Sunday, November 18, 2018

Phil Kniss: Thanksgiving, in cosmic proportions

Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 65:1, 9-13; Matthew 6:25-33

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Until I got into the lectionary texts for this week,
I’m not sure that I ever stopped to think about the fact
that the prophet Joel, at one point,
was prophesying to the dirt!

I know Ezekiel prophesied to dry bones,
but that was in a vision, not real dry bones.

But here in holy scripture, we have Joel actually talking to the dirt.
He tells the soil,
“Do not be afraid!
Be glad and rejoice, O soil,
for the Lord has done great things!”

Maybe he thought the dirt needed some cheering up.
It was feeling a little low and depressed,
which I guess is one of the hazards of being dirt,
what with people walking all over you,
and animals dropping you-know-what on you,
and digging holes in you.

Joel quickly moves on and talks to living things—
animals, trees, children of God.
We’re used to that.
The psalms famously call on the trees to clap their hands,
and the wild animals to give praise.
But the dirt?

So it got me to thinking…

There is really nothing, in all creation,
excluded from God’s tender love and care
and bountiful generosity,
which is what we celebrate every Thanksgiving.
God provides for it all, from the lowliest clod of dirt,
to the most glorious constellation in the night sky,
and everything in between.
On this occasion, we can offer our Thanksgiving,
in cosmic proportions.

The thing is, we often get distracted around Thanksgiving.
The holiday gets a very American, very Western,
very individualistic spin.
It becomes an occasion for something very different
than what the prophet Joel was envisioning.

We gather family around a table piled high,
at least in the Norman Rockwell version of this picture,
and give thanks for our many blessings.
I know there are many other beautiful forms of Thanksgiving feasts,
some very simple, involving only a couple people,
some that draw in people on the margins,
like the annual Thanksgiving feast downtown at OCP.
But typically, or stereotypically,
it’s a huge family dinner with all the trimmings,
and this creates the opportunity, we assume,
for each person around the table
to reflect on their blessings, and be thankful for them.

It’s a time to look back on my life,
and notice those things I might have taken for granted—
the roof over my head,
loving family members,
plenty of food, health, and other forms of prosperity.
And I am given the nudge to name them,
and to thank God for giving me these gifts.

Now, by no means would I knock this practice.
Practicing gratitude is a good and necessary discipline.
It does our souls good,
to be reminded that we don’t make the good happen on our own.
It is gift and grace.
We are not self-made.
We are dependent beings.
Thanksgiving is a great reminder of that.

But I would just point out—that is only one part of the story.
And the part we miss so often, is the best part—
the most life-giving,
the most encouraging and hopeful.
The end of the fall harvest season
is a time to worship God who makes and sustains it all.
All—including the dirt itself.

As soon as I lose sight of that larger picture,
by focusing on my blessings, and my good fortune,
I start creating a God in my image,
who gives me all I want and need,
rather than the God of the Bible,
who prioritizes the needs of the poor and the oppressed,
who is drawn in love toward even the lowliest part of creation—
the dirt and that which crawls within it.

Remembering this larger picture of God’s generosity to all,
is especially important because of
the blinders we can put on at Thanksgiving,
about how all this abundance ended up on our tables,
and not on some others.

I’m not calling on us to put a damper on the festivities,
God knows, we need to party and celebrate more than we do.
I’m only calling on us to be honest when we celebrate.

Because we are on shaky ground, truth-wise,
if we start attributing all our abundance as God’s gift to us,
in reward, say, for our faithfulness and diligence
and good hard work.
When we start adopting a transactional theology,
where God is entirely and solely and directly responsible
for the presence of good things in my life,
then God also needs to be responsible when they are absent.

If a full barn and abundant blessings are signs
that God looks on me with favor,
then an empty barn—
disaster, loss, suffering, and grief—
has to be a sign that God looks on me with disfavor.

That’s a dangerous way of thinking about this race called life,
especially because of the socio-economic advantage and privilege
some of us get, right out of the gate.
It’s not a fair race.
We don’t all begin from the same starting line.

In our affluent nation-state,
if you are an immigrant (with or without papers),
if you were born into certain neighborhoods,
if you have skin of a different color,
if you subscribe to a minority religion,
if you can’t break into the world of higher education,
then the odds of having a barn that overflows (metaphorically),
are infinitely smaller than for persons like me,
without those factors.

I am a person of privilege.
Compared to many other people
who would like to get to the same finish line,
my starting line is miles ahead of theirs.
I was born on that starting line.
I dare not attribute all my “blessings” either to my hard work,
or to God’s specific choice to bless me, and not others.
I was born into a system designed to protect and advantage
certain groups of people.
And that system is slow to change.
Slow . . . to change.

Let’s think a moment about elections,
since that’s on our minds these days.
We’re also mindful of the 100th anniversary of WWI—
not a long time ago in the scheme of things.
Do you know that in the wartime presidential election in 1916
when Woodrow Wilson was reelected,
women were still not guaranteed the right to a vote?
African-American men were supposedly guaranteed the right to vote,
but in reality,
their votes were actively suppressed by state laws,
and voting was virtually impossible in some places,
until the Voting Rights Act,
which happened barely 50 years ago!
And as we know, people in power are still working the system.

Those with power are slow to let go of their advantage,
and share power and privilege with others.

When it comes time to give thanks at Thanksgiving,
how can we not take into account systemic factors—
like mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses,
or laws that create greater burdens for immigrants,
or a multitude of other cultural and economic systems?
how can we not take into account these factors
that work in favor of those of us with resources,
and against those without?

When white, middle-class, American citizens gather on Thursday,
to pray a prayer of thanks to God for their blessings,
they should probably add a large footnote.

In the academic world, people get fired for plagiarism,
for saying words that aren’t entirely their own, as if they were,
and not citing the source.
Maybe we should have the same moral standard
applied to our Thanksgiving prayers.
Sitting at a full table thanking God for our health and prosperity,
without acknowledging the many people who pay a price
for our ability to sit in that position,
should be considered spiritual plagiarism.

The Bible is rich with resources to keep our prayers honest.
When the prophet Joel speaks of God’s sustaining work in creation,
and God’s abundant provision,
it is clear that God does not have a favored class of people.
There is nothing individualistic about God’s love and blessing.
All of creation, from the soil on up,
is beloved of God,
and God has a plan for all of it, together, that consists of
abundance and fruitfulness and generosity and mutuality.

When the psalmist praised God in words we heard a few minutes ago,
it’s clear the whole cosmos was in mind,
not the few and the privileged.
“You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.”

When Jesus taught us, in the Sermon on the Mount,
he reminded us that God’s tender care is for all the cosmos,
beginning with the lowest part.
“Look at the birds of the air;
they neither sow nor reap . . . yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they neither toil nor spin . . . yet God dressed them
in greater finery than Solomon.”

God loves the cosmos!
That’s actually the Greek word, cosmos, in John 3:16,
the Bible’s most famous verse—
“For God so loved the cosmos,
that God gave his only begotten Son . . .”

Our place in that cosmos,
the role of us human beings, the people of God,
is that we reveal the true nature and character of God
to the rest of the cosmos.
It’s just the way God designed this project of restoring creation.
We are God’s essential partners in God’s mission.
We are God’s image-bearers.
As N. T. Wright likes to say,
we are angled mirrors,
reflecting the Glory of God to all creation,
and returning the praise of God
from creation back to its creator.

We are the key connecting point, it seems to me,
between God, and the soil that Joel was prophesying to.
We reflect God’s love to the soil and everything in it,
by the way we treat it.
And in our worship and praise of God,
we give voice to the soil, as it were,
and help it rejoice and give thanks.

So at Thanksgiving,
as at many other times of the year,
it is incumbent on us to praise God heartily,
to enjoy the feast and give thanks,
on behalf of all creation benefiting from God’s generosity—
from the soil to the constellations,
from the rich to the poor,
from the empowered to the disempowered.

When we pray this Thanksgiving,
we would be well to include in our prayers the well-being
of each person in the caravan of migrants seeking asylum,
and of residents and officials at the border meeting them,
and of decision-makers in Washington,
that each of them would be empowered to act
in a way that reflects God’s intention for humanity.
And we should pray for ourselves,
for the wisdom and courage we need,
to act in ways that are truthful to our prayers,
where our own daily decisions and actions—
in our neighborhoods and in the marketplace,
are the mirrors that reflect God’s image and character
to those around us,
and are a conduit for the prayers and longings
of God’s people back to God.

In these troubling times,
Thanksgiving prayers are an opportunity to speak, and then act,
in ways that are morally congruent with a generous God
who loves all of creation,
not a God I invented,
who is all about giving me a comfortable life.

All our prayers, all our words, all our deeds, all our decisions,
all our acts of giving and service,
are for this same purpose.
We don’t really have to wonder why we are here on this earth.
We know!
We were appointed for this task from the beginning of humanity.
We are bearers of the image of God,
and we are to reflect that image openly and clearly
for the healing and restoration of all people and creation.

That’s the guiding light for us as a church community.
That’s the guiding light for each of you,
as you determine how you will engage God’s mission
with your church community.

This is why each year,
we purposely pair the celebration of Thanksgiving,
with the very important, but seemingly more mundane,
practice of submitting our financial “Faith Promises”
to the congregation.

This is not just a routine administrative detail
in the annual fiscal process at Park View.
This is truly, and undeniably, an act of worship.
I don’t mean you’re going to necessarily get all bubbly about it,
and get overcome with emotion,
as you drop your financial intentions for 2019 into the basket.
Maybe you will. Fine if you do. Fine if you don’t.

I say it is worship, because scripture says it is.
It is your true and sincere worship,
to give all that you are and all that you have
to the service of God and God’s purposes.
Offering your very body, your self, to God,
is, according to Romans 12,
your reasonable service, your reasonable worship.

It means you are being obedient to God’s call on your life,
by willingly becoming God’s partner, God’s collaborator,
in the making of a new and restored creation.

If that new-creation project is what we are about here at Park View,
and I sincerely believe it is,
then participating in this annual practice of giving
becomes your reasonable worship as well.

And by the way,
that’s also what distinguishes this worship practice,
from every other decision you make about giving to charity.

I’ve said this other years, and it’s still true.
For those of you who are part of our congregational family,
this is not called charitable giving,
this is called being part of the family.

We call this “first-fruits” giving,
because both testaments in scripture teach
a first-harvest, off-the-top,
proportionate giving to the family-of-God project.
For Israel, it was supporting the tribe of Levi
so they could lead the people in worship,
instead of having to devote all their time to raise crops.
For the early house church movement in Acts,
it was proportionate giving to share the wealth of some,
with other Christians living in poverty,
since being Christian in that time and place of persecution
often had tragic consequences, economically.
In our time and place,
there are different priorities for our funds,
but I certainly would hope,
as you examine our spending plan closely,
that our expenses are going, directly or indirectly,
to God’s big project of restoring creation
and making all things new.

So deciding on our giving to our own local church family,
is a different sort of decision than giving to a good charity.
In giving to charity,
we, in essence, vote with our money—as well we should.
We give to those causes we support and are passionate about,
who share our values.
We cast a vote in their favor, by helping them thrive financially.

But we don’t vote with our money when it comes to family.
We either see ourselves as part of this body, or we don’t.
If we do, we give a proportionate share,
as God’s leads and enables.

Participating in the family project,
is participating in the mission of God,
if that is what the family is about.
And ours is.

So how will this offering ritual work this morning?
Pretty simple.
Instead of passing plates,
we invite those who will
to come up with their first and best,
and offer it in worship to the new-creation mission of God.

There are multiple things you can offer.
Your weekly tithe or offering.
Your Faith Promise card for 2019 giving—
a good-faith intention
that helps us be better stewards of God’s gifts.
Or bring anything else that symbolizes
your readiness to participate in God’s mission—
a few words written on a corner of your bulletin,
an object,
The point is,
whether you have little or much,
you’re invited to place something
in one of the large baskets here at the front.

We won’t come up en masse, or in orderly lines.
Just come as you wish, as you are able,
while Christopher and Maria Clymer-Kurtz
provide some music for the occasion.

Let us worship God together,
with all that we are and have.

—Phil Kniss, November 18, 2018

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