Thursday, November 27, 2014

Day of Thanksgiving [Year A] - November 27, 2014 (Psalm 65

There's nothing like a having a day set aside for nationwide thanksgiving—a day which, perhaps more than any other, proclaims our unity as a people—preceded by two days of violent protests,  reminding us that not everyone experiences the blessings of this land the same or equally. Granted, the discrepancies between various components of American society are always there, especially when it comes to wealth and economic opportunity, but the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the “tumult of the peoples” in other cities and states have brought them into stark relief for us once again. The psalmist this morning says that “those who live at the earth’s farthest bounds are awed by [God’s] signs,” a sentiment which claims that God’s abundant goodness is so vast in its scope no one anywhere can deny it. Yet plenty have reason to, and we don’t have to go to earth’s farthest bounds to find them. They’re on our TV screens.

For many, Thanksgiving will be celebrated this year through the haze of tear gas and smoldering buildings, to say nothing of those whose lives and livelihoods have been so deeply affected by the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Indeed, emotions are running so high for so many people that it is even difficult to offer a simple observation about what is going on without raising the ire of someone, which only serves to prove the point that in so many ways we are a divided people.

Camille Pissarro "Women farming"
It is fitting, then, that before he begins listing the his descriptive examples of God’s bounty and generosity in things of the earth—the rivers that enrich it, the grain that feeds the people, the wagon tracks spilling over with the harvest---the writer of Psalm 65 begins with a reflection on God’s forgiveness. That is, before we sing of those wagon tracks that overflow, we confess that our sins overflow, and that God’s mercy overflows all the more. It is chiefly in pardon through the love of God’s Son on the cross where we begin to see God’s abundant giving.

Our eyes may then, in faith, be opened to the ways in which our whole lives are enriched by God’s presence, every dark and forsaken corner illuminated by Jesus’ mercy, and like the one Samaritan leper for whom that eye-opening happens, we can fall down in thanksgiving to praise God.

For the writer of Psalm 65, The thanksgiving for God’s mercy then develops into a realization that all human ingenuity and prosperity comes from God, that our blessings are not entirely of our own design, nor are they by accident. The psalmist’s images are agrarian in nature—the furrows and ridges of the grain fields, the flocks that blanket the hills—and may sound a bit foreign to us in the digital age.

"Grace" (Eric Enstrom, 1919)
A story is told of a farmer from the country was in the city to do some business. While there, he stopped at a diner to get a bite to eat. As was his custom, before he ate, he bowed his head to give a word of thanks to God. There were some other patrons in the restaurant who took notice of this bumpkin and his traditional, quaint ways. Once he was done praying they asked him in jest, “Does everybody where you come from pray before eating?”

The farmer looked up and said, “Nope. There are some who don’t. We call them pigs and they just dig in.” 

Yes, the connections between agriculture and God’s blessings in nature are often clear, but are we any less dependent on God’s goodness? The types of gifts that surround us today may not be immediately recognizable as coming from the earth that God so generously waters, but somewhere back at their source they still do. Those whose immediate prosperity is so closely tied to the annual harvest, are likely to be more aware of their vulnerability, especially if it were all to be taken away by bad weather or community strife. But in fact, we are all growing and succeeding as a result of God’s gift of a fertile earth, a cosmos that just happens to be perfectly tuned to harbor life, and the thoughtfulness of human hearts that are created to think of others.

Last week at one of the men’s lunch groups our discussion centered around people who we knew in high school who were especially gifted or talented at something and then what they did later in life. Did they manage to make much of themselves? Had they recognized their blessings and used them in such a way to bring success? As we were sharing our stories, one among us told a story about a kid in grade school who had nothing. His family was poor, and he showed up to school every day without any lunch. A particularly venerable teacher, named Ms. Loving, spent some of her own money every day to get the kid something to eat. Years later, long after he had graduated from school and settled across the country to make a name for himself in Hollywood that student, Forrest Tucker, sent a check to Ms. Loving for $1000.

Abbotts' Farm, Mt Lebanon, PA
Yet returning thanks as a follower of Christ means more than following through with our gratitude to the Great Giver. It also involves following through with the mindfulness of others’ needs. Our thanksgiving to God is fullest  when we receive the generous blessings of paid-for lunches, valleys bedecked with ample grain and remember that they are not for us alone. They are for sharing, collecting and distributing so that all may take part in the bounty.

“God is able,” the apostle Paul calmly explains to the wayward congregation in Corinth who is trying to go it alone, “to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” Yes, it is even those who live at the earth’s farthest bounds who will, through our thanksgiving, sense awe and wonder by God’s signs of generosity.

In our truest thanksgiving we come to understand not just God’s largess but also our interconnectedness. We pray that God give us our daily bread, not me my daily bread. We are inspired to see a universe that the psalmist envisions: where God’s desire to give and provide and especially forgive is always the root, the genesis of all good. And, furthermore, he whose actions toward us are even more loving than Ms. Loving: always bigger than our failure to follow through.

sorting donations of school supplies
This year’s celebration is as good a one as any to remember the importance of framing all of our thanks with a recognition that the only way we come before the Lord to say anything at all is by his great mercy, his great love. Therefore, before we launch in with our declarations on how good the past year may have been for us personally or even as a nation we start with an honest confession of human selfishness and our need for Jesus’ mercy. As we gather to partake of good food and cherished family memory-sharing, let our thoughts fall to those who still feel ostracized as well as those who struggle to keep us safe in this great land.

Likewise, before we become too obsessed with our differences and our divisions, before we become too glum about the things we argue about and the way some things never seem to change, let also remember that, as the psalmist also says, to God all flesh—black, white, illegal immigrant and permanent resident—shall one day, by the grace of Christ, come.

And, for that, give great thanks.


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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