Thursday, November 28, 2013

Three Magic Words

If you have children, or if you have ever been a kid, which should cover just about all of us, then you probably know the ‘the magic words’ and they are not hocus-pocus or abracadabra or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!  What are they?  PLEASE and THANK YOU.  That’s right. 

I can remember hammering in those three magic words into my children especially when they were bugging me for something, which seemed to be most of the time.  “Can I have a snack?” “What do you say?  What are the magic words?” and they would dutifully, tinged with an edge of sarcasm, say, “Please and thank you”.  Then I would have to say, “Say it like you mean it please!”  Then they would repeat the magic words again with a bit more sincerity, as I would usually hand over whatever it was that they were asking for.

Please and thank you.  Three enchanting words that unlock all of Ms. Manner’s etiquette in one breath.  I’ve decided that the only words you really need when you travel to another country that doesn’t speak the English language is, please and thank you.  And maybe ‘where’s the WC’.  Because with please and thank you you can make your way through whatever country you are in with kindness, civility and even a portion of gratitude and love because at that very moment in time you are dependent upon a stranger to get you what you need and to get you where you need to be. 

Please and thank you.  What’s so magic about these words anyway?  How does saying please and thank you unlock a mother’s heart or a stranger’s empathic response?  You have to admit that when you do something for someone and you don’t even get a gratuitous ‘thank you’, you are miffed.  Right?  I extended myself for you and you can’t even say thanks?  Admit it, it’s always nice to hear thank you.

And so we will sit around a table this Thanksgiving Day and say please and thank you.  Because it’s a day for the gobbler, goodies and grace, your prayers of thanks steeped in your family tradition and your faith tradition.  We will gather together to ask the Divine for blessings and give great thanks for the blessings that we have already received.  It will be warm, it will be satisfying, and we might feel as if we are the most blessed people on this planet without a care in this world.
The Thanksgiving Table by Norman Rockwell
Yet we know that’s not entirely the truth.  The Thanksgiving table is not only a place with fancy decorations and flowers, succulent turkey, stuffing, pie and enumerating all of the good things about your life.  The Thanksgiving table is also the place you will bring the not so good aspects of your life, your worries and concerns, and your fears, you know how they follow you everywhere like catalogs arriving in the mail every fifteen minutes.

The Thanksgiving table is a place where you can recognize those worries and perhaps even give voice to them.  The table is scared and holy ground where our common bonds of humanity, that is suffering and pain, joy and contentment for one brief hour is perfectly aligned and we can give thanks.

Thank you God.  Thanks God for picking me up in that ally way last week, what was I thinking?  Thank you God for having my back, I couldn’t have done it without you.  Thank you God that my child didn’t get any sicker, thank you God that during the last storm I wasn’t hurt and I still have my house to live in. Thank you God.  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

In one of author Anne Lamott’s books, “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers”, thank you, thank you, thank you is one of her prayers and in her inimitable way she shortens it to just ‘thanks’.  She knows that a thank you is good but a life of gratitude is even better so she takes thanks to a deeper level of understanding when she says, “‘You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too’.  She says…. ‘My general-purpose go-to mystic Rumi once said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”’[i] 

In other words, there are more ways then just these magic words to express our profound gratitude to God.  Giving ‘thanks’ is good for a day but then to live into the gratitude expressed around our tables on Thanksgiving Day is how this day can transform our living.  

We can express our gratitude to God for all those pick me ups, all of those close calls, all of those reprieves from potentially bad situations, we can express our gratitude in so many more ways than solely around the proverbial Thanksgiving table once a year.  There really is more than one way to kiss the ground and there is more than one way to say thanks.  My friends, no words are even needed.

When we breathe in gratitude and when we breathe out our gratitude there is no other alternative than to put that gratitude into action.  Thank you God, now what can I do to help you out?  What can I do to help other people?  Heaven knows, the world does not lack for opportunities for us to convey our gratitude and thanks way beyond Thanksgiving Day through our action because there is hurt in this world and people, maybe even your neighbors, who are in need of something. 

That’s the real gift of Thanksgiving.  After we wake up from our tryptophan induced naps and rub our sleepy eyes we can see all of the possibilities there are to put our gratitude into action.  There is a world out there that is in need of us…of you, and of me however we can contribute. Thanksgiving opens our eyes to the blessings we have and the incredible blessing that we can be to others.  That is the treasure of Thanksgiving. 

So let us resolve today to exhale our profound gratitude in this world through our actions.

Pass the stuffing please, and thank you God for letting the grain grow abundant and for the blessings of harvest to be plentiful.  Now let me work for just and equitable wages and sustainable living for all.

Pass the gravy please, and thank you God for giving us gravy and food at this table that is surrounded family and friends.  Now let me be a part of the solution to end homelessness and starvation so that others can enjoy the most basic of human needs.

Pass the cranberry sauce please, and thank you God for intervening in my life, for hearing my cries, for accepting my sorrows, for healing my aches, for forgiving my sins, for making me a better person, for opening my eyes to the world around me.  Thank you God, just thank you.  

Three magic words.  A life of gratitude.

And let all of the people say, Amen!

[i] Anne Lamott, ‘Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers’. Penguin Books, 2012.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Grace, Gratitude and Abundant Living

Matthew 25: 31-46
Who can possibly forget the photograph by Dorothea Lange entitled ‘Migrant Mother’? I think the image is singed on the hide of American history because it reminds us of a not so pleasant time when the least of these, the poor, the disposed, the migrant workers became even more marginalized because of the Great Depression.
 Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
 Taken in 1936 it is a black and white photo of a woman flanked by two children.  Her hair is tied back and the furrows in her forehead are deep from the work and the worry.  She looks off in the distance, her right hand cups her chin and her children with their unkempt hair, face in the other direction as if to hide their faces but tenderly rest their heads on her shoulders. 

This one photograph tells a poignant story; that mothers love even when they cannot provide adequately, that the effects of the Great Depression took its toll on all people in ways that you and I cannot possibly fathom, that she is not in this position because of her own doing, and that the inconvenient truth of our economy is that we are all dependent upon one another.  And that the least of these could be you or me because we share in the human experience of despair, love and grace.

You would think we should be hearing today’s scripture reading during Holy Week, not at Thanksgiving time when and our hearts are filled with generosity, and completeness.  But today we end the church season of ordinary time and next week we enter the season of Advent and you can’t have a beginning without and ending.

Jesus has just entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in a triumphal procession and we know that later in the week he will be executed.  He purges the temple of the money changers and merchants.  He is challenged by the chief priests of Jerusalem.  Then he tells a parable as he is so good at doing.

Hear now the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter…

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’   AMEN!

It’s clear that there is essential information that Jesus is trying to get through to the people before he dies.  The kingdom of God will come.  You don’t know when that will be so, be ready.  In the meantime, and it’s that ‘in the meantime’ that we all need to be concerned with, be a decent God loving human being.  Jesus wants us to be the face, hands and heart of his life to others.           

Hearing today’s text is unsettling because it clearly speaks of judgment. The shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand.  Yet the shepherd calls them home together, he gathers them in; and separating is part of shepherding. 

While Jesus warns us that judgment will come he uses this analogy to demonstrate the necessity of ethical, decent living and a way of compassionately ministering to others. We are to care for the least of these, the poorest of the poor, who by circumstances beyond our understanding and most likely not of their making cannot do it on their own or carve out a very meager living.

The moving Anthem of Thanksgiving that (will be offered at the 10 am service) we will hear shortly ….is an expression of deep gratitude for the harvest from a providential God.  The Promise of Living is from Aaron Copland’s opera entitled The Tender Land written around 1952.  The libretto was written by Horace Everett and you will find the words in your bulletin so that you can reflect upon them later.[i]

Copland was moved and inspired to write this music after he had seen photos by Walker Evans, who documented the Great Depression in poignant and heartrending black and white photography similar to Dorothea Lange.  Despondent adults with empty eyes, a mother with a barefooted child at her breast, dilapidated wooden porches, the blank faces of children in rural Alabama and the desperate looks on the faces of migrant workers…Evans depicted the horrors of the depression that it had particularly on the ‘least of these’ men and women who already were downcast and had practically nothing. 
 by Walker Evans
Well Copland was stirred by these photographs to write The Tender Land.

Set in the Midwest in the 1930’s the farmland folks and migrant workers were hit the hardest.  Yet the Moss family of the Opera finds great thanksgiving for the spring harvest in the middle of the adversities of their lives.  The ‘least of these’ are giving thanks because God, the source of all things has been so good to them and that they can share their abundance with their neighbors.

They have had an abundant spring harvest and are living working, growing, loving, and sharing all of this with their friends.  They were thankful for what work they had which wasn’t much and for being able to share the plentiful crops with their neighbors.  The least of these doing for the least of these.  This is grace and gratitude.

In part their prayer of thanksgiving….

Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain, Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain, O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessing.

I commend this entire poem be read at your table of Thanksgiving when you are surrounded by those you love. We can be warmed by its touching words and we can also take a lesson from it.

We are dependent upon our neighbors because we are not alone in this endeavor we call life.  The least of these and the greatest of these, the sheep and the goats, are at times interchangeable.  We are they and they are us and we share in life’s most basic needs.  So let us be thankful that we can offer each other, and those less fortunate the bounty and blessing of the harvest, the very gifts of our lives that God has given to us.  Because that’s what God wants us to do.  That’s how Christ wants us to live.

Gratitude is not just a once a year occurrence pulled off the shelf, dusted off at Thanksgiving and carefully placed in the cornucopia of life.  It’s an every day way of living.  Gratitude flows NOT from the things that we have or have obtained in life.  It is a human response that flows out of the gift of divine grace that God has extended to us in all circumstances and all times. 

There is promise of growth when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.  We grow beyond ourselves and into the world when we thank God for all that has been done in our lives.  Then we are truly free to live our lives in grace and in gratitude. 

If the farmers and migrant workers can sing with all of their hearts a great song of praise and thanksgiving surely we can lift up our voices to.

May the promise of living be our prayer of thanksgiving to the God who loves us deeply, who provides for us in profound ways, who will gather us in each night, protect us from all harm, and renew us in the light of Christ.