The day before Thanksgiving an elderly man in Phoenix called his son in New York and said to him, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you your mother and I are divorcing; 45 years of misery is enough. We’re sick of each other, and so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”
Frantic, the son called his sister, who exploded on the phone. “Like heck they’re getting divorced,” she shouted, “I’ll take care of this.” She called Phoenix immediately, and said to her father, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing. DO YOU HEAR ME?” The man hung up the phone, turned to his wife and said, “Okay honey. The kids are coming for Thanksgiving, and they’re paying for their own flights.”
Thanksgiving. There was an elementary Sunday School class that was to write a short paper on “Things that I am most thankful for…” The teacher collected the papers and noticed one in particular that read, “I am most thankful for my glasses. They keep the boys from punching me and the girls from kissing me.”
I suppose there are all kinds of things to be grateful for. Thanksgiving. On the 4th Thursday in November, wherever we are, we reach a high point in the year. Some ancient, ancestral instinct in us knows the satisfaction of gratitude. We welcome family and guests to the table. We play games; we watch football; we take a walk; we take a nap; we go to the mall; we eat leftovers; we reckon our prosperity, be it little or much. We tally our gains and losses. And if, on those days, our hearts are not just a little fuller, or as someone said, “if that doesn’t light your fire, then maybe you just have wet wood.”
In the house where I grew up, the table at Thanksgiving was full of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, babies and kids galore – all talking at once. It was a cacophony of sound. The people of my parents generation would talk about the hard times, the lean times, and would wax poetic about how great life was even though they didn’t have nay money; and they had to walk miles and miles to school, up hills, and down dales, backwards in the snow; and we had no shoes, and we liked it! And how they had to eat squirrels and blackberries day after day, but at least we were eating…down right poetic about the good old days when they were younger and poorer , but they were happier then than they are now that they have moved up the ladder and their kids have more than they ever dreamed of.
There is a danger in romanticizing poverty, when all too many people who are in poverty have no hope of ever escaping it. Moving up the ladder out of poverty is much more difficult today than it was a generation ago.
We are the wealthy ones on this planet. We know that, right? We live lives that are beyond the imaginations of 90 percent of the people who share this planet with us. Now, we are not the 10% who own 90% of all the wealth in the world, or the 1% who own 50% of all the wealth, but we are richly blessed. We are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most of the generations who celebrated Thanksgivings before us.
“If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of the people of the world.
If you have money in the bank, your wallet, and some spare change you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
If you woke up this morning with more health than illness you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week.
If you have never experienced the danger of war, the agony of imprisonment or torture, or the horrible pangs of starvation you are luckier than 500 million people alive and suffering.
If you can read this message you are more fortunate than 3 billion people in the world who cannot read at all.”
That sort of sets things in perspective, doesn’t it? We have much to be thankful for! But I confess, when I remember the poverty of the majority of the people on this planet, all too often I feel more guilt than gratitude. It is an inconvenient truth.
It’s difficult to sing God’s praise for all the wealth and beauty that I enjoy, when so many people have so little wealth and so little beauty in their lives. Yet hear we sit, wealthy, privileged, North Americans, surrounded by so much beauty…but one thing I know for sure, is that we must sing our alleluias for the beauty of creation, the joy of life, and the magnitude of our blessings because gratitude is really the only hopeful response to all our wealth. Until we learn to sing our own alleluias for our wealth, guilt will give way to fear and fear to greed.
Gratitude is a learned response. “What do you say?” we prod our children. “Say thank you.” Whether you feel like it or not. Why did our parents teach us that? Because they knew that a life of gratitude is a happier life than a life of grumpy ungratefulness and boorish unappreciation. Nobody wants to be around a grump. And it’s bad for your health. Thanksgiving is a good holiday for us to turn the corner on gratitude and try to become a little more positive, generous, grateful people.
Did you hear the story about the woman who was visiting some people who lived on a farm, and she noticed a pig in the backyard with a wooden leg. She asked the farmer, “What happened to the pig?” The farmer said, “Oh, that’s Betsy, our wonderful pig. One night the house caught fire and she oinked so loud she woke us and we got the fire truck in time to save the house..” The woman said, “Wow. That’s really something!” The farmer continued, “That’s not all. One day my youngest fell into the pond, and Betsy dove in and pulled her out.” The woman said, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing! But why does the pig have a wooden leg?” The farmer said, “Well, when you have a pig that special, you don’t want to eat him all at once.” (I know, but there’s a point…)
Maybe some days we feel more like the pig than the farmer, like life is taking bites of us, a piece at a time. I know that there are many people, maybe some of us, who are finding more hard times than good ones; more unhappy memories than happy ones. What does Thanksgiving mean to that person? Or the one who is facing an operation for cancer or divorce or unemployment or some other scary thing; or someone who will be eating Thanksgiving dinner without a loved one for the first time? For them, hearing a traditional Thanksgiving sermon is more than useless, it’s painful.
Martin Luther King Senior’s mother used to preach a sermon entitled “Thank God for What is Left.” That’s something to think about. She preached that sermon after losing two sons, a husband, and then her house burned to the ground, and she said, “Thank God for what is left. There’s always enough left in life to make it worth living.” (Hard as that is to hear.)
What is left for which to be grateful when life falls apart? In the New Testament there is a story told. Jesus and his disciples are sitting near the Temple. He teaches them to “beware of the Scribes,” those powerful religious authorities of the day. He notes that these Scribes strut about in their gorgeous robes, reveling in the attention. But these same Scribes, Jesus says, “devour widows’ houses” even while mouthing elaborate prayers. To “devour widows’ houses” was shorthand for participation in financial systems that enriched the elite while impoverishing the most vulnerable members of society. It’s true. I’m not saying it just because it’s still happening today.
After speaking these hard words, Jesus and the disciples move into the Court of the Women. Around the walls of this court were eight trumpet-shaped receptacles (large at the mouth, looked like a funnel) to receive offerings for the Temple treasury. As Jesus watches, several prosperous-looking types make large gifts to the Temple. They dump in bushels of coins; it makes a tremendous racket going around and around these receptacles. It’s quite a spectacle, this receptacle.
Then, after all the noise dies down, along comes a widow who gives the proverbial widow’s mite. It rolls around this copper trumpet, and makes a pitiful clunk in the mass of coins at the bottom. And right before their eyes, a multi-leveled truth is acted out, a living parable. Jesus quickly calls his disciples and points out the irony and power of what has just happened. Famous Bible words these: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
You don’t have to dig far to find the most obvious interpretation. Over the centuries, countless stewardship sermons have been preached on the widow who gave so generously. I’ve done it myself. And there is a sermon about stewardship giving in this story, lying right at the surface.
But if you dig a little deeper, think about it a little more, there is in this story, a sharp critique of – let’s call it – institutional corruption. In spite of what the Temple was supposed to be, the reality was something else. That storehouse system described in the Old Testament – such a noble idea – beautiful offering places was for money collected for the poor, the widows and orphans, sort of a welfare system. It had become hopelessly corrupt. The temple leaders regularly orchestrated distribution according to their own interests. In addition, there was a tax system on top of this to pay for it that had degenerated into favoritism and profiteering. It was set up so that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. (Can you imagine such a tax code?) This system was hard on the poor. They were often forced to sell their land and even sell their children into slavery to pay the mandatory Temple tax. For the poorest of the poor, the whole thing could be devastating, and in this patriarchal world nobody was more vulnerable than widows. Bereft of rights because a widow had no man to go to court for her, they were easy pickings. So in this reading on the widow’s mite, there is a cautionary tale about institutional corruption. It’s sort of a three-legged pig story.
But that still doesn’t answer the question. What is with this woman? Why did she “give everything, all she had to live on?” Maybe, in the end, this woman sees something everyone else had forgotten. Maybe she knew the real purpose and the true meaning of gratitude. Maybe her two copper coins expressed an alleluia of thanksgiving.
Joan Chittister tells a wonderful story about attending an international conference in Asia on the status of women. Most of the participants were women she describes as “well-funded activist types or official observers. They were all there to professionally analyze various women’s issues around the world, especially of the needs of women in developing countries. They were discussing all sorts of issues that kept women everywhere in some kind of bondage to a money-driven world. At the gathering, these professional women called for more education for girls, more equality through government legislation, more birth control training, better health-care programs, and most importantly more participation of women at all levels of the political process. It was a good conference and every one was very sincere. But it was what happened on the margins of the conference that moved Sister Joan.
As the conference was drawing to a close, a leader of one of the small group workshops, passed a piece of paper around and asked that everyone write their e-mail address on the sheet so that they could all stay in contact and support one another in their work. One of the participants; a woman named Rose, was a Kenyan pastor of a Presbyterian church in Africa. When the sheet of paper came to her, she simply filled in her name and passed it on. The woman next to Rose passed the paper back to her and pointed out that she had neglected to put her email address on the form. Rose answered quietly: “I don’t have email where I am. It is too expensive for us. And when I can use it, it is too slow to be reliable.”
When Sister Joan and her colleague were getting into a cab to leave, her colleague said that she couldn’t leave without first seeing Rose. She asked Sister Joan to wait and rushed back into the hotel saying that she had promised to give something to Rose. Later as they were waiting to check in for their flight, Sister Joan asked her colleague, what she had given to Rose. Her friend answered that she had given Rose her credit card. “Your credit card?” Sister Joan gasped. “Why in heaven’s name would you give Rose your credit card?” Her friend answered quietly, “So she can pay for her email every month.”
Joan writes, “The answer was a clear one. An alleluia for wealth has little or nothing to do with money at all. It has something to do with the way we deal with money, with what we do with it; with the manner in which we do it, with the reasons for which we do it. That women’s conference would, in the long run, be very good for a lot of women. The credit card would make life better for at least one of them immediately. It demonstrated in a great and glaring way the difference between talking about doing great things and doing what you can while you wait to do even more.
She continues, “Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security. The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity, the kind of generosity that sings of the lavish love of God; the kind of generosity that rekindles hope on dark days, the kind of generosity that reminds us that God dwells in, with, and through us, and that we are Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath. Reckless generosity creates in holy hearts a freedom of spirit that takes a person on their way rejoicing and scattering possibility as we go.”
That’s what the widow knew. She knew what she had, and what she had left. She was poor, but she had the dignity of expressing the gratitude of thanksgiving, something that couldn’t be taken away from her. Something that makes the world a better place. And I have a hunch that the offering receptacle in the Temple wasn’t the only place she expressed it.
I know that all of us have the power to be reckless in the generosity of thanksgiving, because of what we have, or what we have left. So let yourselves go. May we trust the Spirit to inspire in us the kind of thankfulness that transforms us into Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath. Amen