Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Turkey is Burnt: A Meditation on Giving Thanks

The Turkey Is Burnt: A Meditation on Giving Thanks
A Sermon by Brent J Eelman 
Preached Nov. 19,2017, Hickory Street Presbyterian, Scranton, PA
Imagine this scene.  A dozen and a half relatives were invited for thanksgiving and the turkey was burnt to a crisp.  Eighteen hungry people were gathered around the table as the burnt turkey was placed before them and the head of the household, trying to rescue the moment, challenged them to come up with some reasons that they should be thankful for the burnt turkey.  They were quite creative:
  We won’t worry about salmonella
  No one will overeat.
  Everyone will think it's Cajun Blackened.
  The cheese broccoli lima bean casserole will gain newly found appreciation.
  The smoke alarm was due for a test.
  We won't have to face three weeks of turkey sandwiches.

This household was indeed creative in the face of holiday disaster.  The tragedy of a burnt Turkey and ruined feast became the opportunity for comic responses and shared joy.  At the root of those humorous responses was, I believe, a genuine sense of thanksgiving.  It wasn’t “Woe are we!” and “The day is ruined!” Rather the family responded with a sense of proportion and, I believe, thanksgiving.   More often than not, the difference between a tragedy and comedy is how we respond.  

The reality of life is that the turkey is often burnt.  I am not merely referring to Thanksgiving meals.  I am talking about the day to day realities with which all of us live. 
·      Relationships become strained and sometimes broken. 
·      The job we counted on no longer exists. 
·      The toy we bought, no longer gives us a thrill. 
·      The car doesn’t start. 
·      The computer screen turns blue. 
·      The body aches. 
·      The soul wearies.

 The reality of life is that the turkey is often burnt.  Then we encounter the words Paul, “Rejoice in all things.  Rejoice in the Lord.  Again, I will say it. Rejoice.”   Three points:  1. The thankful heart is a joyous heart.  2. The thankful heart is defiant and resilient in the face of adversity.  3.  The thankful heart does good.

The thankful heart is a joyous heart.  Joy is the misunderstood emotion of our day.  Ask what it means and the standard reply is, “It means happy.”  But happiness is like the weather.  It comes and it goes.  It is fickle and we have little control over it.  Joy is like soil.  It is rich, often dark, not very neat and tidy, and most importantly, it must be nurtured and cultivated.  Often it is cultivated during the storms of life. 

Every religion, except Judaism and Christianity, (which are religions of the book) insists that the end and the beginning of all things is an eternal calm.  But biblical faith believes and declares that the peace of God… indeed the “shalom” of God is beyond our understanding, precisely because it is often a peace that contains pain.  

Reinhold Niebuhr described happiness as a “neat harmony of life.”  And we are thankful for those neat harmonies, when things actually go as planned.  Those moments when the body feels good, when relationships are in sync, when the checkbook balances in the black, the house warm and the meal is good.  The trouble is there are not many long sweet harmonies in life.  The turkey is burned. 

This is where Biblical faith speaks with a reality that is often forgotten.  The New Testament points to the cross, a symbol suffering.  The Old Testament tells the story of the  suffering of God’s people and God’s intimate involvement in their suffering.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote in his classic book, The Prophets, “The predicament of man is a predicament of God, who has a stake in the human situation. Sin, guilt, suffering, cannot be separated from the divine situation.”    He went on to conclude, “… God is involved in history, as intimately affected by events in history, as living care.”  The turkey is burnt. 

The experience of joy is rooted in the covenant relationship with God, and experiencing with God the plethora of emotions that are endemic to human existence.  The experience of genuine joy is the knowledge that God is present, not merely in the happy moments of neat harmony, but also in the discordant moments of suffering, loss, confusion and death.  Abraham Lincoln’s well known letter to the mother who lost five sons in the civil war, captures this spirit of biblical joy, when he wrote of “the solemn joy that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”  Solemn joy… not happiness.

A few days before we got married, my wife said to me, “I look forward to all the good times that we will share together.”  She then continued, “I also look forward to the hard times because we will share them together.”  She is, of course, a realist. Christian faith is also realistic. We experience the good times and the hard times in a covenantal relationship with God… and we offer thanks for both.  The thankful heart is one that is intimate with this solemn joy.  In all things, it rejoices.  In all things, it gives thanks. In the words of the book of James, we “count it all as joy!”
The thankful heart is defiant in the face of adversity.  In our current age, when we have raised whining, complaining, and critiquing to an art form, a genuine Thanksgiving is an act of defiance and forms the foundation of resilience.  It is certainly counter-cultural.  It requires moral courage and a spirit that is not of this world: certainly not common to our experience. 

The first settlers in America landed in December of 1620 in Massachusetts. They understood their perilous journey in terms of the exodus from Egypt.  They were on “an errand in the wilderness.”  That wilderness was harsh.  One month after landing, 10 of the 17 fathers and husbands who were on that ship, the Mayflower, died.  Within 3 months of landing, only four of the mothers and wives were alive out of the first 17 couples.  By springtime almost half of the pilgrims were dead.  Today we would blame it all on poor planning, landing in a strange world in the middle of winter, without provisions and without shelter. We would blame the loss on the leadership and would demand their heads.  Yet in 1621, 11 months later, the few who were left celebrated and gave thanks to God.  Giving thanks is an act of defiance.  

In Europe, just 26 years later, there was a Lutheran pastor named Martin Rinkart.  He lived in Eilenberg, Saxony during the siege of the Thirty Years War.  Eilenberg was a walled city, besieged by Swedes.  800 homes were burned and the people within the city walls suffered from plague and starvation.  The clergy in that community were burying 12 people a day.  Soon the clergy themselves started to die and Rinckart was the only pastor left.  He was conducting 40-50 funerals a day!  In the coming year he would bury 4,480 people including in May of that year, his own wife.  In 1648, when the conflict ended, Rinkart sat down and penned these words in a prayer poem for his children;
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. 

Giving thanks is an act of defiance.  
·      It is the defiance of the human spirit in the face of oppression, war, the elements, and the principalities and powers that hurt, threaten, and destroy. 
·      It is the defiance of the human spirit in the face of the merchants of death who are empowered by the ungrateful voices demanding more. 
·      It is the defiance of the human spirit that hopes against hope; clinging to the sanctity of life, and affirms the reality that life and creation are good. 
·      It is the defiance of the human spirit that, even when we are lost in the wilderness of despair, we can raise our voices in thanksgiving for the manna and quail in the morning and the water that springs from the rocks in our cultural wasteland.   
Thanksgiving requires a defiant spirit.  Gratitude is counter-cultural at its core.  But the defiant spirit that gives thanks is also one that is resilient. It not merely survivies.. It gains strength in adversity and thrives! 

The thankful heart does good.  Paul wrote that we should focus our minds on “whatever is pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.”  But he went a step further and said… don’t just think about them. “Keep on doing these things.”   The prophet Micah, calling Judah back to the covenant, declared:  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good:  and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God! “ 

How do we offer our thanks to God?  With prayer, song and worship, of course, but also the way we live our lives.   Thanksgiving embodies kindness, justice, humility, and purity of purpose.  We act in ways that are pleasing, excellent and praiseworthy.  We keep the Law, we honor the Prophets, not because we want credit with God,  but because we are thankful, and we reflect this gratitude in our lives and our behavior.  The joyous thanksgiving of this worship service does not end with the final blessing; it begins with the cup cider and cookie following the service.  It begins with the smile and greeting to friend and stranger.  It continues through the turkey and the football game.  It continues in the job on Monday and the routine of the week.  This joyous thanksgiving continues in the moments of hurt and suffering. It continues because it is the essence of our gratitude to God

The turkey is often burnt,
         life is not fair,
                  evil exists,
                           pain occurs..
         indeed the turkey is often burnt…
 but we still rejoice,
         give thanks, and
                  do good…  Amen.

Monday, November 13, 2017

"A Foolish Word?" A sermon preached on November 12, 2017 at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church

A Foolish Word?”
A Sermon by Brent J. Eelman

I Corinthians 1: 10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God* that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.   For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

“Don’t be a fool.”  How often have we heard that admonition?  “Don’t be a fool.”  We heard it from our parents. We heard it from teachers and coaches. We heard it from friends, colleagues and advisors.  “Don’t be a fool.”  One of the things that I know about myself is that when I am in a strange or new social situation, I am very concerned about not appearing foolish.  No one wants to be a fool.  No one wants to appear foolish in the presence of others. No one wants to suffer the consequences of personal foolishness.   Yet here we have the statement from Paul the Apostle that the message of the cross appears to be utter foolishness to a great many people. 

Paul wrote those words to Greeks in Corinth.  The Greek culture valued wisdom and eloquence.  The word philosophy is a Greek construction which means “love of wisdom.”  The women and the men whom Paul addressed in this letter appreciated eloquence and well-reasoned argument.  They were the heirs of Socrates and Plato.  They were schooled in the arguments of the Epicureans and the Stoics.  They were reasonably sophisticated for their day.  But what was the fruit of their sophistication?  It was division, argument and conflict. 

Today, I want to do something, just a bit different in the sermon.  First, I want to look at legacy of worldly wisdom through an historic anecdote.  Second, the legacy of history’s foolish Christians,  And finally the power of the foolish cross.
Edward Everett was the most celebrated American intellectual in the 19th century.  He was the valedictorian of his Harvard Class.  He was a congressman and senator from the state of Massachusetts. He was a Unitarian pastor and the first American ever to receive a PhD degree. He was also the governor of the state of Massachusetts and Secretary of State for the United States.  Later in life he assumed the presidency of Harvard University.  The town of Everett, Pennsylvania is named after him.  He was president of Harvard when the first African American was admitted as a student.  In face of the opposition to the student’s admission, Everett said:  "If this boy passes the examinations he will be admitted and if the white students choose to withdraw, all the income of the college will be devoted to his education." 

Most importantly, Everett was known as a brilliant orator.  He was one of the great speakers of his age.  When an inspirational speaker was needed, the brilliant Edward Everett was the first choice.  He represented the wisdom of his age and he represented it well.  Everett gave a speech in Pennsylvania that was hailed by newspapers and pundits as brilliant.  It was given at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.  Everett was asked by the committee that was preparing the dedication of that cemetery if he would be willing to be the keynote speaker at the dedication.  He wrote back and said, that the date they picked would not give him enough time.  The committee agreed to set the date back two months, so that Everett would have adequate time to prepare his speech.  Almost as an afterthought, David Wills, the president of the committee, asked President Abraham Lincoln to make a "few appropriate remarks."  Lincoln agreed.  Everett’s speech was a masterpiece, according to those who heard it that day.  He spoke for two hours, and people hung on his every word.  After that great speech, Lincoln spoke for two minutes. The newspapers hailed the words of Everett as brilliant. But let me read a few of the reactions to Lincoln’s words:

Chicago Times: "The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as (Lincoln) reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances."

Harrisburg Patriot and Union: "We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the Nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of."

That two minute speech,  the “silly remarks”  the forgettable, “silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances,” were the Gettysburg Address. It is recognized today as one of the greatest pieces of oratory in American history.  No-one quotes the words of Everett, however eloquent, has become a question for trivia games.  To his credit, Everett recognized the brilliance of Lincoln and wrote to him, "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

The wisdom of our age, is often the trivia of future ages. 
The foolishness of the cross has shown itself to be powerful and continues long after the fall of monarchs and empires.  Consider the impact of this foolishness.

Many of the early Christians were regarded as fools because their affirmation of faith often led them to suffering and martyrdom.  The crazy emperor Nero used Christians as human torches to light some of his garden parties.  Early followers of Jesus were thrown into stadiums and provided entertainment for spectators as they were mauled by beasts or gladiators.  

They were fools, but here is the power of their foolishness:  If Nero and the other persecutors of Christianity could return to Rome today and look for the Vatican gardens where the Christians were burned, they would find in their place an enormous church, named for Peter who was probably one of their victims.  When Rome fell in the 5th century, the Christian Church remained and continued.  The foolishness of the cross has outlived the wisdom of the powerful. 

Or consider the German church in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Some of the best theologians and scholars lacked the moral courage to resist the racist ideology of the Nazis and capitulated to the wishes of the German Reich.   They allowed the state to appoint bishops, control and censor the message of the church. It was the “wise and expedient” thing to do.  A small group of women and men began a confessing church in response to this.  They were regarded by many as foolish Christians.  Most of them would be imprisoned or executed, because they dared to foolishly oppose one of the most powerful regimes of the 20th century.  Armed only with words and ritual (the truth!)  they foolishly dared to say “no” to the lies of an oppressive state.  History has judged both groups.  Today, we remember the names of Bonhoeffor, Niemoller, and others.  We admire them for their faith and conviction.  We read their words today, and we know that these foolish individuals understood the power of the cross.

Then there is the 20th century fool, Albert Schweitzer.  He earned a PhD in philosophy.  He was one of the most celebrated organists of his day.  He was a biblical scholar whose work, The Quest Of the Historical Jesus, is still read today.  He could have settled into a comfortable life as a professor and musician.  At the age of 30, in 1905, he answered the call of "The Society Of The Evangelist Missions of Paris" who were looking for a Medical Doctor.  He spent the next 8 years of his life, studying medicine, and devoted his life to serving as a physician in the Congo.  What a fool!  Thank God, what a fool!! 
Following Jesus Christ, in our day and age often appears to be foolish. 
·      How foolish it seems to some in our busy society to spend Sunday morning, a time to catch up on sleep, with others, singing and worshiping and enjoying fellowship together. 
·      How foolish it seems to share wealth, time and talent for the benefit of others, when we could be investing those resources in ourselves and our own futures. 
·      How foolish it must be to believe that we are created by someone who loves us, and wants us to live and enjoy life together…
·      How foolish it seems to believe that this same being, God, loves others and values them, even when we don’t. 
·      How foolish it seems to forgive others when they do us wrong. 
·      How foolish it seems to believe that human beings were created to live together in harmony and peace, and not in a state of conflict, war and destruction. 
·      How foolish it seems to believe that one individual, a Mediterranean peasant, who lived 2000 years ago, in an obscure part of the world… who allowed himself to be captured and executed, could be the one who holds the future to life, and the purpose of our existence. 
·      How foolish it must seem in our sophisticated age to hold on this… this power of the cross..

Yet when I ponder these assertions, (and they are often made by the wise and sophisticated), and I reflect on the history of humanity, it becomes apparent that the foolishness of the cross, is indeed wiser and more potent than the wisdom of our age and any age. 

Are my words this morning foolish?  Perhaps… but it is a foolishness that offers hope, and history has vindicated that hope. 

The challenge for us today is to have the audacity of the fool;
·      to proclaim hope in the midst of despair;
·      to see opportunity and promise in the midst of chaos;
·      to see the hand of God in times of trouble;
·      to pursue the peace of Christ, when others want to fight;
·      to share and serve others in a world that proclaims “me first!”. 

The challenge for us is to embody the foolish word of our Jesus Christ in our lives today.  Amen.