A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon (November 23) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Thanksgiving Challenge"

     The thanksgiving holiday is pretty simple and straightforward, right? I’ve always approached thanksgiving as a time to make a personal list of the many blessings in my life which are many.
     When our family gathers around the thanksgiving table, we go around the table and share something for which we are thankful. If we would each share all of our blessings, the food would get too cold. I think the listing of our blessings is the easy part of Thanksgiving because there are just so many for us to name.
     So it’s no wonder that our Thanksgiving reading from the Book of Deuteronomy begins with a long list of reasons for the people of Israel to be thankful. At the top of that thanksgiving list was that God was leading them to their new home in the Promised Land.
     Just listen to this long thanksgiving list that involves the land they are about to enter. A wonderful land, streams of water, springs, wells that gush up in the valleys and the hills, a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, honey, no shortage of food, stones, copper and plenty of stones for building.  What a list!
     If this was scripture was written today rather than thousands of years ago, maybe this is how it would read. “Because the Lord your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with housing developments, a shopping mall, a Starbucks, a brand new movie theatre, newly paved roads, beautiful parks, and new downtown restaurants, including a Five Guys Burgers & Fries, you will eat and be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord in the wonderful land that he’s given you.”
     Whether it’s the 21st century or during ancient times, coming up with a thanksgiving list is the easy part. Just take a few minutes to think about your blessings, and I’m sure you’ll come up with a really long list.
     The challenge isn’t in coming up with a list of blessings in our lives. The real challenge is in not forgetting who we are. That’s the challenge. Our scripture reading even offers us this warning: “But watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord your God. Don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God.”
     We forget the Lord our God whenever we forget that we live in a world were many people go without the basic necessities of life. We forget the Lord whenever we forget that the blessings we have are in some measure due to other people who have helped us to get to where we are in life.
     I think of a successful farmer who started with little more than a mule and a small piece of land. He plows the fields, endures droughts and floods, and enjoys abundant harvests and prosperity. At the end of a long work day, he drinks a cold beverage on his beautiful front porch that he had built with his own hands. He thinks about his wealth and how far he has come in life.
     In Bolivia, a similar aged farmer who has worked just as hard as the first farmer is still poor because he hasn’t had adequate roads to transport his produce to the market. He also lives in an area where there are inadequate schools, a lack of opportunities for success, and poor health care. And yet, the first farmer believes that the only reason people are poor is because they just don’t work hard enough.  
     I remember my first impression of Guatemala when I went there on a mission trip back in 2009. Our Guatemalan mission team leader had picked us up at the airport and drove us to the place where we would be working for the week.
     As I looked out the window of the van during our hour-long trip to our mission site, I took notice of the many Guatemalans who were working out in the coffee bean fields under the extremely hot sun. In addition to the men, I saw many women and children working in the fields.
     I tried to think how different my life would be if I was forced to work in the hot sun like that every single day. Even before I arrived at the place we would be staying for the week, God had already opened my eyes to how so many people live throughout our world.
     Our job was to dig a long water trench from a lake to a tiny village so that the people of that community wouldn’t have to walk everyday to get their water. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a tiny shack where there was no water.
     The Guatemalans of that village worked side by side with us and together we dug a long trench in the hot sun that week. They taught us to pace ourselves and drink plenty of water as we swung pix axes and shoveled the dirt.
     Thanks to that mission trip, I have a renewed appreciation for the cup of coffee I buy at the coffee shop. Somebody worked long hours in a hot field for very little pay so that I could go through a drive-thru and have that grande size speciality coffee.
     The challenge of Thanksgiving isn’t so much to come up with a list of our many blessings as important as that may be. The real challenge is to not forget those who struggle every single day just to make ends meet. This is the real Thanksgiving challenge.
     It’s not surprising then, that just a few chapters later following our Deuteronomy scripture reading we read that we are to open our hands to the poor and to the needy. The sheer abundance of the land means that their wealth is to be shared, not hoarded.
     What helps you to not forget those who struggle to make a living?
     When I focus only on my blessings and forget about so many people who are struggling and lonely, than I miss out on the true meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday.
     So, here’s a typical list of thanksgiving blessings. I’m thankful for family, friends, job, food, health, clothes, clean water, electricity, heat, car, and the list can go on and on.  This list is important and I hope we name our many blessings during this holiday week, maybe even around the table before we eat the big meal this Thursday.
     But, there’s another Thanksgiving list that I hope we make this week. It’s a list based on our Deuteronomy scripture that reminds us to not forget who we are as God’s people. This list is meant to help us not just be thankful people but to be a  serving people.
     Here’s another Thanksgiving list that might help us to take up the Thanksgiving challenge.
     Offer free baby sitting for a single mother. Provide a financial gift toward our church’s local relief fund to help people in need. Volunteer to read to children at a local school. Take one of the angels from our Angel Tree in the parlor and buy gifts for a needy family. Say something positive to the grocery clerk and to the waitress at the restaurant. Come to our Second Saturday Outreach in a couple of weeks and help us wrap Christmas presents for several needy families in our community. Donate food and your time at a local food pantry. Visit at a nursing home and give encouragement cards to the residents. Become a pen-pal for someone with special needs. Throw a pizza party for the children in your neighborhood.
     This past summer, I conducted a graveside funeral service that was located at a cemetery outside of Lancaster. I was to ride back to Lancaster with the Funeral Director.
     Before we left the cemetery, this funeral director made it a point to call the cemetery office that was in charge of the cemetery to let them know what a wonderful job their workers did to prepare the grave for the service. After he got off his cell phone, I told him that this was a really nice thing to do for those workers.
     He said that even though he thanked the cemetery workers in person, he knew that if he would also call the cemetery office manager, that they would probably say something nice to those workers as well. This funeral director was living out the Thanksgiving challenge. He was thinking of the people who often receive little or no appreciation.
     This Thursday, members of our church will be serving a Thanksgiving meal to people in our community who might not otherwise enjoy a holiday meal. They too, will be taking up the Thanksgiving challenge by serving the needs of others.
     As we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this week, let’s prepare two thanksgiving lists, one that lists our many blessings, and one that will remind us of how God is calling us to be a blessing to the people around us.

     May all of us accept the Thanksgiving challenge.

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