The Long Thanksgiving Sermon

The Long Thanksgiving Sermon

Luke 12:31-31

by Daniel Harrell

In 1620, New England was far from being the paradise of abundance and peace the wayfaring Pilgrims sought for religious refuge. Instead, the New World was a lot like the Old World—a place where weather and the fertility of the soil was a constant concern, a place where disease and war were omnipresent threats. And yet it was these threats that drew the Pilgrims and their neighbors, the Pokanoket Indians, to that first Thanksgiving table. While there were profound differences between these peoples—technology, culture, spiritual beliefs—in these early years, when the mutual challenge for survival dominated all other concerns, the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets had more in common than is generally appreciated. For the Pilgrims, some of whom had slept in a wigwam and all of whom had enjoyed eating and drinking with the Indians, these were not a despicable pack of barbarians as would later be surmised (even if some of their habits, such as their refusal to wear clothes, struck the Pilgrims as “savage” and helps to explain why we have no Indians represented in church this morning).

The last time I dressed like a Pilgrim (before moving to Minnesota), was back in third grade for a Thanksgiving pageant. Since my middle name is Miles, I donned a requisite construction paper helmet and played Myles Standish, with Lucy McDowell, my third grade girlfriend, playing Rose, his wife. I actually reconnected with Lucy a few years back. On a whim I’d signed up on a classmates.com around reunion time thinking maybe I’d hear from old high school friends, but this was a blast from the way past. Lucy emailed a photo of herself, and I have to be honest, she looked different. Nevertheless, she remembered our Pilgrim moment, and how later we’d gone out for hotdogs, ice cream and a matinee movie, and then gathered secretly in her basement with other prepubescent friends for a little round of spin the bottle and dancing to the Jackson 5. 1970 was one crazy year, I guess.

Though I felt a little silly, I figured it was only polite to write back and acknowledge her reminiscence. It was the Thanksgiving thing to do. But what was I supposed to say? “You haven’t changed a bit?” or “My how you’ve grown?” or “How about that Richard Nixon, were you as surprised as I was?” I divulged a few details about my own life, listed some of my own elementary school memories—mostly having to do with getting the chicken pox and having my house burn down—and then how I went on the peak in middle school. I figured that would be that, the satiated curiosity of a glance at the past. But surprisingly—almost instantly in fact—Lucy wrote back with an extended, detailed narration of her own life of woe: three failed marriages, spousal abuse, troubled children, financial struggles, dead end jobs; the list went on and on. I couldn’t help but wonder now whether her reaching out to her past was less out of curiosity than out of a hope that somehow she could recapture a nostalgic time before everything came apart. Granted, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but what other options do you have when your life is so miserable? Especially when the future also seems so bleak?

One of my third grade projects was the creation of a weather station: I made a barometer with a jar and balloon, a humidity meter with a spool and thread, an anemometer with Dixie cups. I got interested in the weather because of my dad. To this day, every conversation we have begins with his asking: what’s it doing up there? I told him he could have played golf yesterday. Jeff Lindsay did. Since moving to Minneapolis I’ve become an ardent reader of Paul Douglas, the Star Tribune’s meteorologist who paints as bleak a future as any meteorologist can paint. I know the topic can be something of a political football, but gloomy forecasts of global warming keep me up at night. Not that I’m ungrateful for a 60 degree November day in Minnesota, but I can’t help but worry when so many scientists and sources portend the same grim outlook. During our summertime heat waves and current drought, Paul Douglas reminds of rising earth surface temperatures and ever-warmer oceans, less artic ice and higher sea levels that will lead to more Sandy-grade hurricanes, deeper droughts, hotter heat waves and water shortages, all resulting in a host of doomsday scenarios. Life on earth will become increasingly untenable as soil viability lessens. Disease, especially malaria, looms over areas where resistance is weak, and the threat of war will increase as nations fight over basic survival. It will be 1620 New England all over again

The culprit, they say, is carbon dioxide. Harmless CO2. The natural byproduct of normal human life. The problem is that there are too many of us living normal human lives. And it’s only going to get worse. A New York City is added to the earth every month, a Mexico every year, an India every decade. The earth’s population is destined to nearly double at least one more time in the next 50 years. Some people hear this and think, “That’s just great. All of these people and I still can’t find a decent relationship.” Hopelessness about the future compounds hopelessness about the present and we are completely overwhelmed. Maybe Lucy was right. Maybe trying to go back to third grade isn’t such an bad idea after all.

The Bible offers some other advice. Here in the passage read from Luke’s gospel set aside by the Lectionary for Thanksgiving Day, Jesus confronts human hopelessness with these sage words: “Take no thought for your life,” or as other translations read, “Don’t worry about it.” Hard to know what to make of that. I do remember back in third grade how whenever my mom got stressed out, she’d play this sappy Doris Day record on her hi-fi: “Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, que sera, sera.” Besides being the closest we ever got to world music in my house, it seemed like an irresponsible way to tackle your troubles. Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t worry about your life”? “Whatever will be will be?” It sounds like it. There’s more: “Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field,” he said, “they neither work nor worry yet your heavenly Father feeds and clothes them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Apparently we don’t need to work anymore either.

At face value, our Lord comes off as terribly simplistic. “Don’t worry. Have faith. Trust God. He has it all under control.” If nothing else, Jesus challenges the presumption that we humans have it all under control. It’s easy to think you do most days. You make decisions, make plans, make friends, make enemies. You get a degree, get a job, get married, work out, eat right, buy a house, space the kids out two years apart and raise them by the book. And most days it works pretty well; well enough to make you think that you do have it all under control. That’s until something bad happens. The relationship sours or you lose the job. The doctor finds a spot on the X-ray. The kids get in trouble. Somebody dies. A hurricane hits. And you lose control. That’s what you say, “I’ve lost control.” But that’s not really true. You haven’t lost control. What you’ve lost is the illusion that you ever really had control in the first place.

Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “don’t worry” in the context of a family legal dispute. A man wants his brother to split the family inheritance. Rabbis were often called upon to settle such issues. By law, the eldest son received double what any of the other sons received. The proportion of inheritance was fixed, and the plaintiff in this case had every legal right to his share. But Jesus didn’t care. “Who made me your judge?” he asked. To him, the issue was generosity rather than justice. “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” The Bible is emphatic in its cautions against greed (especially when read from the King James). There’s Ecclesiastes: “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” The Psalmist adds: “Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches.” And then from James: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.  Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire.” And this from Paul: “They that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.” And of course, from Jesus: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. …Ye cannot serve God and mammon. … For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

These days, given the enormous amounts of personal debt exposed during the Great Recession, the concern can less about personal wealth than about personal consumption. It’s been calculated that the Pilgrims consumed approximately 2500 calories a day, most of it in food; comparable to the daily energy intake of a 350-pound dolphin. An average person now consumes about 31,000 calories a day, most of it in fossil fuel to manufacture and maintain all of the stuff he or she needs—comparable to the intake of a 1.7-ton pilot whale. The average American? Everyday each of us suck in as much as a 40-ton sperm whale.

Therefore Jesus tells a parable. There was a certain rich man who thought he had it all together. He’d hit the jackpot of a bumper crop and wasn’t sure what to do with the surplus. With no place to store it and no thought of sharing it, he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones so he could hoard his riches, kick back and enjoy life. It’s the sperm whale way. God appears to the man and thunders, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” Then comes the punch line, “This is how it is with people who store up everything for themselves. They are bankrupt in the sight of God.” In addition to disabusing human illusions of control, Jesus disdains human selfishness too: the two come as a matched set. Yet rather than proceeding to rail against human selfishness and pronounce doom on human arrogance (he does that elsewhere), Jesus proceeds to assuage our anxiety. “People who store up everything for themselves are bankrupt in the sight of God,” he says, “therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than fashion.” Jesus knows that our constant control and consumption betray a constant fear that things will not work out; a fear that God is not in control, or that he is not good enough or that he doesn’t really care.

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus assures: “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re far more valuable to God than they are. So why do you worry? Can all your worries add even a single hour to your life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—O ye of little faith! Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek after his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” In place of worry and control and consumption and fear, Jesus issues a call to faith; a call to believe that God is good and God is great and that he does care, even if His care doesn’t always look like you want it to.

Granted, faith can be worrisome. Worry and faith are a lot alike. They both relate to the future, to the unseen and the unknown. The difference between worry and faith is where each is aimed. Worry aims inward and feeds of fear, pressing on your soul so tightly that you can find it hard to breathe. Faith, on the other hand, aims outward and feeds off the promises of God, opening you up to a hope and a future where needles are threaded with camels; where no moth nor rust nor thief can touch your true treasure; where there is neither fear nor worry, and where goodness and righteousness and generosity and grace are common thanksgiving fare. This future is new creation itself, a future Scripture declares as having already started with the resurrection of Jesus.

Faith is the way to this future, and it doesn’t even take that much. According to the climate people, turning off one light, adjusting your thermostat by two degrees, driving less and recycling more reduces your own carbon dioxide output by thousands of pounds a year. If just every Christian did that, global warming would virtually stop and I could sleep at night. We’re told that 30,000 children die every day due to poverty. If every Christian gave just ten percent of their income after taxes and after paying all their debts, world poverty would be eliminated. Likewise with faith—Jesus says that a mustard seed’s worth will move a mountain. Therefore think how little it will take to move you. That’s because with faith it’s not the amount that matters, but where its aimed.

Author Garret Keizer writes of organizing a hike in the New England woods for his daughter’s Sunday School class which required recruiting a team of adults to serve as guides. However on the day of the hike, Keiser’s own daughter was the only member of the class to show up. But rather than cancel the hike due to lack of interest, the team of five adults spent their Sunday walking a lone third-grader through the woods. This is what having faith looks like. A person with faith never asks whether it’s worth his while to take one child on a hike just as she never asks whether its worth her while to turn off one unnecessary light or buy one less new pair of shoes or one less pizza if it means providing for someone who has neither. The person of faith believes that even the smallest gestures are worthwhile in spite of any evidence to the contrary, because the person of faith believes a God through whom mustard seeds move mountains and all things become new.

Throughout the Bible, it’s the littlest things that matter most. A widow’s two cents that trump the riches of the rich, a small boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fish that ends up feeding 5000, a despised Samaritan stopping to help a needy man on the side of the road and thus fulfilling all he law and the prophets. Jesus later goes so far as to describe the kingdom of God itself as a mustard seed: though among the smallest of seeds, it grows into a tree in which the birds of the air come to make their nests.

I remember a little third grade Boston girl who made the news a few years back after being shot and paralyzed by one of the too many stray bullets that fly around cities these days, fired by armed young toughs for whom intimidation means power. At her assailant’s sentencing, the little girl was invited to speak from her wheelchair. “What you done to me was wrong,” she said, tears streaming down her face, “But I forgive you.” The world was stunned. CNN ran the story. Oprah interviewed her. Others were offended. “I would never be able to forgive someone for that,” remarked one woman. “it’s evil.” But the little girl’s mother replied, “We live in a world today that seems to want people to be bitter, angry. But I don’t want bitterness and anger in my life, and I don’t want that for my daughter. We are Christians. I tried very hard from the depths of my soul to hate the boy who did this, but it just wouldn’t come out.”

At the heart of the Christian message is God’s own unconditional generosity; a genuine love and concern for sinners proved through Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Christ died for us. Therefore God requires of us that we die to our whale-sized selfishness and presumptions of control, that we let lose of our worry and fear and bitterness and anger too. That we have just a little faith, and with mustard seed measures, change the world and change the people you’d think would never change. That little girl’s assailant, 29-year-old Anthony Warren, overwhelmed on his way to prison remarked, “I was known in the street for all the wrong reasons, but now I want to be known for the right reasons.”

Therefore at the risk of sounding like a third grader, at the risk of sounding like Jesus, I tell you, don’t worry about it. Have a little faith. God knows what you need and he cares that your get it. “Seek ye His kingdom” and you will find you have everything else.