We are getting ready to celebrate
a national day of Thanksgiving
and today we are sharing in together
in a particular kind of way.
Instead of turkey and stuffing
we are making Eucharist
with bread and wine.
This bread and wine ceremony we do
is called “Communion” in street language
but in Church-speak
it is called, “Eucharist.”
Some of us here
are real churchy people and we know that,
while others of us here
are not very churchy and may not know it.
“Eucharist” is Greek for “Thanksgiving”
and when those early conspirators in the
subversive movement called “Christianity”
spoke about the kind of worship they did,
that is the word they used: Eucharist…Thanksgiving.
So for us, every week is Thanksgiving.
But let’s to be simpleton’s about this
because sometimes we just do not feel like giving thanks.
Sometimes we drag ourselves here
or up the steps of another church,
and we feel
hassled beyond concentration
or resentful to the point of a burning stomach.
Sometimes, if we are honest,
we arrive just plain bored with it all.
My first Christmas home from seminary,
as the preacher was introducing
his Midnight Mass sermon,
he announced that our long-time
and much beloved bishop had just died.
That bishop had been one of my heroes,
a true leader and prophet in his time,
and I was immediately struck with sorrow.
Then I heard the preacher say,
“Sometimes we give thanks in the face of our grief.”
I didn’t think much of that advice at the time
but in my best moments these days,
when I am grieving or full of sorrow,
I try to hold that truth
while clawing my way up
from my stomach to my throat
and uttering a tentative word of gratitude: Eucharist.
There is one such moment
that stands out in my memory more than all the others.
I don’t know if I can tell it to you without crying
but I will try.
My family was blessed with a magical piece of land
in Northern Michigan,
on a lake named Bellaire.
My great-great grandparents
had a sprawling farm up there in the 19th century.
When they retired and sold it,
my grandfather retained a small tract of the land,
just 75 feet of lakefront on about ¾ of an acre.
In 1926 my grandfather built a little hunting and fishing cabin and in the 1950’s my dad improved it, but only slightly.
For the first fifty years of my life
I spent parts of each summer up there
and occasionally a weekend or two in the autumn.
Such camps are well-known up here
and from where we lived in Indiana
it was an eight to twelve hour drive
depending upon the stage of highway development.
There are even stories of taking the train up
though I was too small to remember those days.
Then, in 2004, it fell upon me to sell it.
Not because anyone wanted to
but the circumstances my mom’s long illness
followed by my dad’s long life,
created the need for income.
It sold in a day
while Katy and our young children were there.
As it turned out, it would be the last time we were there.
On the last morning
before we were to drive back to Buffalo,
I took our dilapidated old aluminum rowboat
with a very old, very loud ten horsepower motor
down to the spot I had been fishing
for half a century.
I sat there fishing and crying
and trying to muster some gratitude in the midst
of my grief.
I caught a few sparkles of gratitude
and even a few chuckles at old memories;
on the other hand,
I didn’t even get a nibble.
As I motored the boat back
paralleling the shoreline for the ten minute journey,
I sobbed loudly
in the comfort of knowing the old motor
covered the sounds of my grief.
Finally I regained my composure
and felt like I could say goodbye
as I rounded the boat toward the shore.
But there, waiting for me on the bank
in front of the cabin,
we my four children with knowing faces.
I started crying all over again.
As I drifted to the shallow shore
they waded out to hold me.
If there is a moment of grace
more powerful than to be comforted by your children,
I don’t know what it is.
The way we said goodbye as a family
was to gather at the picnic table and,
share Communion –
Our Offertory was to say out loud
what we were thankful for about the cottage
and our many years we had there.
Of course we all cried.
Of course we felt grief.
Of course it hurt
but thank God we had the presence of mind
to give thanks
because it makes all the difference in the world.
As some of you may know,
I always insist upon that at funerals too.
I remind people at funerals
that we are there making room to give thanks
even in the midst of terrible grief.
We gather at the end of someone’s life
to give thanks
to God for giving him or her
to us in the first place;
and to give thanks
to the one who has died
for all they have given us;
and to give thanks
to God for resurrection.
It is also what we do
as we gather to make Eucharist:
we strike a pose of gratitude
for the abundance of our lives
even if at that moment
we are struggling with issues of scarcity
or grief or fear.
What I would tell you,
if you wanted to know what I believe,
is that our lives depend upon
our ability to do this.
And by “life”
I do not mean the ability to breathe
and consume oxygen;
I mean a sense of wholeness
within our lives.
“The Message” translation of Matthew’s Gospel
that we heard from the NRSV this morning,
has a really fortunate turn of phrase
that brings this spectacular gospel-wisdom home.
The last paragraph we heard is translated this way
in “The Message” version:
“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think (God will) attend to you…?
What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.
People who don’t know God and the way (God) works fuss over these things, but you know God and how (God) works. Steep your life in God…Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
If we take off the consumeristic lens
we have been fitted with since early childhood
and we listen to the prophet of our tradition
as if he really knew what he was talking about,
we hear what he is saying,
it will rattle us deep at the core:
“What I’m trying to do here,” Jesus says,
“is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting,
so you can respond to God’s giving.
That about sums it up!
Relax and let go of being preoccupied with getting
so we can respond –
in gratitude, with Eucharist –
to what God has been giving.
Now I do not believe for a minute
that if we follow that advice
we will get rich,
own a large screen plasma entertainment center,
or find fame, fortune and happiness.
Nor is there anything about that advice
that would necessarily prohibit such things either.
The point is,
where our treasure is
there will our hearts be also.
You and I have to make some decisions
about what we care most about
and put our focus on those things –
which may mean we lose some other things –
but in all of it
to live in fullness with gratitude.
It is also true,
and you know this as well as I do,
that some things are more conducive
to living with an attitude of abundance
than other things.
Figuring out which things in life
foster a perspective of abundance and gratitude
and which things hinder or militate against it,
is our life’s work.
So I would like us to look at this food for a moment.
Let it be for us an icon.
I invite you to just look at food for a minute.
(St. Mark’s, where this sermon was preached, collected food for its food pantry over the past five weeks with the goal of filling the chancel and surrounding the altar to the point that it was buried and could not be accessed. That goal was met).
in response to God’s giving
is the same thing
as responding to grief and pain with Eucharist:
it does not stop the every day needs
or change our bottom line,
but it does change everything else.
To people who do not understand how God acts –
who do not understand
the exquisite interdependence of Creation –
collecting a bounty of food to give away
when we are asking one another to pledge contributions
to the church for the coming year,
may seem like madness.
in response to God’s giving
is the act of making Eucharist with our lives.
That is how we become Eucharist!
When we give
no matter what is happening around us,
we are making Eucharist.
When we give fearfully
and with a stingy fretfulness
we make a stingy, fretful Eucharist with our lives.
When we give with abandon
and proportionately to our abilities,
we make an abundant Eucharist
that changes our own life
and feeds the world around us.
It isn’t tricky
it is very straightforward and obvious.
Yes there is fear,
yes there is anxiety,
yes there is need,
yes there is grief,
yes there is pain,
yes there is loss…
and when we live our lives in reaction to those things
the Eucharist we make
When we live our lives
in thanksgiving for the abundance that surrounds us
even as we struggle through the swamp
of difficult problems and concerns,
then the Eucharist we make
will be powerful.
That is the message of the gospel
as we gather to make Eucharist.
So as we sit in stillness for the organ interlude,
I invite us to gaze upon the icon
of an altar buried in abundance.
“What we are trying to do here
is relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting,
so we can respond to God’s giving.”