Wow! Thanksgiving is just around the corner. It seems like fall has just been flying by doesn’t it. I hear people have been complaining about how late in the calendar Thanksgiving is this year. But, as my mom used to say, it feels like it’s been coming on like a freight train. Maybe I should just stop and smell the roses more often. And really, Thanksgiving gives us a chance to do that. We’re always encouraged to take some time to think about the things we’re grateful for. Family and friends, good food, time off, and a church community that is warm and caring. When it comes to gratitude, we have a lot to celebrate.
Of course, it’s also fair to say that there are plenty of things we’re not all that grateful for. All the stuff that’s going on in Washington is just heartbreaking, no matter which side of the aisle you’re on. A lot of us have fears about the future; future of the church, the country, the world. There are a lot of us dealing with health concerns, or concerns for our loved ones. Just in general, there is a lot of tension in the air these days, don’t you think?
One of the key messages of Thanksgiving, as far as Christians are concerned anyway, is that we are called to be people who give thanks no matter what might be going on in our lives. Paul said that specifically in his letter to the Thessalonians. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” he said, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (First Thessalonians 5:18) And that’s not an isolated message either. Gratitude is one of the key themes throughout Paul’s writings.
• To the Corinthians, he said that as grace reaches more and more people it causes Thanksgiving to overflow to the Glory of God. (2nd Corinthians 4:15)
• To the Philippians he advised, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)
• And in today’s reading, he expressed his deep thanksgiving for the faithfulness of the Colossians. “We always give thanks for you.”
Clearly, Paul was a pretty grateful guy, which, if you know his history, might come as something of a surpries. He got knocked around quite a lot in his life. He suffered a long string of trials and tribulations for his faith in Jesus. But through it all, he held on to a deep gratitude that carried him through it all. The passage Barbara shared with you a couple of weeks ago is a nice little summary of how he felt he had done. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” (2nd Timothy 4:7)
Paul is a terrific example to us when it comes to gratitude. Still, even though we’ve heard it before, this idea that we should give thanks in all circumstances is still a pretty strange message isn’t it. For that matter, being a Christian is pretty strange in a lot of ways.
I came across a story the other day that my father-in-law used in one of his old sermons. It came from a book called “The Tormented Master: The Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, by Arthur Green. I thought it made this point, about the strangeness of our faith, in an interesting way. And it talks about a turkey, so there’s a Thanksgiving Day connection as well. See what you think…
The king’s son went mad and he was convinced that he was a turkey. And so he stripped himself naked and crawled under the table where he gobbled up the crumbs from the bread and the bones that fell from the table. Many people tried to heal the king’s son, but they all failed and the doctors were in despair.
One day a wise man came, and he offered to heal the king’s son and they welcomed his effort. So, the wise man stripped himself naked. He crawled under the table and sat down next to the king’s son. After a time, he said to the son, “Who are you?” And he replied, “I am a turkey. Who are you?” and the wise man said, “I am a turkey too.” The sat together for a time, the wise man giving the king’s son time to feel comfortable in the presence of this other person. And then, with a prearranged signal, a shirt was thrown under the table. The wise man put on the shirt, then he turned to the king’s son and said, “You think you can’t wear a shirt and still be a turkey, but you can be a turkey and wear a shirt.” Whereupon the king’s son also put on a shirt.
Time went by, and a pair of pants was tossed under the table. The wise man said, “You think you can’t wear pants and be a turkey? Certainly, you can be a turkey and wear pants.” So, they put on pants. More time went by and normal food was passed under the table. The wise man said to the king’s son, “It’s possible to remain a turkey and eat normal food.” And so, they ate the normal food together. After more time had gone by, the wise man said to the king’s son, “You know, you think it’s not possible to go and sit at the table and still be a turkey, but it’s possible to sit at the table with other people and eat the food there and still be a turkey.” And so it was that the wise man healed the madness of the king’s son.”
Now, that’s a curious story isn’t it. I don’t imagine it’s one many of you have heard before. But it actually is the story of our faith in a couple of interesting ways. Someone was asking me one time what I thought was the major difference between Christianity and some of the other major world religions. One of the key differences, in my mind, is that in Christ, God comes to be with us where we are. A lot of times, religious practice is about making ourselves worthy of God, but in our faith, we understand that God meets us in the midst of our unworthiness. We may be naked. We may be cowering under the table. We may be caught up in madness. But wherever we are, that is where God meets us. Like the wise man in the story, Jesus takes on our human form and comes to be with us. And taking on our human form doesn’t mean just having a physical human body. It means entering into our human frailties, our social stigmas, even our insanity, in order to lead us back to health and wholeness. When John Newton wrote the song Amazing Grace, saying that God has saved “a wretch like me,” the message was that God had come to him in his wretchedness, in order to bring him to salvation.
So, that’s the first Christian message from this strange story; that God comes to meet us where we are. The second message is that, once God has done that––once God has led us back to wholeness––it’s not necessarily going to be a wholeness that the world recognizes or appreciates. Arthur Green, the author of our book, offered this comment on the story. “Once we have seen the king’s son and the wise man in this way, we begin to look around the table and see the rest of the guests with a new eye as well.” I think his point was that if you can be a turkey, sitting up at the table in normal clothes and eating normal food, then it’s entirely possible for everyone else at the table to be turkeys as well.
These days, we don’t often use the term “turkey” the way we used to. But most of you’ll remember a time when, if we wanted to say that someone was, kind of a jerk, or didn’t really fit in, or was maybe a just a bit “off,” we would call them a turkey. That never was very nice, although, by comparison to what people are calling each other these days, it seems pretty mild. But still, nobody really wanted to be called a turkey. It was pretty much the same as being called a fool.
But here’s the thing. According to Paul, being fools for Christ is exactly what it means to be a Christian. We boast in our weaknesses, as he said, because God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. We take the dishonored places at the table, because it gives God a chance to call us to a more honored place. We love our neighbors, and even our enemies, because love is God’s divine ministry to all people. As Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
Let me ask you, how do you imagine the world looks upon people who believe these things? Well, let me tell you. The world thinks we are turkeys. The world condemns weakness. The world seeks to avoid being reviled and persecuted at all costs. The world believes that only some people deserve to be loved, and that enemies deserve to be sought out and destroyed. This is the wisdom of the world, and anyone who defies the wisdom of the world, in the eyes of the world, is a turkey.
But we’re not turkeys just because we’re different. We’re turkeys because that’s what God has called us to be. We’re turkeys because Christ has sought us out in our madness, in our nakedness, in out scrounging after the crumbs under the table. He has led us back to our right minds and given us a place at the feast. Not so that we can be just like everyone else, but so that we can be children of grace, who join in his ministry of bringing everyone to the table.
And so, on this Thanksgiving and throughout the year, we are reminded to always give thanks, to give thanks in all circumstances. Not “for” all circumstances, necessarily. But “in” all circumstances. We live lives filled with gratitude, because we are turkeys for God.
I’d like to close with a beautiful poem
– Br. David Steindl-Rast O.S.B.
As the Great Dynamo who powers the wheels of seasons and years
Turns autumn once more into winter,
At this season of Thanksgiving,
We give thanks for all seasons.
For winter, who strips trees to their basic design,
For stark, minimalist winter,
We give thanks.
May we let go, and grow bright as stars in a clear, frosty night,
The more we are stripped of what we thought we could not do without.
For the springtime that bursts forth,
Just when we think winter will never end,
For irrepressible springtime
We give thanks.
May we never forget the crippled, wind-beaten trees,
How they, too, bud, green and bloom,
May we, too, take courage to bloom where we are planted.
For summer, when fruit begins to ripen more and more,
For the green, swelling high tide of summer
We give thanks.
May we trust that time is not running out, but coming to fulfillment,
May we wait patiently while time ripens.
For autumn and its slow growing fruition
For that season of ultimate rise and fall
We give thanks.
May we gracefully rise to the occasion of our own falling,
Giving ourselves just enough time to go beyond time
To the great Now
At the quiet center of the turning wheels.
We give thanks for all seasons
At this season of Thanksgiving.
May your Thanksgiving celebration be filled gratitude. And may your thoughts be filled with the curious notion of what it means to be a Turkey, for God.