Wednesday, October 31, 2007

An Existentialist Christian Reflection on Thanksgiving

Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving
Sunday, Sept 30th, 2007 (8 a.m.)
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matt. 6:25-33

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
– Matt. 6:28-29

To what degree are we ruled by our anxiety? To what degree do our fears overwhelm us and inhibit us from functioning? To what degree are our decisions informed not by what we hope will happen, but by what we hope will not happen? And even more tragically, to what degree are we resigned to allow this anxiety to turn to pessimism and the abandonment of all hope? My wife and I were reflecting recently, as members of the Gen X generation, as children of the 70’s and teens of the 80’s as to how anxiety and pessimism governed our formative years. We came of age in an era in which it was assumed that at any moment the proverbial finger would press the button and a nuclear holocaust would be unleashed. And it was not simply a matter of if it would happen, but rather of when it would happen. I think most of us thought, and assumed, that we would not make it to adulthood, and that when one tallied the number of nuclear warheads it took to wipe humanity off the face of the earth, and compared it with the exponentially higher number of warheads actually in existence, we assumed that we really did not have much power to change the world.

As I recall, it was difficult for us to be thankful for much, given the psychological mindset in which our generation functioned. As a young person, I often heard it said, that we as young people didn’t show much gratitude for the what we had … and most of my friends had no concept of the hardships that our depression-era grandparents had known, and yet the question remained, amidst all we had, why should we give thanks if we were living on the edge of the apocalypse?

When the disciples separated themselves from family and friends. When they gave up their professions, gave up their property, gave up their futures, to follow this Jesus, they must have experienced a deep anxiety. And later, after our Lord had left them and in the early days of the Church when members of the Church known to St. Matthew were being cast out of their synagogues, persecuted for continuing to follow the now absent Jesus, they must have known a frightening anxiety. And how would the words of Jesus have sounded to them, either while he was with them, or after he had left them… “Do not worry, consider the birds of the air – they neither sow nor reap; consider the lilies, they neither toil nor spin…” would these words have allayed the anxiety of these early Christians any more than they allayed my anxiety as a young person, or the anxiety any of us feel as we struggle through the trials of life today? Do these words help us when face the reality that a loved one has died and we see them no longer? Do these words help us when we receive a chronic or terminal diagnosis that dashes our hopes and dreams? Do these words help us when we lose a job, a paycheque, the means for supporting our family? It is not only difficult for us not to fear, it is near impossible to even consider the possibility of giving thanks.

And yet, as I cast my mind back to those days when I was a teenager, when we thought that world was coming to an end, I also recall a passionate search for meaning in which many of my peers and I were engaged. Somewhere amidst that fear that today might be the day that it all ends, was the yearning to find meaning in why we were here at all, if it was all about to end. Ultimately, I think many of us discovered the meaning of our helplessness – and it empowered us. And that meaning was found in this: the gift of life – there was a moment when we were not, and there would be a moment, when we would pass from this earth. But in this moment, we live, and in this moment is mystery, and beauty, and grace. Perhaps I had no power to eliminate even one nuclear warhead, and perhaps I had no power to extend my life a single day, but I knew this: I had the power to live this day as a gift, embracing all the good things given to me by God – to write, to draw, to sing, to laugh, to love my family, to be loved by others, to be human, amidst the apparent hopelessness of the age. To be thankful for such things was to live, to truly live, to embrace life, while living in the culture of death.

Ultimately, none of us -- children of the depression, children of the war, children of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, children of any age -- have any claim on tomorrow. And so Jesus says, do not worry about tomorrow. I would hope that none of us would fall into a nihilism that would prevent us from working for a better tomorrow, for I don’t believe this is what Jesus is saying. Rather, I suggest, he is telling us that the moment of decision is always “now.” Each moment of my life, I choose to be Christian, or I choose not to be a Christian. Over and over again, I am confronted with the moment in which I must claim my faith or deny it. Over and over again, I am confronted with my own humanity, in which I choose to embrace the gift of humanity, or to deny it. Over and over again, in each moment the Word is made flesh in our midst, and we can choose to behold its glory or turn from its presence. Over and over again, Christ our Lord is Risen, and we can choose to stand with the risen Christ, in a transformed life, or to fall away and simply disappear as if we had never existed. Ultimately, we are a people of hope because confronted with this choice, we have the opportunity to say “yes,” and “yes,” and once again, “yes.” We are a people of hope because we do not have to wait for tomorrow to find the meaning of life, or to experience the mystery of God. It is upon, again, and again, and in this moment, again. And for this we are a thankful people, and for this reason, we turn again today, and live.

Text copyright 2007, The Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form, in whole or in part, without express written permission of the author.

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