Last year, I had the privilege of preaching at the Thanksgiving eve service at Trinity UMC in Durham, NC. Today, as so many of us in the United States are preparing once again to join with friends and family around the table, I wanted to share these words with you.
This sermon is rooted in scriptures from Ecclesiastes, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, and Paul’s “jars of clay text” from 2 Corinthians.
During my last year as a Divinity school student, a friend of mine who was in her first year in her first church called me after returning home from a hospital visit. It was late December. One of her parishioners had become very ill. She was near to death, and the family had been told that this might be their last chance to visit. So a carload of family and near friends got onto the highway to make their way to their hometown to stand vigil, and somewhere on the road they had been in an accident. Now there were two more family members near death, at a hospital more than an hour from their hoped for destination. This friend of mine grieved for the family in this hour, and she lamented: “How can I preach a Christmas Eve service? I don’t feel very Christmassy right now, and neither do many people in my congregation.”
The tricky thing about holidays is that their season is not always our season. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is one of the biggest festival days in our culture – it is a time for us to celebrate friends and family and good food, to give thanks for happy memories and for all of our present blessings – it is a way to mark time with a series of smiling snapshots – a time to make happy memories!
Which is great for those of us for whom this November is significantly better than last November, and not such great news for those of us for whom this past year has been lousy. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving as a newly married couple, while for others, this will be the first since the loss of a marriage through death or divorce. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving in a new home, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving since losing their home. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving with a new baby, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving after having lost a child. This may have been one of your best years, or one of your worst – and let’s not oversimplify things: this may have been a year where your best gifts have come with their own burdens: a return home from deployment overseas may come with a reminder of friends who didn’t make it back. A new baby may come with a loss of time with your spouse. A new job or new town is, for both good and ill, not like the last one. It can be hard to be full of thanks if it feels like you are running on empty.
Nothing in this life is permanent, instead, as the writer of Ecclesiastes begins his book, “all is vanity” – life is fragile and fleeting – it cannot be grasped and mastered. Or as Jesus reminds us in Luke, neither poverty nor wealth, neither grief nor joy, neither famine nor feast, neither disdain nor praise are permanent conditions! Grief gives way to laughter, as surely as laughter gives way to grief.
So what shall we do? Insofar as you can, enjoy what you can for as long as you can, the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests. Remember that you carry Christ in you, Paul admonishes. Love – love everyone! Jesus tells us. None of them seems to be saying, “Smile, and no one will notice you are having a lousy time.”
If we are going to share a table with one another, we had better show up! Being real about who we are and what season we are in is a real ministry to our friends and family. We have this treasure in clay jars. Our fragile vessels are filled to the brim with God’s grace! God has poured love into us – into our fragile, fleeting, hopeful and frightened, confused happy sad selves – we are loved exuberantly and extravagantly. Not because we are perfect hosts and hostesses, not because we have never burned a pie, not because we flawlessly executed one of the menus suggested in this year’s November issue of Gourmet magazine. And not because we manage to go through the entire meal without once mentioning any feeling of loss or sadness. No – God loves us as we really and truly are without our having to prove anything to anyone.
Our dog can eat the turkey, our toupee can slip down over our eyebrows, toilet paper can stick to our shoe and trail for yards behind us, and yet we are loved. And it may make us a laughingstock. Or it may come as a sincere relief to our companions who have been trying too hard to live up to some impossible Thanksgiving ideal. And the same goes for our grief, our hunger, and our poverty. When we are honest with one another about our needs, about what we lack and what we miss and how we are hanging on by a thread, not only are our needs more likely to get met – but our neighbors are more likely to have the courage to be more fully present as well – to acknowledge where they themselves are standing in the need of prayer. It can be a great mercy to not play at being perfect.
We are coming to the thanksgiving table tonight as a family – because eucharist means thanksgiving, and God through Christ has made us all kin to one another – we are coming to the table not because we are perfect, but because we are loved. God invites us to share in this thanksgiving meal with one another because God loves us. At this table, we do not have to hide who we are, or pretend that we are more together than we really are. And having shared together at this table, we do not need to pretend with one another, either – being who we really are is a ministry to one another, and to all the world. Because it is only when we acknowledge that we are not perfect that we can stop demanding perfection from one another – it is only when we know that we are mere clay that we can love our enemies – we begin to see with God’s eyes of mercy.
This is good practice for tomorrow! My hope for each one of you would be that you would be sitting down at the table with people who love you, who are true kindred in Christ, people for whom you do not have to be perfect, but with whom you need only to be yourself. But for the many who are not so blessed to be in that situation, instead let us all pray that though you might be afflicted, you would not be crushed; though you might be perplexed, you would not be driven to despair, and though you may be persecuted, you might remember that you are not forsaken, but instead that you are a most beloved child of God. May you find pleasure simply in the preparation of the meal and the eating of the food. And in your every interaction tomorrow, may you find the strength to be merciful even as your Heavenly Father is merciful – to yourself as well as to those you celebrate with.