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,
indeed the turkey is often burnt…
but we still rejoice,
give thanks, and
do good… Amen.