Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Tag: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day, 2017

This sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day at St. Michael & St. George.

Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 17:11-19

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

This year, more than in previous years, I’ve been struck by the irony of our Thanksgiving Day service here at St. Michael & St. George. What’s the irony? Well, we’re the Episcopal Church, we were founded as the American colonial branch of the Church of England. We all learned in school that the Pilgrims, in Plymouth that first Thanksgiving, came across the sea to start a new life with the freedom to practice their religion. What exactly did they want freedom from? The Church of England! So here we are, celebrating Thanksgiving Day, when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by people who were only too happy to have escaped our company. Yes, our forebears in the faith were actually the bad guys in the Pilgrims’ story. And here we are celebrating their holiday.

Of course in the meantime we’ve made it just as much our own as it was theirs, and it wasn’t until President Lincoln came along, two hundred and fifty years (or so) after the Pilgrims, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the first place. But this year I find myself reflecting on the irony all the same, especially that we were the bad guys in that story; we were the ones demanding so much uniformity in religion that the pilgrims found it intolerable in England, and escaped to the New World.

Of course there are two sides to every story, and the good guy/bad guy dynamic is never monolithic. Still it occurs to me, there may be some value, even some virtue, in hearing stories in which you and I are the bad guys.

Now that was three hundred, four hundred years ago; none of us were responsible for the scenarios in play at the time. But if we want to be heirs of our ancestors’ legacies, we also have to own their mistakes. If we want to be good, honorable beneficiaries of their successes, we also have to be humble enough to admit where they got away with things they shouldn’t have.

When I preach about the Communion of Saints, I often point out that Death is not the divide it once was; since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ the living and the dead are knit together in profound and abiding ways. That’s a great comfort to families mourning a loved one. But it’s also a double-edged sword, especially today as we rehearse stories like the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving. In the Communion of Saints, we Episcopalians are implicit in the Pilgrims having fled their homeland.

So what does that mean? Does it change the way we celebrate this holiday? Does it mean our own offerings of Thanksgiving are somehow less acceptable? Not in the least. What it does do, is to point out for us that we do not always have to be in the right; we do not always have to be the underdog; we do not always have to be the heroes in the story in order to give thanks. And in fact, it might help us give better thanks if we considered the alternative once in a while.

We have this attitude sometimes I think, that giving thanks is like any other transaction of goods for services. You give me something, and I thank you for it. And if what you’ve given me isn’t any good, then I’m under no obligation to say Thanks, let alone to be grateful. So, when we find ourselves not in a position of being the hero in the story, or of playing a different role than we thought, a different role than we’d intended, we have no idea what there is to be grateful for anymore. We may even start to feel in debt, and that is no position for thanks, only a position of weakness and vulnerability. Who gives thanks for liabilities, or bad credit, or criminal records?

Why on earth should Episcopalians give thanks on Thanksgiving Day, when our forebears are the ones who kicked out the Puritans, the ones who lost the English Civil War, who lost the American Revolution, and found themselves continually at odds with prevailing national currents? Even today there are plenty of people who are keen to paint us as the bad guys both of history and of current events. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong; only that these are stories people tell, and it’s hard to be full of thanks when they are not the stories we’d want to tell about ourselves.

But if we find it difficult to give thanks in these circumstances, I suggest we might have the wrong attitude about Thanksgiving in the first place. It is NOT a transaction of goods for services. It is NOT a reward for good behavior. It is NOT about feeling blessed by my own good fortune. It is NOT about being the hero, or even the teller of my own story. Rather, for Christians — Christians of any stripe, whether Episcopalian, Pilgrim, or otherwise — Thanksgiving is the humility to recognize where we fall short, the humility to see the holes in our favorite stories about ourselves, to take stock of our failures, moral and otherwise; and Thanksgiving is the decision not to stand on my own ego but only on the forgiveness and the providence of God. Thanksgiving, for the Christian, is the humility to recognize our shortcomings, and the decision to stand only on God’s forgiveness and providence.

Every farmer knows the mistakes that get made every season, and every farmer knows the miracle of harvest regardless. The act of Thanksgiving teaches every Christian not to rely on my own wisdom, my own accomplishment, but only on God’s forgiveness, and on God’s providence, to provide for those whom he loves regardless of their deserving. Because the critical piece is not my success, my deserving, or my good fortune; not my good reputation, my bank account, my clear record, or my party platform, but only the love of God. The critical piece is only the love of God, love both for me, and for the one who thinks I’m the bad guy.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s you and I give thanks to God, that in his infinite sense of humor he puts Episcopalians and Pilgrims in the same country to figure it out, and muddle through together. And let’s give thanks, that despite the continuous ways we screw up, despite the stories we like and the stories we don’t, that God loves us still; that Christ offers himself for us still; and that in this way we are being brought beyond history, beyond its winners and losers, its story-tellers and its victims, to be remade in the image and glory of God, finally what we were meant to be: creatures of thanksgiving at all times, and in all places, for all persons, and in all love.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Thanksgiving Day 2016

The following sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day (November 24, 2016) at CSMSG.  It is a substantially revised and further developed version of similar points I made first in a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day in 2012, at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver.

Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labor of those who harvest them.  Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Philippians 4:4-9, John 6:25-35

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Today is Thanksgiving Day. The parade is over, football hasn’t quite started yet, the turkey is in the oven, and you brave souls who have come to church in the interim are now my captives! I’ll just offer a few brief reflections on Thanksgiving and Gratefulness, and then liberate us all for the work of our liturgy this morning.

First, I think Thanksgiving is really one of the best things we do as a society. I know the single most dreaded question at the Thanksgiving table (or, as is our custom, at a vestry meeting of St. Michael and St. George), is “What are you thankful for?” But really, the opportunity this question gives us to take stock of our own gratitude is immensely valuable. Things mentioned around tables all across the country are things like, family, friends, community, joy in creation, a new home, freedom from fear, healing from some ailment. Taking stock of our gratitude is valuable because it helps us to put names and faces to goodness and truth and beauty; and it reminds us that these ideals cannot exist in the mind only but must be based in real actions and real people.

The second thing is that gratitude is always directed to a person. When we give thanks, we do not toss our gratitude into the ether like leaves scattering in the wind. In the English language we are very specific about gratitude: we say, Thank You. Thank You. And even when we just say, “Thanks,” it is always short for “my thanks to you.” We are always grateful to a person, whether that person is a friend or a family member, a group of people like nurses and doctors, or God. We cannot be thankful in isolation from a person to whom our thankfulness is directed. CS Lewis once famously remarked, the worst moment for a committed atheist is when they are filled with gratitude but have no one to thank. Going around the table saying what we are thankful for helps us identify not just for what, but also to whom we are thankful. It builds relationship on top of the real, concrete goods and truths and beauties for which we are grateful.

Third, on the word “thanks” itself. As I was preparing for this sermon, I was curious where the word actually comes from, and what its roots mean. Apparently, “thanks” and “thoughts” actually come from the same root, by a rather long and twisted track through Latin and German and Anglo-Saxon. It signifies a sort of combination of thoughts, good will, and even grace. “My thanks to you” is the original, long-form construction of the phrase, and “Thank you” and “Thanks” are both short forms of that.  

My thanks to you: my thoughts, my good will, my grace, to you. What a wonderful phrase, to have written into the fabric of the language! It suggests that gratitude, paradoxically, has some dimension of gift as part of its definition. And think then of our response: “You’re welcome.” You’re welcome to what? You are welcome to me. Our words of gratitude establish a beautiful relationship of mutual self-gift between two people, the free exchange of good will and even grace. Being grateful is not just a passive, polite response to someone else’s action. It is an active giving of the self in response to another person’s gift, in which a relationship of love is established and affirmed and edified.

My last point this morning is that to live in Thanksgiving is to live in constant imitation of Christ: Christ who gave himself to be born a human, Christ who gave himself to death for our sakes, Christ who lives eternally begotten of the Father, who offers himself upon the cross, and forever, back to his Father, out of whose love proceeds the Holy Spirit. To live in Thanksgiving is to live in the same pattern of fellowship as the Holy Trinity, the ground of all that exists. To live in Thanksgiving is to follow our Lord’s footsteps, constantly bearing the fruit of love.

Soon we will come to the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving. At the altar we will rehearse all the things for which we as Christian people are most thankful. We will direct our thanks, and our praise, to God, whose gifts they are. We will join the unending song of all the angels and saints, and be brought near to the presence of God. We will receive the sacrament of Christ himself, and be established and edified in the communion that is both nourishment for our souls and the great final promise of our faith.

The truth is, this Thanksgiving morning, you are not my captives at all! We are all of us the people of God, and we are gathered here today to do the work of rendering our thanks — indeed our very selves — to God. Giving thanks, to God especially, is not a matter merely of being polite. Rather it is to be swept off your feet into a new world, into the free exchange of love at the heart of God himself, becoming free ourselves, and, once free, immediately bound up together in his life and in one another’s.

Today, on Thanksgiving Day, let us give thanks for every gift of goodness and beauty which we have received, to all those persons known and unknown who have given them. Let us also commit to giving thanks every day, with all that giving thanks entails, in order that we and all the created order may be knit ever more closely together in the grace and love of our eternal, Triune God.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.