A Thanksgiving Conversation

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Luke 21:5-9

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Let us be thoughtful in conversation this coming Thanksgiving.

Let us be mindful of the goodness of God, as sung in the Psalm this morning.  Let us be mindful of the blessings of God.

The goodness of God knows no limit, no single season, no particular admixture of victory and defeat.   Our friends (1), the seasons themselves (2), and the prayerful practice of remembrance (3) tell us this again.

Let us be mindful of friendship.  The friendship of Marsh Chapel is offered each Lord’s day, and each day in the Lord, first and foremost to those most in need.   The physical safety of our students, in all times and in all seasons, stands as our highest priority in friendship.  If you are a sophomore, say, and sense you are in some need or peril, our Hospitality Staff welcomes you in friendship.  Mr. Bouchard, our Chapel Director, who will read in a moment a playful poem about friendship, guides a team, including one staff person related to Title IX issues, devoted to your security, in use of space, in programmatic support, and in personal protection.  Now in a season when, given the events of this past week and its election, some sense possible peril, we stand with you, on a daily basis, on the ground level, in a protective posture.

Let us be mindful of friendship, as was our friend, of blessed memory, Max Coots:


“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”

Let us be mindful of friendship.  And let us be mindful of the seasons.

Next week, most will sit before a carved turkey.  For many years, Marsh Chapel provided such a meal right here.  Now the University itself has taken up that meal, and provides it for students who are here over break, along now with open housing.  (Your ministry, Marsh Chapel, has been such an incubator over time, for service that then becomes University wide.  A Marsh Chapel Martin Luther King observance, becomes a University wide observance.  A Marsh Chapel community service program, becomes a University wide service.  A gospel group becomes a University-wide Inner Strength Gospel choir, Marsh Chapel hosted.  A Marsh Chapel Howard Thurman room and listening center becomes a University Howard Thurman Center.  A Marsh Chapel commitment to pastoral care over six decades becomes further embodied in behavioral health, and SARP, and the office of the Ombuds, and others.  Your work in incubation continues.) You plant seeds, and they grow, and grow up and on and out.  Season by season.  So next week, you will be at your table, somewhere.

Given the choices others have made in election and selection, and given the tragic tide of white nationalism, as un-Christian as it is un-American, which has surprisingly splashed upon all this week, how shall we engage in conversation with family with whom we disagree, come Thanksgiving? Perhaps it will be too much, this year, and silence or absence will be required.  Yet, it may be that the rhythms of nature in harvest will help us.  It may be that the season itself, redolent and rich with meaning, may support us.  It may be that the hymns of Thanksgiving, hummed or remembered, may help us.  You could also sing them, of course, even if you are not Methodists.  It may be that prayers, like the three used year by year here at Marsh, and used today, may help us.  Feel free to borrow.

Yes, our lessons from ancient Scripture regularly surround us with a thanksgiving conversation:  Isaiah in hope, the Psalmist in praise, the Epistle in encouragement, and the Gospel in patience. Even those of us dwelling mostly in an urban setting can from this autumn—warm, mostly; dry, mostly; pleasant, mostly—receive such a sense of blessing and so a sense of gratitude.  Seed-time gives way to harvest, as tears give way to shouts and joy. The long months of hidden growth, of change and development under the earth, are a firm reminder that the future will look different from the past, and from the present.  Every autumn, every harvest season, we are offered such a reminder.

Let us be mindful of the good earth, of the fruits of harvest, of the fruits of years of labor and love, as one remembered in the figure of her friend.  Carol Zahm, now deceased, wrote a poem prayer, about a friend, some years ago.  It is set in Wisconsin, on a family farm.  Today it will be read by our University Chaplain for International students, Ms. Jessica Chicka.  As Mr. Bouchard cares for space and safety, she cares for our International sisters and brothers.  As a junior, you might muse, isn’t it wonderful that she is here!  In a fortnight when the ugliness of American selfishness, and a shameful ‘Christian’ bigotry, may frighten our beloved neighbors, or worse, she is here to provide pastoral care, and programmatic support and administrative help for all—for those from Pakistan and Korea and China, and for those who are Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or Confucian—or no religious tradition at all.  In a week when students on campuses, now, given the open space set out for this by a particular, now victorious, party and candidate, who have unashamedly ridden a wave of white nationalism, are accosted for wearing religious garb, or who are fearful for their families (one interviewed by the New York times, standing on the steps not twenty feet from the Marsh Chapel on Wednesday), your ministry with and to those who are strangers in an increasingly strange land, has real portent.  (We need someone, by the way, to endow the Deanship of Marsh Chapel, a $4 million gift, to make sure this sort of ministry continues in perpetuity.  We need others, by the way, to tithe in support of Marsh Chapel for the year to come, to make sure this sort of ministry continues into the future—where will your tithe go?)  It may be, at Thanksgiving, that the season, the harvest, nature itself, will support us.

Sitting by my window—looking out at the field

This chair has been such a comfort for so many years

Rocking—rocking

All the children were comforted in this chair

All grown and gone now

Babies—growing year after year

‘Til they could go to the field to help

The fields—so green in the spring

Then the plough broke it up into beautiful brown earth

Worked over and over

Until the seeds had a wonderful bed in which to grow

Week after week growing

And then harvest.

We all went to the field for the harvest.

Sunrise to sunset

Day after day

Finished at last

Ready for winter

Now looking across the field at beautiful virgin snow

Like watching a baby sleep.  So peaceful.

Happy for the quiet.

Anxious for the awakening

Start again

Sitting by my window

Rocking Rocking

Her rocking, the rhythm of her remembrance, along the brown earth, seems a world away from our world today, for we have been this past week through a very difficult patch. Nature may aid culture here.

We will want to be somber and sober to remember that God gives the human being a rooted, daily freedom, but does not then suddenly intervene to erase that freedom, however perversely, however violently, however despicably that freedom is used.

We will want to stand up, sit up, and take notice that liberty is only of any value within the constraints of security to enjoy it; and that security is only of any value as a basis for the enjoyment of liberty itself.

As people of faith we cannot in sloth afford to be naïve, refusing the dominical wisdom of serpents to hide underneath a false innocence of doves, when facing hatred, religious terrorism, and nihilistic venom.   Protection for the lamb requires resistance to the wolf, before either determines to lie down with the other.  Any manner of bigotry deserves to be met by condemnation, contempt and resistance.  We have plenty of work to do, and let us not grow weary in doing it.

We do not want to pray, preach, sing or proffer a kind of cheap grace. The utter realism of the Bible, on the one hand, and our brutal experience across many centuries, on the other hand, and now including this past week, forbid it.  Read again Victor Klemperer’s two volume diary, I Will Bear Witness, or the exemplary biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory.

In helping one another, and speaking to our children, in Thanksgiving conversation, we can at least remind them that ‘they are safe, and it is OK to feel sad about what has happened to others’, and we can continue to support and protect our neighbors and friends of all manner of different traditions, religious and secular alike.

 So let us be mindful of the seasons this Thanksgiving.  And let us be mindful of remembrance.

Howard Thurman, who was a hundred years ahead of his time fifty years ago, was so mindful.  Our University Chaplain, Br. Whitney will read Thurman’s poem in a moment.  What Mr. Bouchard brings to physical safety, and what Ms. Chicka brings to religious safety, Br. Whitney brings in full to psychic safety.  With his team, and in partnership with others across the campus, he ministers—perhaps with you in your senior year?—to anxiety, to depression, to all that unbalances the person.  See, hear him, and know he is here with and for you.  Thurman’s poem:

 

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

 

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

To conclude, a story, an analogy—full well knowing that all analogies stumble.  The point of the parable is that there is still a future, remarkable, different, and good—we just do not know what the future holds.

In 1978 we had planned maybe to stay in NYC, and there or nearby to study further.  In our third year of seminary though we became pregnant.  Then after Christmas Jan suffered a severe illness, requiring surgery:  the doctor said he did know whether either mother or child would survive the six-month stage operation.  By God’s grace, they did.  We moved suddenly into a small church in Ithaca, NY, a congregation whose minister had run off with the organist mid-year, hence an opening, and a place where mother and coming child could convalesce, and ministry could begin, with some commuting for the finishing seminarian, back down to NYC.

Now my Korean student in Boston says, ‘Dean Hill there are three kinds of Korean Christians:  conservative, very conservative and very, very conservative’.  Then, in Ithaca, there were three kinds of people:  liberal, very liberal, and very, very liberal.  It was 1979, and all weddings were done on horseback, underwater, out in a field, or naked (well, that is hyperbole, but you get the point).  That fall, a modest proposal to improve a road up the far hill to the hospital was met with communal outrage, and defense of the squirrel population near Trumansburg. The newspaper reported that three people attended a hearing, in squirrel defense, dressed as squirrels (not hyperbole, and you get the point).  The next year, an election was held.  Its results produced apocalyptic apoplexy:  the president elect—Ronald Reagan.  That winter, in a Cornell graduate student home, over dinner, we spoke in fear and trepidation of what would befall the republic.  But the host, a veteran Washingtonian back to do a PhD above Cayuga’s waters, listened and quietly, presciently, replied: “No, he will not trim the bureaucracy—it will expand.  No, he will not eliminate the debt—it will grow.  No he will not cut taxes—they will increase.  He doesn’t have the power.  He will shove and push that tree and one apple will fall.  Watch and wait. (You would have thought he was quoting today’s Lukan little apocalypse).”

You watch and wait.  We left Ithaca in 1981 for pastoral visits along the St. Lawrence, in the far north, in the bitter cold, in the barns at milking; for ministry among farmers and truck drivers in the fire department; for an immersion in non-urban poverty, poverty without electricity and without a subway, along a frozen river; and later for counseling with engineers let go by a failing Carrier Corporation; prayer with factory workers dis-employed by Oneida Silver and Smith Corona; tearful farewells to executives leaving Kodak; in short, the disappearance of both farming and manufacturing, as the drums of globalization beat along the Mohawk.  That is, our real theological education began, in earnest, in 1981.  Martin Luther: “One becomes a theologian by living, by dying, and by being damned, not by understanding, reading, and speculation.” You watch and wait.  You have faith, you have hope, and you have each other.  And you have plenty of work to do, awaiting the day when ‘the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food.  They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain says the Lord.’

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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