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 22, 2015

Sermon (November 22/Thanksgiving Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving"

    What is your ideal Thanksgiving holiday? What would make this Thursday’s holiday one of the best Thanksgivings you have ever had?
     Last year’s Thanksgiving holiday for Penny and me didn’t go as planned. We were supposed to spend the holiday with family in the Philadelphia area, but at the last minute, we canceled because of a huge snowstorm that hit the East Coast the day before Thanksgiving.
     When it comes to the holidays, we often have this picture perfect dream of how it should go. We know that things won’t go as planned. They never do.
     An unexpected early snowstorm will keep some family members away. An uncle will come down with a terrible cold and share those germs with the rest of the family. You remembered to get everything for the big meal, but you can’t find the baster for the turkey.
     The one time during the year that you need to use a baster, you can’t even find it. It’s hiding in some obscure kitchen drawer that rarely gets used. Things often don’t always go according to plan around the holidays.
     Do you remember the iconic Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting? As the perfectly golden brown turkey is being placed on the table, each family member is admiring the spread of food on the table.
     They are all beautifully dressed with picture perfect smiles. Nobody is crying.
     Even a young child in that picture is looking on with admiration. Is this family for real? If this represents your typical family, than more power to you, but it’s probably not something that most of us experience when we get together with our loved ones each year.
     Let’s set the famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting off to the side for the moment, and let’s get a little more realistic if you don’t mind. Maybe you heard this story about a family member who tried to have the perfect Thanksgiving gathering but she went about it the wrong way.
     Here’s a letter from a lady named, Marney which she had sent to her out of town family members who were coming to her home for Thanksgiving. I think you might enjoy this.
     She writes,
     “As you all know a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner does not make itself. I need to ask each of you to help by bringing something to complete the meal. I truly appreciate your offers to assist with the meal preparation.
     Now, while I do have quite a sense of humor and joke around all the time, I could not be more serious when I am providing you with your Thanksgiving instructions and orders. I am very particular, so please perform your task exactly as I have requested and read your portion very carefully.
     If I ask you to bring your offering in a container that has a lid, bring your offering in a container with a lid, not aluminum foil! If I ask you to bring a serving spoon for your dish, bring a serving spoon, not a soup spoon! And please do not forget anything.
     All food that is to be cooked should already be prepared, bring it hot and ready to serve, warm or room temperature. These are your only three options. Anything meant to be served cold should, of course, already be cold.”
     So then, Marney goes on to give specific instruction to six different families in this same letter. For sake of time, I’ll only read what she wrote for three of these families.
     These are the instructions for the Mike Byron Family:
     She writes, “Turnips in a casserole with a lid and a serving spoon. Please do not fill the casserole all the way up to the top, it gets too messy. I know this may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but most of us hate turnips so don’t feel like you have to feed an army. Two half gallons of ice cream, one must be vanilla. I don’t care what the other one is. No store brands please. I did see an ad this morning for Haagen Daz Peppermint Bark Ice Cream, yum!!! No pressure here, though.
     Also bring toppings for the ice cream and a case of bottled water, not gallons, any brand is OK.”
     Here’s what this lady wrote to the next family in the letter, The Lisa Bryon Chesterford Family.
     “Lisa, as a married woman you are now required to contribute at the adult level. You can bring hors d’oeuvres. A few helpful hints and suggestions, keep it very light, and non-filling. No cocktail sauce and no beans of any kind. I think your best bet would be a platter of fresh veggies and dip. Not a huge platter, mind you (i.e., not the plastic platter from the supermarket.”
     And then, I’ll share one more set of instructions that she wrote to The June Davis Family.
     “15 lbs of mashed potatoes in a casserole with a serving spoon. Please do not use the over-size blue serving dish you used last year. Because you are making such a large batch you can do one of two things: put half the mash in a regulation size casserole with lid and put the other half in a plastic container and we can just replenish with that or use two regulation size casserole dishes with lids. Only one serving spoon is needed.”
     After all of these Thanksgiving meal instructions, she then concludes her letter with, “Looking forward to the 28th!”, signed “Marney.”
     So if a lady named, Marney ever invites you to her house for a Thanksgiving meal, don’t go. Way too much pressure!

     Sometimes the holidays aren’t always what we want them to be. Sometimes our dreams for a brighter future leave us feeling empty. Life can be hard, and it can cause us to lose hope along the way.
     That’s why Psalm 126 is so important for us as we approach the holidays. Even though life has not gone as planned and it seems like there is no hope, this Psalmist is able to keep dreaming for a better future and he calls us to keep dreaming as well.
     He begins his Psalm by reminding the people that just as the Lord has been faithful to them in the past, the Lord will also fulfill their dreams for the future.
     This is a psalm that doesn’t just celebrate an idyllic Norman Rockwell time from the past. It also looks ahead to the new thing that God is about to do through the people of Israel.
     The Psalmist pleads for God to replace the tears of the people with shouts of joy. He concludes his Psalm with a Thanksgiving harvest image of the people being blessed with abundance as they carry in their sheaves.
     This is a Psalm that reminds us that our best years are not behind us. They’re ahead of us.  And because our best days are ahead of us, we are encouraged to dream again. Whenever we don’t dream about a new future, we miss out on what God has in store for us.
     Another Psalmist puts it like this. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
     Thanksgiving is a time to not only be thankful for our blessings, it’s also a time to look forward to the future and what God is about to do.
     Someone once gave me a definition of the word, “praise” and his definition has always stayed with me. He said, to praise God, means that we are thanking God for what he is about to do in the future.
     I really like that definition. To praise God means that we are thanking God for what he is about to do in the future.
     It’s not always easy to remember that God isn’t just the God of our past but is also the God of the future. And because God is the God of the future, we can dream again. We can begin thanking God for what God will do as we live into the future.
     I was recently reading about someone who found it really difficult to dream. It was back in the 1990’s. She felt a calling from God to become a pastor. At the time, she was a first year freshman in college.
     She applied to be a summer missionary with the North Carolina Baptist Convention. She looked over the opportunities and knew that she wanted to apply to be a youth and children’s minister.
     Although several people told her that the convention would probably not place a freshman in that role and that she would probably need to first serve as a camp counselor, she was surprised when they placed her in a church in the middle of the state.
     Within moments of being commissioned to begin her summer year of ministry, she told her parents and her campus minister that she just couldn’t go through with it. She was too afraid of the unknown.
     She ended up backing out of this ministry opportunity, all because she was unable to dream about how God could use her in that new role. After she made the decision to not take that ministry job, she thought that she would feel a sense of relief. Instead, she felt miserable because she had disappointed the many people who were looking forward to working with her in ministry.
     For the next five years, she pushed away any thoughts of going into the ministry. In her mind, she had her chance and she blew it. She thought that any future ministry possibility was long gone.
     She wondered if God would ever trust her with a new ministry possibility. Like the people of Israel at different points of their journey with God, she had lost the ability to dream again.
     But here’s what happened. Even though she had stopped dreaming, God still had a dream for her. Nine years later as a public school teacher, she was given the opportunity to be a campus ministry intern for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship collegiate ministry at Clemson University.
     This time, she didn’t allow the opportunity to be in ministry to pass her by.  As she prepared her last sermon as an intern and reviewed her past year in this new role of ministry, she felt like a brand new person, so different from that person she was back in the 1990’s when she had doubted herself.
     She realizes that even though we sometimes act from a lack of faith, God is always faithful. After all of those years, she was finally able to dream again.
     Justin had started attending church again. He had spent the last few years at a chemical dependency center to help him overcome his heroin addiction.
     I met Justin one day in my office. He told me his story of how drugs had ruined his life. He had been at an all time low, but that’s when He reconnected with God who slowly but surely helped him to get back on his feet again.
     Our church helped him to renew his driver’s license so that he would be able to find a job and start supporting himself. He said that the church gave him the renewed hope that he needed to get back on his feet again.
     He said, “I never want to miss church because I always get something out of each message and it keeps me going in the right direction.”
     So I said to Justin as he told me his story there in my office. “How about you share your story with the congregation on a Sunday morning?” He agreed and shared his testimony.
     I can’t even begin to tell you the number of people who thanked him for sharing his story of hope, especially since there has been such a growing number of young people becoming addicted to drugs in our communities.
     In the midst of no employment, no driver’s license, and a custody battle, all Justin had was a dream, a dream that one day, he would be able to live a drug free life, a life that would be rooted in a hope made possible through Jesus Christ. This is a hope that is available to each and every one of us no matter what brokenness we may be facing in our lives.
     Bible scholars are not certain what the people of Israel were facing during the time when the Psalmist wrote those words of encouragement. All we know is that this Psalmist wrote this Psalm to encourage the people of Israel to dream again, to trust in God again for a bright future.
     Even though the people of Israel probably didn’t have a long list of Thanksgiving blessings at the time this was written, he was reminding them to not forget to thank God for the blessings yet to come. Maybe, this is what God is calling us to be thankful for during this week of Thanksgiving.
     So this week, as we gather around the Thanksgiving table to enjoy a wonderful, and please don’t forget to cover your pan with a lid and not just with aluminum foil or Marney will get really upset!...
     …As we gather together to thank God for our many blessings, we also gather knowing that God isn’t finished with us, not by a long shot. God has so much in store for us, especially for those of us who feel like we have turned our back on God more times than we would ever care to admit.
     My prayer for you and for me is the same prayer of the Psalmist…that we would have a Dream Thanksgiving, a Thanksgiving where we dare to dream again because God is still dreaming about us. God has new blessings, new opportunities, new hope, new joys, and new beginnings in mind for us.
     A dream Thanksgiving isn’t just for Norman Rockwell type of families where everyone is happy and smiling, where life is so good, and all is right with the world. A dream Thanksgiving is also possible for those of us who don’t feel like we belong at that table in that Norman Rockwell painting.
     It’s for those of us who are going through some really challenging times. It’s for those of us who have the scars to prove it.
     God wants us to know that we’re welcome at that table, too. It doesn’t matter how dysfunctional we may think we are or how far we that we have strayed from God. Hey, the past is the past. It’s time to dream again.
     So, an interesting thing about Norman Rockwell is that the reason he specialized in these idealized images where everyone appears sweet and innocent in his paintings is because this is what helped him to dream again.
     Norman Rockwell was raised in a bad area of New York City. His home life was emotionally and economically unstable. He also struggled with depression. Someone who knew him said that he “painted his happiness.”
     So maybe, Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving painting was how he kept hope alive. It was his way of holding on to the possibility of a brighter future.
     A Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving is when we not only thank God for our blessings, but we also thank God for the blessings that are to come.
    Happy Thanksgiving, and keep dreaming!

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