Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sermon from the Greater Concord Interfaith Service

If you are anything like me later today you will gather with friends and family and you will stuff yourself with Turkey, potatoes, squash and pie.
If you’re anything like me you will watch football in a slightly hazy state as we try to recover from eating too much.
It seems that Thanksgiving is a very odd holiday.
It is a holiday based on the very American idea of overeating and over consuming.
In America we have a very odd relationship with food.
We seem on the one hand to be a nation that over eats.
And on the other hand we seem to be a nation obsessed with staying thin.
We spend millions of dollars a year trying not to eat.
And then we have a whole holiday based on the idea that we are too eat as much as possible.
I know that when I sit down at the table at Thanksgiving my plate is over filled.
This can not be the value and meaning in Thanksgiving.
It can not be simply about over eating and watching football.
I have been trying to find not just the worldly meaning of Thanksgiving but the deeper spiritual meaning of this holiday that seems to be based on the not so spiritual idea of over consuming.
For we are people of faith and we have to not simply accept this holiday as the world tells us, but to look behind the curtain to draw out some real meaning and value in Thanksgiving.

I would like to start looking for meaning at the very first Thanksgiving.
When I was a kid after we watched the Thanksgiving Day parade, my sisters and I had to go to our rooms and prepare a presentation about the history and meaning of Thanksgiving.
Most of the time we would give this report:
in 1621, after a very hard first year in the New World, Pilgrims, who had fled England because of religious persecution, got together with their Native neighbors and celebrated God’s goodness with a big feast.
This is the basic Thanksgiving story that we all know.
However, as I grew up I began to understand that the real history of our nation and this holiday is not so serene.
The truth is that those settlers eventually would isolate and kill those same natives that had helped them survive in the new world.
The truth is that those same pilgrims would turn their new experiment of God’s kingdom into a place of intolerance and fear.
So this basic story that I believe is an attempt to tell us the real value of Thanksgiving is somewhat tainted by the actual history that took place.
However, the story of the first thanksgiving I believe is informative, and has something to tell us about the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
I think it is important to say that this first Thanksgiving story is not about true historical account of the events.
History is often a more complex set of events then we give it credit for.
Historical events are neither purely good nor purely bad, but are often a combination of these two extremes, the truth is often somewhere in the middle.
So it is with the history of Thanksgiving.
What is more important then historical accuracy however is the myth of the Thanksgiving story.
What that story attempts to do is tell us about who we want to be as a nation and as a people.
The Thanksgiving story tells us about what is truly meaningful to our lives.
Here is the meaning that I believe we get from the Thanksgiving story.
We want to be people that live in harmony with our neighbors.
We want to have a bountiful harvest that benefits all members of the community.
We want all people to feel welcomed.
We want to live in a land that is tolerant of different religious beliefs.
And finally we want to acknowledge that all our gifts are not something we earn but are gifts from our creator.

Ingrained in our Thanksgiving celebration is the idea that all of the gifts we have in life are not of our making, but gifts from our creator.
As people of faith we understand that the food that we eat on Thanksgiving comes from God.
It was God, our creator, who made the land that produces fruits and vegetables for our consumption.
It was God who created us with enough brains and brawn to be able to take the natural world and make it produce food for our nourishment.
Food is a gift to us from God.
So too are the other blessings we have in life.
Our families, that give us unconditional love, are gifts that we did not earn nor that we deserve.
Our jobs are gifts that God has given us so we can support our families and serve our neighbors.

One of the things in life that I always struggle with is why I have all of these blessings.
Why do I have such a loving family while other people are sitting at home alone?
Why do I have so much food, that I have to throw some of it out because I can’t possibly eat it all, while other people starve?
Why do I have the pleasure of being a pastor while others can not find their calling in life?
Some people might say that I have these things because I have earned them.
Some people might say that because I am religious and I have been faithful to God therefore God has rewarded my good work by giving me blessings.
However, this assumption fails because we all know people that are faithfully religious people who suffer from something in life.
I know people that grew up in the church, went to church every week, served on the church boards, prayed every day and who died alone and penniless.
This way of thinking also makes God seem very twisted and unjust.
Are we trying to say that God chooses who eats and who does not, based on religious attendance?
The truth is that we have enough food in the world so that tomorrow everyone could eat enough.
But I believe we have limited imaginations and a limited vision that allows us to justify living in a world where people starve in the midst of abundance.
There is a great Gospel song sung by James Cleveland that in essence says, “I am glad man does not control the sun, because I would get none. I am sure glad men do not control the rain, because I would never feel it on my face.”
What that song is saying is that God provides and human beings horde and take away.
It is our own human weakness or own brokenness that allows people to horde the gifts of God.

God does not reward us for Good behavior by giving us more food at the expense of others, but God does provide the food.
And that is the point, by realizing that God provides the food and our other blessings we can see that it is not our hard work that gives those things but that it is God.
God has also provided that food to those that we believe do not deserve it.
Understanding where our gifts come from hopefully makes us all understand our common humanity.
If all the blessings of life come from God, our creator and sustainer, then maybe we can see that there is no hierarchy of people.
There are no people that are better then other people.
There is no one that is more deserving of food then other people.
Rich people are not rich because of hard work and ingenuity,
they are rich because they are able to manipulate the gifts God gives to all people to benefit a few.
Poor people are not poor because they are lazy they are poor because we have not shared the bounty of God’s table.
When we gather for Thanksgiving later today, let us not forget what we are doing at that table.
We are not merely stuffing ourselves at the expense of other people in the world, but we are acknowledging our own fragile existence.
We are saying in essence, “There but the grace of God go I”
We are doing what I think our Thanksgiving story suggests we should do on Thanksgiving.
We are recognizing our common human bond.
We are celebrating that our human community is a fragile thing that needs a greater power to help us survive one November to the next.
We are celebrating not our individual accomplishments, but our collective understanding of our human predicament.

Maybe Abraham Lincoln, who reinstated the practice of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, during the Civil War, said it best, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United states, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverance and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, and sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

Let us take President Lincoln’s advice and remember our common desire for peace and justice.
Let us remember at this Thanksgiving the many blessings we have.
And let us use this as an opportunity to see our common unity.
The need for the entire world to be fed clothed and loved.
Let us be resolved to see ourselves as not only as the blessed, but also able to give blessings by sharing the abundance of gifts that God has given us.
Let us not divide our common humanity into subdivisions of us versus them, but remember we are one community united by our fragile broken selves in need of God.

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