"Thanks-Living," Sermon 11.21.2010

"Thanks-Living," Sermon 11.21.2010

II Corinthians 9:6-11; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 17: 11-19. Preached at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, November 21, 2010 by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.

“Before the reward there must be labor. You plant before you harvest. You sow in tears before you reap joy.”

Most of you know this about me, hardly some earth-shaking self-disclosure: I’m am a city boy.

Though my sons, both proud New Yorkers, like to call me “a hayseed” because I’m from Missouri, I grew up in an inner ring suburb of St. Louis a few blocks from the city limits. I went to college in a small town, because I figured I’d never live any place like that again. In my adulthood, I spent 2 years in Chicago, 24 years in NY and now 15 and 1/2 months in Center City.

Some of you were worried before I arrived that 4th & Race was going to be too busy, loud and bothersome. But it felt like home from the start.

Back in August when I biked to Syracuse, I loved the endless country miles. The green rolling hills and steeper mountain-ettes of Pennsylvania and New York, but as I pedaled into Syracuse through the poor neighborhoods of the south side, heading right for this Spanish beans and rice joint in the old Italian neighborhood on the near north side… Lord, was I happy to be back in an urban environment!

Ok, I did also spend a summer in college working on a dairy farm in the Swiss Alps. Yes, I can hay, chop wood, even milk a cow. But that was a long time ago.

I’ll confess: I don’t know the first thing about “bringing in the sheaves.” I often drive by fields in the summer and can’t even recognize the crop. (Jo Fine pointed out that my children’s story on Indian Corn had the whole corn plant confused.) The most real insight I have to sheep after black and white illustrations of Sunday school stories– I once saw a bleak, Italian art movie about a child left alone on a mountain shepherding a herd.

I’m becoming somewhat of an expert on squirrels, but those “amber waves of grain”? They’re only “America the Beautiful” to me, unless they come baked into a wholegrain loaf from the supermarket.

Ok, so Old First and Val are trying to make me an urban farmer with 3 seasons of crops, but my experience of plowing is watching the trash trucks outfitted to clear city streets of snow.

I guess, I’m sort of saying: Say a prayer for me and this Thanksgiving sermon. I have little experience, even less authority to preach on the harvest. If I can’t get it at the Asian Market on Spring Garden or the Superfresh on 5th, I’d go hungry.

Will you pray with and for me… Amen.

“Before the reward there must be labor. You plant before you harvest. You sow in tears before you reap joy.”

Harvesting is what happens after the work and grace and growth. It’s the close of a season– when we gather what has been gained, that it may be preserved, and relied on through less productive times. Life is like that: cycles of work and rest, growth and harvest, preservation and consumption. Prompted by our farmers, at this time of year giving thanks for the earth’s bountiful yield, we can ask ourselves:

“How have I grown this year?”

With winter right around the corner, let’s ask, “what, in our lives, can we now safely gathered in, count on for getting through the grayer, more fallow and less productive seasons of life? Can we thank God for what has germinated, sprouted, grown, matured, been brought to fruition or harvested in our lives?

What, in our spirits, thanks to the Lord’s help, has been safely stored up… against the cold or protected from blight?

  • Have you figured out better who you are, become more comfortable with your self, taken an honest inventory of yourself, dealt with some of your demons, begun to heal and become more whole?
  • Have you found your place, perhaps “finally” after a long and often frustrating search… come upon a community, or friends, or your church, a job, a partner that you’d been looking for or were missing?
  • Have you taken charge of your life, stopped letting external events and other people control your moods and your actions, uncovered something deep down that you can count on… started really caring for yourself?
  • Has your vocational sense– what you want to or are supposed to do with your life, become clearer? So now you have this new ability to determine what’s integral and what’s tangential, even misleading?
  • Has some brokenness, some disconnect, a relationship been resolved?
  • Have you gotten through a difficult stretch, finished a tough job, navigated an illness– your own or a loved one’s, completed your degree, made that transition you feared for so long?

I wish, for just a minute, the veil would drop, and we could see all the harvests we can count as our own, could give thanks for so much abundance, like the fruits spilling forth from the horn of that cornucopia on the altar…

Some of you might be saying, “Yes! Yes! I hadn’t realized, hadn’t really appreciated how much I’ve grown, how far I’ve come, what abundant gains I’ve made, what good this season has lent me. Thank God!”

…While others may be thinking, “I’m glad for others. Really I am. But I haven’t had a year like that. Not so much progress was made in my life. Where have my spring and summer gone. I’m still stuck, mired, waiting…” Fall for some is quite literally a let down.

In this regard, as in about every other regard, we’re inevitably a mixed congregation. Maybe each of us in some sense is always a mixed field.

But for those whose Thanksgiving basket or harvest itself seems sort of empty, let me point to Psalm 125, the inspiration for my opening quote:

“Those who go out weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (v. 6)

Different crops grow in different conditions and at different rates. Some take longer and bear fruit later than others. Some fields need to lie fallow while all around others are flowering.  Some problems are more persistent than others. Some people make progress quicker.

But God’s promises remain for us all because God is in the harvest business, if you will. (Lord forgive me, I think I just made God sound like an agribusiness!)

“Whoever plows should plow in hope, and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop” (I Corinthians 9:10 ). We can “plow” and “thresh” “in hope” because God is in the business of bringing in the sheaves of wheat.

I’m going out on a limb here– not agriculture all that well, but part of every harvest is sorting out what is to be kept and what is to be thrown out. What we need to give thanks for, what we can store away, and what we can throw away. And what we need to still work and wait on.. What’s wheat and what’s weeds. What’s beans and what’s pebbles. What’s to be kept, preserved, used in the future, and what needs to be discarded.

Recognizing your harvest also involves the work of sifting, discerning, separating. Trust, try– even when, especially when your fields, your crops didn’t finished the season as you hoped.

Is there something in your life you need to shake out, sins in the mix,  that need to be separated, bundled separately? What can you ask God or the Spirit to help you blow away? How can Jesus sift us from the ways of the world? Pull us out of our complacencies… that going forward, we may have a greater share in the crop?

You say, “Well, Michael, that’s not easy. I know. Feelings like these aren’t unknown to me either:

“I’m so stuck in my own negative ways or destructive patterns.”


“I feel like a prisoner to my addiction.”


“I’m so anxious or afraid, I can’t see, much less make the choices that will move my life forward.”

Some of you are battling chronic pain or grief or depression that feels it will never let up. Like a plague of locusts, descending on a field and literally gnawing it to death.

That’s why this morning (somewhere between sleeplessness over a father’s worry and the marathon waking me up early), I decided I’d better add the Gospel lesson.

The lepers in that story were suffering too. They were stuck in a desperate situation. Not just some head-trip or negative attitude. There were physically diseased. And they were They were victimized a second time by the ways their neighbors despised them. Social outcasts. And, as we see for 9 out of 10 of them, perhaps their attitudes didn’t help much either.

Before Jesus passed their way, could they have had much hope– how could their lot in life to improve? Beloved, if this Thanksgiving, you’re still waiting for your harvest, for your blessing to ripen, remember the ten lepers. How they must have despaired…

There are any multitude of life’s dis-eases without an apparent cure, take your pick. But suddenly you are delivered. Jesus finds us. Meets us on the road, right in the middle of our lives.

And Jesus doesn’t begrudge any of the ten lepers their healing– they were really sick, and that’s always his only criterion for making well.

But to the one who returned in thanksgiving,  Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” That’s more than physical healing. In the Greek, it connotes wholeness or salvation. “Your faith has made you whole.” (Carl Kleis add after the sermon, Jesus can make any of us well, but we have to get our our knees to be made whole.)

Whatever you’re suffering, Jesus can heal you. Ask for help. Admit your need. He’ll reach out and heal, restore, renew and send you on the right way. Receive his blessing, and thereafter do only what is asked of one who has been so blessed.

Nine of the lepers do as they are told. But one returns to Jesus and offers God thanks. Let yourself be turned by, detour for, declare your thanksgiving.

I’m almost done, but one more confession: I’ve never preached a Thanksgiving service before. I was too scared…

On the congregational side of the UCC, there’s too many Mayflower Days and Plymouth Celebrations. Bold enough to risk singing, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” I never chanced  a whole service dedicated to Thanksgiving. It runs the risk of national idolatry, like saying the pledge of allegiance in church.

But my fear has been less principled. I’ve been scared I might end dressed up like a Pilgrim– in those breeches with ties below the knee, buckle shoes and stockings, a rustic beige shirt and a floppy grey felt hat.

This commitment to duck Plymouth Plantation dress-up started early, the year back at First Congregational Church in St. Louis, when someone had the great idea to dress up like Pilgrims for our Thanksgiving Food Pantry Event…

That was even before my friend, Mark Bigelow, pastor of the Congregational Church of Huntington, NY had his accident.

One year at his congregation’s “Pilgrim Thanksgiving Festival” (yep, Miles Standish and Pochahantas costumes all the way) a goat got loose, broke free from its pen. Worrying one of the little kids might get hurt, Mark, good pastor that he is, heroically threw himself into capturing the loose wild beast.

And just as he bent over to grab the goat, it raised its head, got him in the face, gored him in the nose and cheek. He spent the rest of that Pilgrim Thanksgiving Festival in the emergency room.

Later that fall, he had to go to a worker’s comp. hearing: no one believed a pastor was injured at work by a goat. Mark recovered fully, but this colleague’s never quite gotten over his accident.

When those creche animals arrive, I’ll take my turn feeding and watering them all, but if a goat gets loose… (Coe Kummer has suggested that I feed them through the fence: “Never open the gate.”) Likewise, don’t try asking me to be the Pilgrim who shows up at the manger on Christmas Eve…

But shouldn’t I, shouldn’t we express somehow openly, profoundly– our thanksgiving for what God has done? I know, it’s hard to attain what the Bible challenges us to,  to be thankful in all circumstances. But remember Meister Eckhart’s assurance: “If the only prayer you ever say in life is ‘Thank you,’ that will be enough.”

Just as God has not forgotten us, we must not forget God. Let us

remember and be thankful.

Have you ever tried each day to name one thing for which you are grateful? It’s a powerful spiritual exercise. Maybe you could try it from today until Christmas when you can thank God for baby Jesus. Choose a time during the day, first thing in the morning or at the dinner table, and lift up something for which you are thankful.

You’ll be amazed how many blessings you’ll begin to be able to count, with no more than the effort and discipline of remembering.

And we can take this kind of spiritual exercise further. Not only should we thank God, but we need to express appreciation to one another.

Do you regularly thank the people in your life, for their help, for who they are, for making your life better?

Your buddy at work? The garbage man? The check-out woman at the grocery? Your church nemesis? Your kids? Or that person whose name you don’t even know, but whose path you cross so often, at the corner or on the bus, who always has a greeting and kindness for you…

Harvesting is serious work, a spiritual exercise: each day, first think of something you can be thankful for, and second, find someone who you can say thank you to…

This is what the Deuteronomy passage is about: Remembering what God has done, made possible, or mercifully prevented– the basis for our spiritual living. It’s not about showing off righteous generosity. Or some self-satisfied gratitude. Rather, remembering, attributing, thanking– an important corrective to our own over-active egos. You know, human nature hasn’t changed much since the days of ancient Israel. We have this capacity– it’s easy for us: we pat ourselves on the back when things are going well, and blame God when they go wrong.

Today’s service gives us an alternative– for trying to live into what we have received and can give. For bringing forward our first fruits, rising and returning to Jesus to say thanks.

Beloved, our Affirmation of Faith for the next three weeks is going to be wordless. Instead, we’re going to act it out by doing our offering “baptist style.”

As we collect 2011 Stewardship Pledges, we’re going to get up from where we are, maybe where we’ve been stuck too long, and move, take a step, come forward, try to get to a new place– with our offering, our pledges, laying our lives before God to say thanks. Today, that collection can include what we bring for the saints of the food and clothing cupboard. It too can go right up on that table, before God’s altar, the table at which Jesus feeds each of us.

Interestingly, Thanksgiving, when it’s religiously observed, isn’t only about over-eating, or even just about what God has given us. It’s also about what we can bring back to God and share with others.

Beloved, if everything we have really belongs to God, how can we not share God’s things with those whom God created and loves? It’s a celebration of Levites and aliens (wherein we do well to remember that the Native Americans are the Levites to our European American the alien), a multicultural celebration of all the ways God has blessed this land and our homes. Our way to say thank you. To begin living gratitude, sharing abundance. Walking the walk and extending the hand of our “thanks-living.”