Good morning and Happy Thanksgiving to all of you! It’s a joy to be with you this morning at Epiphany, my first Thanksgiving as a priest! And as you hear me preach and as we get to know one another better, you’ll get a sense of how important family and community are to me.
Each year, in early November, our daughter-in-law helps our granddaughter, Sienna, make a “Grateful Turkey” out of construction paper. This year Sienna was old enough to cut Turkey’s feathers out, make its eyes, and put socks on its feet. Sienna tells Katie what she’s grateful for, and Katie writes each item on a feather. With the addition of each feather, Sienna’s “Grateful Turkey” grows more and more grateful until it has a full complement of colorful feathers.
So, just what is 3½-year-old Sienna grateful for? “Spending time with my family; Daddy playing with me before he goes to work; Omi and G’Dad babysitting me even when I’m sick; Emma showing me how to use my inhaler; Momma and our coffee/hot cocoa dates.”
Eleven of Grateful Turkey’s twelve feathers involve other people. The lone feather that doesn’t expressly refer to others reads, “the goody bag I got on Halloween.” Yet, in some ways even that feather is expressing gratitude for others. You see, this Halloween Sienna was quite ill and spent the evening at urgent care instead of trick-or-treating. The thoughtfulness of others helped her have a bit of Halloween after all!
Taken together, Sienna and her Grateful Turkey with its colorful feathers suggest why Thanksgiving has long been one of my favorite holidays. For me, it’s a day I can focus on family and what I’m most thankful for – relationships. Growing up, we always spent Thanksgiving with family – whether it was at my Grammy’s with a house full of aunts, uncles, and cousins; or with my aunt’s – my dad’s sister’s – family. We lived far enough away that Thanksgiving created the time and space for us to be together.
When Dave and I moved to Tacoma from the East Coast, we continued that gathering tradition with my mom, who alternated spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with us. We enjoyed preparing our Thanksgiving feast together and always took time for conversation and activities, such as brisk walks along the waterfront and doing jigsaw puzzles.
Yet, despite the demands of preparation, cooking and travel, Thanksgiving has also been a kind of sabbath, time where I could – and still can – step away from my whirlwind work routine and general busyness.
And, like you, I love to begin Thanksgiving with the Holy Eucharist – the Great Thanksgiving – which I sorely missed during the pandemic. Beginning our Thanksgiving Day with worship, offering our thanks and praise to God, is a spiritual practice that my family began a couple of decades ago, and we quickly discovered how much it centered us and helped us focus more deeply on what we are truly grateful for.
So, what can we learn about being thankful from today’s scripture lessons? Our Collect and readings from Deuteronomy and John remind us that God is the source of all life and all goodness. Our Collect begins with the reminder that God is the source not only of the fruits of the earth, but also, of the labors of the people who harvest them. And both labor and work occupy a central role in today’s readings from Deuteronomy and our Gospel.
Deuteronomy remembers the harsh treatment that the Israelites suffered as they labored under Pharoah, before God delivered them into the land of milk and honey. The Israelites are commanded to remember God because God listened to their plea and has given them such bounty. They are to commemorate these gifts by humbly offering their first fruits to God, and by celebrating not only among themselves, but by sharing them with strangers.
Then, in John’s Gospel, we are asked to consider what “work” really means. Jesus initiates wordplay by saying to the crowds, “Don’t work for perishable food, but for food that will last to eternal life.” The people respond by focusing on work as they – and as we – typically understand it: something physical that has a tangible result. “What work,” they ask, “should we be doing?” “What work are you doing?” they ask Jesus.
But Jesus has a different meaning in mind for the word, “work.” The work Jesus is talking about isn’t physical. It’s spiritual. It’s God’s work. It’s about believing in Jesus because God has sent Jesus into the world. God has sent Jesus into the world to give God’s people the bread of life, to keep our faith and hope alive – just as the manna God gave to the Israelites in the wilderness nourished not only their bodies, but, more importantly, their faith and their hope.
So, this interplay between “work” and “work,” between physical hunger and spiritual hunger, is at the heart of who we are today, this day, this Thanksgiving Day – and, also, here at Epiphany.
Although we may satisfy our hunger by having a sumptuous meal later today, this morning we’re here to give God thanks because we are spiritually hungry, hungry for the bread of life.
I’m also struck by an intriguing tension this morning between “work” and “sabbath.” As we set aside time to worship God and to give God our thanks and praise, we are giving God control over our time – for this hour, maybe a couple of hours and/or a day-or-so. In other words, we… are… practicing… sabbath! Yet, at the same time we are working for the food that will last to eternal life whenever we profess our faith as followers of Christ.
And as we set aside this time to remember all that God has given us, we also reflect that God’s gifts come from God’s unconditional love. God pours God’s love out upon each of us, even in the hardest, most challenging of times. Bathed in God’s infinite love and grace, we can be transformed.
And when we are transformed – even just a tad – by our human need to respond to God’s love, that need urges us to respond by stewarding our own hearts in response to God’s grace and abundance. We are called to live lives of love, care, generosity, and gratitude. We are called to be God’s Grateful People, by loving what God loves: our neighbor, ourselves, creation – and by loving God and by striving to make the world around us more loving and just.
So, I think of 3½ year-old Sienna again, who’s just beginning to express love and what she’s grateful for. Sienna’s Grateful Turkey is more than a pretty Thanksgiving decoration. It’s a symbol of the quality time that she spends with her mom and dad. It’s a symbol of how she thoughtfully considers and thanks God for blessings. It’s a sign of her openness to God’s love and how God is already transforming this little one.
As I close this sermon, if I were to make a Grateful Turkey, here are a few things I’d write on the feathers that I’m grateful for:
- how God loves me unconditionally, despite my flaws and failures;
- that God trusts me to be a faithful steward of relationships, creation, and possessions;
- for family; friends; and my faith communities, including you, here, at Epiphany; and
- for the helpers, encouragers and mentors who have helped me become a better person and a more faithful follower of Jesus.
And, so, I invite you to reflect on how God’s love is transforming you and what you might write on the feathers of your Grateful Turkey on this Thanksgiving Day.