The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The One God.
From St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “Behold I tell you a mystery. We will all be changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
Today is Thanksgiving Day, a day when the people of this nation pause to give thanks for all of our bountiful blessings—and indeed we are blessed.
As the son of a Minnesota turkey farmer, Thanksgiving was a day that was always looked forward to every year when I was growing up—perhaps for a far different reason than why President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
I suspect most of us are looking forward to celebrating this day in a very special way. For many of us it will mean gathering with family and friends around a table with a beautiful stuffed turkey with all the trimmings. For others it will mean going to some soup kitchen to help serve a turkey dinner to those who would have no turkey to eat this year, if it were not for a mission or a church/synagogue or mosque serving a Thanksgiving dinner.
Others will have made other plans how to celebrate the day. The one thing all of us will do is to give thanks for the rich blessings each of us have been given.
However, this year is a radically different Thanksgiving than many of us will have ever celebrated before. There are very few people in the United States who have not been impacted by the economic downturn that this country, and the global community in which we live, are experiencing. Last week, 50,000 Citibank employees lost their jobs, but that 50,000 statistic took on a new meaning for me the next day when 30 of my colleagues also lost their jobs. No longer is 50,000 a statistic, but individuals known, loved and cared for in this Cathedral.
So how do we, this Thanksgiving, give thanks when there is so much sadness and pain in so many of our families and with so many of our friends? No one is untouched. While all of us will give thanks on this Thanksgiving Day for the bountiful gifts we have been given, life, family and friends who love and care for us, food, this great nation and our freedom and liberties, I suspect most, if not all of us, will also feel a real sadness for what has been lost this year.
I will never forget a sermon that was preached following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 by the then Bishop of Honduras, Leo Frade. Bishop Frade is now the Episcopal Bishop of Southeast Florida.
You will recall that Hurricane Mitch was a devastating and deadly hurricane. Hurricane Mitch took a terrible toll in Central America and especially in Honduras. Yet Bishop Frade in his sermon for Christ the King, which the Church celebrated last Sunday, offered his people a firm message of hope, something each of us needs to contemplate, particularly at this time of fear and uncertainty.
Bishop Frade asked in his sermon,
If Christ is our King, then why are we facing so many problems and encountering such horrible predicaments?
How can we see God’s kingdom in death and destruction? It’s hard to see it in failure and broken dreams?
How could I explain about God’s sovereignty and almighty power to that poor man who presented me with his dead child who he had just pulled from the waters. “Monseqor pray for him, he is my only child. Do something, please bishop, do something!!!”
The only thing I could do was cry and get really mad at God. Why? Why Lord? Where is your kingdom? Where was God’s kingdom when the bulldozers opened a huge hole to bury hundreds of bodies wrapped in black garbage bags piled on top of each other in a mass grave? Where was God?
Yes, I was able to do something in the midst of my tears and anger when I consoled that poor desperate man. I cried with him, the tears that God was also shedding for his dead baby. I hugged him with the love that God can give us when we are embraced by his truth. The words I could give him were the ones I had read over and over again, but suddenly they acquired a new meaning of hope for us.
Yes, let’s proclaim it to the people who live in the houses that survived. Let’s proclaim it to the people who fared well in this deadly hurricane. But we must also tell the same to those who are now living in tents made out of plastic bags and cartons along the roads; to those that are still looking for their lost relatives; to those who are hungry, thirsty, naked and sick. Yes, let’s tell them that God loves them, that Christ the King cares for them and that God has not forgotten them.
One of the great gifts we are given this Thanksgiving is a God who cries with us. Imagine a God who cries with us, in our fears, in our emptiness and in our anxiety. A God who cries with those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, the unemployed, those who saw their retirement package disappear in a matter of a couple of weeks last month.
This last Sunday Kirsten and I worshiped at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. As you know, four years ago that Cathedral suffered a devastating fire and it has taken four years to restore, clean and transform that Cathedral.
The sermon last Sunday was preached by Canon Thomas Miller and in his sermon he drew on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church. The verses he chose were: “Behold I tell you a mystery. We will all be changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
A week from Sunday in this Cathedral we are going to hear those same words set to music by Handel in his great oratorio Messiah.
As I listened to Canon Miller’s sermon, I knew what he was saying applied to us on this Thanksgiving Day as well as to the transformation of St. John the Divine.
In Miller’s sermon he argued that St. Paul is writing about “the fullness of time: What was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”
Paul’s emphasis on change and transformation is not only reserved for that moment when all things in time are reconciled. Rather, change and transformation are the very nature of time in all its fullness.
Miller went on to describe the process that was involved in the restoration of the Cathedral, but then he related the damage of the fire to us when he said,
It’s maybe not so different with us human beings as it was with the more insidious, the resin in the soot and smoke from the fire that threatened to erode the stones of St. John the Divine.
Some of our flaws, our damage, are obvious. The pallor of over-work and stress, the extra pounds of eating and drinking to compensate or self-medicate; families and relationships compromised by confused priorities and self-indulgence. Then there is the invisible and inward destruction: sublimated anger, unresolved conflict, lack of confidence, estrangement from God, as well as from oneself. The first step to a transforming experience is to see it, admit it, face it; in traditional terms of the church, to confess it. To discern where there is illness in the soul, mind and body; where some cleaning and restoration might be needed.
This Thanksgiving, St. Paul is calling us to be transformed, to be changed. Jesus is calling us to a new restoration and wholeness as we peel back the soot and resins from our stones that are eroding us. The organ at St. John the Divine was so filled with corrosive elements that the organ could not be played without destroying that great instrument.
During this most tumultuous economic time, we are being given an opportunity to clean the resin out of our persons so that we will truly be able to sing a joyful song unto the Lord. During this most tumultuous time, we are given the opportunity to discover what is really important in our lives. During this most tumultuous time we can shout “where is God.”
But as Bishop Frade reminds us, God cries with us, in our fears, in our emptiness, in our anxiety, even when our organ is so corroded that it can not be played. God cries with our sons and daughters who are unemployed, with our parents who have just lost most of their retirement income, with our colleagues who have just lost their jobs, with all those whose only Thanksgiving dinner today is going to be served in a mission.
Yes, God is with us in our abundance and God is with us in our scarcity. As St. Paul reminds us, “Behold I tell you a mystery. We will all be changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
Am I really willing to be transformed this Thanksgiving so we can be changed in the twinkling of an eye?
In the Name of God. Amen.