It came as a bit of surprise to me when I read the gospel lesson
commended for this year’s Thanksgiving reflection.
Here it is, Thanksgiving week.
I expected to see something about giving thanks, about GRATITUDE.
Instead, we get this story of ANXIETY
from the gospel of John.
Jesus followers were, well, following Jesus.
He had been teaching them, as he does
and this disciples were helping him, as they do.
Jesus had just fed the crowds. Five Thousand plus, they say.
It was a miracle. Baskets of fish and bread left over.
The people had settled in for the night, to rest, to recover.
All was balanced. Settled.
Then there is a disruption.
Jesus crossed the lake, on his own.
The disciples crossed a rough sea to be with him.
And that crowd….they woke up and found their teacher and his entourage gone.
This was before the days of texting
When you could let people know you’ve slipped away to buy some bread at the store.
So we have this story:
A worried people, searching for Jesus.
They find him.
They ask him where he’d gone.
And we have this teaching about God providing for us
About our need not to work for things that perish
But about lasting things, important things,
Things like justice and love and righteousness
That mark this realm of God that Jesus has come to proclaim.
Not just when we’re feeling safe.
Not just when all things are tied up and neatly secure.
Jesus was teaching about God providing for us and our needs, all the time.
In good times. And in challenging times.
I am the bread of Life…Jesus says.
You learned I could address your actual hunger,
back on the other side of the stormy sea
But here, know that I will always be there for you
So you will never hunger for love, for acceptance, for a caring heart again…
It’s a great story.
Just one question, you might ask:
What does that have to do with turkey and pumpkin pie?
Well, not so much, you might argue.
I’m betting that most here have heard a Thanksgiving sermon
that goes something like this:
we are blessed, in so many ways, with material things,
with health, and security,
loving friends and family;
therefore we should give thanks to God for all these blessings,
when so many are not as lucky;
and we should share what we’ve been given with others.
Nothing in there, not really, about anxiety, or worry.
Nothing about our ability or inability to actually be thankful.
In other words, as I’ve heard it expressed, a thanksgiving sermon
should be about this: thanksgiving really just equals “thanks” plus “giving.”
Now, I’ve preached that sermon, or some variation thereof, myself.
And all of those things are true: we are truly blessed, my goodness, so fortunate
especially here in the United States.
We should give thanks to God for those blessings, and we should share
what we’ve been given with others. No question in my mind about that.
I’m just not sure that’s what true “thanksgiving” is about, though, or what its for.
I can’t help but hear, and cringe at, all those “SHOULDS”.
What we SHOULD feel. What we SHOULD do. How we SHOULD respond.
But, there’s a lot of guilt in there.
Somehow, being told what I should do, makes me feel a bit guilty,
rather resentful, more than a little recalcitrant.
Here’s the thing: nothing in church is about guilt.
Nothing: other than God’s forgiveness and God freeing us from it.
Thanksgiving is no different.
I don’t believe that thanksgiving, or as we could call it,
the spiritual practice of gratitude,
is something we “should” do.
Gratitude is something we “get to” do!
Practicing gratitude, I believe, is one of the most helpful and profound ways
of deepening our relationship with God,
of recognizing God’s presence and activity in our life.
of growing our intimacy with God,
of not allowing our anxieties and our worries to cripple us
from the work we actually need to be about.
And its PARTICULARLY important during days like these
Days of anxiety and worry and discord
Have you felt it, all around you?
People who are worried about our future,
or their safety,
Or the fabric of our communities.
There will be sermons to come about
How we as people of faith can spread God’s love and God’s concern for justice.
How we have work to do.
But Today: We’re INVITED to practice gratitude,
not because it makes God feel good to be thanked
but because it is GOOD for US.
It transforms us. It prepares us for the work of being God’s people.
John Buchanan, the now retired Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago,
talked about the importance of Gratitude this way:[i]
Gratitude is, after all, at the very heart of our faith,
the fundamental Christian emotion.
Gratitude, the theologians have always said,
is the basic human RESPONSE
to the goodness and mercy of God
and to grace,
God’s undeserved and unconditional love.
At the heart of Christian experience and teaching is not guilt,
as we have sometimes been taught;
as we occasionally conclude and teach;
but gratitude, pure and simple
—gratitude for God’s grace,
gratitude because all of life, all of it,
is a gift that we did not earn but were given.
Or, as the Apostle Paul would write:
Rejoice in the Lord always;
Again I will say, Rejoice!…
Do not worry about anything,
But in everything
By prayer and supplication
With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the PEACE of God,
Which surpasses ALL understanding
Will GUARD your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…
But how do we get there? How do we practice Gratitude?
How do we become always thankful, even in these days?
How do we get there without having all those SHOULDs placed upon us?
But instead having it as something that FREES us, LIBERATES us?
The more I thought about this scripture passage of John, the more I realized
how much of Jesus’ words really do have to do with thanksgiving.
Let me offer two thoughts for you to take with you this morning.
The first is this: Nothing prevents thanksgiving more than anxiety.
When we have anxious hearts, we find it extremely difficult to be thankful.
I’m not talking here about depression, about mental illness
Which demands compassion and medical care and our pastoral care,
And I’m not talking about our honest-to-goodness societal problems
That we all can work on with the cool light of reason and divine love for all.
I’m talking about our tendency to obsess over everyday worries.
Aches and Pains and Budgets and Relationships. Slights and snubs.
We all have this tendency.
But I’ve noticed that
When we are only preoccupied with what is disturbing us,
It is hard to note the good things around us, too.
It is harder to be thankful.
Someone once said:
“Worry is a species of myopia—nearsightedness.”
When we are worried about these things, we can’t SEE anything
Except THE THING that worries us.
We can’t SEE the big picture.
Indeed, anxiety becomes a vicious cycle for us.
How much truth there is in that old Peanuts cartoon
that shows Charlie Brown looking very grim?
Linus says, “You look kinda depressed.”
“Well,” Charlie Brown replies, “I worry about school a lot.”
Then he adds, “I worry about my worrying so much about school.”
Then, as he and Linus sit together on a log, he makes a final observation:
“Even my anxieties have anxieties.”
That’s often the way it is with us, isn’t it?
We get so caught up in all the problems of life,
and each one seems to lead to another until we are overwhelmed.
I heard a wonderful story,
first told by Eugene Kennedy,
professor Emeritus of Psychology at Loyola University in Chicago.
Some years ago, there was a nation-wide government-shutdown in Italy.
One result was that mail began to pile up in all the Italian post offices.[ii]
In one particular central post office,
it was so bad that you couldn’t even walk through the building.
Papers and Packages were stacked up wall to wall.
Something had to be done!
So the postmaster gave the order.
He called a scrap paper company:
They came and carted it all away.
Every last scrap, GONE, to the recycling bin.
Now many of us would find that a TERRIBLE solution!
What about all the important stuff that might have been there?
The Italians, however, had a different view.
They have a great word: ARRANGIARSI (ARRANG-I-ARE-SI).
It means something like, “You do the best you can.”
Oh, sure, there were bills that didn’t get delivered,
and payments that didn’t get made.
There was bad news that didn’t get conveyed,
and junk mail that never got to its eager recipient.
The sad thing is that there might have been poignant notes not conveyed
Important contracts not delivered.
The point, though, for Professor Kennedy, when he told this story
is that the world didn’t fall apart
because all those very important pieces of paper got hauled away.
Italy survived. People survived.
The important documents, many of them, recreated.
Accommodations were made for the national strike.
Worrying about all that mail wouldn’t have gotten you anywhere…
There are some big things for us to work on in our land.
That is true.
And none of this is about that.
Truth be told, most of us sweat the small stuff.
The sort of things that turn out to be unimportant in the big scheme of things.
Reformer Martin Luther thought through these things, himself.
In his small catechism, he mentions the following:
“God provides me with food and clothing,
home and family, daily work, and all I need from day to day.
God also protects me in time of danger and guards
me from every evil.”
If we REALLY believe that, then what do we have to worry about?
Focus on the worries, and you simply won’t be able to see the big picture.
And so you’ll find it hard to be thankful,
because nothing prevents thanksgiving like anxiety.
And since we’re talking about Luther,
there is this Luther quote, one of my favorites:
“While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer,” Luther said,
“the gospel runs its course.”
What he meant was simply that God is in control.
The course of the gospel didn’t depend on Luther doing everything right,
or working 24 hours a day, or taking care of every detail.
That was all in God’s hands.
Luther could do his work, we must do our work, and there is work to do!
But know that all that is in God’s hands will be handled just fine.
So that’s the first proposition: Nothing prevents thanksgiving quite like anxiety.
Here’s the other: Nothing prevents anxiety quite like thanksgiving.
Think about that for a minute:
When we have grateful hearts, when we GET TO practice gratitude,
we have the very best immunization against anxiety and fear.
When we can take what comes in stride
And set about the business of celebrating our gifts and using them
In ways that feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted
Challenge the unjust, welcome the stranger
When we get to do THAT…how much more will we have to celebrate!
Nothing prevents anxiety quite like thanksgiving.
You can see this in the very origins of this national holiday of ours.
There are many versions of how we
first began to celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday,
but I’ve always liked this description by G.B.F. Hallock:[iii]
When the New England colonies were first planted,
the settlers endured many privations and difficulties
and used constantly to lay their distresses before God
in days of fasting and prayer.
Continual meditation on such topics tended
to make them gloomy and discontented,
and disposed to return home.
At last, when it was proposed to appoint still ANOTHER day
of penitence and humiliation,
a common-sense old colonist said he thought
they had brooded over their misfortunes quite long enough,
and that it seemed high time that they should remember
all God’s mercies to them…
He proposed, therefore, that instead of a fast,
they should keep a FEAST of thanksgiving.
And FEAST and CELEBRATE and offer THANKS they did.
When you can focus on what wonderful blessings God has given you,
then it is hard to find room for anxiety.
When your heart is full of gratitude, then there simply LESS room for worry.
Nothing prevents anxiety quite like thanksgiving.
That’s a message we can all take to heart today:
Thanksgiving enables us to bear all things, endure all things, hope all things.
Gratitude is a gift from God, a way of life.
Did you ever think of it in that way—that gratitude in itself is a blessing?
Something God offers us, for our good, if we just make room for it in our lives?
When God gives us grateful hearts,
we get to be thankful for everything God provides.
Poet George Herbert put it so beautifully:[iv]
Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more—a grateful heart:
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose Pulse may be
With this week, we’ve entered the season I like to call: The season of Poking.
This week we will poke a turkey to see if it is done.
We will watch parades on television to poke ourselves into the Holiday spirit.
We might join old friends on a day off to play poker.
Store sales will require us to look into our poke-ette books. [Ok that is bad]
Then there’s Christmas, when children will poke around the tree
looking for presents,
and maybe a few Poke-e-mons Go apps…
And New Year’s Eve, when some, like me, will poke our waistline
and resolve to diet….right after one more serving of holiday pie.
We can worry about the relatives coming to visit,
and the arguments we might have around the table,
particularly this year,
we can worry about the drive to get there,
…or we can be thankful for the gifts of family and community.
We can stress about all those gifts we HAVE to buy, you know,
to keep up with the Joneses…
or we can see our gift giving as less about those things than about the
very people we celebrate in our lives by exchanging simple gifts.
We can stress about our waistlines…or we can celebrate
these incredible bodies that God gave us,
and rejoice that they enable us to live and move and be
in this wonderful world God made
as we strive to keep them healthy and whole.
For gifts of life, of family,
of church, of community, of love,
of winter snow [coming soon], of quiet reflection, of loud partying,
of song, of delight, of wonder, of prayer, of peace, of grace, of hope, of faith,
we have SO MUCH to be thankful for.
And let us rejoice that we get to be thankful for these things, too.
May God give to us grateful hearts,
that we may do all this poking this season
in celebration for what God has done in our lives.
Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894.
[i] From his sermon “Thanksgiving,” delivered at Fourth Presbyterian Church on November 21, 2004.
[ii] Citation for this story has been lost.
[iii] From Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper, Volume 57, November 15, 1894.