by Daniel Harrell
So soon, it seems, we’re at Thanksgiving, though it’s never too soon to be grateful. On Thursday, before a slice of turkey gets carved, you’re invited to join us here for our annual Colonial Thanksgiving in every sense of that term. For going on 50 years we’ve gathered together to worship the Lord here at Colonial as the colonial Puritans of old worshipped—or at least as we think they might have worshipped. Some of us will dress as Pilgrims. The Meetinghouse will be dressed down more than usual. The sermon longer and appropriately dour; our sermon text derived from a stern minor key prophet. A Tithing Man will make his rounds, a long and heavy stick in hand, to ensure worshippers stay awake as well as tithe. No music will be played, only Psalms will sung. We intend to keep the grim in Pilgrim. And be thankful about it.
Mention of the First Thanksgiving gets attributed to Pilgrim leader William Bradford, eventual governor of Plymouth Colony. Bradford’s records trace the Pilgrims’ progress from Britain to Holland and then to Massachusetts. Studying up on the First Thanksgiving this week, I discovered in a newly published history by Robert McKenzie, that the only actual mention we have of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving-like celebration is not from Bradford’s account, but from a 115-word anecdote written by his assistant. That anecdote mentions a survivors’ gathering after the Pilgrims’ first devastating winter—a winter that had to feel like it did yesterday at the Bank where I witnessed your beloved Gophers sadly get axed again by Wisconsin. Unlike the game, the Pilgrim gathering featured an encounter with local Native Americans, and a three-day feast with few women present since most had perished during the winter. Nevertheless, they did eat turkey and venison and duck and even swan.
Unfortunately, calling the Pilgrim’s three-day feast the first Thanksgiving is a stretch. Giving thanks is as ancient as humanity itself. No one believes the Pilgrims at Plymouth to have been the first to stop and be grateful to God for a bountiful harvest. We might say that the Pilgrims celebrated the “First American Thanksgiving,” except for ample evidence that Native Americans celebrated their own versions already. The Algonquians, for example, participated in regular rituals of gratitude linked to the crop cycle. For all we know that Pilgrim gathering in Plymouth was actually the Wampanoag’s idea.
A more accurate expression, then, might be the “First American Christian Thanksgiving,” except that Spanish documents refer to a thanksgiving Mass celebrated shortly after conquistadors landed in Florida, in 1565—at a time when only two of the Pilgrims had even been born. So maybe we should call the Pilgrims’ celebration the “First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving,” but even that would overlook evidence of a thanksgiving service held in 1564 near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, held by French Huguenots; one in 1607 at a short-lived English colony on the coast of Maine; and two others among English colonists in Virginia, in 1610 and 1619. Thus we’re left with the more or less historically accurate label of “The First American Protestant Christian Thanksgiving North of Virginia and South of Maine,” which we will commemorate here in Minnesota on Thursday.
The point is that there does often exist a wide gap between impression and reality. Such is the case in our last sermon door this season. The budding congregation in Laodicea, located just south of last Sunday’s in Philadelphia, is impressed by their wealth, their prosperity and self-sufficiency. They conclude, perhaps, that these are blessings for which to give thanks. According to Jesus, however, “the faithful and true witness,” the Laodiceans’ wealth and prosperity reveal a grim reality. Jesus witnesses these Christians as “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” “I know your works,” says the Lord, which serves to support his indictment. It’s not that they covered their pitiful state with wealth and achievement as with a mask, but that their wealth and achievement was their pitiful state. They likely paid God his 10% tip, and then taking his grace for granted, went on to treat it as permission to do as they pleased. Guilty of this ourselves at times, we do so without even being good tippers. According to one report, Christians give a paltry 3% of income to charity, and the richer you get, the lower that percentage goes. Prosperity may not be a Biblical vice, but it can be a Biblical hazard.
I’ve mentioned before how any minister can console a church member who has just received news that she has cancer, or has just lost his job, or whose child has just flunked out of school. People in such distress are happy to hear from anybody, even their preacher. They know they need the Lord. It’s harder to console the person who has just scored a large increase in their investment portfolio, or received a big promotion at work, or whose child has been accepted at an elite university, despite the spiritual perils that lie therein. Nobody wants a minister messing that up. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” Jesus said, sounding just like a Pilgrim. “Woe to you who prosper now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for your ancestors said the same to false prophets.”
By way of woe, directed here at the Laodicean church, Jesus extended the line of true prophets who cautioned against the hazards residing in what the world considers good news or success. The prophet Jeremiah, speaking for God, intoned, “Let not the wise boast of wisdom or the strong boast of strength or the rich boast of riches, but let those who boast, boast in this, that they understand and know that I am the LORD; that I act with mercy, justice, and righteousness on the earth—in these things I delight.” Again, human wisdom and strength and riches are not bad things per se; they’re just not the real things, the things that matter to God. Put your trust in them and you end up not just disappointed and surprisingly discontent, but ultimately doomed.
“I know your works,” Jesus said, by which he meant the stinginess and arrogance and self-righteousness detachment which prosperity can bring. “You are neither cold nor hot, I wish that you were either cold or hot.” Scholars conclude this allusion to be to the benefits of cold and hot water: cold water you can drink and with hot you can wash. Each are useful for good. Not so with lukewarm water. It’s not fit to drink or clean. If only the Laodiceans were useful for something. Anything. If only their faith showed itself in little mercy or justice or generosity or a bit on righteousness on earth. If only they cared about somebody other than themselves. But as it was, Jesus regarded their works and got sick to his stomach. “You make me puke,” he said. That’s what the Greek word means. Vomit. Heave. Upchuck. Barf. English translations try to clean up the verse 16 having it read “spit out,” but Jesus really wants to hurl. Wretchedness makes him retch.
The good news is that the Lord has not barfed them up yet. “Because you are lukewarm,” he says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” And the moment he’s only nauseated. On the other hand, these Christians had already spit Jesus out. They’d spit him all the way out the house and locked the door, leaving the Lord to stand outside and knock. It’s not that Jesus nauseated them—they’re not that cold or hot. They just don’t need him. And being lukewarm, they don’t really care. They’ve figured that most days, being the successful Christians they are, they can do their Christianity better without Jesus.
For starters you can make it more respectable. Have it fit cultural expectations. Minimize the distinctions between belief and unbelief so as not to offend. Go through the reasonable rituals without getting too weird—Christmas and Easter, baptism and communion. Rely on a baseline morality to suffice for personal goodness and eliminate guilt. Make it more successful-looking by having church be the go-to for stylish events, weddings and even funerals, with dependable moral training for kids and helpful social services for times of illness or grief. Keep the faith part nice and quiet, private even, without any pressure to be vulnerable in community, without any pressure to fight against injustice, or witness to any radical hope that might make you do or say something embarrassing, or refuse to do something popular. Don’t talk about sin or salvation, because really, what do we need saving from? Better to avoid the cross altogether. Stay in a loveless relationship where nobody has the courage to separate or and nobody cares enough to reignite the passion.
“Listen, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus pleads, with the image coming to mind being that familiar depiction of a Savior, meek and mild, dim lantern in hand, gently tapping at our hearts in the dark, hoping somebody’s home to let him in; a dull and boring Jesus, frankly, never demanding more than we can handle, his church a dead magnet with no power to attract, his word a friendly civics lesson offering reassurance and nostalgia in place of the shock and disorientation of glory. That might still play in some circles, but here in Revelation, Jesus shows up astride a mighty white stallion with a sword protruding from his mouth. His eyes ablaze, his head crowned with many crowns, his robe dipped in blood, bent on treading out the fury of God’s justice against evil. Inscribed on his robe and his thigh, you read his name: King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If this is the same Jesus who knocks, a Savior fiercely determined to save our souls, then better to imagine him knocking down the door of a burning house, screaming for somebody to open up or else.
Granted, another image offered in these verses is that of a persistent and passionate door-to-door salesman. He bangs on the door peddling gold “refined by fire,” a different kind of prosperity forged in the furnace of social opposition instead of conformity. Such refinement tests and shapes our character into the likeness of Christ, preparing us for that hour we read about last Sunday, when God tests the mettle of all people. Judge yourself or leave it up to The Lord. He tested the patriarchs and prophets and even Jesus himself; he tests us too. So you best buy the “white robes” for sale. These represent purity and righteousness, a stark contrast to baseline morality, both necessary to cover “the shame of your nakedness” a reference here to the original shame of Adam and Eve who figured they could do fine without God too. And finally for sale is salve “to anoint your eyes to see,” the allusion here to all those times in the gospels where Jesus gave sight to the blind as a sign to the spiritually blind that they needed their eyes opened too. Truth is hard to find when you think you’re already right; a hard sell when purity and righteousness and character aren’t things you care about so much.
Gratefully, I guess, Jesus doesn’t knock down any doors here. He doesn’t do pressure sales either. He just wants to sit down over dinner and straighten things out. In Middle-Eastern culture, sharing a meal was a way to make peace and might right. “I reprove and discipline the ones whom I love,” Jesus says. Not that this can’t still be difficult and stressful. Thanksgiving on Thursday will feature plenty of tables with relatives gathered around in relative silence, long-simmering, unforgiven conflict covered over with gravy. Why make trouble? Who really cares? The outcomes are predetermined. Easier to say grace than to show it. It probably wouldn’t work anyway.
I was told a story this past week about one Thanksgiving failure, a young man nervous about introducing his new girlfriend to the family. Hard core traditionalists, his family wasn’t one for making room for new things or new people, especially at Thanksgiving where the roles were all well-rehearsed. The son, not much for respecting tradition, brought the new girlfriend anyway, and there was nowhere for her to sit at the table. So she was consigned along with the prodigal son to an old Fisher-Price kids table even though the kids had long since grown up. Point made, the girlfriend nevertheless tried to fit in, knocked on the door if you will, helping out in the kitchen where her nice cable-knit sweater became glistened with globules of turkey grease. Back at the table, the nervous son nervously tipped over a dinner candle, which immediately ignited the girlfriends’ sleeve, the turkey grease fueling a fire than ran up her arm and engulfed her whole sweater. Panicked, she failed to stop-drop-and-roll and got up and ran instead, screaming around the Thanksgiving table, as the family, mouths full, somehow just sat there and watched.
A wet towel would have worked, either hot or cold water, either would have extinguished the fire. OK, lukewarm water would have worked here too—illustrations do have their limits. But doing nothing was disastrous. Thankfully, the flame burned itself out. Nobody was hurt. Needless to say, the relationship ended that day. It’s hard to imagine ever being part of a family that just sits and watches you burn.
“Listen, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus offers, not wanting for the relationship to end. “Repent,” he pleads, turn away from the wiles of this world and diligently seek after the kingdom of God. Hunger and thirst for righteousness, set your heart on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, where Jesus promises a seat at the table, or better yet, we read here, “a place with me on my throne.” “I rebuke and discipline the ones I love,” sounding like every parent who knows what’s best for his children. “Therefore be earnest,” or zealous. Diligent. Passionate. The word means “deeply committed and connected,” ardent and fervent, on fire. Be zealous for Christ and you will catch fire with all the love and righteousness and bright power of glory. People will watch you burn, only this time, they may want to catch fire too.