Sermons That Work

The Two Verses from Scripture…, Thanksgiving Day (B) – 2000

November 23, 2000

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 parts of Scripture that have much more to say about thankfulness than these, about the bounty of God, about the harvest and the things we normally associate with this great feast.

These passages move us from Thanksgiving as we usually think of it–hearth-and-home, a table laden with good food and drink – to a heartfelt thanksgiving of action, challenging 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. James challenges us not to show our wealth, but to give generously, to show mercy and 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 giving us 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 our thankfulness to and for God’s gifts in all our lives, not merely in our Sunday obligation. That’s why he reminds us that works, as an expression of our faith, are primary.

Matthew, in a different style, does a similar thing. He 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 little problem: And to get at that, you need to know about a conference held in Missouri several years ago.

The conference was titled A Consultation on Diversity. It was sponsored by the Missouri School of Religion Center for Rural Ministry and by several churches. The agenda included some learned lectures on current trends in agriculture and food production, some Biblical study, and two full days of bus travel throughout the southwest corner of Missouri where conferees looked at poultry production and its impact on a lovely corner of that state.

In one poultry plant alone 250,000 chickens a day are processed for our tables. To say this industry has changed the area is an understatement. One town, Noel, now has 50% of its population who speak Spanish as their principal language. Eighty-five per cent of the workers at one large plant are foreign born.

These poultry workers do jobs you and I would not do, in bone-chilling, cold rooms on slippery floors with sharp knives that, along with repeated motions, often lead to accidental injury.

Some of the poultry workers have left poverty in Guatemala or Nicaragua and migrated illegally through Mexico to get to Missouri. Most of the workers have obtained false identity papers to work there. While they are there, they live in sub-standard housing, and frequently, alone or with their families, are forced to move from plant to plant to avoid possible deportation. They receive no benefits, are allowed little or no personal dignity, and they certainly have no real job security. But still, for many, they are better off than they were in their home countries.

The people attending the conference met some of the poultry workers, listened to their music, and heard their stories. The church has reached out to them, trying to help them and proclaim the Gospel to them.

But to most people, they are invisible: one rarely reads about them, or hears about their plight, or even knows they are there. Few local people are aware of them unless there is a racial incident or an illegal trespass committed.

One woman who lives near Noel has decided to work with these people. On her own she has set up an English-as-a-Second-Language program to help them learn English. Because she learned Spanish some time ago, she is able to teach others in her church the basics of that language. She helps the poultry workers with housing, legal problems, and the myriad of challenges that confront all of us in our culture. She also loves them because she, herself, is a person of the Gospel.

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 ethical, moral or legal behavior; it’s not giving everyone their due. It’s not even conduct above reproach. Rather, righteousness is fulfilling the demands of a relationship with God and with humanity.

This woman, her name is Joan, has a highly developed sense of righteousness because she relates to the foreigner, the stranger, as if that person were part of her family: because they are. She draws on the roots of her Christian faith, she says her prayers, and she acts on that faith because she knows her relationship with God and with other people is what righteousness demands. Despite the difficulties she encounters, and the lack of enthusiastic support from her community, she is positive, gracious, and gentle. She knows where her gifts come from, and who provides her with all that she needs.

This Thanksgiving if you do nothing else, thank God for the gift of life, and for the opportunities God gives you to live in righteousness with your neighbors, and with those among us who are often neglected, exploited, or abused so that we might have the things we need. Don ‘t feel guilty. That’s what the devil would like. Instead, try to listen for what it is that God calls you to do as acts of righteousness, and remember these acts 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, to live with us, and tell us of the Father’s love.

If your Thanksgiving focuses on righteousness, you will be blessed beyond measure. The fun, the sheer joy of Christian thankfulness will be yours.

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Christopher Sikkema


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