Day (and Eve) of Thanksgiving 2007
Text: Phil 4:4-9
One of my father’s favorite movies is the old Disney classic "Pollyanna." You know, the one about the little girl who was played the "Glad Game" and thought of something to be glad about in every situation. If you recall the movie, she eventually turns a whole town around with her sunny attitude and ability to find something glad everywhere she went. If you read the book upon which the movie is based, it turns out that Pollyanna’s father, a traveling minister, taught her this game. They were a family of no means, and Pollyanna had been expecting a doll for
Christmas. However, when they went down to the mission where they were giving away gifts, she got a pair of crutches instead. That’s when her father taught her the "glad game", saying that "at least they could be glad — because they didn’t need the crutches." However, the word "Pollyanna" has also come to have a somewhat negative meaning – it has come to refer to a person who looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, a "bright-eyed optimist,’ and an unrealistic one, as well.
"Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I will say, Rejoice!" are Paul’s instructions to the people of Philippi -- and to us -- on this Thanksgiving Day. "In everything give thanks..." he also advises them, and finally, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just...if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." He seems unrelentingly cheery in these verses, and it is tempting to stamp him with the "Pollyanna" stamp – the starry-eyed optimist, who has no concept of the trials of the real world. It’s tempting to imagine him advising the Philippians to minimize the sorrows and tragedies of the real world by playing a kind of "glad game" with one another. Except for one thing. Paul is writing this letter from prison. And he’s not in prison for stealing anything or injuring someone. He is in prison for preaching the gospel, for sharing the Good News of God’s forgiveness and love for the whole world. I’m sure if he could help it, he would have been anywhere else. It’s not where he chose to be. And if he chose to, he could think about it as the end of his ministry, a sign from God that he should quit this business and give up. But he didn’t. "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice." "In everything give thanks," he said. And "If there is anything worthy of praise....think about these things."
I remember standing in front of a small country congregation one cold Thanksgiving Eve. I had gotten used to not going home for Thanksgiving, but it still seemed odd to me, not to be with my family at this time of the year. Growing up, I associated Thanksgiving with the pilgrims, of course: but also with impossibly large family meals, television specials, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I associated Thanksgiving with family and leisure and abundance. And of course I associated Thanksgiving with the anticipation of Christmas: just as it was planned back in the 1940s when Thanksgiving came to be celebrated regularly on the 4th Thursday in November. The beginning of the Christmas shopping season! That is how I thought of Thanksgiving Day. It was a marker between the fall and the Christmas shopping season.
However, standing in front of the congregation that evening, I understood for the first time that Thanksgiving was really about two things: it was about the harvest, that end-of-the-year time in our almost-forgotten rural past, and looking back on a year filled with both tragedy and blessing. And it was about a particular way of looking at life: a way that Paul knew and a way that the people in that small farming community knew. They lived a thankful life. And I am not talking about optimism. I am not talking about looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Both the apostle Paul and my farmers knew that there were many things in life that were beyond their control. Paul preached the gospel in a time when he could be thrown in prison for what he said. But he said it anyway, giving thanks to God for giving him work, a message, that is life-giving. My farmers worked hard planting and harvesting and doing everything in between, but knowing that they depended on God for everything that was important: from good weather to life itself. And they knew that they did not get everything they wanted. The year before, winter had come early and they had not been able to get their crops in, no matter how hard they worked. Some of them had been hailed out the summer before. At least one family had lost their farm. And there had been other sadness as well. Many of the older saints of their community had died in the past year. A young husband and his three sons were killed on icy roads the January before. There was much to grieve, sorrows they did not deserve.
And yet, on that Thanksgiving Eve, as I looked out over my congregation in that little church – which has, by the way, since closed its doors – I saw the faces of people who were both tired and grateful. They were tired from their hard work of bringing in the harvest, but they were grateful because they saw clearly that during the past year were not only sorrows they did not deserve, but also blessings – big and small. "In everything give thanks." "If anything is worthy of praise, think about these things." So that is what we did. We gave thanks. We gave thanks for the babies baptized, although there were just a few, and we gave thanks for the saints who had died during the past year. We gave thanks for the anniversary of one of the congregations, which had turned 100. We gave thanks for the youth of the congregation, though few in number, they were active and growing in faith. We gave thanks for the gifts and talents that kept the congregations going, from cooking and cleaning, to making banners and playing instruments, to praying and visiting. I suppose, if we had wanted to, we could have lamented instead. We could have lamented that fact that we were few, and dwindling in number. We could have worried about our futures, so uncertain, and grieved the loss of the small towns. But instead, we each took little pieces of paper, and wrote down what we were thankful for. During the offering the ushers picked up the little pieces of paper and during the prayers the pastor read each one. Because we were small, I could do this. And I have kept these little pieces of paper until today. The thanksgivings written there are mostly simple ones, but I’d like to read just a few for you:
-I’m thankful for this church my ancestors helped organize and build – giving me a strong faith in our Lord
-I’m thankful for the bountiful garden our neighbors shared with us
-I’m thankful for family and their good health. Also for good fall weather to get the harvest done this year
-I am thankful for health, and a good crop
-I’m thankful for my six children and their families.
-I’m thankful for all the good farming years God gave to my husband and me when we were raising our family.
-for beautiful sunrises and sunsets
-I’m thankful for staying warm last winter when the power went out in the blizzard
-I am thankful that we have a God who comes to us to share in every aspect of our lives.
"Rejoice in the Lord always." Paul advises us on this Thanksgiving Day. "In everything give thanks...." And finally, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Think about these things. For, as Paul also writes, "The Lord is near." We have a God who comes to us to share in every aspect of our lives – our joys and our sorrows, our tragedies and blessings. We have a God who comes to us in Jesus, and in his death and resurrection will never let us go.Thanksgiving is not about looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, just as joy is not the same as optimism. Thanksgiving is about looking at the world as it really is: with all of its sorrows and all of its joys, and realizing that in the midst of all of it, The Lord is near. Whether you are in prison or free, in plenty or in want, in loneliness or community: The Lord is near. Whether you get the doll you wanted for Christmas, or a pair of crutches instead. Or even if you need the crutches. The Lord is near.
Think about these things.
And we have the privilege of serving him, of seeing his face, as we care for the needy, as we celebrate with family and friends, as we work and as we share the harvest of our lives with one another. The Lord is near. Happy Thanksgiving.
I want to credit the apostle Paul and also Songbird for helping me think of the words "think about these things" as a refrain.