Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Thanksgiving is not a liturgical holiday.
But it could be.
For, what could be more faithful than breaking bread with family (and foes) knowing that Jesus spent his entire ministry doing the same?
And yet, there is a sense in which what happens around the Thanksgiving table is more determinative over our lives than the One who gives us life. Rare is the family that is immune to the political pandering that happens over turkey and mashed potatoes. Gone are the days we could sit back and rejoice without worrying about who will say what and ruin the holiday mood. We, then, approach the table of blessings without feeling like it’s much of a blessing at all.
But what if God is the one calling us together for the explicit purpose of redeeming our Thanksgiving tables? What if this is the year to let forgiveness reign over judgment? What if we took seriously the claim that, as Paul put it, “The Lord is near,” even at the holiday table?
There’s no guarantee that anything good can come out of our Thanksgivings this year, save for the fact that we worship the God of impossible possibility! So keep your eyes and ears open, let your gentleness be known, and rejoice! The Lord is near!
And, in the spirit of bringing a little holiness to a moment that is sometimes devoid of holiness, I’ve put together a little “Thanksgiving Liturgy” that anyone can use. 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 faithful clarity to an otherwise bewildering experience…
A Liturgy For Thanksgiving
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.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is God that made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. Give thanks to God, bless God’s name. For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.
The delight of Thanksgiving is both in the thing itself, and what it anticipates. So many other holidays come and go and leave us feeling vacant. And yet, upon the conclusion of Thanksgiving, while we put away all the dishes and say our goodbyes, we do so with the knowledge that Advent is knocking at the door, and with it: Christmas!
Advent is the season of waiting and watching, but what we’re waiting and watching for is already present at our Thanksgiving tables. The splendor of Advent is made manifest in the One who breaks bread with us whenever we break bread: Jesus.
Therefore, let us rejoice in our Thanksgivings, much like we do when we come to the Lord’s Table in church. Advent is already around us, hiding in the basement, laughing upstairs, and dancing in the living room. The unknown day and hour of it bursting into our reality is something worth celebrating, not fearing.
Put another way: God is not our mother-in-law who comes over once a year checking to make sure we’ve kept the house in order and that we haven’t chipped her wedding-present china. Instead, God is like our delightful uncle, who barges in unannounced (and perhaps uninvited!) with a baguette under one arm, and a bottle of wine in the other. We do need to wait and watch for God, but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.
Lord, free us from fear and worry that, trusting in your goodness, we may always praise your mighty deeds and give you thanks for the bounty of your gifts. Amen.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
I have a conflicted and tumultuous relationship with church membership.
I went through confirmation as a tween-ager in my home United Methodist Church and became a member at the conclusion, though we never once talked about what that meant. Instead we watched the 6 hour long film Jesus of Nazareth over 6 different Sundays and talked about what prayer was supposed to look like and feel like.
But covenanting to support the church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? Nope.
Additionally, when other people joined the church it would take place like this: The pastor would occasionally announce, right before the concluding hymn, that if anyone felt the Spirit moving them to join the church, then they could come forward and do so. And, occasionally, people would march forward, share their names and vocations before the benediction, and that was that.
Moreover, I am part of a generation that is deeply suspicious of joining anything.
Therefore, when it comes to church membership I often let people come to me with their questions rather than pushing people to join.
And, after serving the UMC for nearly a decade, I think I’ve been wrong.
My wrongness stems from the fact that I have treated membership to the church like membership to any other number of organizations, whereas to join the church as a member is actually a profound witness to our faith.
For example: There’s a bishop from another denomination (thankfully) that often tells a story about recruiting for a local seminary. Over the years the bishop would meet with candidates and at some point in the conversation he would say, “Why should I join the church?” And the candidates would often wax lyrical about the music program, or the value of community outreach, or the fellowship that is present on Sunday mornings, but not a single candidate ever said anything about Jesus.
The church is not the local symphony through which you can experience dynamic music every once in a while. The church is not yet another social agency through which you can feel better about making other people’s lives better. The church is not a country club through which you can meet people of a similar social strata.
The church can be like those things, but the one thing the church is and has that nothing else does is Jesus.
Therefore, to join the church as a member is a remarkable thing. It is a strange adventure that is made possible only by faith.
Notably, when the Lord teaches the disciples about forgiveness they can’t wrap their heads around it. It would be one thing if Jesus told them they should try to forgive one another but instead he tells them they can never stop forgiving one another. That runs against everything the world teaches us. But forgiveness is the currency of the kingdom, and of the church.
If we insist on being right and perfect and only ever surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, our lives will be miserable and boring.
The church, then, stands as a dynamic witness to the power of the Spirit. The great gifts of the church include connecting us with people we would otherwise never connect with, the sacraments that make our lives intelligible in the first place, and the promise of the empty tomb that offers us a new past where we are no longer defined by our mistakes and a new future where resurrection is reality.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I became a member of my home church, but it was the difference that made all the difference in the world. It was the difference because, week after week, the church gave me Jesus.
In the end, the church is a miracle and, like the early disciples, we need all the faith we can get for it to be the blessing that it is and can be.
Therefore, if you are not (yet) a member of a church, I encourage you to prayerfully consider joining. It will take faith, but even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough in the kingdom of God.
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things.
One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.
And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands.
Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t.
So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”
These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.
How does Jesus respond?
“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”
And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:
“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”
It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”
Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.
Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.
Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”
Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.
Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.
And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?
If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.
In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”
We are what’s wrong with the world.
Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.
How can we fix what’s wrong within us?
Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.
Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.
And while some people love it, others hate it.
Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”
It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.
Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.
Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.
The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.
The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?
The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.
And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.
There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.
Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.
And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”
A small uproar ensued.
And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.
And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.
What, then, are we called to do?
In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.
Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?
The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.
And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.
Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.
The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!
When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.
Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.
In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news.
There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.
It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!
In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…
Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”
And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.
In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Song of Solomon 2.8-13, Psalm 45.1-2, 6-9, James 1.17-27, Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23). Josh is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Karl Barth, uncomfortable texts, Ted Lasso, bald prophets, the BCP, honesty, sin sniffing, the brother of the Lord, church graffiti, and table fellowship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Unholy Club
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
I prayed all week for the weather to cooperate. We had been planning the Community Cook-Out for weeks and the weather forecast kept pointing toward tremendous amounts of rain to fall during the scheduled event. As a church we had already procured a considerable amount of food, dedicated volunteers, and three bouncy houses. Yet, as the days passed and we came closer to the celebration, I became worried that it would not take place at all.
After many prayers, Saturday came and the weather wound up being perfect for the Cook-Out! The clouds provided a cool atmosphere for the children to play on the bouncy houses and allowed for us to celebrate on the lawn without having to worry about too much sunshine or rain. When people began to arrive for the event I prayed and thanked God for providing such a wonderful day for our community and was thrilled for our church to serve the folk of our neighborhood.
I spent most of the afternoon grilling more hamburgers and hot-dogs than I could possibly count. Every time I thought I could take a break, more people arrived and lined up for food! From my vantage point I was given a clear line of sight of everyone and all of the activities that were taking place: children (and adults) playing on the bouncy houses, families sitting at tables while enjoying food and fellowship, young people lining up to have their faces painted, frisbees and footballs being thrown through the air, and conversations taking place between people who had never met. While standing behind the grill I was overcome with a sense of wonder at how our church was living out its call to participate in God’s kingdom by being the body of Christ for the world.
The psalmist wrote “how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” During our Cook-Out we had different people from all over the community present to join together in fellowship: parents and families from the pre-school, neighbors who attend different church, friends who do not attend church at all, and people from St. John’s. As we enjoyed the afternoon together I was given a glimpse of how wonderful and joyous it can be when a neighborhood lives in unity; I experienced Christ’s presence through the conversations and outpouring of love between strangers.
This week let us all seek opportunities to live together in unity. Let us look for those around us who are still strangers and do whatever we can to foster new friendships.