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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.