Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Three turkeys are in the refrigerator downstairs. We’ve worked out all the travel arrangements and airport pick-ups for our family. Warren and I did the grocery shopping yesterday. I think we’re as ready for Thanksgiving as we’re supposed to be, four days ahead of time. At least according to the calendar and the outward preparations that is. But in my mind, it’s coming up on Labor Day, and there’s still plenty of time to relish the last days of summer and begin to anticipate the turning of the leaves. At this rate, I’ll be thinking I’m just raking up leaves when I’m actually shoveling snow, and I’ll be giving some wonderful Christmas gifts to celebrate Easter! I know why I’m behind in my internal calendar, but it doesn’t slow down the sense that everything is rushing by too quickly.
From a liturgical perspective, this is the end of the church year. Next Sunday, with the beginning of Advent, Christians are called to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. According to the lectionary, this day is actually Christ the King Sunday, which, Congregationalist that I am, is way too triumphalist. But it makes liturgical sense, the year is crowned by the reign of Christ. Now we start over again, waiting in the darkness, pondering the injustices and bloodshed that plague the earth, praying, hoping, for our Messiah to come to us to save us from ourselves.
The thing is, I’m always pondering the injustices and bloodshed that plague the earth, whether on Christ the King Sunday or Thanksgiving, or the first Sunday of Advent or the sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time or the fourth Sunday of Lent. The liturgical year just gives me another cycle to remind me that everything moves inexorably, too swiftly on.
I’m feeling nostalgic, I guess, for the Thanksgivings of my childhood, when the responsibilities were light and each day was an adventure to be relished. So many blessings – so much time. My parents expected and provided the opportunity for me to receive an excellent education. I like that blessing so much I’ve just continued and continued and continued. As my brother recently observed, “how many terminal degrees do you actually think you need, Carla?” Well, at least one more, apparently. My childhood family was free of violence, ridicule, unkindness and deceit. I received and therefore learned how to love. Gender equity was a given in our home. I learned how to manage money, open and maintain a checking account and a savings account and how to follow my investments – a practice I’ve abandoned for the past year or so. I learned how to buy a car, manage credit, and apply for a loan. I was taught how to cook and how to sew, how to nurture a love for the arts, how to play the piano, how to change the oil in my car, how to check out a book from the library. I learned how to type and later, how to use a computer. In my homes, every one of them throughout my entire life, I plugged in appliances and there was electricity, I turned on faucets and there was water, I slept in beds with adequate covers to keep me warm and heat from furnaces that were inspected and safe. We have lived where we wanted to live, read what we wanted to read, had access to the excellent medical care we needed whenever we needed it. All these many blessings come to mind during this Thanksgiving season. Did God give them to me?
I believe that God is acting in all things. I first read that radical thought in the book The Responsible Self, by H. Richard Niebuhr. At one and the same time, that concept made my faith experience both painful and liberating. God is acting in all things, in all people, all places, all moments. We are all so skilled at identifying God’s hand in wonderful things – in all our blessings, a list you could make and yours would be very similar to mine, I imagine. And we all feel very good when we are thankful to God for all those blessings. We thank God for the bounty on our tables, for the friends and family with whom we will share our thanksgiving meal, for the blessings afforded us by those pilgrims who survived their harsh travel and even harsher winter. We thank God for religious freedom, for political freedom, for freedom to travel, freedom to speak, write, protest, worship.
But believing God is acting in all things – all things, means that I need to take something of a larger view. Where is God acting? Everywhere. How is God acting? Well, that’s the hard question, isn’t it? How is God acting in Afghanistan? In Venezuela? In Maine, Iowa, Florida, Washington D.C., Hanover? Is God acting through us? Yes, all of us. How is God acting through us? Another hard question – because it means God is acting through Presidents Karzai, Ahmadinejad, Chavez, and Obama. It means God is acting through Oprah and Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs and Eric Holding.
But let’s get this a little closer to home. Where is God acting? God is acting on 12A, at Kmart, WalMart and Shaws. God is acting at DHMC, Dartmouth College, and The Church of Christ. God is acting in Hanover High School, in Norwich town meetings, in AA meetings, Personnel meetings, business meetings, library meetings, school board meetings, in classrooms, patient rooms, law offices and courtrooms, around negotiating tables, supper tables, in study carrels, on playing fields, in gymnasiums. How is God acting in these places?
Is God acting through us? Yes, all of us. God is acting through the person sitting next to you this morning. God is acting through the boss who is reorganizing her staff, through the teacher who is meeting with you about your child, through the person who gives you your next appointment at the clinic, through the daughter who isn’t doing what you think she should be doing, through the parent who repeats the same story over and over again, through that really irritating friend who won’t stop competing with you, through the boy who can sing like an angel, through the librarian who doesn’t know your name but smiles at you whenever she sees you, through the artist, the writer, the cook, the prisoner, the border patrol guard, the nurse, the visitor, the friend.
I know this sounds just a little too predestinationist – that God has everything all planned out for us, beginning to end. And all of those people I’ve named are all just characters in some cosmic play already written with a foreordained conclusion. Let me reassure you – nothing could be farther from my religious construct. There isn’t some divine, cosmic script whose lines we are compelled to speak without our own will or interpretation, adlibbing or improvisation. No one, not even God, knows what happens next.
What I am saying, and it is, I believe, the point H. Richard Niebuhr was pressing to drive home - faithfulness to God cannot depend solely upon the evidence of our good fortune. Our blessings, multitudinous as they are, did not come about because God’s magic wand touched our heads as we slept in our cribs. Or, if that did happen, then it happened to every child, the child who died of shaken baby syndrome and the child who grew up to operate the death chamber in a Texas prison, and the child who became a National Guard soldier and died in Iraq and the child who developed leukemia. There is no privilege that matters to God, you see. None.
God is acting in all things, through all people, in all times and seasons. Who am I that I should understand the mind of God? Or that I should be given sight to recognize God’s hand at work? Should I not instead offer to God my deepest, most humble gratitude that I am alive, that I know how to love, that I care that the world is a mess and that I feel an obligation to do something about it?
Let me close today with the words with which our worship began this morning, the closing sentences of the thanksgiving prayer written by Paul Carnes. “If tomorrow should bring new disappointments and new sufferings so that words of thanksgiving lie unuttered on our tongues, enable us then to pray that the day will come when we can be thankful for whatever dark road we have been forced to travel, that in such darkness we may see light.” Amen.