November 24, 2014
Psalm 100, Colossians 3:12-17
Interfaith Thanksgiving Service
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Lansing
A Thanksgiving fable:
Behold, the preacher stepped to the pulpit, and one hundred faces looked up. And the preacher placed a lozenge on her tongue, so that her voice became sweet and oily. And smiling the smile of those who see but do not understand, she said “Let us give thanks.” One hundred voices murmured, “Amen.” But there was no joy in that “Amen.”
“Let us give thanks,” said the preacher, for the wholeness of our bodies, for legs that walk and run, for ears that hear birdsong and eyes that see the flower’s beauty.” And sadly, without a word, there arose the blind and deaf, the lame and those missing limbs. Behold, ten people made their way out of the sanctuary.
But the preacher continued and said, “Let us give thanks for our health, for robust lungs and muscles, for clear minds and strong hearts.” And there arose the sick and suffering, those with cancer and AIDS, those with heart disease and Alzheimers. Behold, ten more left the congregation.
But the preacher continued her rhapsody. “Let us give thanks for earthly benefits, for the comforts of this world that we enjoy.” And there departed the poor and the homeless, ten more.
But the preacher, her eyes raised in riveted contemplation of comfortable thoughts, saw none of this, and said, “Let us give thanks for home and hearth, for the loving families with whom we dwell.” And there departed from the sanctuary the rejected and the abused, the old man no one visited, the young girl who had disgraced the family name. In all, ten more.
The preacher persisted and said, “Let us give thanks for our friends.” And from the congregation there arose the forgotten and the painfully shy, the isolated and those considered odd. Quietly, ten more slipped away.
But the preacher, drawing from her lozenge comfort and unction, said, “Let us give thanks for our own loveliness, surely not supernatural beauty, but that which makes us graceful, appealing, good to be with.” And one who was obese and another losing her hair and a third with a sallow complexion, and seven more, arose and departed that place.
Yet still the preacher spoke: “Let us,” she said, “give thanks for our wonderful minds, through which we understand art and science, literature and history. And several people of average intelligence blushed, another looked bewildered and yet one more stared blankly. They all arose, ten of them, and walked to the door.
But the preacher, without a glance downward, almost sang as she said “Let us give thanks for our virtues, for our upright lives, our generosity, our self-discipline that make the path of life straight and smooth.” And those tortured by bad tempers, wracked by jealousy, made miserable by their fondness for drink or illicit love, were no longer part of that congregation.
But the preacher spoke on saying, “Let us give thanks for justice.” And the undocumented immigrant, the young black man from the inner city, the gay couple seeking a marriage license, and all others deprived of recourse to law, medicine and education - ten in number - left.
But the preacher said, “Let us give thanks for peace in our land.” And there departed the mother of a dead Marine, the refugee from Sudan and another from Afghanistan, the widow of a 9/11 firefighter, the cousin of a Guantanamo detainee, and other victims of war, genocide and civil unrest.
The preacher looked out on her congregation, and there was no one there. Her lozenge had melted. There was no more sweetness or oiliness to her voice. And she cried out, “O Lord, my Lord, where have they gone?”
Behold, a voice spoke from heaven, and it said: “Because you have exalted what I have not promised, and because the human heart knows easily the taste of bitterness, they have departed your congregation.
When have I promised wholeness of body, health or earthly comfort?
When have I promised unbroken bonds with family or friends, the continued possession of beauty, intelligence or virtue?
When have I told you that this world will always know justice and peace?
When have I promised an easy lot for my children?
And the preacher cried out, “Then, O Lord, what will you give us?” And the voice replied, “Myself.”
The preacher ran to the door and flung it open. There, sitting in the shadows, silent and with eyes cast down, were the one hundred. The preacher took out her box of lozenges and hurled them into the outer darkness. With a cracked voice she cried, “O my friends, I have deceived you! We may have health, we may have friends, we may have justice, but all we are sure of is God. And that is all that counts.”
A blind man wept. A friendless woman grasped her neighbor’s hand. The one denied justice knew that his struggles were worthwhile. And they all came back inside.
Behold the preacher stepped into the pulpit and to her one hundred faces looked up. The preacher said, “Let us give thanks that God is with us always.” And one hundred voices cried out, “Amen!” And there was joy in heaven.
Thanksgiving is not only for those whose lives are going well. In fact, genuine thankfulness has no direct correlation to abundance or to want. Prayers of thanks are offered over bread and water while feasts are consumed in oblivious indulgence. And vice versa: the banquet is received in gratitude while the crust of bread is swallowed in bitterness.
Nor should there be a direct correlation between gratitude and the number of one’s blessings. The “Count Your Blessings” exercise is helpful only if our gratitude applies to the blessing itself, not to the fact that we have more than others. One mealtime prayer familiar to those in my faith tradition asks, “Lord, make us grateful for this and all your bounty.” “Make us grateful”: perhaps that is the heart of the matter. God provides not only the food but also the grateful heart.
Enter the Temple gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and praise him. The writer of the Psalms knew sorrow. The psalmist’s people knew tragedy. But entering the Temple gates requires thanks-giving, an acknowledgement of dependence upon the One whose presence in times of plenty and times of want is all we need, and more.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 1Bear with one another and forgive each other. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And be thankful. Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.
I use this passage as often as I can in wedding ceremonies. Like weddings, it seems on the outside to be a beautiful picture: a community whose members are clothed in compassion, kindness, humility and patience. They are bound together in perfect harmony.
But of course, this cannot be true all of the time. No community is always like that, just as no married couple can always be like that.
Scratch the surface of the passage, just like scratching the surface of a marriage, and you will find more than a few less-than-beautiful things.
Times when forgiveness is necessary…a lot of times when forgiveness is necessary.
Moments, probably extended moments, when each must bear with the other.
Situations where admonishment is called for…but might not be well-received.
“Be thankful,” the author writes. Even in those times, especially in those times, we are to be grateful for divine presence in the midst of our struggles.
Rev. Bass Mitchell tells the story of the Thanksgiving meal he spent as a child with his new friend Kenny. Kenny had recently moved to town from a place called Massachusetts, which meant that he had a funny accent. But Bass and Kenny had other things in common: they both had three sisters, and were able to comfort one another in the midst of that suffering. They went to the same school; they both collected coins; they liked the same 5th grade girl.
At that Thanksgiving meal, they all went into the dining room. The table was set – plates, glasses, silverware, but no food. Not even a piece of bread. They all sat down and Bass noticed beside each empty plate a little pile of corn, five kernels to be exact. His first thought was “Kenny and his family are so poor!” His second thought was “I’m gonna starve!”
Then he saw Kenny’s father nod to his youngest daughter and she asked, “Father, why are there five pieces of corn beside our plates?”
Bass says he doesn’t remember exactly what Kenny’s father said. The gist of it was that the Pilgrim fathers and mothers faced many hardships when they came to America. He told them of the legend that says that that first winter they had so little food that each person was given only five kernels of corn per day to eat. The following fall, though, when the crops finally produced sufficient food, they celebrated for three days with the Native Americans who had taught them how to survive. The five pieces of corn were to remind them of the need to give thanks in all things and in all times.
Then Kenny’s father picked up a piece of corn and looked around at his family and told them, and God, just how thankful he was for them. He laid the piece of corn on the other side of the plate. Then Kenny’s mother took a kernel of corn and named something she was thankful for. They went around the table until they got to Kenny.
Kenny looked at me, Bass writes, and said that he was thankful for me, and what a good friend I had been to him, because when they moved here he didn’t think he would make any friends. I picked up a piece of corn and shared thanks for Kenny and his whole strange family, for I was beginning to like them all, even his sisters.
We went around the table until everyone had given thanks for five blessings, one for each piece of corn. After that, we went out to the kitchen and there laying on the counter were all kinds of food. What a relief!
There is a table here, too. Can you see it? Maybe if you close your eyes you will see it better. Each of us is seated around it. This table is big enough to hold all of us, and we have been invited to sit at this table together, even though we do not know each other well.
Some of us might have come here originally from far away. Some of us might have funny accents, and odd customs, and different families. If you scratch the surface you will find our more serious differences: our Scriptures, our worship styles, our conceptions of The Holy. If we spent more than one hour per year together, you can bet that we would find time when forgiveness was necessary; we would encounter people we found hard to bear; surely there would arise situations in which admonishment was necessary…and it would not be well-received.
For all of this, let us be thankful. For even in our struggles…no, especially in our struggles to live in community together…God is with us. All we are sure of is God. And that is all that counts.