Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day - November 26, 2009 (Matthew 6:25-34 and Psalm 126)

“Today’s trouble is enough for today,” Jesus says.

Well, it would certainly seem so! Thanksgiving, as days go, can be a stress-fest: How many people will we have this year around our Thanksgiving table? Will the house be ready in time? Will Uncle Joe and Aunt Lucy’s flight be delayed, like last year? Will everyone get along, or will family tensions dominate the thanksgiving scene? What will it be like without the loved one who just died this past year? Can we afford this feast we feel we must prepare? Will there be enough food? Will there be too much? Will it be done in time? Will the turkey be too dry? Will the turkey still be frozen?

A member of our congregation who works for a local manufacturer volunteers at the phone desk at the Reynolds Kitchen Turkey hotline each Thanksgiving. Overly-stressed or maybe just confused about turkey preparation, people call in with their worries and troubles to get quick, efficient answers. This hotline volunteer explained to me that each year, as the day of Thanksgiving gets nearer, the phones light up with more and more frantic callers. He once coached a person through a crisis that had arisen when her turkey hadn’t thawed out in time. This person wanted to know if, instead of filling a bathtub and changing out the water every thirty minutes, it would be possible just to put the frozen turkey in the commode and continually flush the water over it. I’m not sure how the caller rectified that Thanksgiving predicament, but our steady-minded volunteer strongly advised her or him against that method. Yes, in spite of all the festivities, there is plenty of trouble and worry on our national day of Thanksgiving.

Indeed, there is plenty of trouble everyday, and tomorrow will bring trouble all of its own, especially with the demands of embodying Christ’s kingdom. That’s what at the heart of Jesus’ little pep talk to his disciples about the lilies and the sparrows. He is not preparing them for setting a table and stuffing a turkey, but rather for carrying out God’s vision of a world redeemed. This is his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ inaugural address, as it were, for the kingdom of God.

For quite some time, Jesus makes the kingdom of God sound like a place with a lot of responsibility on their part. His sermon is full of all kinds of moral and ethical expectations that the kingdom will bring. He discusses anger, adultery, and the necessity of non-violence and making peace with your neighbor. There are instructions on the ins and outs of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, loving the enemy. He even includes a warning about the perils of serving two masters, God and wealth. All of this, of course, is based in the hard-to-believe, difficult-to-imagine, upside-down world of the Beatitudes, where the poor in spirit are blessed, and the meek—not the mighty—inherit the earth. The disciples’ heads are likely spinning as they try to conceive of a life this counter-cultural. This will produce anxiety, no doubt. Our heads are spinning…as we try, by God’s grace alone, to live out Jesus’ words.

And, on top of that: to forge ahead amidst times that provoke such worry: risk of a double-dip recession, a stubbornly-high unemployment rate, two wars raging on, budget cuts, and the spread of H1N1. Don’t worry about what you will eat or drink or wear? Give me the trouble of a frozen turkey anyday! And a hotline sure would be nice, in the meantime—something to coach us through a life that puts us at such odds with the world around us, a world that repetitiously trumpets its own version of success, a world that teaches us to fight and hoard and over-consume.

The origins of the national holiday we celebrate today are shrouded in myth and mystery, but regardless of that fact, I suppose there are some glaring dissimilarities between the Thanksgiving most of us celebrate now in America and the Thanksgiving meal that purportedly began this tradition almost three centuries ago. This is not to suggest that we are not as truly thankful for our blessings today as our pilgrim forefathers and foremothers were, but I do believe that the ancestors who first gathered in 1621 to celebrate a bountiful harvest might have been little more aware of the fragility of human life, a little more cognizant of the ephemeral nature of lilies and small birds. During the first year of their settlement in Massachusetts, we are told, almost half of the original 102 settlers perished from starvation, disease, and the hardship of eking out a life in a harsh, new environment. The decimated population that remained was dependent on the whims of weather and the generosity of the local population in a way that most likely pushed them to acknowledge even further their utter reliance on God’s providence.

They were probably a lot like the pilgrims who first sang the words of our psalm today, Psalm 126, as they made their yearly trek to Jerusalem for harvest prayers:

“May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

The ancient Hebrews associated sowing and planting with weeping because those actions caused them to throw into the soil that which could be eaten. In order to have grain for another year, grain had to be given up, and one must trust that a harvest would come, and that shouts of joy could then be offered. It was a precarious existence—weeping, sowing, reaping, rejoicing—one that never allowed the illusion that humans were in control.

I doubt the original American pilgrims, whoever they were and whatever they did those first hardscrabble years, were under that illusion either. There was little doubt that God was the giver, and as they built a society based on their version of Puritan values and beliefs, Jesus’ words about not worrying over clothing and food likely hit home in a way that seems quaint and trite nowadays.

Sometimes I think our worry and our trouble grows out of a misunderstanding or a forgetfulness of our real fragility. At least in this country, so many of us can control so much about our surroundings and how those surroundings effect our lives. We are under the impression that we can control our security, or what we think is our security. Myriad choices are placed before us, and we can decide what we want for breakfast, what we want for supper, what we want for retirement. We want to be in control of family finances, of our loved one’s reactions to what we say and do, of the journey through cancer. The basic concept of weeping as we toil, all the while trusting that God will tend the seed of whatever it is we do, is all but lost. And thus our great amounts of worry—because we think it will ultimately all be up to us. We Americans, with our exceptional government, our privileged history, so many abundant resources—we can still be under the impression that our future, our life, is all up to us.

I can’t help at this point but think of yet another group of pilgrims gathered for a meal in an Upper Room, poised at the edge of a daunting future. They have seen their own ranks decimated over the past several days as the once-hopeful crowds turn to thoughts of sacrifice. But for now, these unwitting settlers of a new world gather. They gather, and they worry. They worry as the cup of blessing is passed around and the bread is broken. They wonder and worry, as words of grace are spoken and, once again, not fully understood. There will be a sense of doom and denial that lingers in the air as they are caught and questioned about their associations with Him.

And there is weeping, for sure, as the journey is made up the hill, and the cross is planted into the ground and God teaches, once again, that is isn’t ultimately up to us.

This, my friends, is the kingdom for which we strive—a time and place where God is acknowledged as the source of all gifts, and that nothing—not even our death—will prevent God from bestowing them. This is the kingdom for which we strive—a strange but marvelous system where we can hope that the merciful and the mourning are blessed and those who make peace are called children of God. This is the kingdom which we seek, for it is the kingdom which Christ sought in its fullest sense, handing over every bit of himself, every desire for control, in order that compassion and forgiveness may take over in their fullest measure.

And this pilgrim meal they would come to call thanksgiving—the Great Thanksgiving—“Great” not because of its cornucopia variety, or the offerings we share, but “great” because of what is given. It is a Thanksgiving where we approach with little more than empty, outstretched hands to receive enough for today. Enough for forever. A meal where we learn—often very, very slowly—not to worry, not to fret, as our delusions of perfect control eventually do thaw out, because the best future for which we could ever hope—or for which we could ever be thankful—has been secured for us through Christ.

Yes, in a way, you could say this is our hotline, and the steady voice on the other end is always there, always and ever again proclaiming our value to him.

And I? I…I’m going to go home and take the turkey out of the toilet.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

painting: "A Bountiful Harvest," by Gregory Frank Harris

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