November 26

Thoughts at Thanksgiving

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 25:31-46

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Let us be thoughtful this Thanksgiving week.

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 measure of faith is the meeting of need.  The measure of faith is the meeting of need.

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

Let us be mindful of friendship.  The friendship of Marsh Chapel is offered each Lord’s Day, and each week 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 chaplains and staff welcome you in friendship.  Now in a season when, given the events of this past autumn of discontent on campus, 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, longtime Unitarian minister along the St Lawrence river:

“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.

Last week, most sat 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 seven 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.  Who knows what seed planted now will grow into a great oak tree in the seasons to come? So last week, you will have been at your table, somewhere.

It may be that the rhythms of nature in harvest will help us, in this dark time of calamity and warfare, help us to see and serve the hungry, tthirsty, stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned, as the parable implores 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 those used year by year here at Marsh, and used today, may help us.

Yes, our lessons from ancient Scripture regularly surround us with a thanksgiving conversation.  Today, Ezekiel in hope, the Psalmist in praise, the Epistle in encouragement, and the Gospel in loving service. 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.  One lay woman wrote a poem prayer, about a friend, some years ago.  It is set in Wisconsin, on a family farm.

Sitting by my window—looking out at the field

This chair has been such a comfort for so many years


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 autumn through a very difficult patch. Nature may aid culture here.  Nature may refresh 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, does not ‘root it out’however perversely, however violently, however mistakenly that freedom is used.

We will want to remember this when the worry birds are flying, filling the late autumn darkening sky.  And they are in flight, the worry birds. Planet warming.  Ukraine reeling. Israel bleeding.  Gaza flaming. Trump leading. Lakes greening.  Loved ones moving.  BU changing.  Age advancing.  Winter coming.  We will want to remember the divine gift of freedom, when the worry birds are flying, filling the late autumn darkening sky. For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again.

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 will want to sharpen our understanding of the requirement in just war theory of proportionality, of response that is proportionate to the provocation, proportionate to the needed defense, proportionate to the given situation, and those, especially women and children, potentially harmed therein.

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, forbid it.  Read again Victor Klemperer’s two volume diary, I Will Bear Witness, or the exemplary biography of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. Or Jon Clinch’s new memoir of Ulysses S Grant, The General and Julia.  Or any one of the novels of Marilynne Robinson.

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. You know, we honor with regularity four different calendars, here in worship, Sunday by Sunday.  One is our University Calendar, including Matriculation and Baccalaureate and Commencement and all.  One is the Marsh Chapel calendar, including Summer Preaching Series and July picnic and Lessons and Carols coming next week.  One is our Christian liturgical calendar, including Christ the King Sunday this morning, and the beginning of Advent next week.  One is our national calendar, with recognition of the Fourth of July and Martin Luther King Sunday and Labor Day and, this week, Thanksgiving, that quintessentially American holiday.  All of them our former dean Howard Thurman honored with a regular attention to varieties of and in life.

Howard Thurman, who was a hundred years ahead of his time fifty years ago, was so nationally, religiously, locally and collegiately mindful.  Underneath it all he was attentive to all that dehumanizes life—to anxiety, to depression, to loneliness, to disconnection, to all that unbalances the person. He would remind us, come this Sunday, that there is much in life that you didn’t cause, that you cannot control and that you may be able to change.  I didn’t cause it.  I can’t control it, and I cannot change it. See, hear him, and know he is here with and for you.  Thurman’s poem, in part:

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.

You watch and wait.  We left Cornell and 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.  (Why do we wonder that people dis-employed in the non-coastal regions are angry and express that anger politically?) In one sense our real theological education began, in earnest, in 1981.  Martin Luther taught us: “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.’

 Many years ago, I asked my mother, of blessed memory, who worked 1951-1953 next door at then CLA now CAS, why the churches were so full in the 1950’s.  Born in 1929, she thought for a moment, for a good while, and then said, well, I guess we were just very grateful:  we had lived through the long very hard years of the depression, and survived that; we had seen the war come, the second world war, and take away many of our own neighbors and friends, and had survived that; we had seen losses and unexpected defeats, but had survived them.  We had made it through, and I guess we were all just very grateful, very grateful, very grateful. So we came to church, to say so, and sing so and pray so, and live so.  Every week was a kind of thanksgiving.

 Maybe our own days, week by week, should be an ongoing Thanksgiving as well.

The measure of faith is the meeting of need.  The measure of faith is the meeting of need.

Maybe our thoughts at Thanksgiving, on friends, and seasons and remembrance, should carry through, and carry us through, the whole year too.


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