Thanksgiving B Sermon (1997)

Thanksgiving Eve
Texts: Matthew 6:25-33;
Philippians 4:6-20


I would like to begin by again welcoming our invited guests from Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, our neighbors in Christ from up the block. The stories, that have been passed on to us of the first Thanksgiving, tell us of the Pilgrims and Indians joining together in their Thanksgiving feast. Right from the beginning, the celebration joined neighbors together for food, fellowship, and prayer. So we are glad to gather as neighbors tonight to heighten our celebration.

And even more than fellowship, the stories of the first thanksgiving tell us about partnership. They tell us how European immigrants and the Native Americans worked together and shared together for their mutual survival. That’s an amazing thing, isn’t it? When we human beings are fighting for survival, we often end up fighting with each other, too. When it is a matter of just surviving, you have to decide if there’s going to enough to go around for everyone. And so you sometimes have to decide if your neighbor is your companion or your competitor. Companion or competitor. When you are trying to stay alive, like the Pilgrims were those first several winters, you have to decide if your neighbor is a partner or rival. So: That they chose to be partners to survive the winter together is a blessed thing When they worked together, they found that there was enough for everyone, and they joined together in giving thanks to God.

This first thanksgiving is perhaps even more amazing when we consider what happen to the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans in the years to follow. The partnership turned into a bitter rivalry over the land and its resources. The thanksgiving companions, and their ancestors, became competitors. From companions to competitors. That is the tragic part of our history. It is a part of our past that will always mute our thanksgiving celebrations as a nation. We have so much to be thankful for in this great country of ours. But that thankfulness will be even more complete when all of us who are neighbors in this land learn to be partners more often than rivals, companions more often than competitors. When we are partners and companions, instead of rivals and competitors, we will always find that there is enough for everyone.

Both of our readings from scripture this evening have a lot to teach us about that. They each begin by telling us not to worry. When we worry about survival, that is when we get into trouble, that is when we are tempted to be rivals and competitors. Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount tell us not to worry with the assurance that there is enough for everyone:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’

A couple years back I accepted an invitation up to Lakeland College in Sheboygan for a pastors conference on economics. It was hosted by a national program to help teach pastors and church leaders about capitalist economics. I guess we pastors have a reputation for sometimes being socialist sympathizers, so the organizers of this seminar were professional teachers of capitalist economics who wanted to help us be more sympathetic to capitalism.

Now, I want to be sympathetic to capitalism, I really do. And it certainly is not the case that I’m more sympathetic to socialist economics, which have proven to be a disaster. But sometimes I do have my reservations about capitalism, not because I’m a socialist, but because I’m a Christian. And so I have to confess to you tonight that I didn’t quite behave myself at this seminar. Right in the very first lecture, as the professor was going over the fundamental principals of capitalism, he stated that capitalism assumes a scarcity of resources that need to be fairly distributed. Well, I raised my hand, and asked what happens if I don’t accept this assumption about a scarcity of resources. He was immediately flustered. ‘You’ve got to accept a scarcity of resources’ he said. ‘Isn’t it obvious? If you don’t accept this assumption, then we can’t go on, because capitalist theory depends on this assumption.’

‘Well, it isn’t so obvious to me.’ I said. ‘In fact, there’s that passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is talking about the birds of the air having enough to eat and the lilies of the field having clothes. Jesus tells us not to worry about such things. Isn’t he telling us that there’s enough for all of us? That there’s an abundance not a scarcity? If I assume that there’s a scarcity, won’t I have something to worry about? Jesus tells me not to.’ No, it was not a good beginning of the seminar for me.

I must admit, though, that the professor was in some respects correct: I think we do too often perceive a scarcity. And so we get worried. This is when, I think, we become competitors instead of companions, rivals instead of partners. And capitalism has given us effective means to channel these tendencies into positive avenues of production. It makes a virtue out of competition and a fundamental principal out of scarcity.

My point here is not to argue with the successes of capitalism. We have come a long ways from the Pilgrims and Indians in be able to produce plenty of life’s necessities for everyone. But as people whose faith is in God first, and not in any human economic arrangements, we should also not be afraid to question capitalism’s faults. We should be bold to put forward God’s vision for our human household as put forward by God’s Son Jesus, our brother. And that vision is of abundance, not scarcity, and of companionship more than competition, partnership more than rivalry. Yes, God’s Word has important things to teach us so that our thankfulness might one day be complete.

So let’s ask ourselves, “Where does that perception of scarcity come from?” I suggest to you that it comes from the way we human beings desire. We aren’t born with our desires. And they don’t just spontaneously spring up inside us. No, we learn our desires. We learn by watching what others desire. But there is also a potential problem in this. When we learn to desire by watching someone else, then we often end up desiring the same thing. And then, guess what? That thing has suddenly become scarce, and then even friends can become competitors and brothers rivals.

My favorite example of this is two children in a nursery full of toys. There’s an abundance of toys. But what so often happens? That’s right They end up fighting over the same toy The two children have learned their desire for that toy from each other, and suddenly that one toy is scarce, even in a room full of toys, and even if there is a duplicate of that same toy.

The Bible tells us that it’s been this way since the first man and woman in God’s garden. God had taught them that there was an abundance of food and necessities in the garden. And God taught them that there was only the fruit of one measly tree that they shouldn’t desire. But the serpent, the craftiest creature in the garden, came to teach them otherwise, and the man and woman listened to their fellow creature rather than to God. The serpent even convinced them that eating this fruit could make them rivals with God, that they could know what God knows. Well, we know the tragic ending to this story, a story we have inherited. The partnership with God was ruined, turned into a rivalry. And the companionship with God became a competition. And the result was a falling from Paradise, because now things were perceived as scarce rather than abundant. And our desire has brought us grief and pain ever since. The first two brothers started the ball rolling. God came to Cain and told him to get hold of his desire or it was going to ruin, and the next thing Cain does is to kill his brother. Companions became competitors. Brothers became rivals. And one of them ended up dead.

Isn’t it the same with us today? In the midst of so much abundance in this land, we who should be companions in sharing this land so often become competitors. Even brothers and sisters become rivals. And we know that far, far too often one of the brothers ends up dead.

How do we get out of this predicament? The gracious news from God through Christ Jesus is, first of all, that it isn’t up to us to get us out of it. We can quit listening to the serpent and quit pretending like we know all the things that God knows, that we know the way out of this mess. God has already given us the way out by sending his Son into the world–a second Adam, as St. Paul calls him. And this second Adam got completely right what the first Adam and Eve didn’t. The Son of God was able to do his Father’s will perfectly. He was able to fulfill God’s desires right down to dying on the cross for us.

How does that begin to get us out of this mess? Remember, what we said about our human desire. We get it from other people. Since Jesus came into this world, we now have a perfect model to learn our desire from. Through the Holy Spirit, we can begin to desire what Jesus desires, which is what God desires: that we live as brothers and sisters in peace, that we live as companions and partners, not competitors and rivals. In short, it’s like those bracelets that are becoming popular: W.W.J.D. What Would Jesus Do? If we can do that, we can desire what God desires.

St. Paul had his own version. We read from Philippians 4 tonight. But the heart of this letter comes in chapter two where St. Paul says: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” in other words, imitate Jesus, gets your desires from Jesus — “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” in other words, Jesus, unlike the first Adam and Eve, did not make himself a competitor of rival of God, “but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” We can imitate Jesus’ loving service to God and to one another and our desires won’t get us in trouble.

One more thing. Since Jesus came and got it right, others begin to get it right, too. The Second Adam starts a chain reaction that begins to turn around the sinful chain reaction started by the first Adam and Eve. And so, says St. Paul, we can also begin to learn from each other, to learn from the saints. What does St. Paul say in our reading tonight from Philippians 4? “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,” he says, “and the God of peace will be with you.” Yes, we can learn from one another, from fellow saints.

I’d like to close tonight by sharing that one of my favorite saints, from here in our time and place, is Martin Luther King, Jr. He had a dream that one day we would cease being competitors when we should be companions. He had a dream that we would one day we would cease to be rivals when we should be partners. He had a dream that one day all people–red or yellow, black or white–that all people would sit down as brothers and sisters at God’s banquet table of abundance, and that our thanksgiving would then be full and complete. Let us together continue to say “Amen” to that dream, and to following that dream coming true through Jesus. Let us say “Amen”

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 26, 1997

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