Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thank God for Batkid, Pope Francis, and Chocolate-Covered Popcorn

Every year the Windsor Hightstown Area Ministerium (WHAM) has a community Thanksgiving service. They usually pick on, I mean pick the newest person in the group to preach at Thanksgiving, meaning this year it was yours truly. But it was kind of fun to preach at an interfaith service at a Catholic church!

Thanksgiving Service 11-24-13

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

So , thanksgiving sort of already happened for my husband and I. It was a couple of months ago, when a hug package showed up at the church in Hamilton where he served as pastor until recently. He called me up, and told me I’d better come over since this hug box was directed to me. The package was to me, with his churches address, with a return address that neither of us recognized – at least, it was not from anyone who were members of either of our churches. AND, to boot, the name of his church was spelled as though a kindergartener had spelled in phonetically. So, it was a mystery as to why it was there, and a miracle as to HOW it got there.

Eventually I remembered why the sender’s name was vaguely familiar. Weeks before, the local funeral home had called my husband up at the request of a local family, unconnected to a congregation, who desired to have their beloved “Meredith” given a Christian memorial service and burial. And they wanted a minister. And they wanted to do it at that church. Ok, well, since he couldn’t do it, I did. I guess you can do that if you’re married to a pastor from your own denomination, right?

So I presided at her memorial service, which for me, not having known this woman, was not all that memorable. I don’t remember saying anything particularly profound in the homily I gave, and no one was extremely overcome with emotion during the prayers. They might have invited me to a local restaurant for the family lunch after the burial, but I thanked them and politely declined, and went on with the rest of my day.

Fast forward now to that phone call and package in my husband’s office. We opened it up, and discovered a huge Harry and David’s gourmet gift basket. And I really do mean gourmet. Never before had I known that things like chocolate covered popcorn could taste like manna from heaven. Well, never before had we ever heard of Harry and David’s. We googled the company, found their website, and our eyes popped out when we saw the price of the gift basket we had been sent. For doing a service for a woman that I had never met. From people that I had only met once, probably for the sum total of an hour and a half. From a family that for all I knew had rarely darkened the door of a church, at least not until the day of their mother’s/sister’s/aunt’s/friend’s funeral. From people that I have not seen since. That day, in our own way, thanks to this family, my husband and I had celebrated the feast of Thanksgiving.

We Americans forget that we did not invent the concept of giving thanks. We may indeed be blamed for pairing it to turkey, stuffing, parades, November, and football. But thanksgiving was not born three hundred years ago in a celebratory meal between pilgrims and Native Americans. Nor was it created back in the Old World to celebrate the time of the harvest. As long as humankind has wondered at the mystery that is a seed growing and bearing fruit, we have been giving thanks.

And even though fewer and fewer of us these days actually work the land from which our food comes from, like clockwork, every fall as the leaves change and the air grows cold, we still have the urge to take stock of the blessings we have been given.

This year, though, has been a hard year to give thanks for. So much destruction and turmoil has happened in such a short time: the bombing of the Boston Marathon, nuclear testing in North Korea, the government shutdown, a bombing in a mall in Kenya, the collapse of a massive building in Bangladesh, lethal shootings at the Los Angeles Airport and the Washington DC Navy Yard, the cuts to food programs like food stamps in the continuing recession, and last but not least devastating Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. How can we really serve the Lord with gladness? How can we give thanks and bless God’s name in the midst of such a year?

There is plenty of good that has happened this year, too. Pope Francis. Three women were rescued after being kidnapped and held against their will for ten years. The election of the first female presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A teenager saved a nine-year old boy from going over a massive waterfall in Yosemite national park. And just last week, a five-year old Make-a-wish kid got to dress up as Batkid and save the city of San Francisco alongside his favorite superhero, Batman.

 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” These are words written long ago from a man in a jail cell to a fledgling Christian community long ago. But his words still ring true to us today, in a world fraught with fear.  He continues, “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It is so easy to miss the good things when the world tells us to focus on fear, anxiety, violence, and destruction. Because the scary things can be far more memorable than the good things. Case in point: I had to ask my friends to help me with the list I just shared of good things that happened this year, for two reasons. Because Wikipedia listed almost all negative events for 2013, and frankly I was having trouble coming up with them on my own. I had something like “good news amnesia.”

Bad news gets our attention. Good news is not as sensational or exciting, and therefore we must work harder in order to notice it. But if anything is worth of thanks, we must think on such things. In the responses I got from my friends, in addition to the big events that effected all of us, were plenty of reasons to give thanks that were more personal and mundane: – getting married and having children, landing a job they wanted, or have access to affordable health care, and even celebrating  the victory of a favorite sports team. Together we remembered what one person was not able to remember alone.

This is probably the reason that Thanksgiving is a holiday that is not about eating Turkey and stuffing by ourselves. It is a day we feel compelled to celebrate with others, with family and friends, with our communities. Because what is the use of all the blessings we have, if we cannot share them with one another? God is not the shepherd of a flock of one.

ThanksGIVING may be one day a year. But THANKSgiving can happen every day, every hour, every moment, when we remember who we belong to - that God is our shepherd and we are God’s flock. THANKSgiving used to happen with grain and produce from the field; now it happens with turkey and pie, and sometimes even with Harry and David’s chocolate covered popcorn.

Perhaps it is a good thing that every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, we make ourselves remember not just what we should be giving thanks FOR, but who we should be giving thanks TO. At least once a year we wake up enough from our “good news amnesia,” to pool our memories in order to see our double blessing. Not just the fact that we are blessed, but that we recognize that we are blessed and give thanks for the blessings that we already have.

The Samaritan leper healed by Jesus did not need a reminder – he can already see what the rest of us often miss. And so we take our cue from a healed invalid with no name. For he himself was his own tithe, his own thanks offering, as he shouted his praise to God, for all to hear, both near and far:

Thanks be to God! 
Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God. Amen!

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