Sermons That Work

But Be Doers Of the Word…, Thanksgiving Day (C) – 2001

November 22, 2001

But be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves (Jas. 1:22)

But strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matt.6:33)

The two verses from Scripture appointed for Thanksgiving in the Episcopal Church’s lectionary are at first glance not very thanksgiving-like. In fact there are other verses that have much more to say about thankfulness than these, speaking of the bounty of God, about the harvest, and about the other things we normally associate with this great feast.

But these passages challenge us to think of Thanksgiving differently from how we usually think of it: docile and hearth-and-home, a table laden with good food and drink. They move us to a heartfelt thanksgiving of action, and challenge believers to proclaim by word and deed our thanks to God in our behavior, as well as in our beliefs.

James takes a swipe at civil, comfortable religion. In fact, the entire letter is an admonition to live a life worthy of our calling as Christians. James challenges us not to show our wealth, but to give generously, to show mercy, and to remember that “faith apart from works is barren” (Jas. 20)

The writer of James also, in a most majestic passage, recalls who God is:

The source of all good giving. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…(Jas.1:17)

This beautiful description of God gifting us with all that we need is something to rejoice in and be thankful for, far more than merely our table feast, our whole lives can respond to this generous act of life we have been given. To be created, and to be gifted for ministry, as we all are, is truly a profound action of the loving God and a thing to be thankful for every day. This is the God we adore; this is the God we worship.

But James wants us to show that joyful thanks in our lives, not merely in our Sunday obligation. That’s why he reminds us that works, as an expression of our faith, are primary. As one church leader recently said: “Anyone who fails to give thanks in all things is not a whole human being.” Today one thing we need to be thankful for is the diversity of people among us. As a nation we are, more and more, expressing the vision of a country that can become truly democratic, where all people who seek to live in freedom are welcome, and where we learn from each other the great diversity of God who came among as a stranger. Let us give thanks for that gift of diversity that gives us energy as a nation and can make us whole as people.

Matthew, in a different style from James, works the conventional material of worry and chides us for fretting about what we shall eat, drink, or wear. A few years ago there was a popular song: Don’t worry, be Happy! Lots of sermons were preached on that title as many have been preached on this passage from Matthew, reminding us not to worry because God will provide all these things.

There’s just one problem: On September 11th the world learned there are people who are truly at work among us for evil intentions. Citizens of America learned in a horrible attack that the United States really does have enemies whose goal is to destroy our way of life and culture. While no rational person could defend their behavior, there is now before us the reality that people hate us because we have so much, and because, despite our public and private efforts, much of the world does worry about food, and shelter, and clothing on a daily basis. While we can dismiss the terrorists’ irrational arguments, we cannot ignore the message they chose to use to defend their outrageous behavior: As a nation we consume over 80% of the world’s resources often at the expense of others.

The “others” are often invisible. One rarely reads about them, hears about their plight, or even knows they are there. But the truly poor and the hungry are not just outside our borders either. We have a growing immigrant population among who have come to our country to seek the basic things we take for granted, food and shelter, and are willing to work at jobs to provide our food, our clean restrooms, and pick up after us. Many others have come with considerable skills and experience as professionals but are prevented from exercising them in this nation, so they work at menial jobs to survive.

But strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matt.6:33) This is the part of the reading that doesn’t always get proclaimed. “Righteousness” in the Bible is not only about ethics and morality; it’s about correcting the situation in which we are not giving everyone what they are due; and it’s not just about exercising “conduct above reproach” in our lives. Rather, “righteousness” is about fulfilling the demands of a relationship with God and with one another.

This Thanksgiving, if we do nothing else, let us first thank God for the gift of life, and for the opportunities God gives us to live in righteousness with our neighbors. Let us thank God for the opportunity, out of our abundance, to show our love for God to those among us who are often neglected, exploited, or abused, even as they work that we might have the things we think we need.

Feeling guilt about injustice and the exploited poor is not very helpful. Guilt can easily turn to anger and indifference. Instead, try to listen for what it is that God calls us to do as acts of righteousness, and remember they are marked by the quality of relationships that we enter into with those among whom we are placed.

Finally, give thanks that the Good News of Jesus Christ is that God, who had no need to live as we do, decided to come among us as a stranger, to live with us, and tell us of the Father’s love. If all we know of God is what we learn from people who are like us, we are poor in spirit ourselves. When we begin to discover the diversity of God in those different from us we are on the righteous road on which fear and worry are left behind.

Since September 11, in a Midwestern city, a Jewish congregation was seeking a home for worship while it built a new building. The leader of a Muslim mosque offered the rabbi, the leader of the Jewish congregation, a key to their place of worship and they worked out a compatible schedule for building use. This was possible because for many years the people from the mosque and the synagogue were part of a parliament of religions that met regularly to get to know each other and address common community issues.

As we prepare for our Thanksgiving feasts, let us thank God for the gift of righteousness. Let us thank God for the opportunity to get to know God through others unlike us, and the courageous refusal planted by God in our hearts to stand as a people of unity and light that the darkness cannot overcome.

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Christopher Sikkema


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