Thanksgiving Eve 2014

Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service
Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 27, 2014

photoI feel like Rapunzel up here. Actually, I’m not a big fan of heights so this is making me a bit nervous. Does Old Ship have workers comp in case I fall out out of the pulpit? It’s all in good fun until the preacher breaks his neck.

What a joy to be with you all this evening, to sing these wonderful Thanksgiving hymns, to hear God’s word through the lens of a variety of traditions, to raise our prayers as a community, to give thanks together for the many blessings of this life, in a place that is the historical and communal heart of Hingham, Massachusetts.

But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a quaint tradition we have here. We don’t come together every year to pretend we’re pilgrims or to start a rumor that the first Thanksgiving actually took place at the Hingham Bathing Beach. It’s not just an excuse to escape our extended families for an hour or so — you know, those in-laws who have been in town since yesterday afternoon. No, the community gathered matters. Individually and collectively we are signs of God’s presence, signs that our common life transcends any differences, signs that despite all the changes this town has undergone over the past 380 years, there is still a unity of purpose and a clarity of commitment to one another through both our common geography and common humanity.

So we gather and we give thanks. And we give thanks not in the abstract or to Aunt Helen for not overcooking the yams this year or to the Detroit Lions for keeping this year’s game competitive or to Grandpa for refraining from his distasteful political commentary at the dinner table. These are all good things but ultimately and specifically we give thanks to God. In whatever expression or form this takes, we gather and give thanks to the God of our particular traditions. And when we participate in this service through prayer and song, rather than watering down our faith or stooping to the lowest common theological denominator, our coming together hints at the fullness of God. The fullness that speaks to the God who is beyond human expression and knowing; the God who is both transcendent and at hand; the God upon whom no single faith tradition has a monopoly; the God who knows us intimately and still loves us with reckless abandon. “Now thank we all our God” indeed.

And yet amid this warm feeling of unity and gratitude, we can’t forget that as we sit in this cocoon of our beloved South Shore town, surrounded by history and family and neighbors, Thanksgiving looks a lot different in Ferguson, Missouri, and in many communities both far and near. And until fear is completely driven out our work is not complete. Because, whatever our politics, when some of our brothers and sisters are feeling marginalized or broken or less than human, we are not whole. And so we pray for peace. We work for justice. And we open our hearts and minds and souls to the hope of a world where the barriers that divide us crumble, the suspicions that cause distrust cease, and the divisions of hatred are healed.

Perspective is so important. And it’s one of the great blessings of having a day specifically set aside to take stock of our surroundings and give thanks for the interconnectedness of our lives. And yet, we spend so much time worrying about things beyond our control and so little time giving thanks for the blessings of life that surround us.

Maybe it’s human nature but as Jesus asks rhetorically in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Well, of course not. But, boy, most of us are world class worriers. We’ve had years of practice to hone our skills. We worry about money and our appearance and getting everything done. We worry about being accepted or liked. We worry about relationships and jobs. And we worry because we’re afraid — the source of worry is fear.

And God just looks at us amid all our spinning and toiling and says, ‘Stop. Stop worrying. It’s okay. You don’t have to do everything yourself. I’m here to help.’ To illustrate this point, Jesus gives us some great examples. Look at the birds. You don’t see them getting ulcers. You don’t see them working themselves to an early grave. They’re not so inwardly focused that they can’t open their eyes to see the glory that surrounds them. The birds simply exist. They don’t work themselves into a frenzy and yet God provides for their needs. They are taken care of. And consider the lilies of the field. They don’t work at a feverish pitch in order to grow into beautiful flowers. The lilies simply exist.

Yes, we are more complicated than birds or flowers. But we can certainly learn some perspective from them. We can learn acceptance and gratitude and thanksgiving. We can see that our priorities get out of whack from time to time. And staring at a flower or even stopping to smell one, isn’t a bad way to remember what’s important. And what’s important is this: to seek first the kingdom of God. To put our relationship with God at the center of everything — which is tough in a community with so many options and so many resources and so many obligations.

3286465290_6190fcb890But when we recognize that we are not actually the center of the universe, when we remember that all of creation doesn’t depend on what we do or fail to do, it takes all the pressure off. Because we can stop toiling and spinning and stressing ourselves out. We can simply give thanks to God for the gift of life and relationship.

My prayer is that this Thanksgiving you will receive that gift of perspective. To remember what matters; to pray for the healing of a broken world; to stop and enjoy the blessings of family and friends and faith. “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” Yes. Yes we do. And as we do, our eyes are opened and we see the manna raining down in the form of God’s blessing. All around us.

So thank you for your presence this evening. It matters. You matter. This community matters. Our interconnectedness with the wider world matters. And may you all have a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

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Thanksgiving Day 2002

Thanksgiving Day
November 28, 2002
All Saints’, Briarcliff

Today, along with millions of our brothers and sisters across America, we will soon gather to celebrate the “3 F’s” traditionally associated with Thanksgiving Day – that is, food, family, and football. But first we gather as a faith community to give thanks. The true spirit of this day transcends our dinner tables, our football fields, and even our national heritage. The true spirit of Thanksgiving is exactly that – a day to give thanks. 

But the following question always needs to be addressed: to whom do we extend our gratitude? Where does our thanks go? It gets a bit confusing because on this day we give thanks for many things – our families, our freedoms, even our athletes. But here’s a little secret about this day, something that has a tendency to get lost amidst all the preparations: the thanks actually goes to God. We give thanks today for all the blessings of this life but, above all, we must remember to give thanks to God for these blessings.

Put another way, it helps to ask precisely who are we giving thanks to as we gather at our dinner tables. Is it to Aunt Helen for not burning the turkey again this year? Is it to ourselves for setting the table with such perfection? Is it to Granddad for refraining from his unbearably distasteful political commentary? No, the thanks must go to God if we are to celebrate Thanksgiving authentically and reverently. 

When we forget this, we end up giving ourselves the credit that is rightly due to God. And as much as we may want to take the credit for the things that go well in our lives, it just doesn’t work that way. As we hear in our reading from Deuteronomy, “Remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you power.” God is the one who gives us power to excel, to prosper, and to reap the many blessing of this life. Not we ourselves. And a mind-set of thanksgiving is so appropriate because we are dependent upon God for everything, even life itself.

It’s a bit odd to hear on this day of great feasting and abundance, at least for many of us, that “one does not live by bread alone.” But the reality is that we can stuff ourselves with all the bread and turkey and pies in the world but without God we are nothing. We can do nothing. Jesus is the bread of life and the cup of salvation. And he invites us to keep the heavenly feast at this table.

And again, Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink…Is not life more than food?” We live not to eat and drink, not to fret and worry, but to serve God. And we will all be looked after and cared for and loved in this life and the next. Thanks be to God.

So Thanksgiving is really an invitation. Not to a turkey dinner but an invitation to pause and give thanks to God. Those of us who have gathered this morning have paused in the midst of the busyness of this day to give thanks. You could be traveling or putting the turkey in the oven or cleaning the dining room before the guests arrive, but in the midst of the busyness of this day, you have paused and come to this place to give thanks. And only when we stop all the activity of our lives can we truly take the time to reflect upon the stunning goodness of God’s mercy, and give thanks for it.  

And on this day especially set aside to give thanks, we thank God not just for the many blessings bestowed upon us, but simply for God’s presence among us. We give thanks that God cared enough for humanity to send Jesus Christ to live among us and to die for us. We give thanks for God’s presence in the midst of both adversity and joy. And I pray that this attitude of thanksgiving to God that we celebrate today may inform and enlighten each remaining day of your life.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2002

Thanksgiving Day 2011

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 24, 2011 (Thanksgiving Day, Year A)

It’s nice to see you all on this day before Black Friday. I guess technically it’s still called Thanksgiving Day but part of me thinks the liturgy should include a prayer for shoppers. “O Lord, guard your people as they prepare for the frenzy that is to come and protect them from sure and certain trampling at Wal-Mart.” While Thanksgiving is still a day to think about pilgrims, watch some football, and hang out with family members who may or may not drive you nuts, for some it’s all a precursor to what really matters: getting crazy deals on big screen TVs and iPads and whatever fits into your cart at fill-in-the-blank big box store.” 

Now, I realize I’m preaching to the choir (even if we don’t actually have one this morning). Taking time to pause and give thanks through worship on the fourth Thursday of November is increasingly counter-cultural. Sure, some patriarchs or matriarchs will mumble their way through their annual saying of grace before the big feast but many wouldn’t think about giving thanks to God on Thanksgiving Day. It simply wouldn’t occur to them.

As you may know, the word Eucharist itself means “thanksgiving” in Greek. And appropriately enough we refer to the entire communion rite as “The Great Thanksgiving.” When we talk about this Great Thanksgiving, we’re not referring to a really big crowd coming over to eat turkey. We’re talking about the ultimate way of giving thanks to God – by participating in the redeeming act of receiving communion. Because when we share the Eucharist at this altar, it’s not a one-sided affair. Yes, we are receiving Jesus into our hearts and minds and souls but in the act itself we are offering ourselves in thanksgiving for the abundant blessings of this life. A life we live but did not create; a life in which we participate but did not design; a life to which we are called but did not invent. 

In some ways it’s silly that we even mark a national day of thanksgiving when we come to this altar not annually but each and every week to offer our thanks and praise. As Christians, the heart of what we do is Eucharistic. We don’t just celebrate Thanksgiving, we are a people of thanksgiving.

Which is perhaps why this gospel story can feel so disheartening. Jesus heals ten lepers and yet only one of them returns in gratitude. The other nine ungrateful former lepers dance off into the sunset. They were thrilled to be cured, sure. They had a new lease on life, their isolation was banished, they were ready to leave their misery behind and start anew. Yet how quickly they forget. How quickly they forget that they themselves weren’t the source of healing and wholeness. God alone provides the impetus for their thankfulness yet they don’t even look back, they don’t pause, they move forward in their ignorance even amid their newfound freedom.

But before we mount our high horses to condemn them, we have to look inward and recognize just how often we have done the exact same thing. It’s not about the leprosy but it is about not taking the time to pause and give thanks. When things are going well it’s so easy to take life for granted. We attribute good fortune to all sorts of things – Lady Luck, being in the right place at the right time, our own gifts and talents, our Protestant work ethic. But when we do so, we delude ourselves just as much as those nine lepers.

After returning to Jesus, the one who did return, a Samaritan, prostrates himself and gives thanks. This outsider, this social outcast does what the others fail to do. Jesus says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” He had already been healed so on the exterior he had already been “made well.” His leprosy was gone. But by giving thanks his soul now matched his skin. His faith made him well both inside and out. And perhaps this is something that happens each time we approach this altar; each time we receive the body and blood of our Lord we are made whole. Each time we offer our thanks to God we are made whole.

You could argue that the whole notion of giving thanks has been overly domesticated. True thanksgiving is not about writing a socially expected thank you note after a dinner party. It’s more than this, of course. And that’s where the word Eucharist is helpful. It denotes the thankfulness of the soul. As Paul says with unbounded enthusiasm in his letter to the Corinthians, “Thanks be to God for this incredible gift!” That’s precisely the Eucharistic attitude we can carry forth to our dinner tables this afternoon. May it infuse your yams and your stuffing and your turkey. And may you be ever emboldened to thank God with gusto both at this Eucharistic table and at your own Thanksgiving dinner table.

“Thanks be to God for this incredible gift!”

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

Thanksgiving Day 2009

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 26, 2009 (Thanksgiving Day)

I don’t like writing thank you notes. I think I was scarred as a young child by being plopped in front of a stack of blank note cards after birthday parties. In other words, I blame my mother. Which is easy to do since she’s not spending Thanksgiving with us this year. 

But it’s hard for me not to think about thank you notes on Thanksgiving. Giving thanks – that’s the whole point. And what better place to be than in church giving thanks to God and celebrating “The Great Thanksgiving.” That’s what we call the entire Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer that gets said over the bread and wine at communion. It’s no mistake that the word “Eucharist” means Thanksgiving. And thus, for Christians, each Sunday is Thanksgiving Day; we do this all the time. But today is different because it is a national day of thanksgiving. And as a nation we give thanks for a lot of things on this day: for obscene amounts of food, for football games, for extended family. But the reality is that unless our gratitude is first directed toward God; unless our thanksgivings are first heaped upon the God of all goodness the rest of it falls a bit flat.

And after all that’s why the Pilgrims gathered about 26 miles south of here on that first Thanksgiving Day. It was to give thanks to God. And so whatever legends have cropped up around that particular day, whatever half-truths and embellishments we’ve added over the years, the root of our Thanksgiving celebration gets right back to the essence of it all: giving thanks to God for the blessings of this life.  And it’s no mistake that as Christians, giving thanks is what we do when we gather to worship with one another.

In my experience, Thanksgiving Day services are always pretty quiet. People are traveling or preparing for the great feast that is to come. Some are serving meals to the less fortunate in our midst – which is its own form of Thanksgiving worship. Around here some folks go to the community Thanksgiving Eve service at Old Ship. And it was a nice communal gathering that took place last night. And this morning we’re left with a small remnant that has gathered to sing some traditional Thanksgiving hymns and share the Eucharist. 

I’m delighted you’re here. And if you’ve made the effort to come to church on Thanksgiving you are very much in the spirit of the day. You have paused to give thanks to God. You understand that Thanksgiving Day is more than just the gateway into another stressful holiday season. Thanksgiving is less a particular day than it is a posture of life, a way of living in relationship with God. And so here you are. Now, I realize that some of you may be here merely to escape your relatives or to pray for tolerance before they arrive. But it doesn’t matter; you’ve left space amid the stress to give thanks to God. That’s the important part. That’s why this day is of such importance to Christians.

I’m not sure what Jesus would think of our collective stress this time of year. But I do know that this reading from Matthew’s gospel is the ultimate stress management passage. Jesus asks those listening to his Sermon on the Mount, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of your life?” Well, no. But that doesn’t seem to stop us. Most of us are pretty adept at worrying. We’ve had years of practice to hone our skills. We worry about money and our appearance and getting everything done. We worry about being accepted or liked. We worry about relationships and jobs. We are, generally speaking, outstanding worriers. And Jesus just looks at us and says, ‘stop worrying. It’s okay. You don’t have to do everything yourself. I’m here to help.’

And he gives us some great examples. Look at the birds. You don’t see them getting ulcers. You don’t see them working themselves to an early grave. They’re not so inwardly focused that they can’t open their eyes to see the glory that surrounds them. The birds simply exist. They don’t work themselves into a frenzy and yet God provides for their needs. They are taken care of. And the lilies of the field. They don’t work at a feverish pitch in order to grow into beautiful flowers. The lilies simply exist.

Yes, we are more complicated than birds or flowers. But we can certainly learn from them. We can learn acceptance and gratitude and thanksgiving. We can see that our priorities get out of whack from time to time. And staring at a flower or even stopping to smell one, isn’t a bad way to remember what’s important. And what’s important is this: to seek first the kingdom of God. To put our relationship with God at the center of everything. When we recognize that we are not the center of the universe, it takes all the pressure off of us. Because we can stop toiling and spinning and stressing ourselves out. We can simply give thanks to God for the gift of life and relationship.

In reality I really do like writing thank you notes. It’s not the writing of the thank you note that I struggle with. It’s the thinking about writing the thank you note that I find challenging. It’s the trying to find the time to write the thank you note that is tough. It’s the remembering to write the thank you note that is difficult. But I like writing them because saying thank you matters. Not because it’s good manners but because living a life of thanksgiving requires an attitude of gratitude. Which not only rhymes but also keeps life in its proper perspective.

God didn’t create you in order to be thanked. God didn’t send his only Son to redeem you in order to be thanked. And yet by worshipping God with the very core of our being we will be transformed by “such an awareness of God’s mercies that with truly thankful hearts we will show forth God’s praise not only with our lips, but in our lives.” 

I wish you all a most blessed day of Thanksgiving. May it be filled with joy and laughter, family and friends; and above all gratitude to God for all the blessings of this life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009