An Abundance of Blessings (A Sermon of sorts for Thanksgiving Eve)

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-thanksgiving-clipart-8Tonight I provided the following reflections as part of the message in my congregation’s Thanksgiving Eve worship service.  As is the custom on this blog, I include my sermons that I share. However, I remove most pieces that are dependent upon the context so what follows is fairly close to what I preached without some of the contextual particulars.  This sermon was crafted based on the readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary for Thanksgiving in Year C.  It is based on the Gospel of John 6:25-35; as well as the other appointed lessons:  Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 100; and Philippians 4:4-9.  Happy Thanksgiving one and all, and take time to give thanks, count your blessings, and share that abundance which you have been entrusted with, with others!  Blessings- TS

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AN ABUNDANCE OF BLESSINGS

In the portion of the gospel we read tonight, we hear about bread, manna, and the claim that Jesus is the bread of life.  Bread and Jesus as bread of life, that is somewhat straight forward.  But what is manna?  When you get right to it, the idea of manna really can mean, “what the heck is that stuff?” [1] That’s exactly our pastor’s definition of it, and honestly I haven’t found a better description of what it is. Manna is provided by God in the answer to the people’s needs for nourishment and their well-being, but by doing so, God is using the natural and ordinary to feed the people.  This connects with the historic practice of our feasting and praising on Thanksgiving- of giving thanks for the land and what the harvest has yielded.

Returning to the gospel and its references to the journey of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness, the children of God do not recognize what will sustain them in their wilderness journeys and wanderings, even when it’s right in front of them.  It’s like being on a trip and not exactly knowing the way or if you will be able to eat and sleep on that trip.  They are hoping and pining for what they remember, they long for the “good old days” or the “way things were.”  They want to go back, even as do the people wandering in the wilderness expressed themselves at different points in their journey about wanting to return to Egypt.[2]  They want to return and go back to doing what they used to do, because it’s something they are familiar with and which they have experienced.  They don’t want something new and different.  This is the same way the people seem to react to the new Manna, Jesus.

Jesus proclaims, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[3] More or less, I think we get this now.  But sometimes we lose sight of its deeper transformative meaning.

One of the ways that we celebrate, practice, and believe that Jesus is the “bread of life” is through Holy Communion.  But I must admit we acknowledge and remember Jesus as the “bread of life” in other and perhaps equally important ways too.

We are fed when we do what we love- that which God has entrusted us gifts for, our passions, following our hopes and dreams.  We are also fed in this way when we come to God, admit our shortcomings, confess our failings and admit how we are in need of love and grace.  And then we are fed with the gift of forgiveness.  We are forgiven of our sins, and reminded that we are all beautiful and unique people, created in the image of God. Pure and simple, we are all Children of God.  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,”[4] this is true when you open the Word of God, listen, read, and dwell in it. It’s true when we come in prayer. It’s also true when we come and confess and hear those all meaningful words that we are forgiven.  By believing in God, we are not thirsty.[5]  We trust in God’s promises for us and in God’s love for us and for all creation.  We also believe that we are part of God’s work.

There. Perhaps that’s enough deep theology for tonight.  Pure and simply we gather together this evening to give thanks.  We also gather to reflect, to worship, and to join together in fellowship around some wonderful pie.

So, let us give thanks.  After all, giving thanks is all we can do for what God has done.  We give thanks first of all for life and by doing so, we recognize that it’s a gift that requires a response- the act of living it.[6]  We receive that which God gives and entrusts, and we give thanks for it.  By using what God entrusts then, we are living our lives in response to the good news.  So when we serve God, we aren’t doing so because we have to in order to be saved, but because the joy of the good news compels us to.  There is nothing that we can do but be thankful and share God’s love and goodness with others.

Taking a step back, Thanksgiving is not really a liturgical day on the church calendar.  It’s a national holiday, which can be and has been connected and grounded in religious themes.  I appreciate it though for where it occurs in relation to the church calendar because it allows us to look back over the past year and give thanks.  It also, with the beginning of Advent allows us to look forward in hope and expectation at the time and year ahead. [7]

("Labeled for commercial reuse with modification" in a Google image search for "blessings")
(“Labeled for commercial reuse with modification” in a Google image search for “blessings”)

So in doing this, and at risk of falling for the cliché, admit it, your Grandma was right.  She was right when she said, “count your blessings.”  It’s important to take time to name what we are thankful for, and to reflect on that.  Too often we take for granted what we have.  Too often we dwell on what we don’t have enough of.  Well, we have enough.

When there is conflict, strife, and tension we miss out on the good that is all around us.  When things are good, we are complacent and lose sight of how wonderful things are.  It’s a constant struggle in our lives.

We live abundant life; yet, we always have this human desire for more, or simply a feeling that we don’t have enough.  Sarah Ban Breathnack has a powerful reflection on this.  She writes, “Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend… when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s present- love, health, family, friends, work, the joys of nature and personal pursuits that bring us pleasure- the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience Heaven on earth.” [8]

Sometimes, heaven on earth is really experienced when you put aside the worries in life and you allow yourself to enjoy the moment or even a meal.  I don’t know about you but some of my most vivid memories of Thanksgiving naturally involve food.  Think of your mom or grandma’s mashed potatoes, assuming most of you like mashed potatoes?  There is just something about mashed potatoes and gravy for me at least.  If you know what I mean, close your eyes.  Take in that smell of hot and steaming mashed potatoes. Now, imagine you have that big mound of mashed potato goodness on your plate.  It’s time to add the gravy, what do you do?  Do you generously pour it on? Or do you first take the gravy ladle or spoon and make a crater?  I always make a crater first. My wife Allison always makes a crater too.  Maybe it’s because she wants to play a little with the food on her plate and imagine she has a little mini Mt. St. Helens.  Maybe I make the crater because I like to remember all of those volcanoes my friends and I made as science fair projects back in Elementary School.  But what do you do?  Do you have a consistent way you pour the gravy on the potatoes? I would guess you probably do, and that’s in a way a natural ritual of the Thanksgiving meal.

Of course, the wonderful meal can only happen though after we share grace.  I know this congregation seems to always sing the doxology “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” Well, do you know something, that’s actually kind of a strange practice for me?  From my understanding, that’s more of a worship song in response to offering, at least as I envision it.  There are texts for that tune, which is actually called “Old One Hundred,” specifically written for the blessing of a meal.  I am thinking particularly of “Be Present at Our Table Lord.”  Who knows this?  If not, I am going to teach it to you now so we can be ready for the end of tonight’s service.  Okay?

Here it goes… “Be present at our table Lord.  Be here and everywhere adored.  These mercies bless and grant that we.  May strengthen for thy service be.”  This is the main version of the prayer.  But for particular meals and feasts such as Thanksgiving there is an alternate ending which we’ll actually use tonight and its printed on the last page of the bulletin.  Instead of “May strengthen for thy service be,” we will sing, “May feast in paradise with thee” taking it directly from this past Sunday’s gospel reading if you remember it.  Anyway, let’s sing it together once.  “Be present at our table Lord.  Be here and everywhere adored.  These mercies bless and grant that we.  May feast in paradise with thee.”  Maybe I am too attached to these because they are part of my family and congregational traditions?  My guess is that its somewhere combined with that, and with the fact that many Scandinavian Lutheran congregations which I grew up a part of have made use of that version of the table grace for as long as I have been alive anyway.

Now in addition to singing grace before the Thanksgiving meal, there is often time to go around the table and say what we are thankful for.  My family has occasionally done this practice, and I love it. It’s meaningful.  It’s especially meaningful in light of Thanksgiving experiences past.

For those of you who were here on Sunday, let me add a little more to that story about my grandpa.  I remember it vividly.  Six years ago, it was Thanksgiving Eve on a night such as this.  I had gone to church that night, alone really, in order to be a family representative who would let the congregation and church choir know that it was probably going to be the last night with my Grandpa.  The family had wanted the choir to, if possible, be able to share and sing at my Grandpa’s funeral, and if it so happened that Grandpa passed away, the plan was to have the funeral on that coming Sunday afternoon since so many in the family had already arrived to be with Grandpa.  About four or five hours later, we got the news.  Grandpa had passed away peacefully.  Thanksgiving for the second year in a row, would be a time of family togetherness, but also grieving. You see, the year prior my other grandfather had passed away in the weeks before Thanksgiving. And so it’s with this said that you understand where I am coming from in celebrating and worshiping this Thanksgiving Eve.

Thanksgiving is an occasion for us in our own groups of friends, families, but also as a larger body of Christ to remember those in our lives- present, past, and future.  It is a time to give thanks for them, and that which they gave of themselves to help us grow and become who we are.

It’s also a time to give thanks for the present.  We rejoice in the Lord always, as Philippians reminds.[9] We make a joyful noise and give thanks with the Psalmist.[10]  And we remember the tough times in the wilderness which the Israelites, Levites, and strangers did together in celebrating together.[11]  In a lot of ways we have had a tough year this past year. But even so, there is much to be grateful for and to celebrate.

We celebrate this space and we celebrate the future it represents and makes possible.  We use this place, not just for fellowship and gathering but we will use it occasionally for large group worship.  We use this for community and mission work.  We use it as a means to spread God’s love in new and wonderful ways.  We give thanks for the dreamers who made this possible, and we give thanks for the endless possibilities that this represents and provides.  Perhaps even in the years ahead this space will host community meals for those who might need some food and fellowship? Maybe even a community Thanksgiving?

We also give thanks for the light which fills this hall and makes it possible to use.  Especially as the calendar year moves on, and days continue to get shorter this time of year, we give thanks for light.  We give thanks for the light that is Christ that guides our days, deeds, and steps.

We give thanks for our families and friends who have shown us love and how to love.  We give thanks for all those who give faithfully to support your work in the world, to support the building up of the church and future leaders by giving to seminaries and colleges and universities.  We give thanks for all who support and make your work and ministry possible here in gifts of time, talent and treasure.

We give thanks for each other.  We give thanks for our ability to come together and do ministry, even when it’s not easy.  I give thanks for the love each of you has shown in my time here, and continue to show.  I give thanks personally for the worship and music team, the council, and all the ministry teams here and for their leaders who serve faithfully, as well as my fellow staff, and all leaders of this place.

We give thanks for our pastor as he continues to recover from his surgery.  Our pastor is a great blessing to this congregation in its journey of discernment and transition, and I personally see how much he cares and pours into the ministry and future of this place even though it may not always be visible.  He takes a great deal of grief from many of us, including me, but he carries on trusting in you, and for that we give thanks.

Friends, as you can see, we have much to be thankful for.  We are thankful for this new space, and the future possibilities and dreams it allows for us to have.  We are thankful for each other, those whom we worship and will eat pie with tonight and those present in spirit.  The road in the journey to this point in time has not been easy.  But, you have made it this far.  As we hear in Deuteronomy, “the Lord brought us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm.”[12] It’s a passage reflecting on the wilderness experience, and giving thanks for God’s presence and provision in the midst of that time.  Despite what it might seem, God is very much here with us, and at work here among us.  We give thanks for that as well.

We give thanks for all of the wonderful ministry done in participation with us here in the past and the present. And we give thanks for the future of ministry here and in the larger world, doing so with great hope and anticipation.

All of these things which we give thanks for, let us offer up our prayers to God.  These blessings which we have been entrusted with, and taken the last few moments to count and reflect on, really speak to how wonderful God is, and how wonderful and powerful it is to be a part of God’s work in the world of bearing love and peace.

Friends, give thanks.  Be grateful.  And show that love which you have been shown, to others today, tomorrow, and every day.  Amen.


[1] Manna is the food that is miraculously provided, although at the same time perfectly natural, for the Israelites in the wilderness during their flight from Egypt. The “what the heck is this” is a potential basic response to any miracle or confusion that defies normal human understanding, capacity, or expectation. As far as the manna goes, like Fretheim argues, it is a reminder that God is connected with our very daily needs (Exodus, 181-184ff). This then can be linked with the themes presented in “The Lord’s Prayer.”

[2] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, (Louisville, KY:  John Knox Press, 1991), 181.

[3] John 6:35, NRSV.

[4] John 6:35, NRSV.

[5] John 6:35, NRSV.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, November 2010, “God’s Reign Cracks into Our World,” in Sojourners. This can be found at:  http://sojo.net/magazine/2010/11/gods-reign-cracks-our-world.

[7] Walter Bruggemann, “God’s Reign.”

[9] Philippians 4:4, NRSV.

[10] Psalm 100, NRSV.

[11] Deuteronomy 26:1-11, NRSV.

[12] Deuteronomy 26:8, NRSV.

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