It’s not the turkey alone we’re grateful for. Not the cranberry sauce or the stuffing or even the pumpkin pie. It is not even so much the day off from the routine of our lives that we re grateful for. Some of the people seated at our tables will be strangers friends of friends, relatives of in-laws and some will be all too familiar.
In any other week, today would merely be Thursday and the gathering of all these people, with the cooking and the serving and the cleaning, would be nothing more than an exhausting chore. But today does not feel that way. The host, perhaps it’s you, will ask God to bless the meal and those seated around the table. You may then ask for everyone s personal thanksgivings, and each will offer it in their own way. And what we are thankful for, above and beyond the food and the home in which to eat it, is our sense of belonging.
As holidays go, Thanksgiving is in some ways the most philosophical. Today we try not to take for granted those things we almost always take for granted. We try, if only in those few minutes between the end of the meal and the beginning of the tryptophan turkey coma, to see through the well-worn patterns of our lives to what lies behind them. We try to understand how very rich we are, whether we feel very rich or not.
The Pilgrim Thanksgiving was a way of giving thanks not for plenty, but for a sufficiency for what was enough. Yet for most of us, every day is a case of a little more than we need. Compared to the living standards of the majority of the world, every day is a feast day for us, which is one way of saying that the very idea of a feast has begun to lose its meaning.
But today is one of the few times most Americans consciously set aside their consumerist desires if only until tomorrow morning s early bird sales because desire is incompatible with the gratitude that Thanksgiving summons.
Our scripture this morning seems tailor-made for the Thanksgiving holiday. I think we re so familiar with this verse from Deuteronomy that we sometimes fail to linger over it the way we should. Moses reminds the Hebrews of God s commandments: He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (8 :3). Did you know that the word manna comes from the expression What is it? ? During the Exodus, dew covers the ground of the Israelites camp, and after it lifts, they notice on the surface of the wilderness a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground, and they ask one another, What is it? Moses tells them, It is the bread that Lord has given you to eat (Ex. 16:15). Moses then warns them that they must gather all of it every morning and never leave any to waste. But they do not listen, they are ungrateful, and the manna melts and breeds worms.
I want to give you something to think about today, and perhaps even tomorrow and the next. Today we will give thanks for the blessings of our lives. We will ask God to bless our food; we will ask God to bless the hands that have prepared the food; we might even be cognizant enough to ask God to bless the hands that have harvested the food. But why don t we take it one step further and learn to be the blessing, to offer our own blessings upon others not only this day but every day. We have the manna, and plenty of it. Now may we live by every word that comes from the mouth of our Lord Jesus may we embody the Word with grateful hearts.
The first step is acknowledging God s immanent presence among us and in us. We can acknowledge the Holy by saying a simple blessing. We have the power to bless the life around us and the life within us. When we bless others, we offer them refuge from an indifferent world.
Let me give you an example. When I first moved to New York City in 1993,I was overwhelmed by all the homeless and street people, and I felt guilty that I couldn t do anything for them. The dollar bills I gave them did not assuage my guilt. After a while I became angry because I could not go anywhere without being asked for money. I felt helpless; I felt taken advantage of; I felt assaulted by their desperation. My overwhelmed brain began to block them out; I developed the ability to see right through them as if they were invisible. Which meant that I became what I d sworn I d never become: just another jaded New Yorker.
But while in seminary, I met regularly with a nun who offered me spiritual direction. She gave me a piece of advice which I cherish to this day: She said that when I see street people or people who are in desperate need, rather than avoid eye contact with them or turn away from them, I should look them in the eye, smile, and silently ask God to bless them and to provide for their needs. Her advice was a gift that has since blessed countless individuals. What a weight it lifted off my shoulders! I have said these prayers of blessing under my breath ever since. Even driving in my car around Richmond, I will see people who look like they need a blessing and I ll offer one. I do not pretend that these vestments of mine confer special powers, but I do believe that big messages of restoration and healing can come in small packages.
I am reading an invaluable book entitled, My Grandfather s Blessings, by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. She is a cancer specialist and a counselor for people with chronic and terminal illnesses. Her book is about how her grandfather, an Orthodox Rabbi, taught her that blessing others is what fills our emptiness, heals our loneliness, and connects us more deeply to life. It is in these moments that heaven and earth meet and greet and recognize one another.
Dr. Remen writes, We are often fooled by someone s appearance, their age or illness or anger or meanness, or just too busy to recognize that there is in everyone a place of goodness and integrity, no matter how deeply buried. We are too hurried or distracted to stop and bear witness to it. When we recognize the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well. 1
We bless the life around us far more than we realize. It is the simple, ordinary things that we do which can affect those around us in profound ways: the unexpected phone call, the bear hug, listening generously, a smile, a knowing nod of the head, an apology. When my father died last month I received countless blessings from you cards, e-mails, phone calls, kind words, hugs those are all blessings, blessings that sustain me now. One of the greatest gifts to me as a priest has been the blessings for birthdays and anniversaries we offer at the conclusion of the 9 o clock worship service. I love the intimacy of putting my arms around you, praying over you for good health, protection, abundance, forgiveness, grace and love. The people who come up for blessings may have joy or heaviness on their hearts. They may be ill or facing surgery or they may come up to whisper that they are pregnant. I have blessed many a womb. Blessings are about our relationship to the spark of God in one another.
So, what is it we ask? What is this manna? We have been given this manna from heaven and it is this one day of the year to be with friends and family, to eat, celebrate, and rest. Today is the day to give thanks for just enough, and to share the extra with those who lack even that much. But today is also the day to begin to live by every word that comes from the mouth of our Lord and that begins with a blessing. We are to be the blessing, to act like a blessing, to bestow blessings this is the gift we share on this feast day. If we can achieve this we will find that Christ has given us many more blessings than we have allowed ourselves to receive. You know when someone blesses you, it reminds you a little of untying the knots of disbelief and fear and self-doubt that have separated you from your own goodness. When we remember we can bless life, we can begin to repair the world. But in the end, blessing life may be more about learning how to celebrate life than learning how to fix life.2
1 Remen, Naomi Rachel, My Grandfather s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging, p.5
2 Ibid, synthesis of p. 18.