Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012: Whatever is True

(On Thanksgiving Day, the American community in London gathered in St Paul's Cathedral to celebrate this special holiday. It was my honor to give the message for the service--the text of the sermon is below.)

I want to wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving today. It is a gift to be able to gather and celebrate in this beautiful place of worship. We are, as always, grateful to the people of St Paul’s for welcoming us on this special day.

Thanksgiving weekend is the biggest travel period of the year in the US. Airports are packed and highways are filled to capacity as people are headed for reunions with families and friends. I know that many of you have family members visiting today. I also know that many of you are here in London and missing your families—missing your homes.

Most of us will try to soothe those feelings later with a Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and all the trimmings, different regional touches to the meal, pies and cakes and all kinds of treats. If we’re all very quiet we could probably hear our collective stomachs growling.

And of course there’s football. Not the elegant, non-stop version they play here, but the heavily padded, hard-helmeted, brutal, stop-start version they play in the States. It’s a beautiful thing. Sitting around with your friends and family, watching other people pound each other in front of massive crowds.

But as much as football is a part of this special day, Thanksgiving is a lot more like baseball than football. Remember what the philosopher said… And by philosopher of course I’m talking about the American comedian, George Carlin. Remember what he said about the difference between football and baseball:

“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz; sometimes he has to use a shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball, though, the object is just to go home.”

I know a lot of us are away from home today. Thinking about our families is a big part of the Thanksgiving holiday.

I read this past week about a family that wanted to do something special for Thanksgiving. Here’s how the story goes:

“The Taylors were proud of their family tradition. Their ancestors had travelled to America with the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower. They had included Congressmen, successful entrepreneurs, famous sports people and television stars. They decided to research and write a family history, something for their children and grandchildren. They found a specialist genealogist and writer to help them. Only one problem arose - how to handle Great Uncle Jefferson Taylor who was executed in the electric chair of the state prison. The writer said she could handle the story tactfully. When the book appeared the section about Jefferson read:

“Great Uncle Jefferson Taylor occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, he was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a great shock.”

Now I got that story off the internet, and I have no idea if it’s really true.

Hardly a day goes by without someone sending me some story or claim in an email, or tweet, or a Facebook message, and I have to wonder if it’s really true.

We’ve all heard about how Bill Gates wants to send us some money or a new computer; we’ve heard that Walt Disney is actually frozen somewhere, hoping to be thawed back to life; We’ve been warned about the dangers of drinking Coca-Cola and eating Pop Rocks candies; some people have tried to recharge their iPods by plugging them into an onion (don’t raise your hands if you tried that); yesterday I saw that Marilyn Monroe’s recipe for cooking a turkey was going around; and we’ve all heard how signing on to Facebook will be the end of privacy as we know it. That last one might actually be true… For the most part, though, all of these are myths being spread around the world wide web.

Who can we trust when we hear strange stories on the internet?
What source can we rely on to keep us from taking these claims at face value?
Where do we turn to find out if any of these things are true?

The answer, of course, is is a website that researches the stories that circulate on the internet, and either confirms or debunks their details. It has become a regular part of my day to check the Snopes site when something crosses my screen that doesn’t look quite right.

In our text today, the Apostle Paul, writing to his favorite church, was acting like the Snopes site—he was trying to cut through the different messages that were being spread around the first century church. Paul was reminding the early Christians to keep their eyes focused on the truth that inspired their faith in the first place. He was reminding them that their hearts and minds needed protection—that they needed to be safeguarded from the messages going viral in that time and place.

He said: “Rejoice in the Lord always; Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

He follows that with this charge: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

“Whatever is true…” Keep your minds focused on things that are true.

Wouldn’t that be nice? In a political climate that has become less about ideas and more about discrediting people, wouldn’t it be nice if we could spend more of our time focusing on what’s true and just and pure?

Now the dictionary gives us a range of definitions for true.

To be true is to be accurate: getting the facts and details just right.
To be true is to be honest: being trustworthy and faithful in what we say.

Maybe for us it’s summed up best by being near to the center of the target—Elvis Costello can help with this one: “My aim is true,” he told us. To be true is to be steadfast and loyal; to be consistent and just.

“Whatever is true”, Paul says. Think on these things. Put them into practice.

Maybe for us today it’s most important to remember that truth isn’t just something we find when we look hard enough. Truth is also a discipline that we have to learn and practice and protect.

For Christians this means trusting that the work God accomplished through Jesus Christ is enough for all of us—for the whole world—that it has the power to restore our lives and this earth to the way they were meant to be. That’s the story of the Christian gospel, and it’s a great and wonderful story.

But whatever your faith tradition might be, the practice of knowing and telling the truth is essential for healthy, peaceful, honest living. Remember how Paul started our passage today:

“Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds...”

Bringing our lives before God with thanksgiving in our hearts can be a source of peace. Being thankful is one of the ways we keep our lives centered—it can keep us from being too anxious—it can give us the peace that we crave.

In the old television show, The X-Files, there was often a poster in the background that said “The Truth is Out There.” But for us we know that sometimes the truth out there can be harsh and threatening. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson we learned in this last presidential campaign cycle.

After this past year of sniping and slandering and destroying—after this year of conflict over how governments should govern and how economies should work—after this season of disunity and bitterness—after all of that, what if we paused to be thankful for the freedoms we share, for the opportunities we have to change the world and make it a better place for the people at the bottom of the wealth chain?

Now that would be honorable and just and pure—it would be pleasing and commendable and it would be worthy of praise and celebration. Mostly, though, it would be true. It would acknowledge the truth that there is desperate need in the world, and that the combined resources and brainpower present in this very room, on this very day, could help to provide a solution.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to be reminded that our feasts today are only a part of today’s story. Our plenty tells only a part of what’s true about the world today. And if we’re to be the sort of people who experience that peace of God that surpasses understanding, then our celebrations and meals have to tell the whole truth.

Let me invite you, whatever your Thanksgiving holiday looks like, let me invite you to take a moment and talk about this around your table. Tell the truth today.

Not to feel guilty, but to sense the possibilities for solving some of the world’s most challenging problems.

Not to cast blame, but to join together in unity, and to refuse to let another year go by without learning more about how the other two-thirds of the world lives.

Not to be drowned in grief, but to be immersed in the hope that God has and shares for his world and his people.

Let your feast today, the turkey and stuffing, the bread and wine—let your feast today inspire you and your family to work for a day when everyone simply has enough.

Because that’s what it means to tell the truth. And that’s what it means to be truly thankful.

My son and I are learning the prayer of St Francis of Assisi—we say it together each morning on our way to school. The words of this prayer acknowledge the problems of the world, but they also ask for God’s help in being a part of the solution—they ask for the strength to live and share a different truth, one filled with justice and peace for all people.

Listen to these words, and make them your own prayer today.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understoodas to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, and may God bless you today, and every day.    Amen.

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