Monday, November 19, 2007

Sermon: Thanksgiving Eve (21 November 2007)

Thanksgiving: 22 November 2007
(Deuteronomy 26:1-11/Psalm 100/Philippians 4:4-9/John 6:25-33)
Local Exception

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Eastern Orthodox churches are in the midst of their Advent fast: from November 15 through December 25 these Christians prepare themselves for the nativity of our Lord through fasting, prayer, spiritual reading, and almsgiving, much like our Western Lenten disciplines. So what about Thanksgiving, which falls near the beginning of the fast? No ham, no turkey and cranberry sauce? No dressing and broccoli casserole? No homemade bread and pumpkin pie? Well, let’s not grieve too much for our Orthodox brothers and sisters; they’ve worked this all out. Orthodox Christians in America are granted a local exception to the fast to allow for Thanksgiving observance; the fast is put on hold for the day, in the United States, to allow for local, American custom[1].

This solution, which might initially seem “hokey” to us, is actually quite elegant – and I think theologically sound – on so many levels. First there is the notion that for Christians, feasting takes precedent over fasting. While we should and do mourn our sins, we also celebrate the great redemption that is ours in Christ. While we fast from the things of earth for a time, we do so to build our appetites for the things of heaven so that we may feast all the more joyously on them. Fasting, rightly understood, is the prerequisite to all true feasting. Even in the midst of fasting periods – at least in the Western church – every Sunday is a feast day celebrating the resurrection of our Lord. Feasting takes precedence over fasting.

Then there is the notion that local custom – at least in some cases – takes precedence over universal practice. I just love this. It really follows St Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian Christians that the stronger brother ought to give way to the weaker so as not to damage his faith. If the Americans feel a need to celebrate a local holiday with feasting, well the universal church will give way and relax the fast so as not to tempt the Americans to break it. This is an act of grace to “weaker” brothers. What I love about this is the humility implied in the decision. And I’m not thinking primarily of the humble graciousness of the universal church. No, I’m thinking about the humility with which the American church must receive this kindness as the weaker brother in the body of Christ. And then there is the designation of Thanksgiving as a local custom. We are usually so jingoistic – so wrapped up in ourselves and convinced of our central place in the universe – that we can’t conceive of anything related to the United States as merely local. Surely the rest of the world observes our holidays! Sorry, no. So, the church makes a way for us to be who we are in the universal body of Christ without letting us forget that we no more or less important than any other member of that body. All this is a beautiful outworking of 1 Corinthians 8 – Paul’s instruction about eating meat offered to idols – a section many people skip, thinking it hopelessly outdated. It is refreshing and life-giving to see the church take that Word – take all the Word of God – seriously.

All of this has me thinking about Thanksgiving as a local, American custom. It seems only good and right that we should have such an observance; if ever a nation had cause for Thanksgiving, it is surely ours: this is not ethnocentrism – not national self-centeredness – but rather a humble acknowledgment of God’s many blessings to us. I feel personally and nationally as David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, did when he penned these words:

5The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage (Ps 16:5-6, NRSV).

I understand why so many foreigners seek to enter the U.S. either legally or illegally: our boundary lines, our borders, do indeed enclose pleasant places; we do have a goodly heritage. So Thanksgiving ought to be a local, American custom; it’s only fitting and right. Oh, we have our problems, too, of course: homelessness, poverty, lingering racism, cultural disintegration, consumerism. But we have the means and resources to solve these problems; all we lack are the will and wisdom to do so. Pleasant places. Goodly heritage.

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7, NRSV).

Paul’s words to the Philippian Christians ring true here in the United States, here on the eve of our local observance of Thanksgiving. It is easy to rejoice when your boundary lines enclose pleasant places, when your real worries on Thanksgiving Day revolve around overeating or your favorite football team losing its game.

There is another world, though, other locales with other customs. In this other world more than 1.5 billion people live on less than a $1 a day. In this other world a child dies every three seconds from AIDS and extreme poverty, many before their fifth birthday. In this other world more than one billion people do not have access to clean water. In this other world more than 50 percent of Africans suffer from water-related diseases such as cholera and infant diarrhea. In this other world nore than 800 million people go to bed hungry every day, 300 million of them children. In this other world only eight percent of these 300 million children are victims of famine or other emergency situations. More than 90 percent are suffering long-term malnourishment and micronutrient deficiency. In this other world four out of every ten people don't have access even to a simple latrine. In this other world, in sub-Saharan Africa a woman has a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy, compareed with a 1 in 3,700 risk for a woman from North America.[2]

Yes, our boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places, but not so for this other world. I wonder if they have a local exception from the church to break their fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with feasting? Would it make any difference if they did? I wonder how they hear the text?

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7, NRSV).

The world into which Jesus came looked a lot like this other world: poverty, homelessness, hunger, brutality. His boundaries encompassed a manger and a cross. He knew all these harsh realities personally. He came to offer an exception: not a local one, but a universal exception. He came to be that exception.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you
on account of the Son of Man. 2323Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets (Luke 6:20-23, NRSV).

Break the fast. It is time for a new local custom that will be for all people. Feast on the bread of heaven. Drink living water from the springs of salvation. Raise the cup of the covenant. Come you poor. Come you hungry. Come you sorrowful. Come you persecuted. Come break your fast and join in the feast, for in Jesus the Kingdom of God is at hand. And that kingdom can be yours.

This is just another of the great paradoxes of our faith: that heirs of the Kingdom of God may be found living in abject poverty, that the hungry have life-giving bread of which the world knows nothing, that the homeless have an eternal dwelling with God, that those in deepest sorrow may yet rejoice in the Lord, that those burdened and crushed by the world may rise to walk in newness of life everlasting. Of course none of this releases us from our obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the orphans and widows and prisoners in their distress. But it gives us good news – gospel – to bring along with our turkey and dressing or peanut butter sandwiches and Vienna sausages or bags of rice and beans, our warm blankets, our socks and shoes and gloves, our rides to the shelter, our embrace. It gives us a feast to share with those who have known too much of fasting.

Orthodox or not, let us enjoy the local custom of Thanksgiving tomorrow. Eat. Drink. Rejoice in the Lord. And let us share the feast – the blessings of our table and the Lord’s Table – with the world.

[1] Ancient Faith Radio podcast of Frederica Mathews-Green, Frederic Here and Now, 11 November 2007, From Mennonite to Orthodox, available through i-Tunes.
[2] Taken from the Wikipedia article on extreme poverty.

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