Liturgy of Thanksgiving

Devotional:

John 6.35

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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The older I become the more complicated Thanksgiving feels.

When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of food, eavesdropping on grownup conversations, and running around in the cold until a responsible adult beckoned us back inside.

But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say that one thing that will set everyone off. 

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). Now we wear our red hats, or mention a recent debate sound bite, in order to make sure everyone at the table knows what side we are on.

Which is remarkably strange when we consider the fact that Jesus came to destroy the divisions that we so eagerly want to demonstrate around our tables.

Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.

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Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Liturgy of Thanksgiving to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of theological clarity to what our tables are supposed to feel like…

Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Scripture:

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Meditation:

We cannot live by bread alone – so Jesus reminds the Devil and all of us during the temptations in the wilderness. But we do have to eat to live; it’s just that ordinary bread isn’t enough. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is bigger and more important than just the sharing of food. It is through our conversations and our prayers that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. The table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table on Sundays and when we come to it we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. This is the work of God, and we are all witnesses.

Prayer: 

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as ours around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all you’ve done, are doing, and will do. As we eat and feast together, let the breaking of bread be a foretaste of the promised resurrection made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Tradition!

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 2.15

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. 

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The whiteboard behind me was covered in names, dates, and an assortment of arrows connecting them all together. After a few weeks of Sunday school classes on the early history of the church I was trying my best to bring us up to the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 CE. The room had quieted to frightening degree and the look of glazed eyes told me that I had lost the class. So I did what any good teacher would do – I asked if there were any questions.

For a moment the silence continued as the participants looked across the room at one another wondering if anyone would be brave enough to say what they were all thinking, “What in the world have you been talking about?” But instead someone sheepishly raised their hand and simply intoned, “What percentage of church folk know any of this stuff, and what difference does it make?”

I appreciated the question. I can remember sitting in the basement of my Divinity School doing my best to commit to memory those same names and dates on the board for a Church History final exam asking basically the same question. What does Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea and Polycarp and Constantine’s conversion have to do with what we do today?

The answer: Everything.

We are the stories we’ve been told, whether we know the stories or not. The witness of the Christian Church is the diachronic (through time) sharing of a tradition that keeps on giving. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t matter how many people know the stories of the ancient church because we are still telling them in different ways. Just take a look around the church sanctuary the next time you happen to be in one or look closely at the church bulletin – we adorn our sanctuaries and liturgies in particular ways because of what was done before us. 

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Does every Christian need to know that the Nicene Creed came out of a council of bishops who met in the year 325 who fought (literally) tooth and nail over what would unify the early church? Probably not. But at the very least Christians should know that what we say when we proclaim the creed (whether Apostles’ or Nicene) ultimately shapes how we behave.

Does every United Methodist need to know about John Wesley’s conversion moment at a meeting house on Aldersgate Street that eventually led him to theological proclamations about the totality of God’s prevenient grace? Probably not. But at the very least, the people who call themselves Methodists should know that we practice an open table at communion because we believe that God’s grace, like the bread and the cup, are given to us whether we deserve it or not.

Today, we stand firm and hold fast to the tradition of the church not because it is particularly rigid and unmovable, but precisely because it opens up for us an understanding of God’s wondrous works in our lives even today. 

Or, still yet to put it another way, tradition doesn’t have to be a four-letter word, even though some people treat it that way. 

Grace Is Like Candy

Psalm 149.1

Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful.

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A few days before our church Trunk or Treat I received a message on Facebook from a stranger in the community requesting more details about the event. I briefly explained that the Trunk or Treat was the church’s way of offering an alternative to Halloween allowing kids to receive candy from decorated trunks in a well lit and safe parking lot. We wrote back and forth a little while until the messenger shared they had attended last year and were so moved by the experience. What I didn’t realize was that in asking for more details, what they really wanted to know was how they could provide a trunk this time around with the rest of the people from the church.

By the time we opened up the lot for kids from the neighborhood we had three additional trunks from people who had attended before but had no other connection to the church.

As I walked around throughout the Trunk or Treat, checking on the various volunteers and making sure everyone had enough candy, I was struck by the connections between what we were doing and the gift of God’s unending grace.

I know that this might sound strange, but handing out candy to a bunch of kids on a Sunday afternoon really is a lot like what we worship God for on Sunday morning. Because in just about every other part of our lives we expect some sort of reciprocity – if we do something for someone we expect something to be done for us in return. Grace, however, is completely the opposite. Grace is the unmerited and undeserved and free gift from God for no other reason that the fact that God wanted to give it.

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None of our volunteers were waiting to see a child’s report card or church attendance statistics before handing them each a piece of candy. Likewise, there was no expectation that any of the children (or their parents for that matter) would be coming to church on Sunday because of what we were going. We were simply doing it because we could.

When the Trunk or Treat was wrapping up I made sure to thank the newcomers for their participation and I was surprised when they turned it around to thank me and thank the church for welcoming them! One of them said, “When I saw the joy on people’s faces last year when I brought my kids I knew right then and there that I wanted to get some of that in my life, so thanks for letting us join you.”

In the end, that’s precisely how grace works – it bubbles up from within us and starts to reach out and touch every part of our lives until it grabs hold of someone else’s life and it keeps going and going and going. 

Grace Is Confounding

Devotional: 

Luke 18.9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that why were righteous and regarded others with contempt…

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A professor of mine in seminary liked to tell a story about what happened to him one Saturday night while he was still in the ministry. He was dutifully working at his desk putting his final touches on the sermon for the following morning when he received a phone call from the local police department. A married couple from his church were having a rather large shouting match and a few neighbors called the police and they in turn called the preacher. He reluctantly drove over to their house and was bewildered to discover three armed officers huddled behind their vehicles as if a shoot-out was about to occur. When the preacher questioned the ranking officer about the situation, the officer calmly replied, “These two get a little too drunk once a year and have it out for each other, they should be done soon enough.” And he was right.

Within the half hour the preacher was walking through the front door to see two of his most dedicated lay people drunkenly asleep on different pieces of furniture with cuts and bruises all over the place. And then he left when the police said there was nothing more they could do.

My professor said that he tried to block it out of his mind until the following morning, when he walked down to collect the plates from the ushers during the offertory, and he almost dropped the collection when he noticed that the husband was serving as one of the ushers with his cuts and bruises out for everyone to see. 

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For my professor, this moment perfectly embodied Jesus’ parable of the publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee goes into the temple bragging about all of his holiness and faithfulness and gives thanks to God that he is not like the publican, the tax collector, the sinner in his midst. Likewise the publican enters the temple, humbly bows, and says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus ends the parable by saying the publican is the one who went home justified.

For my professor, in the moment, he couldn’t believe the nerve of the man to show up in church knowing what had happened the night before. It just wasn’t right – it wasn’t proper. But then he was struck by the message of the parable: The gift of grace is only God’s to give – no matter how prim or proper we are, no matter how many acts of holiness we can trot out on a Sunday morning, God’s grace is poured on those who need it most (all of us).

And, to make matters worse, my professor realized that he, himself, had become the Pharisee proudly displaying his faith on his sleeve and even partially thanking God he wasn’t like his church member! He would end his story by saying that as he lifted up the plates that morning he could almost hear God whispering in his ear: “Two men went up to the temple to pray one Sunday morning, the first a Methodist preacher, the second a drunken, disappointing, and overly aggressive husband… the latter went home justified, not the former.”

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Devotional:

1 Timothy 6.17-18

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

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My family, like a lot of others, grew up watching Disney movies. To this day I have the entirety of the Lion King memorized, I can whistle along to all of the songs from the Little Mermaid, and I still laugh at all the bits from Robin Williams in Aladdin.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I owe a great deal of ice breakers to that movie. For, whenever a conversation is in need of beginning, or restarting, one of the easiest questions to ask is as follows: “If you had a magic genie, what would your three wishes be?”

There’s something quaint about the idea. It’s not just one stand alone thing you could want, and the availability of wishes don’t go on forever either – it forces the person answering to really consider what he or she would ask for. And other the years I’ve asked that very question A LOT and I can say with assurance that the majority of answers have been about money, comfort, and fame.

All of those things smack us across the face with our relentless pursuit of happiness. We open up Instagram to discover perfect looking people with their perfect lives and their perfect homes and their perfect possessions. We pass by the magazine rack at the grocery store, we turn on the television, and it goes on and on and on.

It seems that the American Dream, however we might define it, has been commoditized to consist of wealth and possessions with a profound emphasis on the idea of more. Without thinking much about what we are doing, we work more hours and we pour out more effort into a never-ending desire for more money, more success, more comfort, and more of anything that money can buy.

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I’ve heard it thousands of times that “money can’t buy happiness” but rich people seem to look pretty happy!

And then we read from Paul’s first letter to Timothy and things take on an ominous tone: As for those who are rich, command them to stop pursuing their wealth and instead focus on the Lord – the rich are supposed to do good, to be generous, and to share what they have with others. 

It’s right there in scripture and yet when we think about or talk about money it is almost always in the sense of accumulating more for ourselves, even at the expense of others. 

A friend of mine from seminary recently started his own church in North Carolina and part of their whole ethos is, of course, worshipping the living God but by doing so through paying off the debts of the congregation collectively. 

And, to be clear, not the church’s debts! The people who participate in the church willfully contribute money each and every week dedicated to the sole purpose of paying off one person/family’s debts at a time. 

And when the church’s program was announced it was ridiculed by people from other Christian communities as being antithetical to the American Dream.

Which leaves me wondering: When did the American Dream become more important that God’s Dream?

The Gospel Is Fun

Devotional: 

Hebrews 13.16

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. 

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Years ago one of my seminary professors lectured about how the church survived the first few centuries when Christians were being regularly persecuted for their faith. He first noted that the resurrection of Jesus was so powerful and transformative that the early disciples could not help themselves but stay committed to such a thing. But then he said something else that has stuck with me ever since, “And the gospel is fun!”

On Sunday afternoon I was running around in my “Church Can Happen Anywhere” shirt across out parking lot and thanking God under my breath for the beautiful weather. We had people from all over our local community spread out with more food than they knew what to do with and I was trying to make sure that everything for the celebration was going smoothly. The moon bounce on the other side of the pavilion was a huge hit, the drinks were nice and cold, but for some reason the slip and slip was remaining un-enjoyed over on the hill.

I promptly made my way over to make sure the water was flowing properly when a few kids followed closely on my heels. “Is it working?” “Am I allowed to go on it?” “How cold is it?” were the murmurings behind me and I assured the children that all would be well. 

After checking the hose connection I encouraged the closest child to try it out and before I could talk her through how the whole thing worked she was racing down the hill cackling with joy. Within the new few minutes a small crowd of kids and adults had gathered around the slide and it became abundantly clear the time had come for me, the pastor, to slip and slide down the hill as well.

So I did.

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I spent the rest of the celebration continuing to check in on people as was necessary and when we started cleaning up I overheard one of the little girls exclaiming to her mother (while drenched from head to toe), “This church is fun!”

The church is supposed to be a lot of things: faithful, holy, transformative, contemplative, etc. And sadly, one of the words least associated with church is fun. But on Sunday, we had fun.

The writer of Hebrews notes that doing good and sharing what we have is pleasing to God. Which, when considering the fact that Jesus spent his final evening with his friends doing exactly that, it makes a lot of sense. However, it strikes me that many churches and church-related activities have lost their sense of fun. And if the joy of the gospel was enough to sustain the earliest disciples, why aren’t we seeking that same kind of fun today?

A Man Without A Church

Devotional:

Psalm 82.3-4

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

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I have shared on a number of occasions that one of my favorite writers is the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I was introduced to his novels and short stories when I was in middle school and quickly read through everything he published. I know that it can sound strange to hear that Vonnegut is one of the favorite writers of a pastor since he basically loathed organized religion and spoke avidly of his own humanism. To quote, “We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.” 

And yet, some of Vonnegut’s thoughts on the church speak, to me, a better truth than is often heard in the church. In his writing and speaking he could both critique and admire the church in a way that is instructive and ultimately productive. 

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Vonnegut died in 2007 two weeks before he was scheduled to speak in his home town of Indianapolis for an event celebrating his life and achievements. The speech he wrote for that event was the last thing he wrote before he died and it contains a lot of his more memorable contributions to the literary ethos. However, there is something in the speech that does appear anywhere else in Vonnegut’s corpus, to my knowledge:

“I got a letter a while back from a man who had been a captive in the American penal system since he was sixteen years old. He is now forty-two, and about to get out. He asked me what he should do. I told him: ‘Join a church.’ And now please note that I have raised my right hand. And that means I am not kidding, that whatever I say next I believe to be true. So here goes: The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime wasn’t our contribution to the defeat of the Nazis, in which I played such a large part, or Ronald Regan’s overthrow of Godless Communism, in Russia at least. The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime is how African-American citizens have maintained their dignity and self-respect, despite their having been treated by white Americans, both in and out of government, and simply because of their skin color, as though they were contemptible and loathsome, and even diseased. Their churches helped them do that.”

These words, in fact some of the last words from Vonnegut, are all the more striking when considering the fact that he hailed from Indiana which, when he was a kid, contained the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, and was the last state to have a lynching of a African-American citizen north of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

At its best, the church has been the place in which justice was given to the weak and orphaned and where the rights of the lowly were maintained. The church has, at times, rescued the weak and needy by delivering them from the hand of the wicked.

But, at its worst, the church has been the place where injustice has rained down like waters, where the marginalized have been further marginalized. 

It was not that long ago, all things considered, when African-Americans were forced to sit in the balconies of churches rather than with everyone else. It was not that long ago that Martin Luther King Jr. declared 11am on Sunday mornings to be the most racially segregated moment of the week. The prejudices of the past are still very present here in the present.

Vonnegut often described himself “a man without a country.” But reading his last bit of writing makes me wonder if he was actually “a man without a church.”

For if the church is not the place where justice is present, where the rights of the lowly are maintained, and the weak and needy are delivered, then what in the world are we doing?