Notes from Our Pastor: Thanksgiving Day, 2016

thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day, 2016

Thanksgiving Day is becoming a lost holiday; not only is it losing ground to the overwhelming pull of Christmas shopping, but I believe that the rationale for the holiday itself is fast disappearing as well. For this reflection, the history of the American holiday of Thanksgiving is not as important as the shift in attitude pervading our culture. My father and his generation who grew up during the Depression wanted for many things in their lives. If the family could keep a roof over their heads and food on the table so that the children went to bed without hunger pains, they considered they were doing all right. Many people had no cars, even though they might work on the production line in the auto industry. When life was harder and existence threatened – first economically by the Depression then by the coming of the World War – people seem to learn how to value the basics and essentials of life. People could be thankful to have any job, not worrying about whether it offered them “fulfillment” or some other higher but more abstract value. The range of foods and beverages which compete for our palate were unknown except to the very wealthy. Bread, starches, soups, and perhaps a little meat from time to time were more appreciated than the luxuries we take for granted now. We might perhaps conclude from this that a thankful spirit is more likely to be found among those who have less than among those who are completely filled and satiated.

The perspective of earlier generations also seems to have found its center in love of family, in patriotism, and above all in religious faith. A belief in God was widespread and perhaps was held by the majority of people, regardless of which religious tradition they belong to. The understanding that God as our Creator and the provider of all good things (which is an apt description of the God found in the Bible) puts God at the center of everything. As our brilliant, radiant sun sits at the center of the solar system, radiating heat and light to the earth and making life possible from day to day, so our faith sees God as the source and sustainer of life. From that perspective, a spirit of thankfulness would be a natural response within us. At this point in the year, when agricultural harvests have been gathered in, it would be natural to think God for the produce and rewards of our labor, lending itself to setting apart a special day for Thanksgiving.

Returning to the analogy of the solar system, however, our current cultural perspective is more like the ancient view that the earth is the center of all things, with the sun and other bodies just circling around it. A culture of plenty measured by the amount of goods and services produced and consumed does not consider our relationship to God as the measure of our human worth; instead, all too often people are measured and valued (or devalued, degraded, and disregarded) based upon economic standards. Hand-in-hand with that is the belief that what I have results solely from what I have worked for and earned myself – it is mine and I claim both possession of it and the credit for obtaining it. Perhaps I was lucky in finding the right job, but otherwise all things derive from my own work and effort. Why therefore should we be thankful? You can see how this perspective based on an economic model of the person elevates the self to its own center, while at the same time creating within us a desire for more and more to consume or own. It also engenders within our hearts a contempt for those who have not reached the same place we have. Ideas such as the intrinsic or God-given dignity of all people, a positive regard for (let alone love of) our neighbor, and showing gratitude for the blessings that we have all disappear.

Thankfulness actually requires a degree of humility, for if I am not self-sufficient and solely responsible for what I have based on my own achievements, then I must acknowledge that these are gifts or blessings from God. Unless I am willing to grant God His due place at the center and recognize that all that I am and all that I have come from God, I will never know what true thankfulness is.

We can see then why Thanksgiving seems to have lost its place in our national life. To be sure, it is still a day of feasting, celebration, and the in gathering of families, but the immediate associations are excessive eating, football games, and the kick off (nope unintended) of the season of buying and consuming. The picture of an extended family feasting together, enjoying one another’s company, and giving thanks for the good things they have received has sadly become a black and white snapshot stuck in an old photo album from years past. The night before Thanksgiving, for example, is well documented as the busiest time in bars and taverns across the country as returning college students and other young adults gather with their friends, rather than the previous expectation that they would visit with older relatives to begin the holiday. And the day after Thanksgiving is aptly referred to as “Black Friday,” because people cannot wait to leave their families and feasting to start buying and partake of sales as soon as possible.

Taking a page out of the Prayer Book, we remember that the word Eucharist is Greek for “Thanksgiving.” The service begins with the dialogue between the celebrant and the people:

Lord be with you!
And also with you
Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

It is indeed good and right and proper to give thanks to God in all times and in all places for God’s goodness towards us, starting with the fact that we are alive and present, and that God has seen us through so many trials and heartbreaks, and has given us so many gifts and blessings. Our weekly Eucharistic service is one expression of this understanding of the relationship between ourselves and our God. The same impulse and humble response within our hearts can help us celebrate this Thanksgiving Day in a manner which sets it aside as holy and acceptable to the Lord. I can think of no more apt words to conclude this meditation than the collect for Thanksgiving Day:

Almighty and gracious father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (BCP, 246)

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Notes from Our Pastor: November 2016 – All Saints Day

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All Saints Day

Every week when we celebrate the Eucharist, we say that we believe “the communion of saints.” I realize that something which is repeated week after week can sometimes slip by us as we recited without much reflection – that happens to me as well, even when leading the congregation in worship. But I would hope at some point you might ask, “what do we mean by the communion of saints?”

To me, being a Christian is both a personal connection to Christ and to the Father, and also a part of belonging to something much larger than myself. The personal commitment to God through Christ is what makes us Christians. It is what our presiding Bishop Michael Curry refers to when he talks about personally being a member of the Jesus Movement. But the Jesus Movement has been going on at least since the time of Jesus’ own ministry and the day of Pentecost. Countless numbers of people – the number of which is known to God alone – are part of this community that exists over time and across the whole space of the earth. They differed in language, customs, political identity, place of origin, and probably as many points of difference as can be comprehended in the whole of human life. They were bound together, however, by their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and their willingness to try to live out the Good News which Jesus proclaimed. We call this body the Church, but that designation would actually include a far number larger number of people that may have ever been recognized by an official affiliation with one or another denomination. It currently includes all of us who acknowledge Christ, even though the Christian Church as a whole is splintered among so many different denominations who practice their belief in so many different ways. To an outsider – indeed, it was to those people whom Christian missionaries sought to convert over the centuries – it must be bewildering to see one Christian or set of Christians setting themselves apart from another group who also claim to be Christian. This is a testimony to the human aspect of our faith and our brokenness, despite our unity in Christ. The divisions within the body of Christ must grieve the Holy Spirit, and it is a constant reminder to the faithful that we still have much work to do within our own household.

Nevertheless, whenever Paul wrote to any of the various congregations he addressed in his letters, he referred to them as “the saints” (hagioi) or holy people of God. That they were not “saints” as we usually use the word to designate those of outstanding holiness is clear when you read how he criticized and even berated the people of Galatia or Corinth in those letters. Despite their failings and shortcomings, however, Paul continued to address them as saints because they had been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and he hoped to guide them to greater understanding of what that meant in their new life. So from the beginning, the “communion of saints” has always included a diverse group of imperfect people united by their belief in Jesus Christ and engaged in a continual struggle, both individually and as groups, to live lives worthy of their baptismal calling.

This community has endured periods of tremendous persecution, physical suffering, death and the threats of death, as well as times of prosperity and decadence. It has been a light to the world in its time, and yet the history of the Church also includes periods where church people themselves have been the persecutors and done unspeakable things ostensibly in the name of Christ. We must acknowledge our history with both its shining moments and its moral failures. Yet across time, the one true constant of this community has been its proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is founded its hope for the present and the future, in this earthly life and in the life to come, upon the gospel which Christ proclaimed. We were not born into the Christian Church as we were into our families, but like being a member of any family, we recognize both the good and bad which belonging and involves. But as John the Evangelist says, we were born into our faith, not “of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13)   Thereby we have become “children of God” and heirs of hope through Christ.

In our tradition, the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st reminds us of our connection to the others saints of the Church. We are related not just to the members of our parish, or our diocese, or our Episcopal Church, or even the Anglican communion worldwide, but across those barriers of human denomination to all Christians within the worldwide Church. And more than this, we can look backwards across the centuries to all the faithful people – including those who struggled with their faith – across the centuries, back to Christ himself. Turning our eyes in the other direction, we can look forward for generations and generations to come, “a great multitude which no one can count,” which would include all those who will share our faith and who will also find their life in Christ.

We celebrate All Saints Day, therefore, to gain perspective on ourselves within the company we keep. It reminds us that we are not alone in our faith, but rather part of a huge flock under the one Shepherd whose name we bear as Christians. From such a perspective, we are humbled by our own small part in the undertaking which is the life of the Church; but we can also rejoice in the greatness of God’s grace which has included so many people and which still opens the door to all those who are lost and seek the truth. The abundance of God’s faithfulness and the limitlessness of Christ redeeming love to all peoples everywhere should lift us up when we are mindful of belonging to such an amazing and God-inspired assembly.

May we, taking our place within the communion of the saints of God, learn to bear our own crosses in such a way that God is glorified and Christ made present wherever we are.

Fr. Bill