Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving: Sermon on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

I once heard someone say, “You can tell your life story in two ways. You can say, ‘I can’t imagine how I got from there to here.’ Or, you can say, ‘Every road I traveled, every choice I made, was designed to bring me right here, to this place.’” If you think about it, both are completely true. We marvel at the winding and twisting path that somehow brought us to the present place. At the same time, we recognize that who and where we are has a kind of weight to it, a sense of a larger vision than our own. We Christians call the one who spins and oversees that vision God.

In this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy, we have a kind of “life story” of God’s people. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses retells the entire story of salvation, and he does so under very particular and poignant circumstances. Moses and all the tribes are camped together in Moab, just beyond the Jordan. They have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and they are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses is dying, and he knows that he will not have the privilege of entering into that land. Despite being God’s mouthpiece with the Pharaoh, and despite being the mediator of God’s plagues upon the Egyptians, and despite being the great liberator, the one who led the people out of Egypt, Moses sees the people all the way to the edge of the Promised Land, and no further. The reason scripture gives is this: when the people were crying out for water in the wilderness, and God instructed Moses to strike the rock with his staff, Moses struck it not once, but twice. Moses’ sin is that single, momentary lack of faithfulness; Moses’ punishment is that he will never enter the land himself.

And so, on his deathbed, Moses recounts this long history, with all its twists and turns. And here he gives instructions about what would constitute a good and proper expression of thanks from God’s people to the One who is their redeemer, the One who heard their cries, and brought them to this new place of abundance. Moses is invoking his authority as the leader of the people. Moses wants the people to be appropriately thankful.

One of my very favorite movie musicals of all time has to be “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Adapted from a story by Stephen Vincent Benet, it tells of Millie, a young woman in the Pacific northwest during frontier times, who impulsively marries Adam, a backwoodsman, just a few hours after meeting him. She soon learns that he is one of seven brothers who are eager to have a woman around the house to cook and clean up after them. Somewhat in shock, but still hoping she hasn’t made a dreadful mistake, Millie cleans up the pigsty of a house and cooks an enormous meal for her new family. When the men descend upon the meal like a swarm of locusts, pushing each other out of the way to grab the food, spilling it while they are stuffing their faces, Millie delivers them a lecture on their shameful behavior. It has absolutely no effect. In a rage, she turns the table over, like Jesus with the moneychangers, and yells, “If you’re going to act like hogs you can eat like them too!” Millie is horrified by the fact that the men don’t give thanks before diving into their meal. The rest of the movie follows her attempts to civilize her new brothers and her husband. But her initial rage has a powerful effect. The next time the brothers are at table, they bow their heads, chastised and docile, while Millie offers grace. And the grace she offers echoes some of the words that Moses proposes for God’s people to say when they offer thanks. Millie prays:

“O Lord, thou has brought us through desert, mountain and wilderness to a good land, a land of wheat and gain where we need never hunger. We thank thee for thy care and thy bounty. Amen.”

Here’s the grace that Moses suggests:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” ~Deuteronomy 26:5b-9

Moses encourages the people to remember their story, with all its twists and turns, and to tell it to one another in the act of offering their thanks to God. It is a story that could be told any number of ways, including, ‘How did we start out there and get here?’ Moses answers that question, and in so doing he tells the story in the other way as well: ‘Every road we traveled, every choice we made, was designed to bring us right here, to this place God had chosen for us.’

In describing how to give thanks, Moses encourages the people to remember the hard parts, the painful parts of the journey as well as the good parts. He doesn’t want them to edit them out or to forget them. The act of thanksgiving, in some way, always involves holding together the bitter and the sweet, and gazing upon them, and knowing that, somehow, however improbably, we have been guided and cared for and blessed.

I saw a beautiful needlepoint tapestry the other day. It was large—maybe five feet wide and four feet tall. It depicted a scene from the life of King Solomon—that moment when he is determining who is the true mother of the child claimed by two women. The tapestry is almost finished, though there are three small areas, just a few inches here and there, where it is not complete. Still, the family that owns the tapestry has decided to frame it, because the tapestry will never be finished. The Jewish woman who began and nearly completed it, a labor of love for her dear husband, died more than sixty years ago in a concentration camp in Poland.

The tapestry is a treasured family heirloom. It contains memories both powerfully good and terribly painful—the love of that woman for her husband, the manner in which she died. The family wants the tapestry framed by Thanksgiving. They want this treasure to be a part of their celebration, filled as it is with the beautiful and the painful, inextricably woven together, like all our lives.

It is the season in which we, as a nation, turn our attention to those people and things—tangible and intangible—for which we are grateful. We have an entire day set aside for this giving of thanks. Like the Hebrews, we are the descendants, most of us, of people who traveled to this land from far away. Also like the Hebrews, we have had our ups and downs, our conflicts, the moments in which our actions were filled with honor and courage and beauty, and the moments in which we failed in our common human vocation. The good and the proud mingle together inextricably with the painful and the shameful. This is our heritage, these are our lives. This is Thanksgiving: holding together the bitter and the sweet, and knowing that, somehow, we have been cared for and blessed.

Moses advises us to gather for a celebration! He says, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” Among the ancient Hebrews, the Levites were the upper crust, the ruling class of temple priests. And the aliens—well, they were wanderers in the land, just as the Hebrews themselves had been. They were the most vulnerable people in a society, the ones without tribes or families to fall back on in hard times, the people most likely to fall into slavery. Moses’ intention is to gather all these people together at table: the upper crust, the vulnerable immigrants, and everyone in between.

The advice of Moses suggests that we need to broaden our scope when it comes to celebrations of Thanksgiving. We need to broaden our definition of who’s in the family, who is invited to the table. When we consider our lives, the beautiful and the painful, the bitter and the sweet, we start to recognize that the God who blesses us doesn’t intend for the blessings to stop there. The blessings we receive are to be given away, shared, dispersed, like the pie and the stuffing and the cranberry sauce. Everybody gets some. That’s God’s vision for every human being on the planet.

We can each tell our life story in any number of ways. At Thanksgiving, we have an opportunity to tell it again—while bustling around the kitchen, or gathered around the table, or sitting on the couch with pie and coffee. For each one of us, we can marvel that we started out there and ended up here. Each one of us can trust that a powerful and loving heart created the vision, was guiding us, even in the times we felt confused or alone. And each one of us can celebrate—truly celebrate—the bounty we have been given at God’s generous hands. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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