Sermon, 11/23/2011, Thanksgiving Eve
©Rev. David Huber
Delivered at First Congregational UCC in Eau Claire, WI
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a whale—a sperm whale, the largest of all whales—appears a few miles above the surface of a planet. It doesn’t know this, but we the readers do. As it bows to the iron will of gravity and begins its plummet, it starts to think. It thinks about the purpose of life. It creates a vocabulary, naming things it is experiencing: its tail, its head, the wind. Then it contemplates that thing rushing toward it with such great speed: “It is so big and flat and round. It needs a big wide-sounding name, like ‘OW’ or ‘ownge,’ ‘round,’ ‘ground!’ That’s it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it will be friends with me. Hello ground!” [splat motion]
The ground, of course, is not capable of friendship. It rarely is. It is not alive. And yet, Thanksgiving is, in part, about the ground and about land. Hard and unforgiving. Anyone who, let us say as a child, was dumb enough to jump off his Aunt Mary’s shed, or fall out of a tree, knows that it can be very unfriendly. But also full of the stuff of life. Animals aplenty on it. Life in the waters it contains. Put a seed in it, and the seed will grow into food, a flower, a tree. Without us having to do anything to it. It just grows. The ground and rain and sun provide all it needs. All the food we could ever want, if only we were willing to share. And it provides food we don’t plant: wild mushrooms, berries, watercress, chestnuts, bulrushes, seaweed. Trees for lumber or to heat our homes. Wildflowers for beauty and for honey.
The ground, hard and unfriendly ground, gives with no regard for our merit, or the merit of any life form. Growing and nourishing life is its nature. And that is a good metaphor for God! The ground is the source of what keeps us alive. Ground! Round! Wonderful round, solid, earthy ground! I wonder if it will be friends with us?
I wonder ... if I will be friends with it.
Friends with the ground. Friends with the land.
Because it is not ours.
In our Deuteronomy lesson, the Hebrew people are on the cusp of entering the Promised Land, plummeting toward their destiny. Anticipating freedom from wilderness wandering and centuries of slavery. Their new home is in sight, a dream 500 years in waiting since God made that first promise to Abraham. A people vibrating with expectation like a child the day before Christmas. But God tells the people to stop. “WAIT!” You ever try to get a child to sleep while they’re buzzing with visions of the pile of Christmas loot soon to be discovered under the tree? Like that. God stops. And speaks to the people:
“This is it.
There it is.
Your soon-to-be home.
500 years of dreams and waiting becomes reality tomorrow.
But tonight, my people, listen.
I must tell you something first.
I provided for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I provided for you in slavery.
I provided quail and manna and water for you in the wilderness.
I made it so your clothes did not wear out.
I kept you safe.
I led you to freedom.
You have never had ground of your own. Ground from which all fruits of your labor go to you, not to Pharaoh. Ground from which you will no longer make bricks for Pharaoh, but for your homes.
It will be new and different.
You will struggle to invent the vocabulary of being your own people. Of what it means to rule yourselves.
[quieter] And you may not know this, but you are in grave danger.
[whisper] Grave danger.”
Got your attention?
“You are in grave danger, when you occupy this land, of forgetting me. [increasing louder] You run the risk of thinking your flocks have multiplied, your homes were built, your ores were mined, your clay was dug, your crops were grown because of your own power, and the might of your hand. But it is me, the Lord your God, who gives you the power to get wealth.
[whisper] Don’t forget that.”
We make nothing grow, God does. We may take ore, oil, and stone from the ground, but we cannot make any of it. “If you truly want to make an apple pie from scratch,” Carl Sagan said, “you must first invent the universe.” God tells us here to remember that we make nothing. And God’s words hold a warning – God can take it all away. “I give you all this, and I swear to ME, I’ll take it away if you pretend to be me. If you pretend to be God. If you forget that I am the giver. I am the maker. I am the inventor.” But they did forget. They took their stuff for granted, they didn’t share, they credited their own power for what they had. 500 years from Abraham to the Promised Land, and in less time than that, God took it away from them because they failed to be thankful.
[whisper, in an aside voice offering commentary on the sermon, ala Jim Gaffigan] That got depressing all of a sudden. I just wanted stuffing and pumpkin pie, and watch the game. Can you bring back the whale? I didn’t get it, but it made me feel good.
[Normal] Yeah, well, it’s not about feeling good. It’s about BEING good. Being faithful. And being good includes being thankful. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. It is our holiday. Not just us Americans, but our church’s because we are the Pilgrims’ church. The first Thanksgiving was a congregational pot luck! It went on for three days, obviously no Packers kick-off to rush home for, but still, a congregational pot luck. A gathering to give thanks to God by enjoying and sharing with neighbors the produce of the land in great feasting and gluttony. I know, gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but once in a while, as a celebration of harvest, not so bad.
One of the first commands to Moses was Sabbath, a day of rest. A day to stop making bricks for Pharaoh, and remember our freedom in God and God’s providence. Feasting, napping, watching football, feasting again. I don’t know about your family, but we always got at least two major feedings in, as well as watching football and playing games. Euchre for us, and later, video games. I think Nintendo should make a Wii game called Thanksgiving Post-Meal Afternoon On The Couch. As long as your controller remains completely motionless, you win. That’s a Sabbath. Contented trust that God provides, and contented thanks that recognizes that everything we have comes from God. Nothing huge, no billboards, no neon signs, no Imperial Cruisers emblazoned “In God We Trust.” Just a day to pause from our anxiety, to slow down from the rat race. To turn around like the Samaritan leper to remember where we came from and in whom we have wholeness of life, and say “Thank you.” Because we’re all hitchhikers riding along in God’s universe.
Thank you God, for the ground which provides, for humor, whales, and the printing press; for medicine, imagination, and for turkey fryers, for family , friends, and feasts. And thank you for being friends with us.
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