This sermon was delivered at the community Thanksgiving service sponsored by our local Ministerial Alliance.
Our text from the Gospel of Matthew is not about gratitude—not really. It is about anxiety—specifically the anxiety that comes from trying to change things that we cannot. It warns us not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but to take each day at a time, because that is all that we have. It is about the provision of the God who desires good things for us, who loves us more than the birds of the air or the grass of the field. And it is about priorities—God desires that we pursue God with greater intensity than we pursue our very lives. If we look to God first, we are told, everything else will follow. All our other needs will be filled.
But some among us find ourselves with unmet needs, which raises our anxiety, and feeds doubt.
And anxiety, this text reminds us, often confuses our priorities, it often closes us off to God’s involvement and provision, and it often prevents us from living in gratitude.
The Psalm reading is also not about gratitude. But it does imagine a time of thanksgiving when needs are met, wrongs have been righted, sorrow has become joy. I love that phrase in the first verse about dreaming. To the author, the time of thanksgiving that is anticipated here seems so distant, so unrealistic, that to experience it would be like walking through a dream.
But still it is imagined.
And when we imagine with God, dreams do come true.
Hardship for the Holidays
Sometimes Thanksgiving can be a lousy holiday. The holidays in general—a source of joy for so many—can be the bleakest time of year for others.
I and my family are new to this community. We have been welcomed more heartily than we could have imagined. Yet our holiday celebrations this year will be different—we simply cannot celebrate in the same ways or with the same people.
More to the heart of things is the grief that I bear today. In the last six weeks, I have lost a dear friend to stomach cancer, a 21-year-old cousin was killed in a tragic car accident, my dog and constant companion of 11 years died suddenly from cancer of the spleen, and my uncle has lost his three year battle with the cancer that has ravaged his body. Add to this the sorrows of my new church family—grave medical diagnoses, serious illness, chronic conditions wasting away both young and old……
I do not easily stand in a place of thanksgiving this evening.
I find no voice in the thanksgiving psalms that are a regular part of my prayer and reflection. Texts like Ps 86:12—”I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.”—texts like these feel hollow in my chest.
In truth, I find greater voice with the grieving psalmist of Psalm 137 who wonders, “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” That author mourns the passing of his church, his hometown, his homeland, his religion, the many who died in the war, and his entire way of life.
Grief has a way of being all consuming, like that.
This holiday season, I am likely to be more aware of absence than presence. I will be remembering those with whom I am no longer celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be noted vacancies around our Thanksgiving table. There will be empty spaces around the Christmas tree.
I have much to be grateful for; that is true. But it is tragic when guilt is added to our grief and we are forced to claim inauthentic expressions of thanksgiving. When I find myself saying that at least I have a home to live in, at least I have my family, at least I have food on my table, at least I have my health, at least this or that—that is when my BS meter starts to tick up.
These expressions are not honest, nor are they truly rooted in gratitude. To me, they sound more like the prayer of the unrighteous Pharaisee in Luke 19:11:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people”………homeless, bankrupt, quadraplegic, cancer-ridden orphans………
There is no honesty there. And gratitude, I believe, cannot exist apart from truth.
No, if I and we are to find gratitude this season, it will have to be found honestly, and in the depth of our emotion and human existence.
The day my dog Max died, we knew the end was coming fast, so I picked up my kindergardener from school so she had a chance to say goodbye.
My voice broke as I tried to remember to be direct in what I said. That is best tactic with children, the experts say. So I swallowed hard and told her: Max is really sick. The animal doctor is going to try to fix what’s wrong, but Max might be too sick. He might die.
Without missing a beat, this is what she told me: That’s OK, Daddy, because I will remember Max in my heart. And Jesus is in my heart. And Jesus is God’s son. So Max is in heaven with God. And we can see him again there.
And I thought I was supposed to be the strong, wise one.
I don’t really care what you think about animals. There is truth in my daughter’s words, truth that can guide us to gratitude and thanksgiving, even in the midst of our sorrows.
If there is any hope in this world, if there is any thanksgiving or gratitude in my soul, it is because I realize that there is an ever after, when all wounds are healed, when all divisions are overcome, when all wrongs are righted, when everything and everyone we have lost may be found again.
The Bible talks about it as a day:
when “every knee should bend…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10-11);
when we will no longer see through “a mirror, darkly…but face to face” (1Cor 13:12);
when “God will wipe every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev 7:17; 21:4);’
when “the lofty will be brought low” (Isa 10:33);
when the “lowly…[are] raised up” (James 1:9);
when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, [and] the leopard shall lie down with the kid, [and] the calf and the lion and the fatling together…… and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6).
I’m glad I have a little child to lead me to gratitude in this season of Thanksgiving. I fear I could not have found it otherwise. But then again, Jesus tells us that we must receive the Kingdom of God like a little child or we will never enter it (Mk 10:15; Lk 18:17).
This Thanksgiving, I challenge you: Dream a dream with God. Imagine a day when you are whole again. Remember that your God cares for you more than anything else in creation. Follow and watch a child, and they will surely lead you to joy and thanksgiving. Follow a child, and they will surely lead you to God’s kingdom.
May your season be filled with the peace and joy that is found in the presence and confidence of God.