November 26, 2015
Day of Thanksgiving, Pastor Javen Swanson
Don’t you think it’s a little strange that the assigned gospel reading for today isn’t about gratitude or giving thanks at all? The Bible is chock full of stories that would have been just perfect for Thanksgiving. We could have read one of those stories here today, and then I could have said a few nice words about gratitude, and then we could have sent you all off to your Thanksgiving feasts feeling just great. But instead, the folks who put together the lectionary and chose the readings for today’s worship service chose this gospel lesson about worrying. What does worrying have to do with Thanksgiving?
As an experienced worrier myself, I’ll take a crack at that.
First, a confession. Even though I’m a pastor, I have to admit that sometimes it feels like my spiritual life is lacking. I always have great intentions of taking time each day to read scripture, to pray for those in need, and to give thanks to God for the ways I experiencing blessing. I know that the times in my life when I have been able to make that a regular part of my daily routine have been the times when I have felt the most healthy and alive. I also know that scripture reading and prayer are actually a pretty important part of my vocation as a pastor.
And yet, sometimes I get so busy that those important spiritual practices get pushed out of my life. I convince myself that I don’t have time to read scripture and pray when I have so much “real” work to do. Is that crazy or what?
Most mornings I wake up already anxious about all that is ahead of me that day. Sometimes that anxiety begins even before I wake up: I go to bed and end up having nightmares about my overflowing email inbox or my miles-long to-do list. Can any of you relate? Some days I rush through my morning routine and get to church early or stay extra late in the evening to try to get caught up. But the truth is, getting caught up is never something that actually happens. Other pastors have told me you just have to get used to that, going home at the end of the day knowing there was more ministry to be done. But I don’t think this is a problem that’s unique to pastors. Many of you have told me similar stories about your own lives. The writer Anne Lamott has said that her favorite bedtime prayer is, “Oh well.” Isn’t that how so many of us often feel at the end of the day? “Oh well. Go to bed and try again tomorrow.”
Maybe it’s stating the obvious but I don’t think this is a great way to live. We can get so caught up in the hamster wheel of our lives and so stressed out about everything we need to get done that we can’t be fully present in this moment. We can’t experience or appreciate the world God has created for us, much less give thanks to God for the ways we are blessed. We are too busy to even realize we are blessed.
The truth I’ve learned is that what needs to get done always gets done. Of course I always feel like I am far, far behind. Email is a perpetual struggle and my to-do list never gets any shorter. And yet, I rarely miss important deadlines. God always gives me what I need to get through the day. The thing is, I don’t always trust that that will be true. I get stuck in a pattern of thinking it all depends on me and my effort. If only I could trust my experience, that what has been true before will be true again today, that God will give me everything I need for today.
I think that’s what Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s Gospel lesson. “Look at the birds,” he says. “They work hard to find food but it’s always there. And they don’t store up a surplus to prepare for a possible shortage tomorrow. God provides what is needed for today, even for the birds. And if God provides for the birds, won’t God certainly also provide for you?” Jesus tell us to look at the birds. Our problem is that we are so busy we don’t even notice the birds, much less pay attention to what they’re doing.
The call of the Gospel today is to set aside our constant worry and to practice believing that God will provide what we need for the day. What will be will be. What needs to get done will get done. When we begin to trust that this is true and learn to live by faith that God will give us what we need, we discover a little more space in our lives to pay attention to the world around us. We begin to recognize the beauty of creation, the gift of our relationships, the goodness of humankind. And when that happens, we can begin to respond with gratitude, giving thanks to God for all the ways we have been blessed.
The poet Mary Oliver captures this idea in this excerpt from her poem, “The Summer Day”:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I want to try something I’ve never done in a sermon. I’m going to try to practice what I preach and stop worrying that I’m going to say all the right words, and recognize that this sermon today doesn’t depend completely on me. I want to ask you to turn to someone near you—you can choose someone you came with today or maybe some of the extraverts want to choose someone you’ve never met. And talk with one another about these questions: When in your life has letting go of worry opened you up to experience gratitude? I’ll give you a few minutes to talk and then I’ll pull us back together for a prayer.
God who clothes the grass of the field and feeds the birds of the air, free us from all fear and worry that, trusting in your goodness, we may always praise your mighty deeds and give you thanks for the bounty of your gifts. We make our prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Janet H. Hunt, “No More Worries,” on Dancing with the Word, 2012, http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2012/11/no-more-worries.html.
Anne Lamott, Twitter post, November 4, 2014, http://twitter.com/annelamott/status/529851155946287104.
Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html.
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=231.