Thanksgetting at the Thanksgiving Table

John 6:25-35

When the crowd found Jesus on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (Read the whole passage)

Thanksgiving is a strange day for us. We celebrate the occasion as Canadians. As Christians we note the day and we even appoint readings about thankfulness. But strictly speaking, Thanksgiving is not a Christian Holiday because it is not really about Jesus. Thanksgiving is more about us… it is day to reflect on all the good things that we have been blessed with during year, to give thanks for harvest, thanks for family, thanks for health… or at least that is the ideal of thanksgiving.

Often the day is less about giving thanks and more about getting thanks. To get thanks for the best mashed potatoes, turkeys, gravies, stuffings, yams, place settings, napkin foldings and fine china. And if not to get thanks, than to get stuffed, to fill empty bellies and empty hearts. It is a day to create memories and nostalgia of family and friends that will last us during the hard times until next year.

It was to spend the weekend looking for that perfect thanksgiving table to fill us up, at least for a while.

The crowds that come to Jesus today are looking to get stuffed too, while probably in the last few moments before thanksgiving dinner is ready, most cooks feel like Jesus does today too.

“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”… Translation, you don’t really see what I am doing for you, you only want the food.

Thanksgiving is not so much about gratitude as it is about the memories and nostalgia rooted in autumn colours, fall sweaters, family gatherings and an extra day off work.

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When the crowds come to Jesus today, they come demanding a sign, and thinking about food. They want something for themselves. You can hear it in their words

“What must WE do?” “What sign will you give US?” So that WE may see” “ Give US this bread”.

Doesn’t sound like thankfulness does it?

Its selfishness through and through. And the self-centred questions and demands won’t end there this weekend. “When is dinner ready? Can I have some more? Pass me that. I’m hungry”.

And toughest part of all? There is nothing we can do to be different. As human beings we slip so easily into these self centred ways. If we aren’t putting all the pressure of an entire year on our shoulders, we are sniffing out our next feeding time. We live in a world that is slowly slipping out of our hands. And the tighter we try to hold it, the more it falls away. All the self centredness comes from a the primal hunger to be fed, and the subtle hunger that pressures us to impress our family and friends, to earn their approval.

Yet, Jesus is not concerned with selfish motivations to get fed or the hunger for approval, Jesus is about providing what we need. Even as he scolds and chides the crowds, he reminds them of the ways in which God changes our world. “You are looking for me… because you ate your fill of loaves.” God provides what we need to be satisfied. The need for approval, the hunger to be full — God is what fills that empty void within us.

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This thanksgiving, along with the disciples we look for miracle bread, for that next thing that will fill our bellies, fill our empty hearts. But today with just bread and wine, Jesus fills us to the brim. What a contrast to the meals we will all go home to and share. There is but one course here. One item on the menu, one choice of beverage. And this table? This table can be found all over the world, at any time of the day or night, and there is always room. It is a common feast and it is each day given for us. It is not reserved for that one special day a year, but rather it makes each day special and holy.

This simple meal of bread and wine, this feast that God offers to each and every one of us, it does teach us about the holiday we celebrate today. There are many names for this meal, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. But it is the Greek name that is important today.

The Eucharist. The Thanksgiving.

And this Thanksgiving, God’s Thanksgiving, is not about having thanksgiving just the way you want, its not about getting your fill of mashed garden potatoes, or approval for your hard work. Its about giving. Its about the words “Given for you”. The Body of Christ Given for you. The Blood of Christ Given for you.

The bread of God comes down from heaven and feeds the world. The bread that God serves here today does what we cannot. God fills our empty bellies AND our empty hearts, God feeds us with food that will satisfy, God loves us enough to make us full.

The real thanksgiving table that we sit at today is the table of the Lord. It is a table of thanks for God’s gift of love. We eat and we are satisfied. We drink and we are no longer thirsty. This is what Thanksgiving is at its core.

It is God who sets and welcomes us to the table.

It is God who serves us what we need to be full.

It is God who makes sure that none leave the table hungry.

So today, we will all celebrate thanksgiving with people that we love, and no it won’t be the perfect celebration, in fact it will be a very human way of giving thanks, it will be wrapped up with selfishness. But God is present in our Thanksgiving despite this, and more importantly God is the one doing the giving part. Giving us what we do not deserve, love and mercy. Giving us himself, in body and blood.

In the Eucharist, in the Thanksgiving meal, God gives us life that is life.

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Not even a mustard seed worth of faith

Luke 17

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Read the whole passage)

Today, we continue hearing the stories of Jesus ministry and work from the gospel of Luke. Two weeks ago Jesus told the parable of the dishonest manager and the generous God. Last week it was the familiar story of the rich man and poor Lazarus. But today, it is the disciples who cause the action. They have been following their master for a while now, seeing him teach and preach, watching him heal the sick and lame, being amazed at his miracles and exorcizes. And despite seeing all this, they still want something from Jesus.

The disciples come to Jesus and make only a simple request. “Increase our faith”. It doesn’t seem like much. All they want is maybe a little show of power from Jesus. Maybe some power of their own to heal minor diseases, maybe not lameness and leprosy, but limps, sore backs and bad acne. Maybe Jesus could let them exorcize some minor demons, the ones that make the floor boards squeak or that make single socks disappear.

This hardly seems like an unreasonable request, Jesus is God in flesh after all, he could easily make the disciples better believers, super followers or something. The disciples just want a little more certainty, a little more assurance, a few more benefits for being faithful.

“Increase our faith!” the disciples ask.

Jesus does not take this well.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could make mulberry tree be uprooted and plant itself in the sea. It would obey you!”.

So obviously the disciples don’t even have a mustard seed worth of faith. The tiny barely perceptible mustard seed, the seed that grows into an unwieldy bush and causes gardening headaches. Not even faith the size of a tiny, useless seed.

Jesus sees right through the request, he sees to the heart of the matter. The disciples want some control in this whole God business. They want power, assurance, confidence. They want what we all seek in the darkest places of our hearts, to be like God.

Increase our faith!

We have made that request, issued that demand, prayed that prayer just like the disciples. Increase our attendance, increase our budget, increase our volunteers we have all said as churches. Increase our morals, increase our nation, increase our respect for the past has been a a favourite refrain of politicians.

And privately many of us have probably prayed this prayer. “Increase my faith, give me something to hold on to, let me know that you are real God.”

Jesus scolds the disciples, and sometimes it can feel like God ignores our simple requests. And sometimes all we want is something to hold on to, something that will satisfy our uncertainty and our fears.

Yet, whether it is a selfish request of God, or a demand for control, or an honest prayer in desperate moment, the rebuke that Jesus responds with can hurt.

Jesus says that If we had the smallest amount of faith you could do great things… and yet we cannot do them.

And even more we are reminded that “Increase our faith” is about us. It is about our need to have some kind of say in this God stuff, to make faith a little more “take” than “give”, to have some part in our relationship with God.

And when we dig at that need, it soon becomes clear that it is rooted in the same insecurity that made Eve grab the fruit,

the fear that made Abraham send his wife to be the concubine of a King,

the rage that made Moses kill that Egyptian,

the desire that made David lust for Bathsheba,

the resistance that made Jonah run from God’s call,

the reactiveness that made Peter strike off the ear of the servant,

the pride that made Paul persecute and kills Christians,

the confusion that made all the disciples hide in the upper room even when they knew Jesus was risen from the dead.

We ask, we demand, we pray, Increase our faith, and it comes from the Old Adam, Old Eve within us, the place of pride, fear, control. The place of Original Sin.

And even so, just as Jesus has been reminding us week after week, Jesus reminds us again.

We are not in control. We are not the ones who have the power. We are not God.

Jesus talks about mustard seeds and mulberry trees and then goes on to talk about a master and a servant. And not to tell us that we are slaves or subservient. Jesus isn’t trying to make us feel small. But rather Jesus reminds us that we have a role in this God stuff, and it isn’t to be God.

The greek word (pistuo) that we often translate as faith, is almost better understood as trust.

“Increase our trust” we might say.

And yet we know that increasing trust is not something the truster can do. Trust can only be increased by the one who is trustworthy.

Faith or trust is not a power we wield, or a control we have or even something to hold on to. Faith or trust is what God places in us, it is the wild and untamed relationship that God wants to meet us with,

faith is what God holds us in,

what God grabs us with,

what God places beneath our feet.

Increase our faith.

Jesus reminds us today that faith is not something that we own or control or have power over.

Because God’s faith is in us.

Because God’s trustworthiness is complete.

Because faith is a gift we receive.

A gift bestowed in Baptism.

A gift fed and renewed in the Lord’s supper.

A gift shared in the Body of Christ that is the church.

God is the one who creates faith, and we are the ones in whom faith is created.

God is the one who gives faith, and we are the ones who receive it.

God is the one in whom faith rests, and we are the ones who are held and rest in God.

Jesus reminds the disciples and us of our roles in this faith stuff. The disciples want – we want – power, assurance, something to hold on to. Increase our faith, we ask, we demand, we pray. And Jesus steadily reminds us week after week that God is the one doing the work here. We might want some control over our relationship with God, we want some input, but God’s love doesn’t need anything from us. We are simply the ones who are loved. We are the ones who are loved, and in whom God’s love meets the world.

Increase our faith we ask today.

And Jesus says, if you had faith you could do great things. But faith is what God has in you, that is what in you truly need.

Amen.

The One Off – What Commitment looks like for the 21st Century Church

If you follow the liturgical calendar, you will know that the the first half of the church year is made up of diverse seasons that tell the story of Jesus – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter. And then comes a long season of counting Sundays called Ordinary Time.

Towards the end of that second half of the church year, there are a bunch of “one-off” Sundays that mark an occasion for a single Sunday, rather than a season. Thanksgiving (it is in October in Canada ), Reformation Sunday (for Lutherans), Halloween/All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant and then Christmas Eve.

I find it interesting that for most churches out there October through Christmas is often the busiest, most active time of the year. It probably has to do with the beginning of school and the lingering fall weather that keeps us looking for opportunities to get outside before winter.

But I often wonder if it says something about the changing nature of commitment of active church goers. In decades past, active church members were defined as those who attend every Sunday or nearly every Sunday. I have seen the old buttons, pins and stickers of the 60s and 70s for people to collect from the churches they attended while on vacation. These were for those going for perfect Sunday school attendance records, and probably to ward off nosy pastors inquiring as to why you missed a Sunday.

In the last decade or two, active church membership has been counted by those who attend once a month or more. There simply isn’t a statistically relevant number of people who show up every Sunday. There are still some who can be counted on to be in their pew every week, but often the active members of a congregation attend 1 to 2 times a month. These are people who are leaders in churches, serving on council, leading music, teaching bible studies, chairing committees etc…

There are lots of factors to this of course, and no, it is not Sunday shopping and sports. I think it has more to do with most households shifting from 1 income earner to 2. Longer work weeks – 50 or 60 hours – being demanded of many. The snow bird schedules of those who have the chance to travel in retirement. And our changing tolerance as a society for long term obligations and duties. We simply have less time and energy because we work more and earn less – so our personal/family/recreation time comes at a premium.

So when the church has a bunch of one-off Sundays like Thanksgiving, Confirmation Sunday, Reformation, All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant in Advent and the most one off Church events of them all – Christmas Eve – people start showing up. We are now a society that can handle committing to show up once… but not usually more than that.

This change is the reason why Sunday Schools struggle to keep going. Church councils and committees struggle to find bodies. Choirs, men’s and women’s groups, and bible studies are falling out of the commonplace in the life of congregations. It isn’t that people don’t want to do these things, it is that there isn’t time and energy for many weekly or even monthly obligations anymore – there is barely time to go to church at all more than one or two times a month.

And one of the one of common concerns you hear from church leaders, from tired out folks wanting to give up their long held commitments, is how to get “those other people” to come and take on more. How can we get people to come back?

The thing is, we all know that this is the wrong question, we just don’t know who to frame it differently. It just isn’t going to happen, we haven’t turned the clock back before and we won’t figure out how to do it now. People aren’t going to just come out of the woodwork to volunteer in droves for 3 year committee commitments and 25 year Sunday School teacher terms.

I think we also know what the right question is too.

I think most church leaders and members know that the real question lies in how the church shifts from being a social obligation to a place where we practice our faith in community. And more importantly, shifting our own understanding of what this means.

It isn’t actually bad thing for churches to differentiate ourselves from the local cultural club or community centre or YMCA or arts community or PTA or soup kitchen. We might have aspects of those things, but those thing are not core to our identity as churches.

Churches are primarily places to practice our faith – to gather with other believers and hear again the good news of Christ given for us.

Churches are places to follow Jesus, to experience God’s commitment to us, rather than be burdened by our commitment to God.

Churches are places where we are a community of people brought together by Jesus, by a common faith that we want to share with others. Not a group of friends who also sometimes pray.

The transformation from place of social and culture obligation to place where faith is practiced is pretty damn scary. In fact, it so scary to imagine that we would rather just complain about “those other poeple” who aren’t taking our jobs from us so that we don’t have to do them anymore.

It is scary to imagine what a church full of people who actually wants to follow Jesus together and to see where Jesus leads will look like… because it will be very different than what we look like now.

It is scary to ask how we get there too – even if we know that this is the question we need to ask and the one being asked of us.

And it might mean allowing for a world full of poeple who cannot give more than a day or two a month to commit to something… but is also means preaching the gospel to a world full of people carrying heavy burdens, who need communities of faith to share those burdens with, and who need to hear about a God who is deeply committed to them, no matter what.

It might mean reimagining what commitment to church looks like, or rather imagining how churches can be places that give people grace, hope, mercy and meaning… instead of slave labour in the form “volunteer jobs…”

Oh, and it might also mean giving people that new life thing that Jesus likes to talk about too.