|Israelites gather manna in the desert (Nicholas Poussin)|
Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor has said, “We live by a series of gifts, not by what we earn,” and if there is ever day to reflect on that, Thanksgiving Day would be it. We may make a living by what we earn—what our paychecks or social security disbursements provide—but our lives are actually built and then buoyed along by an unending string of outbursts of God’s grace, none of which we purchase and many of which we never even take note of. It is this grace that gets us through this life more than anything else: the phone call from a friend at the right time…the doctor who gives perfect counsel…the second chance at a job interview…the aging parent who winds up in the perfect nursing home facility because her son spent extra time researching it all…and yet it is so easy to chalk them all up to chance or karma. Really, they are gifts from the Giver.
And when we look at the stories contained in Scripture, this fact becomes even clearer. Our forebears’ lives are case after case of people being given just what they need in order to make it, often against insurmountable odds, and almost always in spite of the fact they don’t deserve it. That is, for example, the main point of the manna which God gives the Israelites as they trudge through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They receive just enough to sustain them each day, one day at a time. The stuff literally drops from the sky. They live by a series of gifts, not by what they earn.
Perhaps no one was more aware of God’s series of gifts than the apostle Paul, who lived so many of his days persecuted as a follower of Jesus. From city to city, from congregation to congregation he journeyed, running into trouble with local authorities who wanted to suppress his message and getting himself imprisoned on more than one occasion. And yet, rather than becoming bitter or downcast, Paul exudes joy throughout his life, thankful for the string of gifts that somehow get him from one day to the next.
This is especially evident in his letter to the Philippians. In prison and unable to be with his beloved congregation, he writes to them a heartfelt letter literally bubbling over with joyfulness. The Philippians, themselves, seem to be going through some kind of a rough time. It’s unclear exactly what their malfunction is, but Paul knows that having them concentrate on the series of gifts that are certainly around them—the morsels of manna God has mysteriously thrown around on the ground—is the antidote to their woes. No matter what is going on or how badly the main mission is faring, they can always find something for which they can be thankful. In fact, he lists them like a series of gifts, clues as to where to find this string of grace. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…If there is any excellence…think on these things,” he reminds them.
And, so, for this Thanksgiving, I thought it might be fun to heed Paul’s advice. Perhaps it’s been a rougher year than usual for you. Perhaps the recent and ongoing political developments has you on edge, like so many others. Perhaps your faith in God has been challenged this year like never before for other reasons you’ve not really shared with anyone. Whatever the case, it is good to remember those pure and commendable series of gifts which are there, those things by which our journeys are sustained. Here I will offer just a few from within the life of this congregation.
“Whatever is honorable”: It is hard to think of things more honorable serving one’s country in the armed forces. This congregation currently has four members in active duty military, one of whom will be soon serving overseas. At a time when it could be so easy for these young men to begin a life for themselves and follow their own paths they’ve chosen to serve and protect our nation. We are grateful that they have made this honorable decision, and we’re thankful that they come to worship with us so often when they’re home on leave.
“Whatever is just”: For the word “just,” think “righteous,” “upright,” and “honest.” I think of our volunteers through the Micah Initiative who are assisting the teachers and staff of Southhampton Elementary School be upright and honest role models in the lives of their students. One woman spends one day a week helping four-year-olds learn how to write their name, four-year-olds who don’t even know how draw a straight line yet or understand the word “trace,” but she sits their patiently, encouraging them to practice, over and over. I think of the honesty of the conversations between our Stephen Ministers and their care-receivers, who share very personal thoughts and concerns with each other and are careful to do so very confidentially.
|volunteers for Micah Initiative|
“Whatever is pure”: My mind goes to a member of this congregation who had to drop everything earlier in the year to rush out of state to be by her critically ill mother in ICU. As the week wore on, it looked like her mother might me rebounding. As she was checking out of the hotel where she had stayed for a week she got a call from the hospital informing her that her mother had just failed two breathing tests. She had taken a sudden turn for the worse. Exhausted and overcome with emotion, she began to break down right there at the counter, a line of people behind her. The clerk noticed what was happening, came out from behind the desk, and embraced her. She said a prayer for her right there in the lobby in front of everyone. It was a moment of pure, innocent grace that got her through the day.
I think of all the pure, loving care that our volunteers give at every funeral reception, the women who call and email asking for food to be made and dropped off, the people who keep the kitchen clean and functional. Care extended to the bereaved at the death of a loved one is perhaps the purest, most holy form of Christian care, and we have many people willing to serve in this capacity.
“Whatever is pleasing:” The music programs of this congregation have filled the year with pleasing sounds and expressions of faith. A new baby grand piano, donated by a family in the congregation, and a new harpsichord broaden our ability to praise God and enhance congregational singing. Our choirs and handbell ensembles volunteer so much of their time to lead worship at multiple services, typically attending all three services on Easter morning. The Cherub Choir and singing saints light up many faces in the congregation, something I get to see from my vantage point. The talents of instrumentalists and soloists within our ranks is something to marvel at, whether it is oboists, or flutists, or people playing percussion. But many would find most pleasing the talents of our youngest musicians whom Kevin invites to play during preludes and postludes. A congregation that encourages such diverse levels of gifts is truly lovely for the praise of God.
“Whatever is commendable:” We have a young adult serving on a mission team in South Africa. Council has registered three people for seminary study. Members of the youth group planned their own service project on their own this past spring without any adult suggestion or guidance, but because they felt like it. We have three members serving on the boards of Synod institutions, and a few other members who serve on boards of local service organizations. Another member has developed a curriculum, complete with tools, that can be used to adapt confirmation instruction to a child with special needs.
The list could go on, but suffice it to say there is much among us that is worthy of praise. God’s grace has rained from the sky like manna, allowing this congregation to continue its witness. These things worthy of praise are occasions of the food that endures for eternal life. They are examples of Christ, the bread of life, present in and with us. Nurturing and sustaining us far beyond our physical needs, they are all reflections of the way our Father comes down from heaven to give life to the world. For what is really true, what is deeply honorable, what is most just, pure, pleasing and commendable is the life that Christ leads for us as he takes his own body and blood and sheds them for the forgiveness of sins.
Thanksgiving is our response when our faith grasps this truth, just as the Israelites’ fingers grasped the manna God showered around, just as our own hands grasp the bread and the wine offered at his table of plenty. We live by a series of gifts, not by what we earn, and Jesus invites us, once again, to that table. We certainly didn’t deserve our seat there, but he knows our hunger is real. He understands the thirst that we sometimes try to deny we even have. Let us gather, lifting up today all that we have seen that is true, all that is honorable, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is pleasing, all that is excellent.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.