Last night my 19 year old daughter, while seeking a job in her trade, settled for a seasonal job at a large retailer, and texted me her schedule. On Black Friday she has to be at her minimum wage job (which is a 1 ½ hr., two bus ride, away) – at 4am and works until 4pm. Saturday she has to be at the store at 6am. Did I mention that one bus line is not running that early so guess who gets to drive her to the mall?
Don’t get me wrong. I ‘m all for Hannah developing a strong work ethic. I’m glad she wants to work and is working. We want to support her. It’s just that we are concerned about what is happening to what used to be Thanksgiving week end. It wasn’t too long ago that this time was down time, time spent in a post-turkey coma snoozing, then eating more turkey, maybe watching football, catching up with family and friends, maybe washing the dishes, just plain hanging out. It was a time to experience gratitude and give thanks. Apart from the jumble of national myths about thanksgiving – the act of gratitude is a spiritual habit that is part of our biblical heritage.
Giving thanks is the hallmark of our spiritual life. Giving thanks and giving doesn’t happen overnight. How many times do we have to remind our children to say, “please,” “thank you” or to help out. The instincts to do good are there, but they must be encouraged, trained, even as we train to learn the piano, to cook, to garden, to learn a trade or profession. We put in hours, over months and years, to learn something well. Is not the spiritual life, rooted in gratitude and grace, worth as much? Learning to say thank you is acquired in the nitty-gritty of life.
We are in a time of profound shifts in the church and we don’t know where we’ll end up or what new alternatives we’ll reach. One thing is sure: somewhere in this mix the Holy Spirit will renew us by the power of divine and human generosity. We will find our way as we carve out the time (as well as the turkey) to care and to enjoy each other’s company. That is what it takes for a new vision to crystalize. Through time and togetherness. We know this because our souls are created for love, giving and gratitude. Our bodies and spirits are healed by the acts of love in sowing bountifully.
Let us turn to our Scriptures for clarification. Paul’s second letter to Corinth is basically a benefit drive to help the poor in Jerusalem. For Paul, it was important for Gentile Christians, for Christians outside of Judea, to help Jewish/Christians in the mother church. Paul wrote appeals at least three other times to the Corinthians and to other churches he established Thessalonica, Philippi and Galatia – on behalf of the poor Christians in Jerusalem.
While we don’t know the specifics of the struggles of the believers in Jerusalem ---although we know there was political instability and we know there was a general economic depression that probably created profound need among the people. Some say Christian Jews were being ostracized from already scarce jobs. So Paul made a big deal about giving. Giving, Paul reminds the Corinthians, not only glorifies God, it proclaims the gospel and brings good news.
Giving even enriches the givers’ life. Paul describes a spiritual cause-and-effect principal: we reap what we sow. If we give to help others in need we are blessed – blessed in many ways. Sometimes we are also financially or materially blessed. Sometimes our blessings are profoundly spiritual – we gain peace, joy and a sense of connection and belonging through giving.
Then there is the flip side of giving that we see in the gospel lesson of Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers. Jesus is in the region between Jewish and Gentile and heretics. Normally there’s not much generosity and giving going on there. Yet in illness ten lepers of mixed backgrounds, united in their misery, approach Jesus and cry out to him for mercy. Jesus heals them all. The Lord sends them to the priest so that they can be ritually examined, pronounced clean and reintegrated into community. What a profound gift – healing of an incurable illness, leprosy, and of the loneliness of ostracism.
Yet only one came back and thanked Jesus. This leper didn’t get his official pronouncement of cleanliness – then decide to return to Jesus when everything was in order. This leper returned as soon as he realized he was healed. Saying thank you was more important than getting his social pass. Only one leper stopped to think what happened to him, turned around, praised God publically, threw himself at Jesus’ feet, and said Thank you Jesus. One person – a Samaritan – a so-called heretic. This one person said Thank you. Somehow, even in the context of adversity, or because of the adversity, this leper learned to value what is precious. The relationship to Jesus. So he returned; with thanks.
A couple of weeks ago I shared with you that Union Church is at a pivotal, transitional point in its history. Where it shall go is in God’s hands, but we have a lot to say. We’re a small congregation that has all the seeds of growth. Amazing music, thoughtful and joyful worship, intergenerational, faithful, sensitive to mission, a progressive congregation that loves scripture and is committed to peace and justice. Yet only ten percent of our budget is paid by the people who sit in the pews. This level of giving would only keep the church doors open for six weeks, if congregational giving were the only source of income. Now we all know that this is not healthy or plausible for the long-term. There are costs to run a church community. Just as important, a healthy church needs grateful people. It needs you. It needs your Thank you, for you to bountifully sow your investment of time, money and talent to make this dream possible. I was at the Presbytery meeting last week and saw what is called our “per capita” figures – that amount each church pays for every single member to support our connectional network of churches. Union Church pays slightly over $1,300.00 that goes to national missions, our missions in the northeast, and local missions – in additional to the specific missions we engage in throughout the year. Every member‘s contribution into this network of mission is about $56 dollars a year. This church pays that “membership donation” if you will, no matter how little or much one gives, no matter how often one comes to worship, no matter how little or much one participates in the life of this community. We do this to Thank God for the privilege of giving; to thank God for the gift of faith we have received in Jesus. We give because we believe in giving. It makes us better people.
Just as Jesus healed Samaritans as well as Jews, and Paul taught the churches to give not just to themselves but to others, we remain committed to giving to others in need – in spite of our own pressing needs. We remain committed to connection – we are not an independent church, standing on its own. Nor are we a church taking orders from the top on down. We are a connectional church. It is that connection, where loving, giving, caring, sowing – thrives. It is in connection that God finds us and will transform us.
Bottom line is that we need to take back Thanksgiving Day. Not the cozy myths. Not gorging ourselves into oblivion on food and football, then the mall at midnight. Let’s take back thanksgiving the way today’s scriptures show us. Let us take time, real time, to reflect and experience how God has blessed us. Yes, each of us has troubles and trials. But think: if we woke up breathing indoors in a comfortable bedroom with heat, had a nice hot shower, if we got our body here, if we are wearing decent clothes, if ate breakfast or had food within the last day, can read the bulletin, can hear this music and respond to the prayers, if you have the opportunity to say please or thank you, well there are your first 12 blessings. It takes time, real time, to understand we are blessed, even in our failures or if hard times upon us. It takes a network of churches, communities, to form our spirits, and inform our hearts. Where else can we go to get what we experience here, with one another?
This Advent season as we prepare for Christmas, instead of giving up, let us give. Let us not give up on family time – whether your family is your pet, nature, or a three-generations from all around the world, or the human family God has put you with this week. Instead of giving in mindlessly to consumerism, give thoughtfully, prayerfully to give healing and joy to others. Instead of giving up on the church, give yourself wholeheartedly to the mission of Union Church and make it a beacon of light in Bay Ridge. Instead giving up on yourself, give yourself. Give yourself sacred time. Give yourself opportunity to know Jesus, to the one who can make us whole - Give yourself – bountiful sower full of blessing, full of promise, capable of making a difference. And Give thanks for it all. Amen.