Sunday, November 19, 2000

Thanks Be To God

Asbury First United Methodist Church


Text: Matthew 6:25-33

I picture you driving somewhere on Thursday. Over the river and through the woods. Pray as the windshield wipers swish and swish. Pray for real Thanksgiving. Real Thanksgiving means lifting our hearts to God.

I remember viewing the various display tables at the World Council Assembly in Vancouver, 1983. It startled me to come upon a secular organization, straight from Texas, source of so much trouble. The table offered brochures promoting a new project, "Americans united in Thanksgiving". One of ten signers, Albert Outler, a magnanimous Methodist, one of my heroes. Surely we can be thankful for people who have shown us thanksgiving in their lives. We might give thanks for big hearted people, and try to emulate them.

Hold on a minute, though. We are on shaky ground. Magnanimity is not as ubiquitous today as it was fifty years ago. Our time with it chronic ailments and post-Christian ethos dampens such spirit. We grow up more slowly and grow and grow out less gratefully than our two older generations. Big hearts are hard to find. And when found, they are too often human, frail. Thanksgiving is not finally in other people.

The windshield wiper swishes and swishes, to grandmothers' house's we go.

Were can I find real Thanksgiving? I look to the church, whose eucharist blends with the eternal liturgy of the angels. Has there ever been such a thankful splendid mix of people? Surely we may give thanks for church, our church, our consecration of work and life, our communal summary of what means most to us.

Hold on a minute, though. We are on shaky ground. If for this only we are to give thanks, we may question our need to do so. After all, notice where the church falls short. Thousands of neighbors have not come to the banquet. Our church has miles to go, yet, in worship for the 21st century, in evangelism from Park Avenue to Henrietta in modeling a dimension of racial harmony, in standing for the life and welfare of children, in teaching tithing. Many more are absent than present on Sunday, particularly color, students, the poor. And, of all those absent on a given Sunday, our overly cozy celebration can make the absence of the transcendent God the most painful absence of all. Said one Lutheran, reading the new Methodist hymnal: "They still celebrate themselves." We bring with us on Sunday a bit of the functional atheism of the week.

No matter what we build in work, in liturgy, we are on shaky ground. I sat with my friend Bill 10 years ago. He runs the Presbyterian College in Montreal. We looked out his window at what remained of a beautiful modern chapel. Built in 1960, remodeled in 1985, this chapel took years to create. Years of fund raising, committee meetings, hard decisions, color coordination, architectural design. It was finally finished in 1988, and I worshiped in it for these years. One Saturday night in October, an arsonist burned it down in two hours. There is creativity in destruction: he planned his move, turned off the alarm, set the fire and ran. But Bill, a gentle fellow, made this remark: "It is trite but true. It takes so long to build something, and no time at all to destroy it."

You know there is more than one kind of arson. The building of years and lifetimes can be creatively destroyed in a moment, with a word, out of one action. No, the secret of Thanksgiving is not in our liturgy, either. Our church, our finest common work, is too fragile for that. Here "wheat and tares are together sown, unto joy and sorrow grown." For the church, the day of the Lord can come like a thief in the night. Beware.

Swish, and swish again, the windshield wipers move, it is a gray Thanksgiving, a day of reverie.

But is there not in life itself much for which we may be thankful? Witness our material well-being, our sweaters and jewelry. Surely we are grateful for our jobs. And what fine homes we have, even the humblest in our congregation has the makings of a palace. We can at least be grateful for health, hearth, home. These have been 10 prosperous years. All is well, isn't it?

Hold on a minute. We are on shaky ground for real Thanksgiving. Life inspires both gratitude and ingratitude. Our progress has been at a fantastic social and environmental expense. The nuclear potential of the age brackets all optimism. And though you may be cozy and happy Thursday, many will not be. Many will stare blankly at T. V. with no hand to hold but their own. Others will return to the fractious family that bore them. Still others will sharply realize the loss, through death and divorce, of 2000. Of course, we can be thankful that it isn't any worse.

The wipers swish, to and fro. Swish, swish, swish! And the sun also rises.

The secret of Thanksgiving is hidden, strangely enough, back in the Scripture read. Ever since Adam, Eve and serpent held their theological seminar in the garden, yesterday, we have been putting our questions upside down. We do so now. We try to find Thanksgiving in the question "For what are we thankful?" and the answer is ambiguous, as is life itself. The Bible, telling Jesus' gospel, has it otherwise.

Not for what, but to whom are we thankful today?


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