Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turkey Talk

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 6:24-34:

I’m sure that all of us have some story about Thanksgiving dinner not going quite right, but whatever stories we might have, I think that Mary Clingman can beat us. For you see, Mary has been a receiving calls on the Butterball Turkey hotline for more than 30 years. She recounts the time that a woman called and asked what she needed to do differently to cook the turkey at high altitudes, when asked how high she was, the caller said, the 32nd floor. Or there was the woman who called to say that her kitchen was on fire and wanted to know what to do, she was told to hang up and dial 911. Then there was the person who called and asked if the yellow netting and wrapping should be removed before cooking. The answer was yes.

But I have to say my favorite was the man who called to ask if their frozen turkey was still good. When asked how long they had had it, he said it was at least five years, but they couldn’t really remember. Had it always been kept frozen, she asked, no, he said, they had moved once and then there was the time that the freezer stopped working, so it had probably at least partially defrosted a couple of times, after being told him that the turkey probably was not good and should be discarded. The man said that’s what he had figured, so he was glad he had given it to a charity.

Today in the church we celebrate both Christ the King Sunday, which is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and the reason we opened with “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”, and is is also the Sunday in which we celebrate Thanksgiving. This is always a day that I find tough to do because people often want you to try and do both, to cover Christ the King and Thanksgiving, and do both well, but that’s nearly impossible. So instead of doing both, it has been my policy to switch each year, and this year we celebrate Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a strange holiday, for it is not a holiday that people seem to spend a lot of time thinking about or concentrating on. There are not special stores that pop up to sell things specifically for the day, and there is no special candy. Even the marshmallow peep company which seems to make peeps for almost everything these days does not have a Thanksgiving peep. Nor is there any sort of quasi mystical mascot accompanying Thanksgiving. Maybe this is because it’s sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas, two big holidays, maybe it’s because most kids don’t get really excited about eating a lot of turkey, although having the extra days off from school is sure nice, so no one really focuses their attention on the day. In an article she wrote Kathleen Bergeron said that Thanksgiving is almost the forgotten holiday.

Outside of travel arrangements, and some people who fuss over everything, we just simply don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it or preparing for it, and yet in many ways it is one of the dominant holidays. It is the busiest travel holiday of the year, surpassing even Christmas, with airfares running as much as four times the average cost, which indicates that of all of the holidays it is the one that most families will be together for. Maybe that’s why some of us try and forget it because if we thought about all the time we will have to spend time with our families we would either be miserable or go insane. In doing a search for stories about family fights at Thanksgiving, I came across this post from Ann, who lives in she said “Thanksgiving horror stories? I have none. I find the key to family holiday success is buying as much wine as you think you need, and then doubling it.”

While I don’t think Jesus really had Thanksgiving in mind when he gave today’s passage, it certainly can apply. Matthew places this lesson as part of the Sermon on the Mount. Although the teaching is also included in Luke, he places it much later in Jesus’ ministry. I have also expanded what the lectionary calls for by including the line prior to the main passage about not being able to worship both God and mammon, and then closing with the passage telling us not to worry about tomorrow. I did this because I believe those two lines are crucial to understand what Jesus is trying to tell us, and because it also builds on what we have been covering for the past three weeks.

Now, we often throw out the line about not being able to love God and money as a claim about the problems of wealth. And it is, but it is about more than that, as we see by the passage that immediately follows. This line wasn’t meant to apply just to those who have wealth, but even to those who are poor because the desire to have wealth and things is just as damaging as actually having those things. It is in thinking that only if we have one more thing then we will be truly happy. Indeed, American Capitalism is based almost solely these days on the massive spending that we do on things that we are told that we “need.”

Now in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the lowest level are those things we need to survive, food, shelter, security, but that is exactly what Jesus is talking about. Jesus does not say don’t worry about how we’re going to be able to afford the vacation house or a television for the garage. Instead he says don’t worry about we are going to eat, or drink or wear. And notice that he does not say if you are worried about these things, meaning that some worry and some don’t, instead he assumes that we are worried about these things. These concerns may not seem all that important to most of us, but remember that for the majority of Jesus’ listeners they often did not know where their next meal was coming from. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, which precedes today’s passage by just a few verses, and ask for God to give us this day our daily bread, it was not just some idle request being made, nor should it be an idle request now. It is to put our reliance on God that God will provide what we needed, which is what today’s scripture is about.

In one of my favorite lines from the movie Mary Poppins, after the children, Jane and Michael, tell the bank manager, wonderfully played by Dick Van Dyke, that they don’t want to put their money into the bank but instead use it to buy food for the birds, and the manager tells them “fiddlesticks, feed the birds and what have you got? Lazy birds.” I think sometimes we read these passages as if Jesus is saying that all we have to do is sit back and do nothing and God will give us what we need. But that is not what is being said. In fact, Jesus says that we must strive, but we are not striving for food or clothing. It is the gentiles, Jesus says, who strive for the things of the world, who feel that they need more things to be happy. But, this always leads us to needing more and more because these things will never make us truly happy and if we are constantly trying to accumulate then we will always be worried about when we will have enough, and of course we will never have enough.

Instead we are first to strive for the kingdom of God, and then all these things will be given to us we are told. There is effort and diligence required on our part, but effort and diligence directed in the proper way. One commentator remarked “the call is for radical trust and single-minded service. That which is uncompromisingly primary is orienting one’s life to the approaching reign of God. After all, life is qualified by what one seeks. If relative, created values are made absolute, then there is no release from anxiety with their attainment.” That is what Jesus is telling us. When we focus on our wants and our needs then we begin to worry about things which are beyond our control and that leads us away from following God. Worry does not solve any problems or help us overcome our difficulties. Often worry serves the opposite of what it is intended to do and becomes a stumbling block for us, because instead of focusing on what is truly important in our lives, we become dominated by our worries. They become our god. Worry does nothing but create doubt and uncertainty; it distracts us from more important matters and paralyzes us from doing what needs to be done.

In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, a survivor of the holocaust, wrote about one afternoon when the men had all walked back to their barracks after their day’s labor. They were laying in their beds, exhausted and sick after having spent the day in a cold rain. Suddenly, he says, one of the men ran into the barracks and shouted for the others to come outside. Reluctant to leave their beds, but hearing the urgency in the man’s voice, they staggered outside. They found that the rain had stopped, and although dark heavy clouds still hung in the sky, the sun had broken through and was reflecting on the puddles of water on the floor of the courtyard. “We stood there,” Frankl said, “marveling at the goodness of the creation. We were tired and cold and sick, we were starving to death, we had lost our loved ones and never expected to see them again, yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and formidable as the world itself.”

There were obviously lots of things that Frankl and his other prisoners could be worried about and focused on, and they were, until someone brought them out of it and they stood in awe at the beauty of creation. Can Thanksgiving be that moment for us? It can be, but we have to decide to make it so. According to Dr. James Barton, “it is known that about one half of the patients consulting a physician have no organic disease....” Instead, he says, “the cause of the symptoms is tenseness or worry, strain, and fatigue… [all of which] can affect the workings of all the organs of the body.” In other words, worrying can literally make you sick.

On the other hand, in an experiment at the University of Michigan, researchers found that students who kept a “gratitude journal,” a weekly record of things they feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began.

In another study researchers found that people who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others, and either to God or to creation in general, tended to have higher vitality and more optimism, suffer less stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population as a whole. This result held even when researchers factored out such things as age, health, and income – equalizing for the fact that the young, the well-to-do, or the hale and hearty may have more to be grateful for. In other words, expressing gratitude can not only make you happier but can make you healthier. No wonder Jesus tells us to be like the birds and lilies of the fields.

Now I know that Thanksgiving celebrations can add to our stress levels, but they need not. Remember why it is that you are gathering together, wherever that may be, and stop for a time to relax and reflect. In order to help prepare you, I would like you to take out your green daily Bible reading insert, if you haven’t already, and we’re going to spend a few moments writing down some of the things we give thanks to God for on the backside where we can write down the things we will like to remember from today’s service. We are not giving thanks for things, because that places the emphasis on the object, whatever it is, but instead we are giving thanks to God who provides for us. So instead of saying, I am thankful for my home, which can take on the tone of saying thank you that I am not one of the homeless, we say instead, Thank you God for the shelter that you have provided me, and I ask you to help all those today who do not have a place to call their own. Or you might say, I thank you God for the friends and family who surround me with their love and their care, and remember those who feel alone or isolated and ask that your love might be felt by them. So take out your paper, begin your thanksgiving journal by writing down one or two things you want to give thanks to God for...

Jesus calls us to move away from what our culture says is important into a life of trust and obedience. Away from worrying and being obsessed with the mights and coulds in our lives, to striving first for the kingdom of God; striving away from putting our dependence on ourselves or other things and instead putting our reliance on God. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Let us strive for the kingdom and let us take the time to give thanks to God. Thanks be to God sisters and brothers. Amen.

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