The following sermon was given by The Rev. Susan Schneider at a Thanksgiving Eve service celebrated jointly by the neighboring congregations of Trinity and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Madison on November 28, 2013. The Rev. Ken Smith presided.
I am so grateful for this festival of gratitude and for the privilege of being able to share it with all of you! Maybe it smacks of big government, but I just love that our country has declared an official day when the whole nation is supposed to be thankful. To some of you it might feel kind of Hallmark-y and fake that we are mandated to be grateful—like your mom making you write thank you notes for all those hideous sweaters you got for Christmas as a kid—but still, I appreciate the required Sabbath from our normal lives to pay attention to our blessings.
There is a temptation to think that the tradition of giving thanks at harvest time was the invention of Native Americans and pilgrims in this country about 250 years ago—and certainly our way of celebrating a national day of Thanksgiving here in the U.S. is flavored (literally) by that portion of our nation’s history. But it’s not the whole story. There have been harvest festivals of thanks as far back and as far away as the nomadic desert people of in the book of Deuteronomy.
Tonight’s Old Testament reading describes a celebration very much like this one—strangers and friends gathering together to worship and to eat, offering up tangible signs of God’s generosity, and retelling stories about God’s deliverance in the past! After all, the word “Eucharist” means “Thanksgiving,” and it is the heart of this and of all of our worship services.
But it seems that we focus on the feast-sharing part of the celebration when we recall the early American Thanksgiving. We picture Native Americans and illegal European immigrants collaborating to serve a harvest feast made from what they each could provide, and then sitting down together to share it. Perhaps the real gift wasn’t the bountiful harvest, but the willingness of people from differing cultures, languages, religions, customs and values to put aside all that separated them from each other in order to share a meal together. That’s a blessing worth remembering! Would that such a miracle might happen again this country, at Thanksgiving or any time!
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in this country—Republicans, Democrats, liberals, independents, conservatives, undocumented residents, citizens, Muslims and Christians and Buddhists and athiests, and people of every skin color and language and age and gender and sexual preference—would all give up their mutual fears and frustrations with each other for just a single moment? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could all share a second of pure, undiluted appreciation for the gifts we have been given collectively in this nation? Wouldn’t that be a sign of God’s kingdom come?
Ah, but such a moment would require all of us acknowledging that what separates us is small potatoes compared to what unites us: the truth that we are all utterly dependent upon one another. That the earth is God’s and all that is in it. That God’s abundance is not meant to be possessed by some and withheld from others. That we are only caretakers for a short time of whatever we find in our hands. In order for such a moment of pure gratitude and togetherness to take place, we would have to give up that quintessential American idea that people get what they deserve.
Bart Simpson, that perfect example of adolescent rebellion, offered this table grace before a meal once on The Simpsons: “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” Homer and Marge were appalled, but Bart’s shocking prayer exposes some pretty basic American attitudes, I think, even though they might not be expressed so starkly by most of us.
There is a sense in this country that if people have enough, it’s because we have been prudent with our money; we’ve worked hard, spent sparingly, invested wisely, and saved carefully. If we have enough to provide a feast for our families this weekend, it’s because we’ve been reliable stewards of what we have been given. There is also a counter-assumption that if we don’t have enough, if we are poor or struggling, it’s because we’ve been lazy or stupid or greedy with what we’ve earned. If we’re having trouble making ends meet it’s because we haven’t tried hard enough or shown ourselves to be worth much. There is sense that people who are well-off are worthy of respect, and people who are not, don’t matter. There is nothing Biblical about this way of viewing ourselves or one another.
The reason that our Biblical ancestors share family stories as a part of their Thanksgiving festival is to acknowledge and remind each other that catastrophes like slavery or loneliness or illness come upon us all. They don’t come to some people as a punishment from God any more than the blessings of freedom and plenty are signs of God’s favor. Bible thanksgiving is not about appreciating how hard we’ve worked to achieve what we have. It is not a ceremony in which we express gratitude that we possess a substantial amount of stuff by which we know that we are special and important. Biblical Thanksgiving is an occasion for recalling how hard God has worked, to thank God for being faithful to us and generous with us through thick and thin. It is a time for rejoicing that God cares for us through the good times and the bad times. It is a time to recall that God provides not only physical bread to sustain us, but also everything else besides. Most of all, we are gifted with a meaningful, powerful, and deep relationship between Creator and creation.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus cautions the crowd, who is all excited because they just witnessed Jesus feeding a multitude with just a tiny bit of bread and a couple of fish, that there’s more to a bountiful life than feeling full in our bellies. If we are to live abundantly–which is the way God designed us to live–we do need enough to eat and drink, yes. But more than that, we need connection and hope and faith. We need to know that our individual stories and the ups and downs within them, are part of bigger story. God’s story is one that always bends toward compassion and wholeness and healing for every particle of the universe.
Jesus reminds the crowd that regular food rots eventually. Our own fortunes can turn just as quickly. A millionaire can become a pauper when a storm decimates his farm or his health or his hedge fund. A beggar can become a wealthy person when she uncovers a long-lost antique in her attic or designs a popular toy. Neither wealth nor poverty, plenty nor lack, are expressions of fluctuation in God’s concern for that person. God loves every single one of us, and wants all of our lives to be overflowing with whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. And in Jesus, God enfleshes this dream. Jesus is God embodied among us, so in love with us that he gives away his very self for our sake.
So this weekend, whether you are overflowing with thanks for every blessing or are having trouble feeling grateful for what’s going on in your life, know that God is with you. And God is going to stay with you, come hell or high water. Literally. God cares for you. And God cares for the people who are experiencing exactly the opposite of what you are right now too. God who heard the cries of the enslaved Israelites and provided a way through the pain into freedom. And God still hears the cries of those who mourn, and provides a way through the suffering.
Let us all humbly acknowledgement that it is not our own strength and wisdom that pushes us through the tough times, but that we are saved by God’s own generosity. And let us all enthusiastically remember that Jesus is the Bread of Life, and his everlasting care for us will not diminish over time or distance or neglect or forgetfulness or even outright meanness. Instead, the Bread of Life nourishes and sustains us, giving us abundantly more than we could think to ask, and empowering us to share God’s beautiful gifts with all the friends and strangers we will ever meet. Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider