Friday, November 16, 2007

A Homily For Thanksgiving...

From November, 2005:

There’s an old story about an old, retired bishop of the Episcopal Church who went with his wife to visit his children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving.

It was the night before, and the grandkids were running wild through the house. Preparations were being made around the kitchen table, and the house was filled with the sort of clamor one would expect on the night before Thanksgiving.

The old bishop sat down in a nice comfortable recliner and cracked a day-old newspaper. His pipe was full, and he was just about to light it when his five-year-old grandson leapt in front of him.

The boy was dressed in a costume that had clearly been produced that very day in a kindergarten classroom.

Construction paper, brown fabric, Elmer’s glue, and some paper mache were the makings of black belt with a huge buckle, a blunderbuss, an enourmous hat with the same large buckle.

“Grandpa, Grandpa, look!”

The bishop let out a grunt, with his pipe between his teeth.

“Why are you dressed as the enemy?” he grunted.

The boy stammered, slowly turning to cry, surprised by the response.

This story, I think quite well, illustrates an uneasiness which Anglicans have with the traditions of Thanksgiving.

For on a cold November day in 1621 on the shores of Plymouth, the Puritans met with members of the Wampanoag tribe for a meal together. They have been glorified throughout the years as a sort of shining example of religious pluralism, and the pioneering American spirit.

The Puritans, as history has it, were anything but freedom-loving, religiously tolerant.

They left England because of Anglicanism – the Elizabethan settlement sort of Anglicanism.

Among the things they hated were:

Organs.
Surplices.
Crosses.
Vestments of all kinds.
The Book of Common Prayer.
The use of rings in weddings.
And worst of all – they hated beautiful churches, and most especially – stained glass windows.

A number of my ancestors gathered on that cold Massachusetts day, and if they knew that one of their own would some day be dressed as I am now – in the “rags of popery” – they would not be pleased.

And, as history has it, they weren’t so friendly with the Indians as we like to think.

Historians have presented us with an alternative, a more Anglican approach.

On December 4th, 1619, 38 members of the Stanford Company came to Berkeley, Virginia where their first official act was the celebration of the Holy Eucharist according to the rites prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer.

Captain John Woodleaf wrote:
"Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

Of course, less than a year later, they had all been wiped out by Typhoid fever, and so as the saying goes – “it is the winners who write the history books.”

The tradition of keeping Thanksgiving largely died out until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln wrote the following in a presidential decree:

“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.”

And later…

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they 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 in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

Notice that thing of which Mr. Lincoln is magnificently aware:

That we are prone to forget the source from which blessings come, but that some are so extraordinary that even the hardest of hearts is softened to perceive the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

As it turns out, thankfulness and thanksgiving are not monopolized by religious factions, or by nationalistic enterprise in the midst of civil war, but are rather quite human, and thus it is the disposition of the Christian to give thanks.

But what is the means of this thanksgiving?

How ought we to do it?

The first means is remembrance.

Upon their departure from Egypt, God commands the people to remember the day itself with a prescribed fast of eating unleavened bread for seven days, with the seventh day being a feast to the Lord. There is a prescribed meal of lamb, and a prescribed format for that meal.

The whole point is that the people remember that they were once slaves, and that they are now free, not for the end which is freedom itself, but for the freedom to worship God as He commands.

It is a significant part of Jewish thought about remembrance in that a past event is made present.

You may know this quite well.

Tomorrow, when you sit around the dinner table and remember the blessings of God, you will make is blessings present and even new again. They may even be more clear.

And so, Jesus reinstitutes the Paschal Feast in the Eucharist with the command – “Do this in remembrance of me.”

And in the Eucharist, He makes known His very self and Passion again, He makes a past event a present reality. The word in the Greek is anamnesis.

The way to think about anamnesis, or remembrance, is this:

I cannot re-do what Jesus has done in His Death and Resurrection, but it is just as real now as it was on Calvary, the fact that it has happened does not lessen its reality, but I say as He did “This is my Body” because He says it to us continually, presenting Himself to us in sacrifice.

Which leads us to the second means of Thanksgiving, which is sacrifice.

The Old Testament commends sacrifice as a means to remembrance and thanksgiving.

You may think it odd, but think about it this way.

If I am a Jewish priest, I stand at the altar with my knife to the throat of a bull, and I think about the sins I have committed in the past year, and in that act I consecrate them, I make them holy before God. I cannot change the fact that I have committed them, or that I they have been committed at all, but I can do the holy thing – I can sacrifice them.

In the same way the Jewish High Priest on the Day of Atonement places his hands on the head of a goat, placing the sins of the nation on the head of the goat. The goat is not killed, but forced to wander the wilderness, as the sins of the people are made holy by their disappearance.

It is also worth mentioning that it is a prayer of Thanksgiving that makes something holy. A priest does not simply bless that which he is blessing, he gives thanks for it, acknowledging that God has given it and that he is thankful for it. That makes the object holy.

And so, St. Paul counsels us in the Letter to the Romans, ending the 11th Chapter and beginning the 12th:

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?"
[35] "Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?"
[36] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

Thus, he makes things very clear.

God gives to us gifts which cannot be repaid. As St. James writes: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.”

This is all very shocking to us, as debt-ridden, buy now – pay later junkies, but it stands that the gifts of God cannot be repaid – they are free and without strings.

And from Him and to Him are all things.

That is why it is the counsel of the Apostle Paul that we, in thanks to God, offer the only thing we can offer – our own selves, our souls and bodies to Him, that we “do the holy thing” and consecrate our selves to His service.

And that is done most perfectly in the supreme act of Christian Thanksgiving, that Act which is Thanksgiving itself – the Holy Eucharist. By the way, if you didn’t know this before, the word Eucharist means Thanksgiving, but a very special kind of thanksgiving.

At the altar, God and man come together. He remembers us and we remember Him. He gives Himself to us, and we give ourselves to Him, and it is in the very person of the Incarnate Lord that this union is made most intimate. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who is at the center of this offering.

It is through Him that God remembers us and knows us as His own people. It is through Jesus that we remember the loving kindness of our God.

We are not, in this act of Eucharist, repaying God. He cannot be repaid. We are merely giving Him what is rightfully His – our very selves.

By this act of remembrance and sacrifice, we give thanks unto God for the innumerable benefits of His self-offering to us.

It is this meal which we keep, not once a year, but daily.

It is this meal which is so important if we are to gain intimacy with God and His Son Jesus Christ.

It is this meal which pierces even the most cold, hard heart, making it newly aware of the blessings of God.

Therefore, my dear friends, enjoy the Turkey, and the gravy, and the stuffing, and the cranberry sauce.

Watch football, and give thanks with that excitement which Tryptophan sleepily brings.

But, forget not Our Lord Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our Faith, by whom all remembrance and sacrifice take place, give thanks unto Him by your lives, and endue Him with your praise.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

2 Comments:

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3:27 PM  
Blogger Mykel G. Larson said...

Pride vs. Divine Providence.

Sticky wicket, for sure.

Great Homily, nonetheless. :)

9:35 PM  

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