Thursday, November 22, 2012

Homily: Thanksgiving Day [November 22, 2012] Washington National Cathedral

            Today is not only Thanksgiving Day; it’s also November 22, and nobody my age can hear the words “November 22” without thinking of the day in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated.  That event happened just before Thanksgiving that year, and I remember even as a 9th grader the painful irony of reading the late president’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in the newspaper a mere six days after he had been killed.  As he gave voice to the many reasons Americans have to be thankful, President Kennedy also articulated the many challenges confronting the nation.  And then he said this: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them. [“Proclamation 3560 - Thanksgiving Day, 1963”, November 5, 1963]
 “The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”  In framing the Thanksgiving holiday as a dialogue between words and deeds, President Kennedy was expressing one of the great creative tensions faced by all people of faith.  As Christians, we are the custodians of inspiring words about hope, peace, love, and compassion.  As Americans, we are the inheritors of a national vision encompassing liberty, justice, and opportunity.  On both sacred and national holidays, we tend to talk in large beautiful abstractions.  But President Kennedy’s Thanksgiving remarks call us back to our central task as both followers of Jesus and citizens of the United States: not only to proclaim ideals but to enact them. “The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”
As Christians, as Americans, we face these creative tensions anew in 2012. What does it mean not only to give thanks but to live thankfully in the 21st century?
Last week, WAMU, the local NPR station, ran an extraordinary series on homelessness in the District of Columbia.  One episode described the surprising number of homeless college students who find themselves back on the street during school holidays.  Another noted how on any given night there are 67,000 homeless veterans in America.  The story that arrested my attention, though, told of a 22 year-old mother of four named Ebony who walks or (on cold nights rides the bus) endlessly with her two month-old son, Khyla.  According to the story [“Homeless Mother Waits In The Cold For Spot In Shelter”, WAMU, November 14, 2012] there has been a 73 percent increase in demand for emergency shelter since the onset of the recession. Ebony and Khyla are one of about 600 families on the waiting list for shelter in the District. 
Ebony is both hopeful about her prospects and realistic about her plight. "I'm hoping I'll find something within the night," she says. "A lot of times me and him will just walk around late, just pass time at night. I don't trust sleeping out there, 'cause there's a lot going on. You hear gunshots, you know, people running red lights."  As I listened to this story, I felt at once moved and ashamed.  How can I live in a country that lets its veterans and young mothers and children go without shelter?  How can I give thanks for the abundant and comfortable life I enjoy while Ebony and Khyla and 599 other local families spend their nights looking for someplace to stay?
My dilemma is probably your dilemma. I’m thankful, and I’m also chagrined. I continue to hear President Kennedy’s admonition: “The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”  The most authentic way for a Christian person to give thanks goes beyond the eloquent prayers we will utter at our tables.  The most authentic way for a Christian person to give thanks involves standing for and with those who do not share in the abundance for which we are so understandably grateful.
This morning we have heard two passages of scripture that can help us face into this dilemma.  One is Psalm 126; the other is from the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
Psalm 126 is my favorite of all the Psalms.  It comes from the time when Israel’s leaders were held in captivity in Babylon.  They were in exile, cut off from home and land and culture.  And yet they fashioned a remarkable song of thanksgiving and trust.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

On first hearing Psalm 126, you might say, what’s the big deal here?  It’s a typical song of thanksgiving.  But when you read it carefully and mull it over for a while, you realize that the psalm gives thanks for something that hasn’t even happened yet.  It treats a hoped-for reality as an accomplished fact. Only after the initial proclamation that “the Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed” does Israel then go on to ask God to do the great things they’re already thankful for: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses of the Negev. “ 
What I take from Pslam 126 is a clue about how to live in the tension between what I know to be true and what I hope will be true.  The life of faith is ultimately about what we all, together and individually, hope for.  As Christians, as Americans, we organize our lives around a vision of life that we hope will be true, a vision symbolized by the abundance of the table to which Jesus gathers us, a vision symbolized by the cornucopia of our harvest celebrations.  God offers us an abundant future, even in moments of personal and social deprivation.  They key to abundant living, to living on Jesus’s terms, is to choose to live as if what you hope for is already true now.  If you’re a Jew in Babylonian exile, live as though you’re already free.  If you’re a person of faith in 21st century America, live as if the abundant, mutual, generous society you hope for were already here. Even though the blessings of material prosperity are not available to all, we can work to make them so, we can start by extending the circumference of our own family tables and strive to widen the circle of abundance. “The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”  We give thanks by working to make our tables and our society hospitable to the Ebonys and Khylas of this world and all those whom God wants to draw inside that circle of abundance and plenty with us now.
So one way to give thanks this year is to live as though the world we hope for was already here.  Another way is to remember what Jesus says to us in the sixth chapter of Matthew:
"I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . .Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you . . .?” [Matthew 6:25, 28b-29]

“Do not worry about your life,” says Jesus.  God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies.  God will feed and clothe you.  The key to abundant living is not only to live thankfully in advance.  The key is also to remember that the source of our ultimate security is not ourselves.  The source of that security is God, who even now is looking out for you in ways you can’t even begin to know about.  God cares about Ebony and Khyla and the homeless veterans and all those who are hungry or homeless or cold this night.  God cares about you and your household and the fears and challenges you face.  Don’t let those fears and challenges control your life.  Let Jesus’s hopeful vision of shared mutual abundance, of a world where not only lilies and birds but human beings are lovingly provided for—let that be the truth that gives shape to your life. Let us all live as if everything we hope for and believe about God and America were true.  And once we’re  living in that truth ourselves, we can act together to make it real for everyone.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
“The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” Happy Thanksgiving. Amen.

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