Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sermon for November 21, 2014 / Thanksgiving Sunday

Thanksgiving: Turning Guilt to Gratitude
With attribution and thanks to "Gratitude Alleluias Becoming Reckless Generosity" (October 7, 2012) by Pastor Dawn Hutchings,
On your feet now—applaud God!
Bring a gift of laughter,
sing yourselves into God’s presence.
Know this: God is God.
God made us.
We’re God’s people, well-tended sheep.
Enter with the password: “Thank you!”
Make yourselves at home, talking praise.
Thank God. Worship God.
For God is sheer beauty,
all-generous in love,
loyal always and ever. Psalm 100
When I was a kid, the adults in my life were very fond of telling me how grateful I ought to be because things were so much harder back when they were kids. I’m sure some of us can remember being told by our elders just how tough times were when they were back in the day. The way they talked, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and just about every adult I knew must have grown up poor.

Today, when I hear the words, “We were so poor that…”  I brace myself for outrageous, escalating claims. Someone says, “We were so poor that we couldn’t afford a loaf of bread.”

Another says, “Bread? You were lucky, we were so poor that we couldn’t afford dinner at all. All we had was a mug of cold coffee without milk or sugar.”

Someone else says, “We were so poor that we couldn’t afford mugs, we used to have to drink our coffee out of a rolled up newspaper.”

“That’s nothing! We were so poor that all we could we couldn’t afford newspapers so we had to suck our coffee from a damp cloth.”

Finally, someone always chimes in by saying, “Well we might have been poor, but you know we were happy in those days. That’s right money can’t buy happiness. We used to live in a tiny house, with holes in the roof, but we were happy.”  Of course, someone else picks up the comparisons again. It begins to sound like a lot like a Monty Python Skit.

“House? You were the lucky ones we were so poor that we had to live in one room, all 126 of us, with no furniture.  Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling!” 

“Ha!  You were lucky to have a room! We used to live in an old water tank.”

“Water tank? You were lucky. There were a 160 of us living in a small cardboard box in the middle of the road.”

The truth is, when I was a kid, money came and went. When I look back on it, I suppose we were poor at times. Sometimes we had money and sometimes we didn’t. Like most middle class Americans, there were times when money was tight. When Chris and I were first married, we had to learn how to stretch a dollar. We lived in a drafty apartment near Boston, and we used to not turn the heat on until Thanksgiving. I used to cook quarts and quarts of pea soup to keep us warm. One year, I burnt the soup. So we ate burnt pea soup for a few weeks until it was gone. I still can taste singed split peas whenever I think about it.

Thanksgiving is a time to counting blessings. Sometimes, when we look back into the past we see hard times, or lean times, and we tend to wax poetic about how great life was even though we didn’t have much money. We can become nostalgic about the good old days when we were younger and poorer and our lack of funds actually left us happier than we sometimes are now. Most of is only say that because we can look back and see that we are not in that situation anymore.  We have moved up the ladder and have more of the things that we once only dreamed of. There is danger in romanticizing poverty, when all too many people who are in poverty have no hope of ever escaping it. Moving up the ladder out of poverty is much more difficult today than it was a generation ago. Heck, it’s harder to move out of poverty than it was five years ago.

The truth is for most of us, the hard times we remember were just that: hard-times. Even when money was tight, we still expected the future would be bright. We might have had to walk miles and miles to school, up hills, backwards in the snow both ways, but we were going to school. We may have had to eat burnt pea soup day after day, but at least we were eating.

We are the wealthy ones on this planet. Our lives are blessed beyond the wildest dreams of 90% of the people who share this planet with us. We are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most of the generations who celebrated Thanksgivings before us. We have much to be thankful for! But, when I think about the poverty of the majority of the people on this planet, all too often I begin to feel something other than gratitude. It’s more like guilt.

Psalm 100 tells us to get on our feet and applaud God! Bring a gift of laughter, sing ourselves into God’s presence. It’s difficult to sing God’s praise for all the wealth and beauty that I enjoy when so many people have so little wealth and an almost no beauty in their lives. Most of us have experienced those pangs of guilt that come with the knowledge of our means and our neighbors’ poverty. Most of us have become accustomed to living with the guilt. Some deny the guilt. Others suppress it. All too many of us live in fear of becoming impoverished.

How do we hold privilege and poverty together in our prayers? Gratitude is the only hopeful response. Until we learn to sing ourselves into God’s presence, with awareness and gratitude, guilt will give way to fear and fear to greed.

We’ve been taught that we have earn as much as we can and save as much as we can or we’ll be doomed to an impoverished life, dependent upon the government for handouts. Our guilt and fears about wealth can cause us to entangle our well-being up with assets. In order to feel secure we need more money. How much is enough?  Well we never know, so prudence can turn to greed as we amass more and more, so that we don’t have to be afraid.  But imagine for a moment what might happen if we were to focus more on our gratitude than on our guilt or our fears. What might we become if we remembered to sing ourselves into God’s presence with awareness and gratitude for our wealth?

Thanksgiving is a great time to do this. Thanksgiving has always been a time for the advantaged to give praise to God for their material blessings. Think about all of our hymns about the abundant harvest and our many blessings. I have never heard a Thanksgiving hymn about crop failure, famine, and hopeless futures. That’s because there’s another side to all of this: the poor, the oppressed, and the socially marginalized simultaneously endure the pain of inequality and social misery. This has been the reality from the first Thanksgiving until now. Now, most of us who gather for the Thanksgiving holiday aren't the ones who make a living exploiting poor people. We may not be what you would call "poor," but we try to keep the poor in our sentimental thoughts. Given this reality, why should the underside of Thanksgiving matter to us?

The answer is simple. It matters because poor people matter. It matters because we are knit together in a web of mutuality that should make it difficult for us to have a day of thankfulness for what we have that doesn't include concern for those who have very little.

My intention here is not to create a feel bad situation or start a Cancel-Thanksgiving-Dinner movement. I want us to expand our view of the Thanksgiving holiday so that it becomes an opportunity to both give praise to God for our blessings and to give service to those in need. I want us to see the Thanksgiving holiday with compassionate eyes. Think back to the words of Matthew’s Gospel that we heard earlier. All that stuff about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the sick and visiting the prisoner; all that talk about when you serve the least it’s just like serving the Christ. If we take these words seriously, we might no longer be able to gather around food-filled tables and offer praise and prayers to God without also examining our hearts to discern what we can do better to live in community with those who are poor or socially marginalized.

Joan Chittister tells a story about how one might go about giving thanks for wealth while helping those in need. Sister Joan was attending an international conference in Asia on the status of women. Most of the participants were women she describes as “well-funded activist types or official observers.” They were all there to analyze all sorts of issues that keep women everywhere in some kind of bondage to a money-driven world.  At the gathering, these professional women called for more education for girls, more equality through government legislation, more birth control training, better health-care programs, and most importantly more participation of women at all levels of the political process. It was a good conference and every one was very sincere. But it was what happened on the margins of the conference that moved Sister Joan.

As the conference drew to a close, a leader of one of the small workshops passed a piece of paper around and asked that everyone write their e-mail address on the sheet so that they could all stay in contact and support one another in their work. One of the participants; a woman named Rose, was a Kenyan pastor of a Presbyterian church in Africa. When the sheet of paper came to her, she simply filled in her name and passed it on. The woman next to Rose passed the paper back to her and pointed out that she had neglected to put her email address on the form. Rose answered quietly: “I don’t have email where I am.  It is too expensive for us. And when I can use it, it is too slow to be reliable.”

When Sister Joan and her colleague were getting into a cab to leave, her colleague said that she couldn’t leave without first seeing Rose. She asked Sister Joan to wait and rushed back into the hotel saying that she had promised to give something to Rose. Later, as they were waiting to check in for their flight, Sister Joan asked her colleague what she had given to Rose. Her friend answered that she had given Rose her credit card.

“Your credit card?” Sister Joan gasped. “Why in heaven’s name would you give Rose your credit card?”

Her friend answered quietly, “So she can pay for her email every month.”

I can’t imagine myself doing that. It seems so irresponsible – trusting, to the point of naiveté. That kind of giving potentially puts me at risk. Sister Joan’s friend thought differently. We could decide that giving away a credit card does nothing to solve long-term problems of poverty, debt, and financial insecurity. Sister Joan’s friend knew something else, though. Giving thanks for our wealth – for our material blessings – has little or nothing to do with money at all. It has everything to do with how deal with money and how money deals with us – what we do with it and how we use it, and how it uses us.

Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security. The purpose of wealth, from a biblical perspective, is wild generosity; the kind of generosity that sings of the lavish love of God; the kind of generosity that rekindles hope on dark days. Our songs of awareness and gratitude can free us from guilt and fear when they become embodied in us.

I know that each of us has the power to offer some wild generosity. It’s not about setting a financial bar for giving. Wild generosity is all about the attitude of thanksgiving. I truly believe that when each of us shares some, then there is enough for all. So let yourselves go. No matter what life brings, may you find a way to give thanks. Give thanks for your loves. Give thanks for your joys. Give thanks for your material blessings. Give thanks and for the continued courage to offer wild generosity. It goes farther than we can even imagine!

Let us become the wildly generous people we were created to be.
For we are Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath.
Do not worry about your life.
Do not be afraid for the future.
Let us use our wealth to do what we can while we wait to do even more.

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