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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tangible Thanksgiving

This post is based on notes for my sermon on Thanksgiving, delivered at Peoria Church on Sun., Nov. 20, 2011.

We commemorate Thanksgiving by paying honor to the Pilgrims who came to the New World in 1620.

We honor their faith, even though we don’t necessarily share it. The Pilgrims were a Christian separatist group, who probably wouldn’t have worshiped with us anyhow. They wouldn’t have celebrated Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter or other ‘manmade’ holidays. They were largely Unitarians, five-point Calvinists who believed in original sin.

We honor their heroism though we are not heroes. At least I’m not a hero. I don’t think I would have taken a trip like theirs, with a large possibility of death and disaster. Some 47% of the passengers and crew died by then end of their first winter in New England.

We honor their vision for freedom, though we usually take freedom for granted. Before they disembarked from the Mayflower, the crew and Pilgrims created the Mayflower Compact, a document which set the pattern for democracy and voting that we have to this day in America. Yet in our last election, fewer than a third of eligible voters did so.

The Pilgrims were thankful for their earthly, tangible blessings.

* They built their first homes here from nothing. There were no homes waiting here for them upon their arrival. They built shelters from mud, logs, branches, straw from the ship, and stone. And they were thankful.

* They grew crops the following Spring from nothing. They brought seed with them in their cache of supplies, but they landed in New England on Nov. 9, 1620 – not a good time to plant anything in New England. Yet, they were thankful.

* They knew no one when they got here, other than themselves. In their two months at sea, crowded into the Mayflower, conflicts, scrapes, and the Pilgrims’ separatist attitude strained relationships aboard ship. (I don’t know about you, but we could barely make it half an hour in the car with our kids without some kind of scuttle.) But they were thankful for the people they were with.

Sometimes it takes getting to nothing to make us thankful for what we have. As the song says, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

In 2011 we have the luxury of being thankful for the “intanglibles of life.” We speak vaguely: “I’m thankful for friends and family,” “I’m thankful for all my blessings,” “I’m thankful for food and shelter.”

What would it be like to go through your home this Thanksgiving and thank God for everything in it, item by item?

More often, we find ourselves saying, “I don’t have enough, God!” I don’t have enough clothing! I don’t have enough food! I don’t have enough house! Not enough money! Just not enough!

And I’m certainly not thankful about it.

The thing is, God knows this about us. He knows how attached we become to tangible things, how we try to find satisfaction in life through what we can touch, see, taste, and smell. In I Corinthians 10, St. Paul writes about this as a warning to the Corinthians:

- Verse 7, he warns them about materialism that turns into idolatry.

- Verse 8, he cautions about relationships that turn into sexual immorality.

- Verse 9, he reminds that trust in God can turn into testing God.

- Verse 10, he notes how prayer can turn to grumbling.

No one is totally free of this. In I Cor. 10:12, Paul states plainly: “let anyone who thinks he stand take heed, lest he fall.”

This weakness we have for tangible things (as the saint calls it, ‘the flesh’), is why our intangible God put us in a tangible world to begin with. We are tangible, touchable, sensate beings. God made us this way in order to foster thanksgiving in us. Our relationship with God is nurtured through gratitude. Moreover, our tangible selves understand our need and dependence on God, because He is the One Who provides.

Because He understands our tangible weakness, God was Incarnate – He became tangible – in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ ate with people, He drank with them, worked with them, talked with them and was heard by them. He held their children, touched their sick, and helped carry their load. As we head into Advent next week, we need to remember that this is what Christmas is all about: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1)

Since we are tangible beings, God has given a tangible remembrance of Himself in the eucharist. It is so appropriate to remember this at Thanksgiving, because eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Both the Lord and St. Paul use the word in the establishment of the Sacrament. In Luke 22, Jesus Christ uses eucharist three times. First with the Passover Cup of Blessing. (Remember, the setting was within the Passover meal.) Next, He “gave thanks” and blessed the bread, saying “This is my Body.” And thirdly, in the same manner, He gave thanks for the Cup, saying “This is my Blood.” Matthew and Mark are identical on the last two points and St. Paul restates is verbatim in I Cor. 11:23-26.

In the Eucharist, we find that our tangible connection with bread and wine becomes the spiritual expression of faith, through this simple act of thanksgiving. The Apostle puts it this way: “This Cup which we bless, is it not a participation in the Blood of Christ?… This Bread which we bless, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ?” (I Cor. 10:16)

You and I are asked to take this tangible thanksgiving, this “eucharist,” with us after the supper. Our souls are fed, “with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are nourished with the grace of thanksgiving.

And maybe we are more ready to be thankful for all those blessings you have around your home, naming them one by one.