The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Note: This text is a transcription from the recorded audio.
Gracious God from whom every good gift comes, send your spirit into our lives and by the flame of your wisdom open the horizons of our minds. Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words and to go beyond speech, praising you in the silence deep within our hearts. Amen.
Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that’s rich with ritual, tradition, imagery, and memory. Depending on your own heritage and family traditions, those views of Thanksgiving may be very different. When you think of Thanksgiving, what comes to your mind? What image? What memory? For some of you that image or memory may be very recent. It may be the person who roused you out of bed this morning, made you get up, get dressed, and come to church because, of course, we always go to church on Thanksgiving! For some of you it may be about the meal. You know the meal: your own version of that wonderfully iconic painting of Norman Rockwell from the 1940s of a multi-generation family gathered around a beautifully set table. Grandmother at one end, grandfather at the other, and the table literally groaning with the abundance of God’s good grace including the great big turkey that’s about to be carved and consumed.
For some of us perhaps our image of Thanksgiving goes back to that first Thanksgiving, the autumn harvest when the Pilgrims and the Native Americans came together at their first autumn harvest after a grueling and brutal first chapter in the New World where they came together to give God thanks: thanks for their very survival and for God’s blessings in their lives. As we think about autumn harvest we need not look very far. This Cathedral is beautifully adorned with all sorts of images of the autumn harvest. I’ve got a veritable garden up here in the pulpit with pumpkins, apples, pears, and hydrangea—a reminder of all manner of things for which we come together and give God great thanks.
For some of us perhaps our Thanksgiving takes a slightly different tone. As we prepare to come together and have a meal with our family and friends in a warm place, we’re reminded of all those who don’t have a nice meal to enjoy today and don’t have a warm place to go. We are living in the tension of our own abundance and plenty with the millions in this country and across the world who have not. More on that later.
For some of us perhaps this Thanksgiving is a tender time. When we do gather, someone whom we love very dearly won’t be gathered there with us. In the past year someone we love dearly died, and their very important presence in our life will be experienced today as an acute absence. I think it’s always important for us to remember that this isn’t necessarily a joyful holiday for everyone in our midst.
For some of us it’s a tender time of remembering. And for some of us, perhaps today is different because we’re far away from our home, and our family, and our friends, and we’ve come here this morning to be in community so that together we can give God thanks. I’m so glad that you are here this morning and that we’re all gathered together to lift up, in our own way, in our own experience, our gratefulness to God for all of our blessings.
English poet Christina Rosetti wrote that, “Were there no God, we would be in this glorious world with grateful hearts and no one to thank.” For those of us who are Christians, this morning I’d like to lift up a slightly different image of thanksgiving and I would argue that it is our most profound expression of thanksgiving to God, and that’s the Eucharist. Eucharist is taken from a Greek word literally meaning thanksgiving, and depending on your tradition you may know it as the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, or the Mass, but it is for each one of us that time when we as Christians gather to partake of God’s great gift to us in the form of Jesus: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The one who came so our lives would never be the same.
One of the great privileges, the sacred privileges, I have as a priest is to offer the Eucharist and the life-giving body of Christ to all who would come forward to receive it. I’ve had the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist and to receive the Eucharist literally all over the world, and even though the places and the faces may change, there’s always a common thread, always. The very first Eucharist I had the privilege of celebrating as vicar of this Cathedral was to a group gathered—some of the homeless in this city—with a ministry called Street Church. Every Tuesday, rain or shine, right in the middle of Franklin Square Park at 14th and I Streets in downtown Washington, D.C., a group of volunteers gather at the Church of the Epiphany. We go to the park. We celebrate the Eucharist and then offer food and lunch to those who’ve come.
I love to go because I see in the faces, and in the open hands outstretched to receive, exactly what our gospel lesson today pointed us to: the gift of life offered freely for all those who would receive it. The hands and the faces may be different. There may be smooth hands, rough hands, old hands, young hands, white hands, brown hands, black hands, but all open, eager to receive the food that doesn’t perish, but the food that endures, and that’s what Jesus was speaking to in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus had just been with the crowd and fed them. It’s the multiplication story that’s in all four gospels: the multiplication of the loaves and the fish and Jesus had fed 5,000 and the crowd continues to follow this man.
Jesus uses this opportunity to teach an eternal truth. Yes, it’s important: we all need food for the nourishment and sustaining of our bodies and our life. But Jesus tells the crowd gathered in Capernaum and each one of us gathered today, I have so much more to offer you. The bread from heaven is a gift from God for life in this world. And Jesus reminds them don’t work for the food that perishes, but work for the food that endures. That will sustain you. That will feed you spiritually in the good times, in the tough times, and in the in between times. I love Street Church because the people who come recognize that at the very core of their being.
So this morning when we gather to give God thanks for all of God’s blessings in our lives, remember the Eucharist, God’s abiding presence in our life, and the gift of the One who came so our lives would never be the same. May each one of us come forward with open hands to receive that free gift, to receive the bread of life, remembering that Jesus said those who come to me will never be hungry and those who believe in me will never thirst. Amen.