Thanksgiving sermon, St. Peter’s by the Sea

Well friends…  Tis the season.

BRACE YOURSELVES.

I know, I know.   The holidays are supposed to be a wonderful time.  A joyful time.  A time to connect with family, friends and loved ones.  This is when we gather together in the kitchen to laugh with one another while we cook big meals, and hold hands with one another at the table as we bow our heads in humble gratitude for all of the blessings that have been bestowed upon us.  This is when children laugh and play and men watch football then we all fall asleep, tired and full and happy.  I know all that.

Except, here’s the problem:

That has NEVER been my experience of the holidays.  Ever.

A couple of weeks ago my mother and I were invited to be part of a one hour Thanksgiving radio show that is being broadcast in Connecticut somewhere.  I think it aired today.  The host was so enthusiastic about having us there and giving us the chance to talk about our fond memories of the holiday.  When I sat in the chair with that big microphone right in front of my face and she asked me to share a memory of Thanksgiving I totally blanked.  All I could think was “Well, I get in a big old messy fight with my mother just about every single year.  Even now that I’m a 33 year old priest.”

I didn’t think that’s what she was looking for, so I just stared at her blankly.

In order to help me out, she prompted me further.  “Well, what’s your favorite food on Thanksgiving?”

She didn’t realize this question was worse than the first.  I’m the world’s worst cook, and I hate doing dishes, and I really only ever want to eat cheese.  I have never cared for the elaborate meals prepared on holidays, and have lamented every year that I just want to order pizza and call it a day.

“Uh…” I stuttered back to her, “I like the mashed potatoes.  With lots of butter.”

I mumbled through the rest of the interview, making up some stuff as I went along and feeling grateful that she could edit the thing to death, and I left feeling like THE BIGGSET GRUMP that had ever seen a holiday.  Just call me Mrs. Scrooge.  The only thing that helped me feel a little better about the whole thing was the fact that my mother was there with me, also shaking her head and saying “We just never got the Norman Rockwell thing down.”

I’m sorry if I’m ruining the mood for you here, and I’m going to bring it around – I promise.  But before I do, I just have to acknowledge that for some people – if not for most people, whether or not they admit it – when those first jingle bells start ringing in the hours following Halloween, there’s some feelings that come up that might not look like joyful expectation.  Some of us might start feeling a little bit of anxiety.  Some of us might be deeply sad.  Some of us tense, some of us antsy.  Because the fact is that any time society expects us to be with the ones we love the most experiencing “quality family time” we all have to go through the process of trying to adjust, explain, or accept what that looks like for us.  And it very well might not look like Norman Rockwell.

It is for this reason that I think this service should be one of the most highly attended services of the year.  Because today more than ever we need to be with God.  And we desperately, desperately need the messages that we hear from our Scripture passages tonight.  Do not fear.  Do not worry.  Rejoice and be glad.

Fear.   Worry.  I think even those of us who have pretty darn good holidays still catch a glimpse of fear and worry in one capacity or another.  Maybe we’re worried about the choices our college-aged children will make when they come home.  Maybe we’re afraid Uncle Charlie will drink too much again.  Maybe we’re worried that our mother’s will criticize the food we’ve made, or that we’ll lose our cool.  Maybe we’re afraid we won’t be able to afford Christmas gifts this year, or that our grief from the absence of a loved one will overwhelm us.   On any day, at any time, we can likely tap into some kind of fear or worry we’re carrying around, but this condensed period of “celebration” can bring it out faster and with a fury that threatens to undo us sometimes.

But do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! (Joel 2:21)

In the end, this is what I ended up saying to that radio host.  I mean, I didn’t tell the soil not to be afraid, but I told her what I tell myself year after year when this season approaches.  And that is that I believe, with my whole heart, that gratitude is an antidote to fear.

Gratitude is an antidote to fear.

If I were to stand here and say the first part of this line from the book of Joel – “Do not fear” – if I were to say only that it might discredit you and all that you might be holding in your heart this season.  That advice could come off as patronizing and oversimplified.  Do not fear.  As if my quick reassurance would be enough to calm our raging fears.

No, just our being told not to fear is not enough.  What we need, what we must have, is that reminder that comes after it.  “Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things.”

Friends, the Lord has done great things.  And we might be standing on the brink of this holiday season uncertain about what lies ahead.  But we know, in our heart of hearts we know, or else we wouldn’t be here – that the Lord has done great things.  And the beauty of this particular holiday tomorrow is that in midst of the madness that surrounds it – we are reminded to pause and give thanks to God.  And I remain convinced that if we can do that – if we can offer our gratitude with honesty and humility and grace, than it will transform us.  Our gratitude will transform our fear.

So what that means is that when something pops up for you tomorrow or in the coming weeks that causes you to brace yourself, pay attention to the position of your shoulders.  First, just notice it.  Give yourself some credit for noticing the tension and acknowledge where it’s coming from.  Being grateful doesn’t mean that we ignore what’s going on inside of us.  So notice your fear or worry or anxiety or dread.  Care for yourself if you need to.  And then, take a moment to think about some way that you have been blessed.  It might be that you are able to wake up in the morning and breathe in the air that surrounds you.  Whatever it is though I think that it has to be honest and true.  Rattling off something you are grateful for as if the gratitude itself is an obligation will not help you.  Obligation does not lead to transformation.  No, you have to really believe it.  So maybe you think about someone in your life who doesn’t have what you are giving thanks for.  I have friends this year who don’t know if the cancer will take them or if they will live.  And that helps me to be grateful for my health in a very real way.  And it helps me to surround those friends with prayer and light.  And it helps me to remember that maybe arguing my own way in my fight with my mom this year really isn’t worth it in the long run.    I’m willing to bet that if you allow yourselves that process of gratitude you’ll notice that your shoulders will start to slide back down to where they are supposed to be.

And here’s the best part.  If we can be grateful, and transform our own experience of the holidays – just a little! – progress, not perfection remember,  but if we can make just the slightest difference in our own interactions, make the smallest dent in our own fears and worries, then perhaps we can help the people around us have a better holiday too.  Perhaps we can offer our loved ones a greater glimpse of God.

So let’s call a spade a spade here.  The holidays are wonderful.  And the holidays can also be very, very difficult.  Acknowledging that challenge does not take away from the wonder of it, it just offers us a few cracks for God’s grace to stream in.  Fear and worry is a real part of our lives, and gratitude and prayer can helps us to overcome it.  Do not fear, O soil… for the Lord has done great things.”

I want to end with one of my favorite prayers.  And it’s not really a gratitude prayer except that it must have come from a truly grateful heart.  But it’s just what I want to offer you as you move into this season, acknowledging your fears and giving thanks to God:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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