A sermon offered on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; and Matthew 6:25-33. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)
This morning, after I took the dog for her walk and poured a cup of coffee, I turned on my computer and found a message from my friend Melania, who is from Naples but is currently working in Spain. We were students together in Ireland. This is her message:
“Thanksgiving” has always been my favorite American festival. If we remembered to be thankful for someone or something everyday, we would definitely live better! Don’t miss any opportunity to tell people how grateful you are for them! Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my dear American Friends and acquaintances out there!
Isn’t that lovely? That someone from another country would take the time to send greetings on what is a quintessentially American holiday?
There are a lot of myths surrounding Thanksgiving and we’re all familiar with them . . . the story of English pilgrims escaping religious persecution, their landing at Plymouth Rock, the help they received from the Native Americans, and so on and so forth. Do you know when Thanksgiving actually was made a holiday? 1863. By President Abraham Lincoln. It has more to do with the Civil War and the preservation of the Union than it does with our colonial origins. But it is, as I said, a quintessentially American holiday.
It is a day when we pause to give thanks for the abundance this nation enjoys, the abundances the prophet Joel describes and promises in the Old Testament lesson this morning. It is a day, too, when we reflect on our country’s beginnings, its original, aspirational ideals, and the social progress that has made here and that we have fostered in other places . . . but also a day on which we have to acknowledge our history and the on-going reality of brutal conflicts, of ethnic and racial oppression, of economic disparity here and abroad. It is a day when we must acknowledge that, despite Jesus’ assurance that we need not worry about food or drink or clothing or housing, there are many in this world who must worry about such things on a daily basis.
Another thing I did this morning was catch up on my daily news and blog reading. One of the websites I frequently visit is the On Being blog. On Being is a Sunday morning NPR show hosted by Krista Trippet, a religion journalist. She interviews someone each Sunday morning (at least that’s with our local station broadcasts the show) about their religious and spiritual life. She and several others keep a related blog and today I read a piece by Courtney E. Martin about being thankful. This is her conclusion:
[G]ratitude is not just about empty platitudes or forced dinner table exercises. It’s about marveling. It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do. It’s about natural science and human anatomy. It requires, above all else, slowing down and noticing and letting yourself be astonished. (Courtney E. Martin, The Sensory Astonishment of Gratitude)
“It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do.” It’s about sharing that astonishment. I think that may be what the biblical command for justice is all about: it’s about sharing astonishment. Only those who live in a just world, who are not suffering from hunger, fear, oppression, illness, warfare, or the myriad other brutalities of injustice can marvel at the grace and beauty of this world. If we are to share our astonishment with others, especially with those for whom worry about food, drink, clothing, or housing is daily a matter of survival, we must put an end to injustice. If Joel’s prophecy of threshing floors full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil so that all “shall eat in plenty and be satisfied” is to be a reality, it is up to us to make it so.
The stole I’m wearing this morning is the one you all gave me when I was installed as Rector here at St. Paul’s Parish. It was made by vestment creator Lynn Ronkainen of Houston, Texas, a long-time friend of mine and is embroidered with a verse from the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Am 5:24)
I think that may be my third favorite verse from the Old Testament prophets. The first is from Isaiah and is inscribed on a wall at the United Nations Plaza in New York City: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isa 2:4 KJV)
The second is from the end of book of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)
When these prophets speak of peace and justice, I believe they are calling us to share our gratitude with others, to witness to that marvel and astonishment about which Ms. Martin wrote, and to what is necessary to make it possible for others to feel it as well.
This year that may seem more difficult that it usually is, and it’s often difficult enough. This year, with the killings in Paris and Beirut, the bombing of the Russian airliner, with the rise “ISIS” (or “Da’esh” as I am told we should call it) and its particular brand of Islamism of jihadism (whatever you want to call it – it’s not Islam but some terrible mutant creature that claims to be Muslim), with the Syrian civil war and the massive refugee crisis stemming from it, with rising sea levels and changing climate whatever its root cause may be, with economic disparity here at home even though unemployment has improved and many still struggling to meet their basic needs, with all of that . . . sharing gratitude and witnessing to astonishment just seems difficult.
Nonetheless, as we gather around our Thanksgiving Day tables, as we say our prayers of thanksgiving and enjoy our abundance, we need to ask ourselves: What can we do between this Thanksgiving Day and next to help those who are hungry, those who are homeless because of war, those who are oppressed and down-trodden by the brutalities of this world? What can we do to allow them to share our astonishment? What can we do so that they, too, can offer thanks?
That may seem to be a downer on this day of gratitude and celebration; it may seem an overwhelming task. But remember the words of a gloss on that verse from Micah. It is sometimes referenced to the Talmud, sometimes to the First Century sage Rabbi Tarfon; I don’t really know the source, but I think it filled with wisdom: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” As my friend Melania said, “If we remembered to be thankful for someone or something everyday, we would definitely live better!” Share your astonishment! Work for justice! There is no better way to give thanks.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.