In the story of creation told by the Ojibwe people of North America, the sequence of creation is the same as in the Bible. First, God the Creator, Gitchi Manido in the Ojibwe language, creates the earth and the sky and the seas and lakes and mountains. Then, in the most amazing profusion, creates all the four legged animals, the winged ones who ply the air, the fish who swim in the great waters and even those who crawl and burrow. These creatures, all endowed with special gifts—some run or fly or swim with great skill and speed; some are very physically powerful and can catch their food; still others are wily and can outsmart those who would eat them or those whom they want to eat. All was as Gitchi Manido desired. However, Gitchi Manido becomes lonely, and proceeds to create the Anishinabeg, the human beings. After a time of co-existence, the older created beings, the animals, having observed these strange new beings, send a delegation to Gitchi Manido to bring to the Creator’s attention some problems that have been encountered with these beings. The owl, one of the wisest of the elder beings, approaches the Creator and begins. “Gitchi Manido, our Creator, we are aware that you created us for your own. And we have lived in harmony, in beauty for a very long time—until, that is, you created the Human Beings. Each of us you have given great gifts. But these creatures, they seem, well, to be in trouble. Their young are helpless long into their lives, unlike our young. They cannot fly or run fast to secure their livelihood. They have neither sharp teeth or strong talons to aid them in hunting. They do not have fur or feathers to keep themselves warm. They often kill not to eat, but simply out of anger. They quarrel among themselves with great ferocity. We do not understand why you created them.” Gitchi Manido was silent for some time, then responded. “To each of you I have given natural and instinctive gifts. And it is true that these human beings do not seem to have many of the gifts that you have, my first children. They exist because they realize, unlike you, that all they have comes from me. You live and hunt and procreate and die with great purpose and skill. But they long for my presence, and they desire to please me. They exist for one reason only, to give me thanks for each and every gift of creation.”
From the very beginning of Hebrew scripture, to the end of the New Testament, the Biblical evidence is that the Ojibwe had it right. Always, God acts first. We respond. God creates, we give thanks. God first loves us, and we, in turn, give thanks through prayer and song and dance and movement that we call worship and pass that love on to others in acts of mercy and friendship. But so very often we miss the point of God’s creative act of creation. We imagine that our hard work, our labor, our intelligence is something that we have done. In the lesson from Hebrew scripture we are warned. “Do not say to yourself, ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth.” In this past Sunday’s Washington Post I read a review of a book entitled Is the American Dream Killing You: How the Market Rules Our Lives. Its thesis is that the commercialism of our society is ruling our lives. It is propelling us, and, he makes the point, emerging economies like the Chinese as well, into a headlong rush toward our own destruction, both environmentally and spiritually.
Who can doubt it? It is Thanksgiving Day, and the next few days are the biggest shopping days of the year. The ads for Christmas, waiting like wild mustangs to charge out across the nation have been loosed. And we are swept along with this rushing tide of commercialism, even when we are aware of it or even disgusted by it. Even when we make a statement by giving money to ease the pain of the poor in honor of a loved one, or in lieu of a perhaps unneeded Christmas gift to a person who has everything, we are still swept along by the frenetic rush of this life. The great monk and writer, Thomas Merton, wrote that busyness is the most pervasive form of violence in modern society. “The rush and pressure of modern life are the most common form of innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects…is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our busyness neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Lily Tomlin, one of my favorite theologians, has said “The trouble with this rat race of a life of ours, is that even when you are winning, you are still a rat!” And as a priest I can tell you, and any clergyperson will tell you this: we have never heard of anyone, on their death bed, wishing that they has spent more time at the office. In his book, with the telling title Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, the monk David Steindl-Rast points out that the two Chinese characters for busy-ness are heart, and killing. Both Americans and Chinese need to pay attention to this. Are we killing ourselves in busyness? Do we really believe that in working harder and harder and ever harder, more hours and hours, that we somehow will fulfill the deep longing that The Holy One has left in every human heart? This longing can only be satisfied by realizing that not only is all that we have come from God, but that we, ourselves, are wholly and eternally God’s own.
In the Genesis creation narrative, God gives us life in the most intimate way. God “breathes” God’s own spirit, God’s own breath, the wind—ruach, in the Hebrew—to animate us, to give us a life that will make it impossible to ever escape this loving, intimate God who made us, who loves us even to the end of the ages, and who expects us to give thanks by assuming the same giving and abundant spirit in our relations with others that God has had with us since the beginning of time. The Ojibwe creation story says it well.
In today’s Eucharistic Prayer, which we will pray together before we receive communion, we will hear “at your command, all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” Listen with your hearts to these words which acknowledge God’s great gifts to us. And right after I finish this sermon and we say the Creed, we will respond to the litany of thanksgiving in which we acknowledge the extravagant way that God has given to us. The splendor of the whole creation, the beauty of this world, the wonder of life and the mystery of love. This God of ours reveals God’s very nature in the creation.
This is not a practical, workmanlike God who created one kind of animal or bird. This God created such a wild and whimsical and wonderful world that we read in the Psalms that God made the great leviathans, the whales, simply for the sport of it. In the very act of creation we see this playful God. Ostriches, parrots, pheasants, hummingbirds, eagles, platypus, kiwi, sparrows…simply look at our fellow creatures the winged ones. They come in such variety, such a riot of colors and shapes and sizes that we cannot ignore that our God is a playful God. This God of ours plays in creation, and longs to play with us, to relate to us in the most intimate and loving of ways.
The mystics have always know this. Catherine of Sienna, the 14th century Christian mystic, wrote this poem. “I won’t take no for an answer, God began to say to me when He opened his arms each night, wanting us to dance.” This mighty creator of the suns and galaxies and the planets in their courses, tenderly breathed life into each of us, and down through the millennia has pursued us with great ardor and great playfulness and great tenderness. All that is asked of us is that we, in turn, give thanks in word and deed. Meister Eckhardt, yet another Christian mystic writing in the 14th century, said it this way. “Everything I see, hear, touch, feel, taste, speak, think, imagine, is completing a perfect circle God has drawn.” Eckhardt also wrote this. “If the only prayer we ever prayed in our whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”
Another thing that becomes very clear in reading scripture, is that in response to God’s great and abiding love for us, and Christ’s great sacrifice, we are to care for those who have little. We who have been lucky enough to be born in America, and into affluence have a double reason to give thanks. We are to welcome the stranger and even our enemies. Working in Native American ministry for several decades, I often heard apocryphal humor about welcoming the stranger, especially around Thanksgiving. Humorous jabs were always taken at those “East Coast Indians and their lax immigration policies.” Or comments about “those boat people that the Eastern tribes accepted.” Only half tongue in cheek, “you should have left well enough alone that first winter” might be said. But it was not to be. Almost universal in the cultures of the tribes of North America who met the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” who came often to have religious freedom, was the ethic that the Creator had charged them to be unfailingly hospitable. One not only had to feed and welcome the stranger, but even one’s enemies, should they be without food or in need. It mattered not that you had battled them last week.
This ethic is also true in all the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The holy texts of each agree that the stranger is to be treated well, and those in need are to be cared for if one is to honor the God who made us all. It is a scandal that the Churches, mosques and synagogues in this country are not doing more to ease the plight of the poor. It is a scandal that there are 15,000 homeless people in Washington, D.C. on any given day. Perhaps the most obvious way in which people of faith can respond to God’s largesse is to carry on the work that Jesus left for us: feeding the proverbial widows and orphans. Few things are as clear in scripture as how we are to treat the least of these in our society. How we treat them, we are told, is how we treat the very Christ who overcame death and the cross that we might have eternal life. And yet we continue to spend more on vacations than our giving to the church and other places which do this work in a time of great need. We all seem to be thankful in word, but are we thankful in deed?
Our litany of thanksgiving today will give us the chance to say “thank you” to God. But it also tells us that what our God desires for us is satisfaction and delight. Those who would tell you from pulpits and on television that this life is but a vale of tears, are simply not paying any attention to either the Biblical evidence or the obvious canvas of creation upon which God has painted a vivid self-portrait of riotous abundance…yes, extravagant love for all in creation. Today’s Psalm speaks of the meadows clothing themselves in flocks, of the valleys decking themselves with grain, and we can almost hear with the Psalmist all creation shouting and singing together with joy. Our God’s love for us is so deep that even in our disappointments and failures, we are given the gift of knowing that we can rely upon God. Our God’s love for us is so wide that the one promise of scripture is that God will be with us always, everywhere. Those religious leaders who refuse to see the bounty of the earth and the bounteous love of God, and the need to more justly distribute the bounty, are not unlike the religious leaders who could not hear the message of love and acceptance that Jesus brought to them. These religious leaders who would take on God’s role of judging others are so like the clergy of whom the mystic and nun Theresa of Avila wrote way back in the 16th century, “How did all those priests ever get so serious and preach all that gloom? I don’t think God has tickled them yet. Beloved, hurry!”
Our lives can become so busy that we miss the entire point of the holiday of Thanksgiving. We become so busy that we never take time to respond to all that God has done for us. Like the nine lepers who never returned to thank Jesus for the profound gift o healing, we are never truly healed. These nine, I imagine, went back to their busy lives so cruelly interrupted by leprosy. They went back to work herding, tending a shop, harvesting…grateful yes, but only grateful for a moment until they were, like so many of us, swept up in the busyness of life. But you can almost see the joy on the face of the one leper who came back to gave Jesus thanks. You can almost feel the wonder as he looked at his hands and say that they were cleansed. We never do find out what those other nine did. But we know that the Samaritan leper who was made whole, fulfilled his role in the cosmic dance. He gave thanks, and one can only speculate that he was never the same again, never blasé about the profound gift of new or renewed life which Jesus offered him. But I will bet that this man healed by the power of God in Jesus never, ever, took anything for granted again.
Dear Ones, Jesus offers this new and renewed life, a life which sees the world and all that is in it with wonder, to each one of us. If we but still ourselves, quiet ourselves long enough to hear what The Holy One is saying to us, each day, each minute, our only response will be to give thanks. We will see that gratitude is the heart of all prayer. We will know that giving to others is the only natural human response to all that we have been given. We will be living as North American Christians, true to the teachings of the Christ we follow, and true to the ways of those first peoples whose land we now share. We will see that to bless whoever and whatever comes our way each day is the very best way to respond to the extravagant gift of love with which God loves us.