Thanksgiving? Now??

Preached on 11/25/14 for the Newark Interfaith Ministerium annual Thanksgiving service

Matthew 14:13-21

It is a privilege for me to be here tonight with you all, and this is particularly special for me because my own faith has been so nurtured by my time in interfaith and ecumenical communities.  Today I am a Presbyterian minister, but I owe my faith journey just as much to my Jewish friends, and Buddhist friends, and Catholic friends, and Unitarian friends, and Quaker friends.  I would not be who I am today without spaces like these.

The challenge of interfaith gatherings, though, is picking something we can all agree on, or at least not upset anyone too much.  And so Thanksgiving seems like a safe one, right?  If nothing else, we can be thankful together for being alive, for what food we had today and hope to have tomorrow, for loved ones, and for community.  Even if we disagree on who or what we’re expressing our gratitude to, exactly, we can get the broad strokes the same and take advantage of the opportunity to gather around something easy and uncontroversial.  We need those moments sometimes, if we’re ever going to come together around anything.

But then something comes along like the grand jury verdict from Ferguson, Missouri, and suddenly words of gratitude just aren’t enough.  When suddenly the only thing I can think to say is oh, God, why??  How is it that we live in a world where our children can be gunned down in the streets, where our people are so divided from one another that the murder of an unarmed boy can be written off because “he was no angel” (as if that was a crime worthy of a death sentence), where some parents must teach their children that police officers won’t be looking out for their safety.

Oh God, light in the darkness, how is it that we live in a world where Mike Brown’s story is only the latest in a long line of inhumane things we manage to do to each other, out of fear or hatred or greed?  How is it that so often it is religious differences that motivate our ignorance and bigotry to one another?  Oh God, source of all life, why??

Gratitude is certainly easier, and happier, than mourning.  But our laments are no less a part of our faiths, however we name them.  For so many of us, faith has been a way to make sense out of a world which makes no sense.  In faith, we find hope in a world which feels hopeless, and peace in a world of never-ending war.  We can gather together, in all of our beautiful uniqueness and particularity, in many voices and many languages and many songs, and see in one another a common cry, and a common hope.  And maybe that is enough for now.

* * *

We bring rich traditions together here.  I have been shaped by my own time in interfaith communities and by friends of other faiths, not because we ignore our differences but because we have committed to respecting those differences and learning from one another.  Those spaces challenge me to articulate what it is about my own Christian heritage that I still find compelling, even while I am being honest about the ways Christians have often gotten things wrong.

And so what I have to offer up today, into this place of collective thanksgiving and collective recognition of the brokenness of our world, is this story of Jesus and his disciples out by the edge of the water.  So often I feel like one of the disciples in this story, especially when I try to pay attention to the needs of people around me.

They are surrounded, in a deserted place, by people who have come for healing.  Desperate people, many of them, who have looked for healing and acceptance only to be turned away again and again because they couldn’t pay for it.  But this time, they came and were healed, and they stayed.  And now it’s gotten late, and the disciples look around and see more needs around them, and they come to Jesus in a panic to say, Jesus, we are surrounded by hungry people!  Send them away, so they can find food somewhere else!

I can only imagine Jesus shaking his head, kind of exasperated.  No, he says, you feed them.  And then they bring together the five small loaves of bread and two fish, and Jesus blesses them, and then somehow (miraculously, some say) everyone is fed.  Every one of those thousands upon thousands is fed, because with some help from God, someone stepped up and fed them.  There is enough, Jesus says, but first you have to feed one another.  Then the miracle can happen.

* * *

I spent today wracking my brain for how to respond, faithfully and respectfully, in this particular community, to the news that there will be no trial for the murder of Mike Brown.  I prayed, and I cried, and I sang, and I lifted my heart in mourning as so many of us have over the last day.

And finally, there was nothing else to do but go to the store, and go to Walgreens, to buy my offerings tonight for the Newark Empowerment Center.  Because the need feels so great, and so overwhelming, that for right now, there was nothing left to do but bring what little I could.  My heart is heavy, but my hope is great.

In the face of a world of brokenness and need, there is only so much we ourselves can do.  But with God, with our holy ones, with our faith in a goodness larger than ourselves, we together can feed the multitudes.

And so tonight, I bring my prayers and my mourning and my love, and I call out to God to bless five travel-size tubes of lotion and two small bags of rice, and I pray that for now, for today, they will be enough.


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