Sermons That Work

Wilbur Lucius Cross…, Thanksgiving Day (A) – 1999

November 25, 1999

And you shall remember all the ways which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. Deuteronomy 8:2-3

Wilbur Lucius Cross was governor of Connecticut from 1931-1939. A little bit before the time of many of us. However, the parents, and even grandparents, of many of us who are adults now were children of Cross’s era — what came to be known as the Great Depression, precipitated, in large part, by the great Stock Market “Crash of ’29.” The only hint you might have about Wilbur Cross is if you have driven in the Northeast, Connecticut to be precise, over a stretch of US Route 15 south of New Haven: The Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Before he was governor, Cross was a college English professor and later Dean of the Yale Graduate School. In academia he was known as an authority on eighteenth-century English literature. And as governor, he was famous for the gilded prose of his many gubernatorial proclamations. One of the most interesting is Cross’s offering for Thanksgiving Day, 1936. It begins:

Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and
the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evening lengthens under
the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and
Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year
(Proclamations, p.3).

This passage is wonderful when you consider it in its historical context. Mr. Cross was addressing Yankee craftsmen, toolmakers, and mill workers, facing an economy with close to twenty percent unemployment. There is a hushed reverence along with a ponderous gratitude. Despite what St. Paul says, it’s hard to be thankful in all circumstances.

Well, what do we mean when we say God has led us? Something in us has to agree with Cross. Yes. How strange this is, after all. Thanksgiving. Again. We have been led by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. The oak leaves rustle. We hunker down for winter, for Christmas shopping, for much too much holiday celebration. And yet-yet, there will be enough. We have what we need and more, and part of us wonders how. How strange it is to know that we are led, that our lives are somehow not our own. Maybe what we want to do, to deepen the strange sense of being tugged along, guided by something that’s not altogether ours to control, to make the mystery sink in, is to be thankful. What we need is something ponderous, something profound to remind us. In a way, our own words fail us and so we turn to the prose of elder statesmen like Wilbur Cross.

Or maybe we come to church (as we all have today, this morning). We listen to the verses from Deuteronomy, the hymn of praise of the Psalmist, and the words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel. From Deuteronomy: “…you shall eat and be full and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.” “It is fitting to praise you, Lord,” declares the Psalmist, “giver of all good things, to thank you for your boundless mercy, which renews us and makes us whole.” “Be not anxious,” Jesus said. “Be not anxious for your life … be not therefore anxious for the morrow….”

Well, I can tell you that, growing up in the years of economic depression, many Americans-our parents and grandparents among them-were accustomed to a certain in-grown anxiety about things. The people who lived through that era learned to be great “savers” of things: string, aluminum foil, paper bags, items of food, scraps of clothing. There’s a certain Depression-era mentality that adapted to scarcity-that is bulwarked against lack. Even today, many of us, the children and grandchildren of that era have a weird anxiety that maybe, just maybe, there won’t be enough. We think to ourselves, “I should worry more about the future. I ought to be stashing away money under my mattress, or at least be looking toward investing in conservative bonds.” There is something in us all that is anxious. We’re concerned one way or another with our health, our family, our job. We are wary in a way that is not merely attentive or watchful.

In today’s Gospel, when Jesus finishes exhorting his hearers not to be anxious, Matthew reports that “they were amazed.” Jesus’ words are somehow counterintuitive; our culture encourages us toward a certain level of anxiety — to keep us consuming, to keep us competitive in all our affairs. These Gospel commands — to be not anxious, to seek and be assured of finding-merit comment from John Updike in Alfred Corn’s 1990 collection of essays, Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament. In his essay, Updike says, “These commands do not form a prescription for life in this world. … Two worlds are colliding and amazement prevails (p.8).”

On Thanksgiving Day we’re encouraged to step back from our normal stance in the world, to let go of the typical responses we’re conditioned to having. Be amazed. Be simply thankful. Take stock of all that you have. We have been led by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. We have been given another year by our Creator and Sustainer, who invites us to look at the reality of our lives and to know that despite the tensions, the disappointments, and the struggles of the year now ending, we can be thankful, we can feel loved.

Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, shares with us a retrospective wisdom in an address from the pulpit of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (1997). Recalling a very full first year of his term as Presiding Bishop and Primate, Bishop Griswold states that, rather than being burnt out and harried, he feels “energized and enlivened by all that has happened,” particularly by opportunities to be with all kinds of people in the household of God.

Think of all of the people you have been with in this past year: friends at work, family, fellow members of your church-loved ones. We think of all the numberless people who are bound to us in love, fellow creatures and children of God. We are here, I think, to be companions.

It is in the ordinary circumstances of our lives that God chooses to dwell. As Kathleen Norris put it, “hope contends with fear.” She says, it is “hope that allows some measure of peace when I soldier on the daily round.” Our hope contends with our fears and God is present to us. We are given grace to step back and see how our lives are constantly shifting-always revolving around our bonds to each other and returning, somehow, to God.

“Like it or not,” says Frank Griswold, at the conclusion of an important year in his own ministry, “baptism binds us together in bundles of relationship. Some of these seem like the mystic sweet communion of which we sing. Others … none of us in our more sane and rational moments would ever have chosen.” He continues, “God’s imagination is fierce and wild when it comes to determining who belongs in relationship with whom.” We are led by a way that we did not know, and along the way we are given companions. We come alive in meeting others, both in sweet communion and in the startling, “fierce and wild” encounters that may be construed as the imagination of God.


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Christopher Sikkema


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