Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankful For or To?

Last night I had the privilege of leading and preaching at a Thanksgiving eve service at Zion Lutheran Church, Baker, WV. It was the first time in many years this church has had a Thanksgiving service. This is the message I shared with them:

The text is John 6:25-35.


            Some of us have memories of wonderful family gatherings at Thanksgiving, like you would see in a Norman Rockwell picture. Among the memories, may be that of going around the table with everyone saying what they are thankful for. It’s a lovely tradition. Those are not among my memories of Thanksgiving growing up, however. My family was not religious and didn’t go to church. It wasn’t even much of a special day when I was a child, except that we ate different food.
As we gather around our tables tomorrow, what are we looking forward to? What makes Thanksgiving special for us? Is it for the special food that we so rarely have—pumpkin pie, turkey, homemade stuffing? Or is it the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade earlier in the day? Or is your favorite part the football games in the afternoon? Maybe a nap? Maybe you’re just delighted to be with friends or family once again and to share God’s blessings with them.
            Thankfulness however isn’t what the crowd in the first verse of the gospel reading is about. These are the same people who were fed earlier in the gospel when Jesus fed the 5,000. These are not Jesus’ disciples even though they are physically following him. Jesus makes their motives clear. They followed Jesus so that he would feed them again.
            The crowd just didn’t get it. In this passage there are a couple of different contrasts. The first contrast is the food that perishes versus the food that endures to eternal life. The crowd is concerned about filling their bellies and nothing more. They are short sighted, not seeing that there is more to life than just the food on the table.
            The second contrast is food that one works for versus food that Jesus, gives. The crowd keeps misunderstanding what Jesus is talking about. They want to keep on working for that which is a gift—to earn it rather than receive it.
            As Americans,   we are fiercely independent and most of us have a good, solid work ethic. We believe in working for what we get. It can be difficult for us to ask for help if we need it. This independence can sometimes get us into trouble, especially with God. No matter how hard we try, we cannot work to receive grace, work to get God’s gifts. Jesus presents himself as the gift of the bread of life, and we, like the crowd, want to earn it, to do something to get it, rather than simply acknowledging our helplessness and receiving this gift.
            What about all the work we do in the kitchen to feed our families a wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving dinner? Why do we do it? For many of us, doesn’t it boil down to wanting to please our families, to hear the awwws, to see their faces light up as they see the turkey, taste our special dishes? We enjoy our families’ joy at the gift we have given of our time and talents for this gathering, even though it is a lot of work.
            Jesus in this passage emphasizes God’s work as opposed to our work. “Work of God” is what God does for and in us. The crowd keeps wanting to have control rather than letting God do the work. It’s hard for them and us to let go and let God be God. We cannot control him or what he does. We cannot domesticate him. It’s hard to let go of our desire to be in charge.
            Jesus is calling us into relationship with him in a new and dangerous way. If we really let God take complete control and do what he wants, there’s no telling where that will take us. Jesus wants us to make that relationship with him as vital and real as a loaf of bread, as the very food that nourishes our bodies, as the wonderful food we’ll eat tomorrow. If that connection with Jesus is that tangible and real, then he will satisfy our hunger in ways that are beyond physical food. We have deeper hungers and thirsts than mere bread can satisfy. We are more than physical beings. We have emotions, the need to love and be loved, the need to be accepted, the need of friendship and companionship. We have psychological needs. Jesus is the food that takes care of our whole being—physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Let’s turn our thoughts again to the table we will be gathering around tomorrow. It is good to be thankful for all of our blessings. But that’s not enough. Let’s take it one step further; it’s not so much WHAT we are thankful for, but who do we give thanks to? Are we giving thanks for our own effort or for God’s gracious gift of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank you for your goodness to us and to all that you have made. We praise you for all the blessings of life. Give us an awareness of your blessings. Help us to realize that these blessings are a gift from you and not something that we earn. Amen.