In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier –
I love this ecumenical service – ushering in our national holiday of gratitude together – blessing our bread – hearing the same lessons year after year. Every year we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, and he chastens and hastens his will to make known. Every single year we are reminded – on this night with these lessons – just who butters our Thanksgiving bread.
It’s God, of course, who pulls us in – who calls us together – who watches over us – who guides us – who feeds us – who makes sure we are at the right place at the right time and that we have everything we need.
He is almost matter-of-fact about his caring for us. “I am here,” he says. “I will see though through your good times and bad.” This is something you can take to the bank.
These words aren’t syrupy or sappy. Implicit within them is our sure and certain capacity to make mistakes. We don’t have it sewn up – not by long shot. We really need a God we can turn to when things fall apart. It’s a relief for me to know he takes care of us whether we know we need it or not.
And as we remember the Israelites wandering in the desert or the early church struggling to find a way to work out their faith with joyful hearts, our own Thanksgiving memories crowd in on us. My memories of dear ones I love, but see no longer have asserted themselves into my life as I prepared for this sermon. I’m used to doing about three or four things at once – as most of us do. So I mulled over these passages as I elbowed my way through the crowded grocery stores. I thought about them as I shopped for cranberries and the ingredients for pumpkin pie. I thought of them as I chopped celery and onions. Family memories entered in and wove themselves around the passages too and thus into this sermon.
Of course these passages are all about God’s faithfulness toward his people – then and now – about his constancy – God’s never failing presence with us no matter what. It is clear that we are to carry this certain knowledge that God is always with us and always watching over us. Knowing this has been what has kept the Family of God going in the hard times – in the desert – during the exile – as Jesus hung on the cross – during persecution.
That constancy reminds me so of my grandfather – Poppy, we called him – and the White County Fair. To a “fair driven” town like Durham, it is probably treason to say that the greatest fair in all the world came to our town in Southern Illinois – the county seat – every August for a whole week. It seemed like that to me as a child. Words cannot express just how much I anticipated that fair! The very thought of that fair was so wonderful that it could lift your heart in times of trouble.
A whiff of sawdust could get the memories going – memories of cotton candy and corndogs, games where there was great potential for marvelous prizes, sneak previews of the shows as we watched rehearsals from the Ferris wheel that overlooked the stadium.
There was almost nothing better than the fair – except maybe Christmas – except maybe Heaven. Being at the fair was like being in heaven for a whole seven days. Poppy had this figured out. But he would, because he was just the kind of grandfather who could become childlike – so that he understood kids to the very core.
If ever you needed anything, you could go to Poppy, and he would know what to do. For a child in a family riddled with alcoholism, this was an enormous consolation. He and my grandmother were safe, and they gave my life some much needed stability.
While my mother and her sister, my aunt, dreaded going to the fair more than once or twice, Poppy was willing to take us every single day. He was known far and wide as a character. He was the editor of the town newspaper, so he was actively involved in the lives of the people in town as he was in ours. He wrote a daily column about things that were going on in town. And the fair was the perfect place to pick up material.
Sometimes he would write about our family – especially funny things that happened. But sometimes his columns were absolutely eloquent – full of rich and meaningful prose about things that went on in our lives. He was kind of crazy – but in a good kind of way. He was irreverent, a little neurotic and extremely loving all at the same time.
He was always playing practical jokes on people or doing silly things.
He would write about these things too. Although he died almost forty years ago, people in that town still tell funny stories about Scotty Endicott. And so does his family.
Having Poppy in my life taught me all about God’s constancy and abiding presence in our lives. Poppy’s deep involvement with the people in our town reminds me of God’s love for his chosen people – his deep love of us.
I think this is one of the ways we come to know God. We can see God’s attributes in those who are closest to us – those who are dear to us – in those who love us. And when we can make that connection, it becomes easier for us to fall in love with God – and allow God to love us back.
You might know that Poppy drove a big Packard and smoked cigars, loved the horse races – and on top of everything else he was a Democrat. And I hope you don’t think that I am saying God is or does any of that – although we can’t say for sure that he doesn’t!
Poppy had a smoking stand in a corner of his bedroom. He always kept a spare cigar box on a lower shelf of the stand, and every afternoon when he got home from the newspaper, he would toss all the loose change he had in his pocket into the cigar box. The box itself was pretty jazzy. You know what they look like – beautiful red and gold and blue colors, and just the right size for a collection of change – just like something the gypsies might have.
As the box filled up, the money magically disappeared some place so that there was room for more change. This beautiful box contained the White County Fair money for all four of his grandchildren.
This is how I understand constancy. Even though I didn’t think of the fair every day, Poppy did. He thought of me and of his other grandchildren every single afternoon when he put that change in the box.
A week before the fair came to town, all the change that he had collected would turn up on my grandparent’s big dining room table. And for hours, Poppy helped us count this incredible pile of money. At the time it seemed as if all the money in the world was right there on that table!
It was now that anticipation for the fair would really begin in earnest. It increased with every dollar we counted. Finally we would arrive at a total. The total was then divided four ways. Next we rolled all the coins, and Poppy would take them to the bank. When he got home he had brand new, crisp dollar bills for each of us.
I cannot remember when we outgrew this custom. My family moved out of state and seldom got back during fair week. We all grew up and Poppy died. Alcoholism continued to wreak havoc within our family. But just the same, the memories of excitement and anticipation – along with Poppy’s faithfulness and his abiding love for all of us – remain his gifts to me.
His deep attention to what was important to us extended far beyond the fair. He made sure to be present to each of us as long as he lived. The cigar box filled with loose change was an outward sign of that caring and love.
All the scripture passages we’ve read tonight underscore this same kind of caring and attention to detail. They all speak of the power of God in our lives right now. They all teach that God’s presence is at work in us now because he loves us and cares for us far more than we can imagine. He knows what we need before we do. Like Poppy, he plans ahead for us. Even as we sit here dreaming in worship, the Holy Spirit enters our midst – knitting us into the kingdom – reminding us of the Paradise to come and the redemption that waits for us there.
Each of these passages gives us a strong message that we belong – that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are a part of a bigger family – a family that goes back thousands and thousands of years. This is a God who assures us that he is present and active within our lives just as he always has been and always will be.
We too struggle to stay faithful in the midst of tough times. Long before we left childhood behind – we’d learned all about broken hearts. We’ve become reconciled to the fact that to live means to suffer loss, to ache with grief or remorse.
So we really need to be reminded of the good news that is urged on us tonight. Meanwhile – as the dance goes on – and certain things, of which we know little, are being dealt with on a cosmic level so that someday there won’t be any more broken hearts. We are urged to stay in the family. We will get to go to the fair, and Jesus Christ has already paid our way. AMEN