Thursday, November 22, 2012

Day of Thanksgiving [Year B] - November 22, 2012 (Matthew 6:25-33)

Jesus says, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” How ironic that all of us gather here this Thanksgiving morning to hear these words from our Lord—especially words about food—and then leave to gorge ourselves on vast quantities of it.

“Is life not more than food?” Well, maybe so, but for right now give me those piles of sweet potatoes, dishes of green beans, platters of stuffing, and perfect cylinders of congealed cranberry sauce with the indentions of the six lines from the can still visible. Give us the pumpkin pies, apple pies, and pecan pies that will be offered up for dessert. And don’t forget the turkey. Some sources estimate that Americans will consume somewhere around 46 million turkeys today. If you’re like my family, you’ve been cooking, shopping, and preparing the house for days. I bet some of you with fancy kitchen appliances that have timers have even left the food in the oven to cook itself this morning while you come here to worship and give thanks to God and hear Jesus say, “Is not life more than food? Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.”

You see, Jesus knows something that his disciples will struggle to learn: anxiety impedes thanksgiving. Worry gets in the way of faithful living and genuine discipleship. It is distracting. It has a tendency to make us think about that which we do not have or which might happen, rather than what we’ve already been given, and which good has already happened. It can take your mind off that which it needs to be on, the task at hand.

And, at least in the case of the disciples, that task at hand was probably starting to sound more than they’d bargained for. It wasn’t the challenge of cooking a turkey or hosting a big meal for relatives that Jesus had in mind. It was the challenge of discipleship in his name. As it turned out, life with this particular rabbi was going to involve all kinds of counter-cultural, counterintuitive behavior that they were not prepared for. His first sermon had been long and filled with complicated teachings: lessons on how to pray, how properly to give alms, and how to control anger, as well as a stern reminder about the perils of serving two masters: God and wealth. That last one had perhaps been the most distressing, given that they’d all recently left behind their trades—their fishing boats and their tax booths—to follow Jesus.  Nevertheless, “Let your light so shine,” he had said, “that others may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.”

All in all this discipleship in Jesus’ name will turn out to a very tall order, going out in the world as meek and merciful peacemakers, as people persecuted for righteousness’ sake. You could see how worry would be a natural reaction. Where would their livelihood come from? How would they eat? Would there be a hot, succulent turkey, so to speak, waiting for them when they got home? Where would home even be?

Galilee, with "lilies" in foreground
Jesus counters their anxiety by promising them God’s constant care and attention. Even when life becomes difficult, God still considers them more precious and more valuable than anything else in creation. God will provide for them more than God does for the birds of the air. And even though, just like the wildflowers in the field, they will not be toiling or spinning for their clothes, they will still have something to wear. Those things that seem to be so important and so central to living, those things after which so many other people spend so much time striving after, will be taken care of. They, as disciples of the Lord, will be striving after the kingdom of God. While others around them will be figuring out ways to get ahead, they will be figuring out ways to let their light shine. Anxiety about even some of life’s material essentials could draw their energy away from the life of being a disciple. Worrying about these things—and, what’s more, beginning to strive after them—could also indicate an underlying belief that their livelihood ultimately comes from themselves, rather than from the Giver.

Are these the same messages we send today with our worry and anxiety? We have just come through another divisive election season. Economic recovery seems tenuous, at best. The stock market seems to have lost its footing. No one yet knows or fully trusts the ways the global community seems to be connected. American troops fight a ten-year war on the other side of the world. Quite frankly, people are worrying about what to eat and what to wear, far beyond our 46 million turkeys. Food stamp participation has increased 70% in the last five years. Yet, in spite of all this, the task at hand is to be thankful, to focus our attention on God the giver and the source of all gifts rather than the supposed uncertainty of what is happening around us. The task at all times is to remember Jesus’ words that in spite of what we think about our circumstances, God is caring for us and has our best interests at heart because we are going to be a part of his kingdom.

I have found absolutely captivating this week the testimonies by the people interviewed in this documentary by Ken Burns about the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. The grainy black-and-white images and raw video footage of the storms are fascinating to see—the large, black clouds of dirt rolling over fields and towns like something out of a science fiction movie—and I find the narrator’s factual and historical information about those bleak years intriguing and almost incredible. However, I find nothing has drawn me in as much as the personal accounts given by the survivors he has tracked down. Of course, at this point in time, any survivors alive today with remaining memory were only in grade school or younger at the time of the Dust Bowl. Nevertheless, their recollections are vivid. In those days of drought and depression, they watched their parents’ property get repeatedly covered by dust,  the rich topsoil for farming blown away forever, their livelihoods as farmers and store-owners go down the drain. Many children died of dust pneumonia.

Yet in the face of such extreme hardship and ecological disaster these survivors spoke, of all things, of…hope. Hope that the next harvest would be better, hope that the next day would bring rain, hope that the next year wouldn’t be as dusty. There were some mentions of intense anxiety, but mostly from the narrator and historians. However, those who survived mentioned hope more than anything else as what got their families through. One elderly man in the documentary looks at the camera and says matter-of-factly,  “We couldn’t live without hoping. Hope is what we lived on.”

"Migrant Mother" (by Dorothea Lange)
Hope and thanksgiving, you see, are intimately tied, and both are easily strangled by worry. One provides an honest view into the past—that there is something for which to be thankful—no matter how ominously the dust clouds roll in. There is always something we can point to which God has given for our good. The other, hope, provides an honest view into the future—that in spite of the hard times, in spite of the lack of even the most basic needs, God is moving us into something better and brighter, and that the brightness can even be brought by our own single light.

This, I believe, is our task at hand today as we gather around our tables today: to be thankful, yes, but also to be hopeful. And even when anxiety still gets the best of us, even if we despair, then let us not forget the thanksgiving and hope offered around this table (of the Lord). For it is here where anxiety was finally not allowed to rule the day, where worry and doubt and despair met their demise. And as Jesus lifted up the loaf and the cup, a new, unending hope was lifted up, too. It was the hope that although the dust clouds would roll in on Good Friday, a bright Easter morning still awaited them. It was the hope that although they would still worry and deny and betray and desert, God would still forgive and restore them. It is the hope that although we still go out weeping, carrying the very seeds we could eat today, we will come home in joy, shouldering the sheaves. It is the hope that although we still squander our resources and scar the earth and hurt our loved ones God is still giving, God is still giving.

It is the hope of feast to come that is richer and much more satisfying than the foretaste we receive today—yeah verily, richer and more satisfying than even our turkeys and cranberries provide: It is the hope provided by the fact that even when we look around and see our lives are nothing but a dusty mess, God has still given Jesus for it, and Jesus is still risen, promising it life. This will be the hope we live on, the sacrifice for which we give thanks.

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,” he says so reassuringly.

“Take and eat. Take and drink. This is my body, given for you.” He says that, too.

 Happy Thanksgiving.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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