REMEMBERING GRATITUDE

Posted by secondchurch on December - 2 - 2018

Remembering Gratitude

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
November 18, 2018
Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor

For some reason, I have been nostalgic for Thanksgivings past, in particular, Thanksgiving-themed worship services.  In my very first church, in a small, dairy farming community in Wisconsin, the Thanksgiving worship experience was most memorable.  I had been in my position only a few weeks when I met with the local clergy to plan the ecumenical Thanksgiving worship.  I was so new to ministry, I actually looked forward to meeting with my ministerial colleagues!  Of course, I was the only woman in the group, it being 1980.  As it happened, the minister of the UCC congregation was scheduled next in the rotation to preach at the Thanksgiving Eve ecumenical service to be held at the Catholic church.  What a nightmare that clergy meeting turned out to be.  For the better part of an hour, my brothers talked about their discomfort sharing worship leadership with me, a woman, especially if I was to preach!  After the meeting, out in the parking lot, the Methodist pastor told me not to feel bad – they were just expressing the same kind of discomfort one would feel when visiting a parishioner with cancer. 

Back at my office, I sat behind my desk and cried, only to be discovered by Evelyn who was getting construction paper for her Sunday School kids to make turkeys.  She wanted to know why her new pastor was crying, so I told her.  By 5:00 that afternoon, all of my church officers were sitting in the parsonage living room, mad as all get out.  They could question whether it was a good idea to have called a woman to be their minister, but those guys had no right – no right to treat me that way!  They were ready to march directly to each one of those pastor’s homes and set them on their heels.  At the very least, they would boycott the lutefisk supper at Our Savior Lutheran Church.  I did in fact preach, and it was the Catholic priest who welcomed me most warmly.  I don’t remember a single thing about my sermon, but I’ll never forget my warrior parishioners rising to my defense!

I’ve managed to dodge preaching at ecumenical Thanksgiving services ever since, though a couple years ago, the church I was serving in Minneapolis was on the rotation to host the large downtown Minneapolis churches’ interfaith Thanksgiving service.  I did not have to preach, but it was my job to put the service together.  Over a breakfast meeting, the minister who would preach and I cooked up a plan for him to do something of a dialogue sermon with a wonderful Native American story-teller.  That was also memorable.  Jim Bear began his remarks on that Thanksgiving Day, in front of 5 or 600 worshippers by saying he never imagined he would stand in the pulpit of a church named Plymouth Congregational on Thanksgiving, a day he and his people tend not to celebrate with much enthusiasm.  It was a powerful moment – hard to hear but important to recognize that for native people, Thanksgiving is a bitter remembrance.

A lot of things happen over a life time of Thanksgiving services and Thanksgiving celebrations – in the nation, in one’s own life, and in the church.  Friends come and go.  Issues move forward to the front burner and then back to the back.  Loved ones die.  Babies are born to people we swear are still babies themselves.  Slang comes into vogue and thankfully out again.  Scandals surface over and over again, sex being not such a new thing, after all.  Wars begin.  Jobs come and go – the meaningful ones and the mundane ones.  Summer river swims, canoe rides, full moons, a billion raked leaves, inches and inches of snow, family arguments, estranged children – all a blur of Thanksgiving Days past.

As for church life – well, on and on it goes too – financial pledge drives, baptisms, memorial services, disagreements over one thing or another.  When I began ministry, thirty-eight years ago, gender inclusive language was a royal battle, as if any of us could describe God with a word, male or female.  That first little congregation I served pulled itself together and with a mighty push raised pledges sufficient to support its total operating budget – salary, fuel oil, insurance and all – of $30,000.  I learned a lot about dairy farming – how demanding and difficult a life it is.  And about the wildly varied expectations people have of their pastor.  And which battles are worth choosing.

Time is a strange thing, isn’t it?  Not long ago I listened with half an ear to a story about Einstein’s theory of relativity, particularly as it relates to time dilation.  I have no idea what they were talking about and I’m certain that had I listened with complete concentration, rather than trying to remember if I had included butter on my grocery list, I still would not have understood.  And you know what?  I’ll be content to go to my grave without ever understanding Einstein’s theory of time dilation.  What I DO know about time, is that it changes speed all the time.  The years of my children’s childhoods lasted about ten minutes.  The hours I’ve spent worrying about church budgets are eternally long.  I’ve been thinking about why I like knitting and stitching so much.  In part, it’s because the handwork helps me pray and think and rest the spinning of my mind.  But I like it most because it measures time, one stitch at a time, and when the thing is finished – the hat or sweater or mittens or Christmas ornament, I can see the time it took to create the thing in every stitch.

It has been accurately said of Americans, that we have remarkably short memories, bordering on total amnesia. We need to get better at remembering, and maybe that would be the best way to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Remember those with whom you ate your first Thanksgiving meal.  Remember the faces, now gone, of those who were kind to you.  Remember back to a time before you started to believe in God, if you can remember such a time, or before you ever fell in love.  Remember back farther still, to the times when you were afraid you would never understand something important, and back farther, to a time when your ancestors were wandering immigrants, and back farther to whatever experience caused them to leave their homes, either because they were forced to leave or were desperate for a new life or were chained to slave ships or were not allowed to worship freely or write openly or provide for their families or satisfy their adventurous spirits or keep their children alive.

That is the underlying meaning of the passage from Deuteronomy Laura read a few moments ago.  It is about remembering, and not just what you can remember yourself, but remembering back and back and back farther still, and because you can remember, so also you can give thanks.  It is about standing before the altar of the Almighty and reciting the oldest words in all of Scripture – “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”  He was a stranger in a strange land.  They were treated harshly there – my ancestors, our mothers and fathers.  They cried out to God, who saw them and brought them out of that strange land and gave them a new place to live, to thrive.  So now, remembering all that God has done for them, for us, we bring the first, the best, the fruit of our labor and the strength of our lives and we offer them in gratitude to God.

It would not be too much of a simplification to say that the primary focus of Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, is remembering what God has done for our ancestors, God’s saving acts.  It is the cornerstone upon which the entire experience of Judaism is built, the salvation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. God fed and led them through the wilderness, brought them safely into a new land.  Because we remember, we offer our gratitude for what God already has done.  The Christian Scriptures are equally filled with stories of salvation, though Christian saving was not so much from slavery under the hand of an oppressor.  No, God rescued our ancestors this time from themselves — from ourselves – from our own limitations, fears, sins, and that endless ambition to demonstrate our superiority to the next guy.

There is thanksgiving in a nutshell.  Because of what God has already done in the past for our Jewish ancestors, and did again in Jesus for those of us who claim Christian loyalty, we are to be grateful.  Because of what God has already done, our generosity is invited.  And more, because of what God has already done, our “lovableness” is a given.  Because of what God has already done, we are loved.

The already-accomplished nature of both our Jewish heritage and Christian tradition is not something we think about very often.  We’re always trying to work out how to improve ourselves, or, more accurately, how to improve others.  For today, however, guided as we are by the telling of the story in Deuteronomy of how God delivered our ancestors from slavery, perhaps we can focus on gratitude for what is.

Let me close today by reading the words of a thanksgiving prayer written by Paul Carnes in his book, Longing of the Heart.  “Many and varied are the gifts that have been bestowed upon us.  Some have come as a legacy from those whose names will forever be hidden from us, removed by time or distance.  To whom shall we give thanks but to thee, O God?  But, in our thanksgiving may we remember not only that which gave us pleasure, but also that which brought us disappointment, even pain and suffering, for we know that all that we have met has helped us to become what we are, and will shape the ends we seek.  If tomorrow should bring new disappointments and new sufferings so that words of thanksgiving lie unuttered on our tongues, enable us then to pray that the day will come when we can be thankful for whatever dark road we have been forced to travel, that in such darkness we may see light.  Amen”

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