Danbury Interfaith Thanksgiving Service
November 23, 2009, 7:00 p.m.
United Jewish Center
Sermon theme: New Beginnings
Scripture: Numbers 11.4-9
4 …The Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’
7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. 8The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.
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Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Ephesians 6.19
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There we were, some of us ARC-member clergy, sitting around the table in St. Gregory’s conference room, abundantly set by Father Angelo. We were eating bagels and drinking tea and talking about the theme for our Thanksgiving service this year. (We’ve been working on this for months.) First one idea came up, then another, and then, the way a group does, we began to coalesce around one theme.
“New beginnings.” Great! Many of us have had a difficult time recently, and it will be good to look ahead instead of back. Some of us have lost our jobs, and I imagine all of us know someone who has. Many organizations that are funded by charitable donations (religious congregations, for instance) have been hard hit—which has probably affected more than a few people in this room. We’re coming up on our first Thanksgiving with a new Presidential administration—that’s a new beginning. Our assumptions about the way the economy, and even the world, works have been shaken. We’re in an in-between time, when what we were used to is gone, but what will be has not yet been revealed. New beginnings.
I was late for the next meeting, and I discovered when I got there that in my absence I had been nominated and elected to preach tonight. That will be okay, I thought. Piece of cake. I’ve got such a fine topic.
Until I started to think about it. New beginnings. I don’t actually like new beginnings all that well. Or, rather, I like new beginnings very well when I don’t actually have to do them. I like new beginnings when they are theoretical, when they provide an escape from the things I don’t like about the old continue-ings. Have you ever daydreamed about a new life somewhere else, a life that includes all the people and things you most love, and doesn’t include any of the people and things that drive you crazy? Ah, yes.
It has been my experience that it doesn’t work that way. The problem with new beginnings is that we have to give up what we’ve worked so hard to gain and to protect. When we go into something new, the old rules no longer apply. We don’t know how things work. We miss some of the things about the old life—things we might never even have noticed, much less appreciated, until they were gone.
When I read that scripture from the book of Numbers a few minutes ago, you may have thought, “Wow, that’s random.” It wasn’t like the other scriptures we’ve heard tonight. But I chose it because it describes God’s people in just such an in-between, new-beginnings moment. Here’s the back-story: God’s people have escaped from slavery in Egypt in a very dramatic way. Ten plagues, including the death of all the non-Jewish first-born; a pillar that is smoke by day and fire by night; Moses holding his staff out over the waters of the Red Sea and parting them so the people of Israel could pass through; Pharaoh’s pursuing army crushed and drowned by those same waters. Songs of joy, dancing, and celebration. [Exodus chapters 7-15]
But then comes the desert. They’ve been out wandering in the desert for a while. And it’s not nearly as much fun as they expected. They can’t grow their own food out in the desert, and soon their supplies are exhausted. Forgetting how they hated being slaves, they complain to their leader, Moses, asking why he dragged them out into the wilderness to kill them with hunger. [Exodus 16.2-3] And then…God begins to feed them, raining bread from heaven every day, and twice as much on the sixth day, so that they can observe the Sabbath day of rest.
This is amazing. But in a so-very-human way, soon it’s not enough any more. Manna is tasty, and easy, and always there—and boring. And so they complain again. “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons—the turkey, the stuffing, the cranberries, the pumpkin pie. Ohhhh! But now all we’ve got is this manna stuff.”
Yes, we used to eat fish in Egypt for nothing—as slaves. With wonderful side dishes—fruits and vegetables, cucumbers and melons, all perfectly seasoned and scrumptious—as slaves. We cried out against our slavery, and God heard us. Now that God has brought us out from slavery, given us a new beginning, we find that it is not everything we hoped. It’s hard, and disorienting, and even disappointing.
Sometimes we choose a new beginning; sometimes it chooses us. Many of the new beginnings that we don’t choose are not happy ones—like a serious illness, or losing a job, or the death of a loved one. I would never have chosen to have my parents die young, or to have breast cancer myself. I would want my college-graduate children to have easy transitions into adult life. But sometimes we don’t have a choice. Events like these are markers—life afterwards is never the same as life before. It might seem easier when we choose a new beginning ourselves—like choosing to marry the one who is our heart’s desire, or choosing to take a new job or move to a new place. (The downside of choosing it ourselves is that we have nobody to blame if it’s not as wonderful as we expected.) New beginnings, no matter how they come into our lives, are just plain a whole lot of work.
But we can always choose how we approach our new beginnings: in moaning and complaining and denial, or in faith and hope and thanksgiving.
I’m going to suggest that going forward in faith and hope and thanksgiving is the more helpful choice. First, I might point out that all their grumbling got the people of Israel 40 more years in the wilderness. [Deuteronomy 1.34] When we cannot be grateful for what we already have, what makes us think that more will be given? Going forward in faith allows us to receive blessings. I love the way E.M. Forster said it: “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned to have the life that is waiting for us.” I believe that God wants to bless us—it’s just not always in the ways we expect. And we can’t receive those blessings if our hands are full of old junk. We have to commit to the future, in faith and hope and thanksgiving, to receive the blessings that are waiting for us.
I’m a bit intimidated, as a Methodist preacher standing in a synagogue, to share this midrash from 5th century, but I’ve loved it ever since the first time I heard it. The scripture tells us that when God’s people escaped from Egypt, God told them to camp by the sea, luring Pharaoh and his army to chase after them. They did as they were told, and in the morning they looked up, and in front of them were the Egyptians advancing; behind them was the sea. Moses told them not to worry, but I imagine that didn’t help all that much. And God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Forward…into the sea? O…kay. Moses raises his staff over the waters. The midrash fills in some details. The people step into the water. Nothing happens. Now they’re in up to their knees. Nothing happens. Their waists—so deep that somebody has to lift up the little ones so they don’t drown. Now they’re in up to their chests, still wading, still pushing through the waters. Pharaoh’s army is getting close. Can’t go back—must go forward. The water is splashing their faces. Does God expect them to swim across, with all the children and livestock and wagons and stuff? That’s never going to work. They keep going forward. And when the water reaches their nostrils, God parts the waters. That’s commitment to the future!
Sometimes we have no idea how things are ever going to possibly be okay again. When we’re in the in-between time of a new beginning, we don’t know, because we can’t know. When something new, something we’ve never seen before, is growing and budding and flowering, we don’t know what the fruit will be like. But what we do know is that God is watching over us, wanting to bless us, giving us strength to persevere, and a reason to hope.
Charles Rice, an author and legal scholar from my home state of Indiana, loves apple pies, and wanted to grow his own apples. He wanted a variety called Northern Spies, because they keep their texture when cooked, so they make great apple pies. However, there are a couple of drawbacks to Northern Spies. Apparently it isn't easy to find Northern Spy trees to buy. The suppliers I looked at are all sold out until 2011. Besides that, Northern Spies are “slow to begin bearing,” as the catalogs say—code for “you’re not going to have any apples for a long time.” But Rice persevered, found a couple of trees, and was busy planting them when his neighbor wandered over and asked what he was doing. He said, "Planting apple trees—Northern Spies." The neighbor asked how long it would take for the little sprigs to grow large enough to produce apples. Rice guessed, "About five to seven years." His neighbor said, "Well, you sure do have more faith in the future than most folks."
The neighbor was right, of course. Bugs, worms, heat, cold, drought, flood, all could do those trees in. But I suspect that Charles Rice has sat at tables laden with many apple pies since then. And I hope that he gave his neighbor a pie that first year—because those pies were the product of something more than horticulture. They were the product of faith and hope.
We are here tonight because we are—or at least want to be—people of faith and hope: Thanksgiving people. We are people who give thanks. We want to be people who are grateful, even when things are not all the way we want them to be. This afternoon, as I was preparing for tonight, a new proverb came to me: Gratitude fills even the empty heart and makes the spirit glad. [Publication note: if that is in the book of Proverbs, I’ll take you to lunch if you find it. KLK]
If your heart is empty tonight, I pray that you will find something to be grateful for—even just one thing—and practice thanksgiving. I pray that the practice will begin to fill your heart with joy, one drop at a time. If your heart is full tonight, I pray that you will share that joy with all those you meet—especially those with whom you share your life. We do have much to be grateful for. One thing we have, for which I am grateful, is each other. Let’s go forward together, in thanksgiving, and faith, and hope.