Giving Thanks

Due to the nature of parish ministry and the hamster wheel of Sunday services, the sermon prep for Thanksgiving Day, a Major Feast that is supposed to be “regularly observed” in the Episcopal Church, but for which I will not get fussy because I know we don’t “regularly observe” all the Major Feasts here, often gets short shrift.  So, here I am, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, sitting my study in a closed Parish Office, giving on the first real thought to what I might say tomorrow at 10 am.  As I read through the lessons appointed for Thanksgiving, a theme comes quickly to the fore.  It seems that the lectionary folk would have us notice that there is a dichotomy between worry and thankfulness.

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The prophet Joel writes to the people of Israel after an invasion of locusts.  Now, whether this book is really about bugs or about a nation invading their Palestinian homeland, I’ll let the reader decide, but either way, what comes in the wake of either invasion is, most commonly, fear.  The destruction of crops or buildings and the real threat to livelihood and life lead the people of Israel to the point of anxiety and worry.  And what does the prophet Joel say to them?  Well, he says what every person who speaks on behalf of God says to an anxious people, “Do not fear.”

The same holds true of Jesus.  As he looks out upon a crowd of people who are victims of the rat race, he sees the worry in their faces.  First century Jews, most of whom were from families relying on subsistence tradesmen for survival, were always on the verge of economic disaster.  There was a real and present fear of hunger around every corner.  But Jesus, somehow without platitude, but rather real conviction, can look out on faces wrinkled with distress and say, “Don’t worry, God’s got this.”

For 21st century American Christians, living in a Pinterest world, on the day we turn our focus to the perfect Instagram worthy Thanksgiving table, it would behoove us to listen to Joel and to Jesus.  Worry is the antithesis of thanksgiving.  If our lives our lived only wondering where the next things is going to come from, we are never able to live with a spirit of thanksgiving in the moment.  So, I urge you, dear reader, to not worry.  Don’t fret about the right homily, the perfect centerpiece, or the ideal moisture content in your turducken.  Instead, be grateful for the moment, for the relationships, for the food, and for our God who is ever present and the giver of every good gift.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Thankfulness Doublecheck

When State Farm signed Aaron Rodgers to be a celebrity endorser, they brought along his touchdown celebration as well.  Rodgers was known to do a championship-belt-wrestler-type move which is now better known for the Discount Doublecheck than it is for the star quarterback’s touchdown dance.  They even did a humorous spoof on his confusion for one of their 30 second ads.

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While I am not a State Farm customer, I do appreciate the doublecheck idea as the downhill slide toward Christmas begins.  With mere hours between Advent 4 and Christmas Eve, Advent 2 means you best be on the ball when it comes to Christmas preparations.  In the world, that means gifts should be purchased, cards mailed, parties planned, and above all, money must be spent.  In the church it means bulletins should be prepared, special music practiced, pageants rehearsed, and above all, money must be spent.  Unfortunately, the differences between how the world and the church celebrate Christmas can be difficult to discern.  The number of faithful Christians who flock to Black Friday sales on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day are a clear indicator of that.

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Must spend money!!!!

This is why I’m digging the idea of a thankfulness doublecheck as we begin preparations for Advent 3.  In what seems like an oddly timed lesson from 1 Thessalonians, Paul admonishes his readers, and, by extension, us, to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  In the midst of a season predicated on spending money to buy stuff that people don’t need and likely don’t even want, this advice should catch us short.  Advent 3 is a time for a thankfulness doublecheck.

Am I so caught up in the Christmas Industrial Complex that I have forgotten to find joy in the gifts that God has given me?  Am I so busy running around like a chicken with my head cut off getting all my secular plans in place that I’ve forgotten to pray today?  Am I so obsessed with more that I am incapable of being thankful for what I already have?

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge about Christmas, just inviting us to gain some perspective on what this season has become for many.  Rather than it being about stress and debt, Paul invites us to make this Christmas about joy, prayer, and thanksgiving.  Today seems like as good a day as any for a Thanksgiving Doublecheck.  Won’t you join me?

Why We Pause to Give Thanks

My Thanksgiving Sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read right here.


I am very much a creature of habit, which makes services like this one hard on me.  Christmas Eve is by far the hardest.  It is the church’s equivalent of a Super Bowl, but it can fall on any day of the week, and instead of services at 8 and 10am, they come at 5 and 11pm.  It’s hard on a Type-A personality, but I digress.  I’m very much used to having a week to prepare a sermon.  I have a routine that works for me, and I don’t do well with change, even when it is my own doing.  There were a few moments this week when I asked myself, “Self, why are you doing this? What’s the point of putting all the effort into a Thanksgiving Day service when it isn’t a part of the collective history of Christ Church?”  Maybe you ask yourself similar questions this morning.  “Do I really have time, with everything that I need to cook today to go to church?  Why didn’t Steve schedule this for last night?  Why are we here?”

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Why are we here?  It is a valid question.  It is a question that we should probably ask ourselves every time we come to church.  Are we here to get our ticket punched?  Are we here to feel better about ourselves?  Are we here to see and be seen?  Are we here to hear great music? A good sermon? To be nourished by the body and blood of Jesus?  Why are we here?  Our Gospel lesson this morning asks this question in reverse.  Why didn’t the other nine lepers return to give thanks?  What caused the single leper to return?  Why was he there?  Why did he turn back?

On Thanksgiving Day, I’m particularly drawn to two reasons we might show up to give thanks; two reasons that the tenth leper turned back and gave thanks.  The first is precisely because it is inconvenient.  Today is one of the busiest days of the year.  Turkeys take a long time to cook.  Oven space is maxed out with stuffing, dressing, or filling (depending on what part of the country you are from), green bean casseroles, baked yams, and pies of all varieties.  Family and friends are traveling from parts unknown, and the lucky among us have scheduled two or three dinners today.  The Macy’s Parade is going on as we speak, and children everywhere are eagerly awaiting Santa’s arrival on 34th Street.  Why, in the midst of all of that would we come to church?  Because it is in the midst of life, no matter how hectic it may be, that we are invited to stop and give thanks.  If we didn’t pause for a few moments to give thanks to God, what would be the point of having a day called Thanksgiving?  It is because of the busyness of today that we are intentional about slowing down and giving thanks.

The hecticness of life isn’t the story of the tenth leper, however.  The other nine were following Jesus’ directions.  He had told them to go and show themselves to the priests in order to be declared clean.  The context tells us that must have been Jews.  They knew that with clean skin and the right sacrifice, they could rejoin the community, and so they took off running in order to be restored to right relationship as quickly as possible.  But this tenth leper, he wasn’t Jewish.  No matter how many times he showed himself to the priests and no matter how many sparrows were offered as a sacrifice, this man would never be allowed into the community.  He was an outsider as a leper, and he would remain an outsider even after he was healed.  This man returned to give thanks to Jesus because he had nowhere else to go.

This morning, as we gather to make Eucharist, the Greek word meaning “to give thanks,” we are here for many different reasons.  Some of you are here because it is important for you to take time in the midst of the details to pause and give thanks.  Some of you are here because you are here every time the doors are open.  Some of you might be here because you have nowhere else to turn.  No matter what the reason is for being here, it is good that we are here to spend a few moments giving thanks to God for the many gifts God has entrusted to our care.  I give thanks to God for your presence here this morning, even if you’ve been asking yourself, “why are we here?”  Amen.

Not the Time for Rest – a sermon

Today’s sermon, which includes the announcement of my new call to Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY, is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


At some point over the past year my favorite All Saints’ Day hymn changed.  I’m not when or how it happened, but this week, when I found myself humming a hymn to myself it wasn’t “I sing a song of the saints of God” as it has been for many years now.  Instead, I’ve fallen in love with our opening hymn [at 10 o’clock this morning], “For all the saints.”  I am particularly drawn to the opening line: “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed…”  Especially this week, as I’ve been coming to grips with the massive amount of change that will happen in my life, and your lives, and our collective life, I’ve found myself giving thanks for the saints who have gone to rest, but I’m also finding renewed motivation to get up and go. I’m feeling like now is not the time to rest, but to go forth and make a difference in the world for the sake of Jesus, which is my word for all of us this morning.  We are not called to be saints who from their labors rest, but saints on the march, moving ever forward to confess the name of Jesus Christ to a world full of people who desperately need to hear that God loves them more than they can even begin to imagine.

As many of you have read or heard by now, this week I accepted a call to serve as the next Rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  You will be stuck with me for another couple of months, but I can’t help but already be thinking about what sort of imprint I hope my ministry will leave on Saint Paul’s in Foley, and I think it is summed up well in the lessons for All Saints’ Day, especially the lesson from the Book of Ecclesiasticus.  Not that I hope to be counted among the “famous men,” if my picture never goes up in that hall of horrors it’ll be all right with me, but because I hope that our common life together will be recalled not by the names of who did this or that, but based on the work that we have accomplished together for the sake of the Gospel.  Someday, there may be no memory of any of us; we may perish as though we never existed, but the impact that Saint Paul’s in Foley has had on the world around us will never be forgotten.

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I have caught myself this week giving thanks for the saints who have adopted the students of Foley Elementary School as their own.  Whether it was teaching kindergartners their ABC, entering hundreds of students’ immunization records into the nurse’s computer, riding the Zamboni-like floor cleaning machine, making copies, escorting kids here there and everywhere, or simply providing clean socks, underwear, pencils, and paper, there are thousands of children who have had the chance at a quality education because of Saint Paul’s in Foley.

The saints who have volunteered with Family Promise also came to mind.  Whether you donated money to buy lunch meat, cooked spaghetti, ordered pizza, or spent a sleepless night on a less than comfortable cot in the Mission House, dozens of families: mommies, daddies, and especially their precious little ones, have been able to get back on their feet and find the dignity and strength that comes from having stable living conditions because Saint Paul’s in Foley was willing to take a risk.

Then there are the saints who spend their Thanksgiving eve and day volunteering with Turkey Take-Out.  Those who are up before the sun to prep birds, cook them, carve them, scoop potatoes and pack meals; Those who donated thousands of pounds of canned goods, and did the hard work of sorting them and packing them for delivery; Those who got up early on Thanksgiving morning to deliver meals, hopefully not getting lost along the way, in neighborhoods that appeared too nice to have hungry families and those that looked too scary for children to live there; and then gathered here at 10am to give thanks to God for his many blessings.  Thousands of hungry families have been able to enjoy a proper Thanksgiving Dinner because Saint Paul’s in Foley was willing to say “yes” when Dr. Lawrence called.

And how could I fail to give thanks for all the saints who give of their time, talent, and treasure to make sure that the members of this parish are able to pray, worship, serve, and share the love of God together? The office volunteers who covered for Karla and Penny, the Sunday School and Follow the Word Teachers, the readers, prayers, chalice bearers, choir members, kneeler vacuumers, altar guild members, torch bearers, cleaning teams, weed pullers, EYC leaders, swing set builders, ditch maintainers, check writers, and more cooks than you can begin to imagine.  Each week, we are able to gather in praise and worship to deepen our relationship with God here at Saint Paul’s because of saints who are willing to do the work of the gospel inside and outside these walls.

It is right and honorable to spend time on All Saints’ Day remembering those saints who now rest from their labors, but I am of the firm belief that it is just as right and honorable to spend some time giving thanks for those saints who are still hard at work spreading the love of God in a world that desperately needs it.  Today I give thanks for the almost 10 years we have, as the collect for today says, been knit together in fellowship, and the ineffable joys that have come along with it.  Now is not the time to be saints at rest, but rather today begins a new task: the work of saying goodbye, of planning for the future, and of offering to Almighty God thanks and praise for the saints at work and the saints at rest who confess the name and love of Jesus here in Foley, Alabama.  May God bless our work: past, present, and future; to his honor and glory.  Amen.

Happy Thanksgetting!?!

You can listen to my Thanksgiving Day sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it below.


Happy Thanksgetting everyone! No, not Thanksgiving, Thanksgetting.  Haven’t you heard, the good people at Verizon have decided that giving thanks is way too antiquated an idea, so this year, they’re calling it Thanksgetting, as in, let’s all be thankful for the stuff we can get now that Black Friday starts on Thanksgiving Thursday.  Now, I’m not one who usually gets my feathers ruffled by what the great minds at high power ad agencies come up with in order to get me to buy things. I don’t get bothered by people lining up for a great deal… I think they’re weird,  but I don’t begrudge them. I don’t even get angry that the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade is nothing but a three-hour advertisement for Macy’s and NBC, but for some reason, this Thanksgetting ad campaign really got stuck in my craw, so I googled it to see what others were saying about it, and found that this actually wasn’t the first instance of the word Thanksgetting.

As far as I can tell, the first time Thanksgetting was used in the media was November 13, 2010 on a children’s show called Planet Sheen.[1]  Planet Sheen was a spin-off of the popular animated movie Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, that you’ve probably never heard of. It centered around Jimmy’s less-than-genius friend, Sheen Estevez, who snuck aboard Jimmy’s rocket ship and ignoring the “Sheen, do not press this button” note, found himself four million and one light years away on the planet Zeenu.[2]  While working to get the rocket ship repaired, Sheen begins to teach the Zeenunians about what life is like on Earth.

In the 7th episode, entitled “Thanksgetting,”[3] the Zeenunians celebrate their annual holiday, Zakmanus, which lasts for an entire minute.  Sheen is less than impressed with the puny holiday, and teaches them about the three month long holiday season back on earth.  The Zeenunians decide to try it out, and Sheen takes advantage, calling the season Thanksgetting and making it all about them giving him presents, presents, and more presents.  Sheen gets everything he could ever want and more, but as you might guess, there is no real joy in Thanksgetting.  Sheen learns that joy comes in giving.  Of course, we all know this already, which is why we are here taking the opportunity to pause and be reminded that true joy can be found not in getting, but in giving, especially in giving thanks.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the side of a mountain, but he could just as easily be talking to the millions of people who are making plans to hit all the great sales that start as early as 6pm this evening.  “Do not worry…”  Don’t worry about that 55 inch Ultra HD TV.  Don’t worry about the interactive R2-D2 robot.  Don’t worry about that ugly Christmas sweater.  Strive instead for the Kingdom of God.  I honestly believe that the starting place in striving for the Kingdom of God is in the action of giving thanks.  That’s why the Church continues to call the weekly celebration of Jesus’ last supper by an ancient Greek word, the Eucharist; which literally means, thanksgiving.  Our central act of worship, the thing that Christians have been doing since the very beginning, isn’t about  getting bread and wine but giving thanks to God for all the gifts that he has given us: bread, wine, community, and above all, his Son our Savior, Jesus Christ.

And so today, we pause.  As Santa is preparing for his annual ride down New York’s famed Fifth Avenue, as turkeys are roasting in the oven, as family and friends begin to gather, as football games get ready to start, and as the stores make their final preparations for an onslaught of shoppers, we stop, if only for a few moments, to strive for the Kingdom, to do the right, and good and joyful thing, to give God thanks for everything he has done for us.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Planet_Sheen_episodes

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planet_Sheen

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-zUxNvjC3I

 

Being Thankful means being Content

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I used this picture on Facebook to advertise for the annual Thanksgiving Day Eucharist at my parish, Saint Paul’s in Foley, Alabama.  As I posted it, I wrote these [admittedly snarky] words, “Join us as we give God thanks and praise at 10am before you go stuff yourself silly and then “save” all sorts of money buying things you don’t need thanks to advertising and tryptophan induced sleep deprivation.”  I deleted most of it before posting a safe invitation on Facebook, but two days later, I still fill a little guilty about it.  Guilty about deleting it, that is.

On Sunday morning, as we recite the Psalm appointed for Advent 1, Year B, we will thrice pray these words, “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; * show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”  Honestly, I can’t think of more appropriate words to pray after a weekend of gluttony, envy, and credit card debt.  I won’t get all snippy about stores opening on Thanksgiving.  Every year, I thank God that the grocery store is open so that I can buy pickled okra for bloody mary’s or butter for the mashed potatoes.  What I will get all soap-boxy about is our cultural drive toward more.  Black Friday (and now Early Bird Thanksgiving Thursday) merely takes advantage of a predisposition in American culture toward over-consumption.  Be it turkey and stuffing or iPhones and flat screen TVs, we like to have more than enough, and we’ll go deep into debt in order to ensure it.

The alternative to that, an alternative that is evidenced in the life and ministry of Jesus and is enunciated in the writings of Saint Paul, is the Christian call to contentment.  Around the dinner table on Thursday mid-afternoon, families of all shapes, sizes, and religious backgrounds from Muslim to Jewish to Christian to Atheist will pause to give thanks for the things they have in their life: health, home, family, and material comfort chief among them.  If we were truly thankful for those things, then they would be enough.  We would be content with what we’ve got, not scouring the internet for the next big thing.

I realize this is naive of me.  I know it is not a popular opinion.  I’m sure most would blame it on Madison Avenue, but I really think that the insanity of Early Bird Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday are indicative of our human frailty, sign and symbol of our sinfulness.  And so, I hope this Sunday, we’ll take a moment in the midst of the madness to pause, give honest thanks, and pray for God’s restorative work to create room for contentment, even in our always wondering souls.

Worship?

Every time the story of the 10 lepers comes around, I’m struck by the one who returns.  Of course, that’s the point of the story, that we should deal with the one who returned to Jesus, so obviously it should be striking.  I mean, first of all, he’s a Samaritan, which brings with it all sorts of socio-religio-political baggage, but I’m not going to deal with that today.  Instead, what gets me is how he responds to his healing.

Luke tells us that the man, seeing that he was healed, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” (Lk 17.15b-16a)

As I read this story, I assumed that the underlying Greek word, translated as “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet” was the word that is elsewhere translated as “worship.”  As in Luke 4.7-8, when the devil tempts Jesus to worship – literally “to fall on one’s knees and touch the forehead to the ground” – him.  That is one word, “proskuno”

I was surprised to see that the Samaritan former leper doesn’t “proskuno” Jesus, but instead he “fell upon his face at Jesus’ feet.”  Rather than use one word, “proskuno,” Luke uses a whole phrase, “pipto epi prosopon para autos pous.”

I’m pondering the inherent difference between the two.  Is it that the Samaritan was incapable of actually “worshiping” Jesus, and instead could only show reverence by falling prostrate and offering thanksgiving?  Are those deep seeded socio-religio-political issues coming to the fore in this story?  Or, are these perhaps just different ways of saying the same thing?  Was this action of the Samaritan, former-leper, such that Luke decided that it needed to be focused upon by way of six words, rather than run past in a single, well-worn, word?  When we worship the lord, are we just rushing through the motions, hoping that our three songs and didactic sermon will due?  Or, are we wiling to take the time to stop and… Fall.  Upon.  Our.  Face.  At.  Jesus’.  Feet.  ?