From the Bishop: Thanksgiving Sermon
(Bishop Barker delivered this Thanksgiving sermon at an ecumenical church gathering in DeWitt, Nebraska this past week on November 18th.)
Thanksgiving – “Do not worry” – Matthew 6:25-33
Hold Thou me Lord that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
Happy Thanksgiving my brothers and sisters.
My favorite holiday, bar none! I love the food. I love the football. As a pastor – I’ll tell you the truth – I love that of all the big holy days hardly anything is expected of me on Thanksgiving! Just figure out one heartfelt table blessing and we’re good to go!
What’s not to love about this All-American holiday?
I have so many memories associated with Thanksgiving. I’ll bet all of you do to.
– As a child my whole extended family lived in the same Nebraska town, and we gathered around an enormous feast at my parent’s house with every traditional thanksgiving food you could hope for … and all the zaniness you’d expect from the many assembled crazy cousins and tipsy uncles …
– As a young adult I travelled far away for college and seminary, and had neither the time or money to return to Nebraska at this time of year. I remember being welcomed into the homes of various friends over that stretch, and being both thankful for their kindness and a little sad about being away form the ones I loved most …
– I remember preaching once – about fifteen years ago – at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service just like this one. My brother had taken his own life just a couple of weeks before then, and I struggled – how I struggled – to find a way to give thanks during that hard season.
I can only imagine the many wonderful stories that all of you would share about this beautiful, holy time of year. I know I’m not the only one who loves Thanksgiving.
This afternoon’s Gospel passage is the one most closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s interesting to me that of all the words of Jesus, these are the one’s that we always remember at this time every year:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Jesus goes on to further unpack these ideas in what is one of the most beautiful and well-known passages from the Sermon on the Mount. And the key idea here – the phrase which is repeated no fewer than three times in this short Gospel passage, is exactly and precisely this: Do not worry.
Do not worry about what you will wear. Do not worry about what you will eat. Do not worry about what you will drink. Is our loving God not present and active? Can’t you count on God?
I’m not sure there is a more important hope and expectation articulated anywhere else in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. If we count up the times Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” “Do not be anxious,” “Do not worry,” or “Fear not” we’ll quickly discover that it’s one of the most oft repeated phrases in the whole entire Bible …
That it is a teaching that lies right near the heart of the Holy Gospel.
Boy – do we need to hear our Savior offering this teaching here today. I’m not sure that in my lifetime I have ever seen or felt this country – and our churches – any more fearful and fretful than we seem to be right now.
The litany of things that cause us to be fearful is long and growing:
– We’re fearful about an uncertain economy – and the prospect of losing a job or being the one in charge when a farm or family business fails.
– We’re fearful for our small communities worried they will not be able to survive for another generation … that way of life is passing before our very eyes.
– We’re fearful of people from different cultures and customs … we’re untrustworthy of people with different religious beliefs than our own …
– We’re fearful about the power of government – either because it’s out of touch and asking too much … or because it’s out of touch and doing too little.
We’re worried about all kinds of smaller and daily stuff too: like our kids, and budgets and chores and relationships.
Right now we are a worrying people my brothers and sisters … and God knows, that worrying – that fear – does not bring out the best in us.
You probably remember that Thanksgiving was fixed as a national holiday right in the middle of the Civil War. There had been various statewide celebrations of thanks – especially around the harvest time – but it was President Lincoln who – at the urging of a wonderful activist by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale – finally made the thing official.
It happened in 1863 by way of a Presidential Proclamation, in which Lincoln said in part:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.
To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity … order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict …. the plough, the shuttle, the ship and the axe have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
I know this has been a year for many of you too!
2015 will be remembered in DeWitt as the year of the great flood … and the great hailstorm – all set against a backdrop of tensions at home and abroad that we read about in the paper and watch on TV and follow on line – and that make us nervous, and worrisome and scared.
But as followers of Jesus – as disciples of Christ – we have got to always remember and celebrate that fact of who we belong to … and what he accomplishes for us … and how we’re called to be his people in this here and now:
– We are a people who lift up hope – even in the face of challenges daunting and fearsome … for we know the miraculous power of God and the certainty that God accompanies us on every step of our earthly pilgrimages …
– We are a people who are bold to love and care – even when we have been betrayed or hurt or wronged in the most crippling way, because we too have been loved and forgiven … no matter how far we might have wandered from God’s embrace …
– We are a people who do not fear … a people who are brave to shout “Alleluia” even in the face of death itself … because we know that in Christ the power of death has been defeated forever.
What is there to fear if Christ is at our side on every day and in every place we journey?
At the end of that first Thanksgiving proclamation, President Lincoln wrote:
It has seemed to me fit and proper to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
And I recommend that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, [we] do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers …
And fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it soon.
It is hard to love and serve when we are afraid. That’s the simple truth. It is impossible to do the work God has asked us to do – to respond to the call that Christ has placed on each and every one of our lives – if we live in fear.
This Thanksgiving, when you gather with the people you love and keep the traditions that make the day special for you and yours, remember the words of Jesus that have been so long remembered by the Church on this holy day …
Let us give thanks no only for the fruits of the harvest … for the blessings and freedoms we enjoy as citizens of this place …
But for the possibility of living a different kind of life altogether as brothers and sisters in Christ … as followers of Jesus: “Do not be afraid,” “Do not be anxious,” “Do not worry.”
+ J.S. Barker