November 27, 2013
Thanksgiving Eve service
• Deuteronomy 26:1-11
• Psalm 100
• Philippians 4:4-9
• John 6:25-35
Grace Lutheran Church, Lincoln
Do you remember how awesome Thanksgiving was when you were a kid? Well, I don’t know how it was for you, but for me, it was one of those days of the year when I got to stay home from school and tear around my grandparents’ house with my cousins and stuff myself silly with mashed potatoes and at least three kinds of dessert. At school, we made hand-turkeys and learned the story of the “first” Thanksgiving — the legendary 17th century feast shared by pilgrims and native Americans. The way we celebrated made life seem altogether wonderful, especially with the prospect of Christmas just around the corner.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that, for me, the charm of the holiday has faded a little. Don’t get me wrong, I still look forward to green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, and time with family — not necessarily in that order — but find I myself really turned off by certain aspects of the holiday. For starters, there’s the mass consumerism that seems to have invaded every aspect of the whole holiday season. It feels almost like Thanksgiving Day has been reduced to being Black Friday Eve, a superficial holiday wedged somewhere in between Halloween and Christmas. It’s also hard to be comfortable spending a whole day feasting, surrounded by people I love, when I know that so many people will go hungry today and so many are lonely, or separated from the people they love. Even the blessing of a day with family can bring its own tensions — for many people, the pressure of keeping up with tradition and expectation can really get in the way of just enjoying the day, let alone feeling gratitude. And for those who have experienced the loss of loved ones, seeing those empty places around the table tends to make us think less about what we have and more about what we’ve lost.
These are all the things that swam into my head as I sat down to start writing this sermon — all my cynicism about the holiday season. Then I read through the texts and Paul’s words from his letter to the Philippians leapt off of the page at me: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Oh. Right. Okay, Paul, fair enough — I suppose maybe I’m coming at this whole Thanksgiving thing from the wrong perspective.
Just because I feel bombarded by messages telling me I have to be grateful and happy this time of year, despite the fact that all is not right in the world, it doesn’t mean I should respond with exactly the opposite reaction. No, things aren’t perfect, or even the version of perfect I believed in as a child, but that doesn’t mean I have to give in to the cynical idea that everything is eventually terrible and trite. There must be a third way between focusing only on the negative in the name of realism, and over-romanticizing everything instead and ignoring the fact that we deal with very real problems. There is hunger, and there is poverty. There is loneliness and isolation. There is pain. There is the call of consumer culture telling us that all will be well if we just buy, buy, buy! But we don’t have to let any of that diminish our Thanksgiving. As Paul urges, we can devote our thoughts to what is honorable and worthy of praise, what brings us joy.
And in truth, acknowledging the darker parts of our lives doesn’t take anything away from these things that we do have to be grateful for — if anything, it adds to them. It’s not that the act of giving thanks changes any of our sadder realities, but it does change how we relate to these things. We can see this in the thanksgiving account in our reading from Deuteronomy. As part of their offering of the first fruits of their harvest, the Israelites give thanks to God and recite a brief narrative of their history:
“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. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”
The Israelites and their ancestors had seen terrible things — they had been enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians, who, by the way, ordered the slaughter of all male Hebrew children, and then they were made to wander homeless in the desert for years before finally being brought into the promised land. Who knows what feelings of grief and loss and disillusionment they were dealing with? Yet, they don’t gloss over any of these events in the re-telling of their story. Instead, the remembering of their dark and difficult past only serves to enrich their appreciation of the present. They honor the darkness and the brokenness of the world while celebrating the light, the good things that have come from God. The whole of their experience and their ancestors’ experience is knit together in this tapestry of sorrow and joy.
And through the telling of this history of their people, the Israelites are also tying their experiences — good and bad — into a much larger and older tradition of thanks-giving. They are taking their place in the story of God’s people. The Gospel-writer John does something similar with the story Jesus references about the loaves in our Gospel reading today. In his account of the feeding of the 5,000, John specifies that the loaves Jesus used were barley loaves. This evokes the story of the prophet Elisha feeding a hundred people with loaves of barley from a first fruits offering, hundreds of years before John. We do the exact same thing when we remember the gathering at Plymouth — as we recreate their harvest feast every year with similar kinds of foods.
The day-to-day trials and triumphs, disappointments, and joys of our lives don’t always make a lot of sense when we consider them on their own. Even going back a few hundred years to the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag indians at Plymouth doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Our whole story is the story of John and Elisha and Moses and Aaron and ancient Israel. It’s the story of Paul and the apostles, of Constantine, Gutenberg, Martin Luther, and Bach. It’s the story of slavery and liberation, of exile and persecution, of redemption and resurrection. And the thread that ties this whole story together into one is our relationship with God. With God, who has been present with us, God’s people, through hardship and tribulation, as well as celebration and joy.
I hope you’ll forgive me a little corniness, but Wednesday nights are usually the night that our stitching group “In Stitches” meets, and I promised them that I would find a way to work some knitting into my sermon. And actually, knitting is a great image for what we’re talking about tonight. A knitter uses a long, unbroken strand of yarn to form loops, or stitches, that come together to create a piece of fabric. No stitch stands on its own, but depends on the stitches around it to give it shape. And each individual stitch is important as part of the whole — as any knitter will tell you, dropping a stitch anywhere in a project is a recipe for big trouble down the line. Just like the story of our relationship with God, if we only consider a few stitches of the whole, they may not mean a whole lot to us. But if we take all the stitches together, from the cast-on row to the binding-off, we get something that is as warm and beautiful as it is useful. Just as it takes more than a few stitches to make a scarf, it takes more than a few people, or even a few generations, to build the relationship with God that we have.
So this Thanksgiving holiday, as you give thanks to God for the food you share and for the people you share it with, I invite you to consider the larger picture. Contemplate the good things for which you are thankful, as well as the not-so-good things that give depth and meaning to your gratitude. Consider your life — with its joys and sorrows — and how it fits into the long, unbroken story of God’s people. Think about and honor all the stitches that knit your life together.
I wish you all a very blessed and bountiful Thanksgiving.