Sunday, November 20, 2016

Phil Kniss: How the Grinch Stole Thanksgiving (and gave it back again)

Stewardship Sunday 2: It’s all gift: worship
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

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With apologies to Dr. Seuss,
    the Grinch in the sermon title is me.
    And this act of stealing (and returning) Thanksgiving
        will happen now, in the next 20 minutes.

See, I have this irritating inner conflict
    when Thanksgiving rolls around.
    So I’m going to dump all that angst on you,
        until you start to question your plans for Thursday.
    Don’t worry. In the end, you’ll get your holiday back.
        But it might look a little different.

From a national standpoint, Thanksgiving is great.
    Good to drum up positive vibes about life in these United States.
    Especially right now, don’t you think?

In the midst of national negativity and anxiety
    and uncertainty about the future,
    it’s good to remind everyone how prosperous is our land,
        and bountiful our harvest.
    It’s good to remind ourselves how blessed we are,
        and to thank God for those blessings.
    It sets the right tone for the citizenry in troubled times.

That’s the origin of the holiday.
    Something to boost national morale.
    A day of prayer for thanksgiving
        was declared by George Washington in December 1777
        during the Revolutionary War.
    But it was Abraham Lincoln in 1863,
        while the Civil War was still raging,
        who declared the last Thursday in November
            as a national day of thanksgiving,
            and started an annual tradition.

Part of Abe Lincoln’s declaration could have been written to us,
    in mid-November 2016.  Let me read some . . .

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the [thanks] justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

Good for Lincoln! My sentiments exactly.
    This is a good thing for nations.
    But as a feast day in the church calendar,
        I’m conflicted.

It’s ironic that the most sacred Christian feast days—
    Christmas and Easter—
        have been coopted by our consumeristic secular culture,
        and reinvented as
            seasons for shopping, decorating, and over-indulging.
        And their great theological core gets gutted.
    While Thanksgiving—
        an essentially secular and nationalistic holiday—
        has been coopted by the church,
        and wedged into our liturgical calendar.

Yes, harvest festivals are deeply embedded in religion, since forever.
    They are found in Hebrew scriptures,
        and in most world religions.
    But the fourth Thursday of November in the U.S.,
        is more than a religious harvest festival.
        It was instituted as a national holiday,
            is shaped by civil religion,
            and there are national interests behind celebrating it.
    But . . . I’m okay with that part . . . Really.
        It’s healthy for a country to look beyond itself, and thank God.
        That’s not what makes me a Thanksgiving Grinch.

My problem is that we in the church get a little sloppy, theologically,
    every Thanksgiving.
    The holiday tends to feed into a misunderstanding about God
        that many of us carry within us.
    Let me lay it out for you,
        but please don’t judge me as a total curmudgeon,
        until I finish.

    Here’s the crux of the matter:
        I think God gets a lot blame that is undeserved . . .
            and a lot of thanks that is misdirected.

    The phrase that gets bandied about a lot,
        is “count your blessings.”
    This is the season to stop, look around,
        and make a numerical list,
        to count all the good things we have in life.
        And as we count, presumably,
            we notice our list is long.
        And we are invited to thank God for these “many blessings.”
    But what are we really saying by that?

Are we saying that if the barn and pantry and closets are full,
    that God did that for us, directly?
Are we saying that God looked down upon us,
    and decided to make our barns full,
    and our blessings abundant?
Isn’t that what thanking implies?

So let’s follow the logic.
    If I thank God for giving me the blessings I have,
        doesn’t it follow that I should also blame God
        for the good things that don’t come my way?
    If full barns and abundant blessings are signs
        God is looking on me with favor,
        then I guess an empty barn—
            and disaster, loss, suffering, and grief—
        would be a sign that God is withholding favor from me.

Now don’t mistake me for saying we shouldn’t live with more gratitude.
    We desperately need
        more thoughtful and grateful people in this world.
    We’d all be better off if we were more thankful people.
    We need to open our hearts and minds
        and see life itself as gift,
        and notice and name all the gifts that surround us,
            all the time.
    That’s not what I’m talking about.

What bothers me is a transactional theology
    that assumes God specifically sends me blessings
        as reward for good deeds,
        or having enough faith,
        or for certain reasons known only to God.
    That leads us to trouble.

    When we make God entirely and directly responsible
        for the presence of the good things in my life,
        then God also needs to be responsible when they are absent.

    And if the good breaks we get in life,
        turn out to have disastrous consequences for other people,
            like having the eye of the storm pass a hundred miles north
                and hitting another town instead,
            or my cancer getting cured, and my neighbor’s not,
        then how do I thank God for blessing me,
        without saying God chose not to bless another?

Most of the good things
    we’re supposed to thank God for this Thursday—
        plenty of food, shelter, freedom, security,
        clean water, access to health care, material goods, education—
    we have to admit there is more to it
        than God pointing at us and deciding we get the blessings.

Lots of factors contribute to the fact that we have these things,
    and many other people in the world do not—
    illiteracy, chronic poverty, crime rates, disease, oppression,
        and all kinds of social ills
        impact certain classes of people more than others.

And in our own wealthy nation,
    if you are an immigrant,
    or have skin of a different color,
    or subscribe to a minority religion,
    or were born into certain neighborhoods,
    or can’t break into the world of higher education,
        then your odds of having an overflowing barn or closet,
        are infinitely smaller than those without those factors.

As I said last Sunday,
    I am a person of privilege, as are most of us here.
    We were born into that privilege.
    Not all our success can be attributed to our hard work.
    Nor can it all be explained by saying
        God had special regard for us, blessing us beyond others.

Saying that or implying that is not only theologically wrong.
    It’s offensive to most of the world.

Thanksgiving, if we’re not careful,
    takes us very close to that line.
We can end up casually thanking God for things we have,
    and stop there,
    ignoring the unequal economic system tilted in our favor.

Of course, the opposite also happens.
    In times of suffering, or loss, or illness,
        we can blame God for causing something
        that we ourselves contributed to, directly or indirectly.

God is not a candyman.
And God is not a thief.

When we Americans, in the most powerful nation—
    economically, politically, militarily—
    give our collective thanks to God for our blessings,
        we at least need to add a big footnote & disclaimer.

And now, I think I’ve probably reached the end
    of your patience with my cynicism.
    You may be just as annoyed with me,
        as the residents of Whoville were with Mr. Grinch.

So I will slowly start giving Thanksgiving back.

First, let me assure you, I will do Thanksgiving this Thursday,
    and I’ll do it happily.
    Our table will be full to overflowing,
        and there will be leftovers on Friday and Saturday.
    We’ll be with family in Ohio, and it’s going to be great.
    I’m going to pray a Thanksgiving prayer.
    I’m going to express my deep gratitude
        for a loving and healthy family and a bountiful table.

    But I’m also going to be careful. At least I’ll try.
    I’m going to watch my words,
        so that I don’t give God credit that God would not own.
    I will try not to imply that God did something for me
        which God chose not to do for my more unfortunate neighbors.

I am going to attempt to make my prayer at the Thanksgiving table,
    an act of unconditional worship,
    rather than a transaction between God and me—
        a thank-you in exchange for God showing me special favor.

Deuteronomy 26 can help with that.
    We read this earlier.
    It’s a set of instructions, an order of worship,
        for how the people of Israel should approach God,
        after generations of wandering in the wilderness,
            eating food and meat that fell from the sky.
        Once they settle,
            and plant, cultivate, weed, and harvest,
            and bring in the first of the crop,
            they are to have a festival of worship,
                bringing the first and best.
        They are to remind each other where they came from,
            a nation of wanderers.
        They are to thank God with a gift from the harvest,
            present it publically in worship,
            and then have a feast with everyone together—
                including the foreigners living among them.

    It’s a beautiful, classic text about worship and first-fruits giving.

But take note.
    Even in the Ancient Near East,
        where the predominant world view was
        that the gods were directly responsible
            for everything that happened,
        and those gods were often capricious,
            giving to some, withholding from others,
            and our main agenda was staying on the gods’ good side,
        even in that cultural and religious context,
        a transaction with God was not the point of this liturgy.

The people were expected to feast and to celebrate,
    whether it was a good year or a bad year.

This first-fruits offering in Deuteronomy 26,
    the tithe set forth in the law, the first and best of the harvest,
    was not conditional, depending on how good the harvest—
        like if you are blessed, give thanks,
            and if not, you’re off the hook.

No, the assumption was, God was with them,
    and was on their side already.
    We all have gifts to give, because our gifts are proportionate.
    It didn’t matter if the tithe had to be hauled in
        with a team of oxen, with the wagon piled high.
        or . . . if the tenth of the harvest could be held in one hand.
    Either way, you brought it in, you celebrated, and you shared.

The focus of the offering, as far as I can tell,
    had nothing at all to do with how much they had been blessed.
The focus of the offering was solely on God as provider.
    God was the source of all life.
    God was creator and owner of everything they had.
    So God deserved their praise and thanksgiving. Period.

This was not American-style Thanksgiving—
    “Count your many blessings,
        then thank God for how many you have.”
No, the mandate is,
    “Worship God with all you have, and all you are,
        and return a proportion, no matter how small or large.”

We owe God everything, as the source of all life.
    The worship we offer is not conditional.
    In fact, worship itself a great equalizer
        between those who have a lot,
        and those who have little.
    Because every gift is blessed, is consecrated,
        and is then shared equally with all—
    In Deuteronomy, it was shared with the Levites (who had no land),
        and with the aliens, the orphans, and the widows.
    All ate.
    All were included.
    All had enough.
    And all worshiped God.

That’s the kind of Thanksgiving that the church is called to reclaim.
    So if I stole Thanksgiving in the first half of this message,
        Now I’m giving it back,
            and asking us to reshape it.
    Let’s reject the affluent American version of this holiday,
        and make it a celebration where all eat.
            All have enough.
            All are included.
            All are shown welcome and hospitality.
            And all are invited to worship God, the source of all.

    We have good reason to celebrate and give thanks,
        and to do so heartily.
    God is at work in the world, in all the world.
    God is with us, equally, in feast and famine,
        in blessing and suffering,
    It’s a tough Thanksgiving this year for some in our community,
        who feel alone and anxious and insecure.
    What better time to put even more leaves in the table,
        and share our abundance
        with those who need to be reassured they belong.

    It’s great to stick a sign in our yard welcoming our neighbors.
        I’ve done that.
        It says something important.
        But it’s also easy to do.
        Let’s find ways to risk including our neighbors in our lives,
            and entering into theirs.
            especially those on the edges of our community,
            and celebrate together
                the God who is the source of all that is good,
                and deserves our gratitude,
                    however little or much we have.

—Phil Kniss, November 20, 2016

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