Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Message 2011

(This message was given in St Paul's Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day 2011.)

Ephesians 2:14-22

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Good morning, and Happy Thanksgiving. It is truly an amazing thing to be able to worship together in this beautiful cathedral. We’re honored to be here.

According to the website, these are the Top 5 Family Thanksgiving Traditions. This is really the only day when I get to use material like this, so bear with me.

First, there is the turkey dinner, though there are regional variations on how that’s prepared. There’s the traditional roasting; in New England you can have a salt-encrusted turkey; in Hawaii apparently they rub coffee on the bird before roasting—that may be a way to try to prevent falling asleep immediately after the meal. And somewhere in the south, God bless ‘em, they’re deep-frying turkeys today.

Second, of course, is football. Now for our English friends—or really anyone not from the States—we’re not talking about soccer here. We’re talking about heavily padded, fully helmeted, oversized American football. It’s a part of the holiday to sit and watch football before and after the big turkey dinner. I have three NFL games recorded at my house, just so we can have them on in the background today.

Third are the parades, though that really means the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And fourth is fighting over the wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey. Apparently the tradition of breaking the wishbone and making a wish dates back to the ancient Etruscans in the 4th century BC. Aren’t you glad you came today?

Finally, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without somehow pausing to give thanks for the blessings in our lives. Even in hard times, it’s important to be thankful for the gifts of life and family and friends, even if we’re separated by distance or time. We’re here today to join together and give thanks, and it’s a blessing to be here.

Unlike a lot of other American holidays, Thanksgiving is celebrated at home. In the States people get away from home whenever a long weekend comes along. Martin Luther King Jr weekend in January means a ski trip, and if the snow holds out so does Presidents’ weekend in February. Memorial Day is the start of summer, so we go to the beach or the lake. The 4th of July is for picnics in the park. For Labor Day weekend we’ll try to squeeze in one more outdoorsy vacation, and on it goes.

But Thanksgiving is about being home, or at least in someone’s home, and about sharing our homes with those who are far away from theirs. It’s about opening our doors and welcoming family and friends and even strangers to a time of food and football and fellowship.

I remember the first time I celebrated Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. We’d been married for just a few weeks, and even though I knew the people around the table, I was still a little nervous. More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving is steeped in very specific traditions. How you prepare the turkey, what kind of pies to serve, what do you do with the sweet potatoes, and then there’s the cranberry sauce.

Seriously. Let me just pause here for a moment. I‘ve seen people get in heated arguments about whether or not canned cranberry sauce is acceptable for a Thanksgiving table. Even now I can feel the tension in the room. Personally I love a good slice of canned cranberry sauce, complete with those little dents and ridges from the inside of the can.

But what made that first Thanksgiving dinner with my wife’s family so special, was how they included me and welcomed me to their table, and how they tried very hard to add a few of my own traditions into that first celebration together. It was wonderful to be included that way. I didn’t feel like a stranger or visitor at all—I felt like part of the family from the very first moment.

That’s what I love about the passage we heard from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians a few minutes ago. It’s a beautiful statement of the unity we’re meant to have as people of faith. Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we all have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

And then Paul gets to the point. “So then,” he says, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”

“You are no longer strangers and aliens…[but] members of the household of God.” You’re part of the family now.

Rena Garcia was my friend in elementary school. This past summer we caught up at our 30-year high school reunion, and it wasn’t more than a few minutes before we shared a very special Thanksgiving memory from our childhood days. We grew up in Southern California, a part of the state that was filled with people from somewhere else. It was good preparation for living in London—we were surrounded by people and languages from all over the world. Half of Rena’s family was from Spain, and the other half from Mexico.

I remember that on the day before Thanksgiving each year, Rena came to school dressed like a Pilgrim—a carefully made black and white dress that looked exactly like the pictures of pilgrims we were reading about in our lessons at school. The teachers loved it so much that they passed Rena around like an artifact—she went from room to room where the teachers would show her off or use her as a visual aid for their explanation of that first Thanksgiving. I can still picture her—her brown skin and beautiful smile all dressed up like a 17th-century English dissenter, the people we grew up calling Pilgrims.

I think I may have felt sorry for Rena. I found out later that her mother had made the dress, and then sent her daughter off to the dangerous jungle we knew as primary school. I felt sorry for her, but one of the great things I learned later was that she wasn’t nearly as embarrassed about wearing the costume as we thought.

Because in Rena’s family there was a point to wearing that costume to school. Rena’s mother dressed her that way to make it clear to everyone that she was an American —that she belonged—that she was part of the family now. For her it was a gentle way of asking to be accepted—of wanting to fit into her country. At our reunion a handful of us shared our memory of the dress with Rena, and she couldn’t wait to go back and tell her mom that we’d all remembered it.

Thanksgiving is a time of gathering and reconnecting and accepting and remembering—it’s a holiday that’s perfect for looking a loved one in the eye and telling them how thankful you are that they’re a part of your life—how thankful you are that you get to be friends or family together.

Thanksgiving is also a time to welcome new friends. I’ve been hearing stories this past week of families who always set extra places at the table on Thanksgiving, just in case someone didn’t have a place to go. Some people invite students over, and others include a member of the military at their family gatherings. Homeless missions across the US today are serving turkey and all the trimmings to men and women and children who don’t have anywhere else to go.

All of this is a way to say what Paul said to his friends in Ephesus: “You are no longer strangers and aliens.” You’re part of the family now.

Paul’s letter was to a city that needed to hear a message of reconciliation and hope. The people of Ephesus lived under the threat of persecution; there were social and religious conflicts; and even within the fragile early church there was a danger of losing touch with the message that brought them together in the first place.

It’s a relevant message for today, no matter what your own faith tradition might be. For Christians this is a call to unity—unity of belief and unity of purpose made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. But whatever you believe today, for all of us there is an invitation in this passage to come together and share in a common purpose and mission.

“You are no longer strangers and aliens.” You’re part of the family now.

As we look back on it, Thanksgiving didn’t really get off to a very easy start at all. Not long after the first Thanksgiving feast, devout pilgrims changed everything and celebrated the day of Thanksgiving with fasting and prayer. That doesn’t sound nearly as fun as a big joyful meal together.

Later, when Abraham Lincoln officially established the holiday in October of 1863, America was in the middle of the Civil War. The very first Thanksgiving was celebrated just months after the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle in the war.

Thanksgiving—this special day of giving thanks for the blessings in our lives—Thanksgiving has survived some very difficult and painful times.

The Occupy protesters outside today remind us that we’re in hard times again. But they also remind us that we have neighbors, people God calls us to love, who have experiences and fears and concerns that might be very different from ours.

And maybe one of the blessings of a protest here, today, just outside these doors—maybe the blessing for us on this Thanksgiving day is that the people who are most vulnerable and who have been affected most deeply by our wounded economy—those men and women are no longer strangers. They’re with us this morning, here in this place.

One way we can celebrate this day of thanks—along with the food and football and fellowship—one way we can demonstrate our gratitude is to listen to the voices of those who struggle. We listen, even when those voices provoke or irritate us—we listen, because we’re not meant to be strangers anymore.

There are all kinds of things to be thankful for, even in difficult times. Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times this week, told the story of a teen-aged boy who is a gifted pianist. He broke his right arm recently, but instead of giving up he went out and bought a copy of Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand and learned to play a new way.

Maybe that’s good advice for all of us this Thanksgiving. Clearly something is broken. Clearly we can’t go on the same way we’ve been going. But maybe, if we look hard enough, we can find other ways to live and grow and serve and make something new and beautiful together. Maybe, if we can turn the heat down a little and look for the light, we can find a way ahead that is more just, and more fair for everyone.

Maybe that makes all of us pilgrims, in a way. We search for ways to heal our hurts and those of our neighbors—we move around looking for better ways to raise our families and engage the world around us. Maybe we’re all pilgrims now, looking for God’s blessings as we work and study and play.

There are all kinds of things to be thankful for, but today, on this Thanksgiving Day, we pilgrims can be drawn to the promise in Paul’s words. “You are no longer strangers and aliens…[but] members of the household of God.” You’re part of the family now.

Happy Thanksgiving. May God bless you, today and every day. Amen.