblet filled with cranberry juice set just so at the center of each plate, to be drank at the very beginning of the Thanksgiving meal, just after grace and before anything else was served!  By contrast I also remember later years when the meal itself seemed overshadowed by my father’s and my utter determination (and, I realize now in retrospect, my mother’s great forbearance!) that we get up to the hunting camp for the last couple of days of deer season that weekend!

And I’ll always have very fond Thanksgiving memories of our own children growing up, all of them running around underfoot laughing and playing with their cousins, even a couple of occasions of Lisa and I having to sit at the dreaded “children’s table” with them when they were very small (which, by the way, did not reduce my consumption of turkey one little bit!).  I also remember one year when Zachary, who was just a toddler at the time, was so fussy at mealtime that I ended up taking him out for a long drive all through the surrounding countryside, in the fervent hope that he might actually fall asleep and so everyone else could eat in relative peace and quiet; but how, all in all, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable day for my son and me, and I might add, another great, albeit for me slightly delayed, Thanksgiving Dinner!

Strangely enough, however, as I was thinking about it this week I’ve realized that ultimately what I remember most about all these Thanksgivings past is not primarily the food but the people with whom it was shared; all the laugher and conversation, and the stories that get told and told again around that table often long into the night, all these joyous reminders of who we are, where we came from, the many blessings that we share, and most importantly, where those blessings came from…

…which, when you come right down to it, is kind of what the day is supposed to be all about anyway!

Therein lies one of the more interesting things about our Thanksgiving Day celebrations: as the late columnist Erma Bombeck once wrote, “Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare, [but] they are consumed in twelve minutes,” so… the question becomes, what are we to do with the rest of the day?  Granted, for many people and families these days Thanksgiving becomes more like a progressive dinner with several stops (and very often more than one dinner!) throughout the day, and what with parades and football and of course, the infamous “Black Friday” sales that now begin as early as Thursday afternoon (!) there is plenty happening to occupy the day; truly, I don’t think I need to tell anyone here how busy and convoluted a day Thanksgiving can become!  But that said, you have to wonder if at the end of the day it’s all worthwhile.  After all we’ve managed to layer upon our celebration of the day and admittedly, in all that is often required by it, can it still be said of us that we’re honoring the origin and purpose of Thanksgiving Day; and perhaps even more importantly, is it still about true thanksgiving unto God?

It’s worth noting here that though our American celebration of Thanksgiving commemorates that storied feast of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, historically speaking it wasn’t the first in North America.  That distinction likely belongs to the members of an expedition to Newfoundland in 1578, who celebrated their survival from a series of vicious storms with a feast of “tinned beef and mushy peas” brought over from England (mmmm….).  History also records a celebration meal shared in Nova Scotia by European settlers and the indigenous people of the region in the early 1600’s; and there’s even a proclamation of a yearly “day of thanksgiving” following a safe landing at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, several months before the Mayflower even set sail for the New World.  But regardless of the timing or circumstance, all these celebrations had at least one thing in common: the admonition to give prayerful thanks to God for the blessings of the harvest and, indeed, for life itself.  In the exhortation of an English preacher named Robert Wolfall, who was amongst that group of explorers in Newfoundland, they needed to be “thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.”  That’s a conviction that continues to be expressed every year as “we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” praying that in whatever form it might take in this particular generation “the wicked oppressing [might] now cease from distressing.”

So for us this act and celebration of thanksgiving does carry with it a long and austere tradition; but here’s the thing:  the desire of people to offer thanks to God goes back a lot further than that.  The example of giving thanks unto the Lord can be traced back to the very beginning of scripture; as far back as the story of Noah we hear about how after he emerge from the ark, the very first thing he did was to build “an altar to the LORD” (Genesis 8:20) for purposes of offering up a sacrifice of thanksgiving, thus establishing a tradition of giving thanks unto God.  In fact, there are at least 140 passages throughout scripture that call for God’s people to true thanksgiving, both individually and all together; giving thanks and praise to God as the giver of all our many blessings, and as the ultimate source of all goodness, the foundation of all that we have and all that we are.  And that story continues even now:  for God, you see, has always been the very heart of our story, yours and mine, and those of the families of which we are part; God is at the beginning of that story, God’s in the midst of every detail that’s unfolding as we speak, and God will be there at its conclusion.  And God’s presence through it all, is the supreme reminder of who we are, where we came from, all the many blessings that we share, and most importantly, of where those blessings came from… and the first and best reason for us to give thanks!

Which brings us to our text for this morning, from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses seeks to retell the story of God’s chosen and redeemed people, as well as about the need for worship, true thanksgiving and a the humble offering back unto the Lord. Now, the “back story” of this particular passage is that the people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years and are just about to enter the Promised Land; however, Moses is dying and knows that he will not have the privilege of entering into that land.  And so, quite literally on his deathbed, Moses tells the story of their long history in the care and presence of God, along with very specific instruction as a good and proper “act and attitude” of thanksgiving.  As we heard it read this morning, you know that it involves taking “some of the first of all the fruit of the ground,” putting it in the basket and going “to the place that your God will choose as a dwelling for his name,” handing it to the priest who in turn will set the offering on that altar of the Lord.  It’s all very ceremonial, and in the parlance of Biblical scholars very much part of the “priestly narrative” of some the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Old Testament; and it’s still very much in keeping with our Christian liturgy and tradition even to this day.

But here’s the thing I want us to notice this morning: that all of this culminates in… a story; a story that’s meant to be shared and passed on.  When this offering of first fruits has been set upon the altar, says Moses, “you shall make this response before the LORD your God: ‘a wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.’”  This is your story, says Moses, and it is a story that needs to be told again and again and again; it must be shared because this is the story of how God brought his people – our ancestors, yours and mine together – safely from there to here, guided and cared for and blessed every step of the way.

And you’ll notice also that the story that Moses recounts is unflinching in its honesty, remembering the painful parts of the journey as well as its triumphs: their affliction and suffering at the hands of the Egyptians, the years of slavery and their cries to God for redemption.  Just as so many family stories will inevitably include a remembrance of some the most difficult times that family has faced, Moses here wants to be clear that true thanksgiving, in some way or another, acknowledges both the bitter and the sweet, understanding that it was the hardship of their journey that led them to even more fully appreciate the mighty hand of God, his “signs and wonders” and his deliverance of his people to “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  This, says Moses to the people of Israel, is your heritage, this is your blessing, and this is who you and whose you are; and for this reason, you are to give thanks, make your offering and with all those who reside among you, friend and stranger alike, “celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”

And that, dear friends, is what Thanksgiving is all about.  It’s all about our story: yours, mine and God.

I love what the Rev. W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., of Truett Seminary of Baylor University, says about this: “Simply put,” he writes, “gratitude is rarely confined to the present moment.  More often than not the present moment is the culmination of ‘givings’ all along the way – sometimes being delivered to something and sometimes from something… the fruitfulness of the present [is rooted] with the faithfulness of God all along.”  I like that; Tucker’s words serve as a reminder to me that the act and attitude of thanksgiving, as well as to the matter at hand, our celebration of “Turkey Day” this Thursday, must involve more than just a cursory moment of grace for good food and fellowship, spoken quickly before the food gets cold!  Certainly we should be thankful for “health and strength and daily bread,” just as we ought to be happy for family and friends who have gathered around the table with us and for the countless gifts of love that are ours in the here and now.  But we also need to be aware and truly thankful for all the gifts that have come to us along the way: for the lessons learned over time and across generations, and the inheritance left us from those family members and friends – the saints of this and every generation – who have helped to make us who we are; for the experiences of life that have helped us to grow and persons and as a people, for love and laughter and wonder, and even for the difficulties of life and living we’ve been forced to face which have given us strength and understanding for the living of these days; as well as for the untold blessings of freedom and the fullness of bounty that is ours as a nation and as a people.

For all these gifts given along the way from generation to generation we give thanks and praise… but most of all, we give thanks to the one who is the true source of all good gifts around us, the ones, as the song says, are “sent from heaven above,” the ones that which “the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”

So have a wonderful day this Thursday, friends!  Have a great time with your family or with your friends, eat lots of turkey and stuffing (I know I will!) and if you can, make sure you take the time to visit and sit around the table and tell the good stories… again!  Have fun; and as you do, remember just who you are and where you came from… take some time to remember the many blessings you share – speak them aloud, because that’s always a good thing to do – but most importantly, let us all remember where those gifts, the ones for today and the ones along the way, actually came from…

… and may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

 

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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