A Balanced Diet of Praise and Thanksgiving

“A Balanced Diet of Praise and Thanksgiving” Joel 2: 21-27

Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service: hosted by St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sutton MA Tuesday November 20, 2012

21Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! 22Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. 23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.      ~Joel 2:21-27

It was always the same, until it wasn’t. For many years, my family of origin had Thanksgiving at my parents’ home. Same canned cranberry jelly, same mashed potatoes made by my father the same way his father made then- heating up the milk, reserving a bit of the water the potatoes boiled in and then mashing by hand- always by hand. Same turkey served on a hideously tacky giant serving platter that my great Uncle Jim had been given by his work instead of a cash bonus. Same Pepperidge farm stuffing mix that we had had the year before, and the year before that, and probably since 1937 when the company began in Connecticut. It wasn’t fancy, but it was familiar.  One Thanksgiving, we traveled to visit some fancy relatives in Philadelphia. We sat down to a table of individually brined Cornish game hens, brussel sprouts with pancetta and a balsamic demi-glaze, curried sweet potatoes, cranberry chutney with candied ginger and pineapple, and stuffing with such foreign matter as cornbread, leeks and pecans! No green beans topped with Durkee onions, no smooth canned cranberry jelly that could be sliced into pleasing circles of ruby gelatin goo, no Pepperidge farm stuffing. Worst of all, no comforting, plain white mashed potatoes.  There was wailing and gnashing of teeth the entire car ride home. And my younger sister was promised a “proper” recreation of Thanksgiving just as we had known it.  May we be so bold as to invite new experiences and new people to your table of abundance, O Lord. Let us pray…

Rick Bragg grew up among Pentecostals in a town called Possum Trot, Alabama. The Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist was raised by his mother, with his two brothers and the occasional visit by his abusive, alcoholic father. Writing for Southern Living, Bragg tells of Thanksgiving’s “Never-ending Grace” among his people:

            “When I was a little boy, the words seemed to last forever. It seemed like we were walking the Exodus ourselves, one paragraph at a time. Surely, I figured thousands of little boys had starved to death between the words ‘Let us pray…’ and ‘Amen.’ The bad thing was, from where I sat, hands clasped but one eye open, I could see it all, and more than that I could smell it all, this wonderful feast laid out hot and steaming. Thanksgiving… But it would all be as cold as a Confederate statue on Christmas morning by the time we got any of it. Between me and all this bounty stretched what we have called and will always call “The Blessing.’ It consisted, as near as I could tell, of reading the King James Bible front to back, then holding a discussion on its finer points. While I now see the beauty in those words and in this tradition, I was an ungrateful heathen back then, thinking only of my belly and my own little self.”

This is where we live, between “Let us pray…” and “Amen,” between Thanksgiving gluttony and thanksgiving grace, between famine and feast. This is where the people of Judah live as well. Our scripture reading tonight comes from the minor prophet Joel as he speaks to a people in between.  The people of Judah have lived with years and years of famine and plagues of locust. Joel is graphic in the details- if you are interested, or bored by the sermon, go ahead and look for the gory details in Joel chapters 1 &2. The food has been cut off before their eyes, the seeds shrivel, the storehouses are empty because the grain has failed, the cattle and sheep wander because there is nothing for them to eat. The people cry out to the Lord in their despair and then we get to this passage of praise and thanksgiving.

This prayer of thanksgiving from the prophet Joel doesn’t come out of nowhere. This prayer of thanksgiving comes out of struggle and hardship. Those of us Christians gathered here whose lives are structured by the Church calendar know that the other time we read Joel’s recounting of the suffering and famine is on Ash Wednesday, the day we are most aware of our frailty as mortals.  Like the Israelites offering up this hymn of praise, even as we pray with gratitude this night, we know that there are those among us who are without meaningful employment, those suffering in body and in spirit, those who will be without food, shelter, companionship or a sense of hope. It’s not in spite of our suffering that we give thanks. We give thanks in the midst of suffering. From that parched ground of Judah, we offer up our honest, genuine prayer of thanksgiving.

I received an email last week from a friend addressed to “Dear Found Family,” and almost immediately began to cry. Across the ocean from the country he was born in, after divorce in his own life, death of one parent and debilitating mental illness with the other, we on the receiving end of the email were “found family.” This whole holiday season can be complex – a curious mix of gratitude, but some wistfulness too about those family and friends who have died, those family situations that are too toxic to return to, those close ones separated by distance, war, silence, poverty. The prophet Joel re-imagines all who God cares for- not just the nuclear family or the people of Israel. God’s provision is so strong that it extends to the soil. Do you see it in verse 21-22? “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things. Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green.” And then God turns to us; “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God.”

The Hebrew prophets are very cautious to remind us that both overwhelming poverty and overwhelming wealth are dangerous to prayer. It is hard to be thankful when your stomach aches from hunger pangs. It is hard to be thankful when surrounded by so much stuff that you pretend there is no lack. The prophets remind us that God has a concern for the material needs of the poor and thus we who have enough to eat this night are called to have that same divine concern for the poor, as you in Sutton do with your generous feeding program.  You are doing holy work. You are a sign of God’s provision and care.

On verse 26, it all turns; “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.” Yes, feast and eat. But do not separate the feasting from the praise of the One who provides for you.  We are called to a balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving. It’s a near heretical thing to talk about diets in advance of Thanksgiving. But if we just feast, we are gluttons and we forget the source of the bounty. If we just fast, we are sullen and we forget the joy of gathering with good company and gracious provisions. We are called to a balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving.

Perhaps this is why so many people love Thanksgiving as a holiday. Thanksgiving is hard (though not impossible) to commercialize. We don’t have the social pressure to give massive gifts (though what happens on the Friday following is also a test of our ethics of gratitude and justice). True, Thanksgiving runs the danger of gluttony. Plenteous food should lead to plenteous praise. Thanksgiving is that holiday where we haven’t quite severed the connection between the two: abundant food, abundant praise. It’s hard to commercialize gratitude. Thanksgiving is a holiday without irony. We are earnest, effusive, grateful. Not snarky, commercial, empty. We are full, our gratitude is great, and God’s love is abundant.

Thanksgiving is a holiday we can all (mostly agree on).  All our religious traditions have practices of gratitude and praise. And I am here to tell you this night and this Thanksgiving, whether you are on a diet that is lactose-intolerant, salt-limited, gluten-sensitive, parsley-allergic, cruelty-free or Macrobiotic; If you are an Omnivore, herbivore, locavore, vegetarian, pesticatarian, ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegan, or a freegan. Whether you keep Kosher or strict Kosher, on the South Beach diet, Paeleolithic diet, The Pilgrim diet, you too can be on a well balanced diet of praise and thanksgiving. If you choose. That’s the thing. That’s the hard part, taking the time to pause before this meal, every meal to give thanks for what is before us and remember those who are without. Tonight you can get on the diet of praise and thanksgiving here in this church with these other Pilgrims, but KEEPING on a diet of praise and thanksgiving is the harder part.

When we do it right, and Lord knows we struggle, a diet is something you do every day. It’s a lifestyle shift. A diet of praise and thanksgiving is a daily discipline of giving God, or your higher power or those around you, thanks for the good things in your life, even when it is hard, even when there is sorrow. For us fallen, forgotten, messy people trying to live a life of grace and gratitude, we cling to verse 26. We do not separate our pleasure and feasting from our discipline of gratitude. We do not feast without giving thanks. We resist the urge to open just one eye in the Never-Ending Grace before the meal to steal a drumstick while no one is looking.

This Thursday is an easy day to give thanks. Our whole country is oriented in that direction. The challenge is Friday. And Saturday and Sunday and Monday. What will you do with the leftovers of Thanksgiving? When the turkey is gone and Starbucks moves on from pumpkin lattes to peppermint, will you still keep a diet of thanksgiving and praise?  You know what it takes- that pause, that wait between the start of your meal and the first bite. That space between famine and feast. That acknowledgement of having enough and making do with less so that others can have enough to live. That mindfulness that both extreme poverty and extreme wealth keep us from gratitude. That is where we keep our practice of praise and thanksgiving.  May you keep your discipline well, dear friends. Amen.

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