Harvest Thanksgiving

Sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving, Sunday, October 07 2018, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday. In Canada, at least, it is not treated so much as a celebration of the fact that we settler people straight-up stole a bunch of good land from its Indigenous inhabitants, so there is that. But still, often enough it seems to be a day when people with privilege congratulate themselves on their good luck, and others are left not only struggling to find things for which to be thankful, but feeling guilty about that. As some of you know, I did a two-year placement in North Toronto, and by the time I left, I really thought that if I heard the phrase, “Have an attitude of gratitude!” one more time, I would rip my own head off. We are living in hard times—the threat of catatrophic climate change, spiralling poverty, pervasive violence, increasingly terrifying authoritarian governments—and some days gratitude is quite reasonably hard to come by.

The readings may not seem entirely helpful either, on the face of it. The gospel for today could be read, and indeed has been read, as saying that if you just have trust and a cheerful attitude, God will always ensure that you have enough to eat and drink, shelter, clothes to wear, even perhaps without effort on your own part. You don’t need to live too long in the world to know that this does not work out in practice. Indeed, this world, this human world, is pretty much designed to ensure that it will not, that interests will be set cruelly against each other, that many people will have genuine reasons to worry about having enough to eat today, or tomorrow, regardless of their attitudes. I would not want this passage to become a means of judging the needy and desperate, or suggesting that material want is ever the result of a lack of trust.

Now, we should be aware that the word Jesus uses for “worry” is one which suggests preoccupation, an obsessive dwelling upon a topic. It’s also important to note that, immediately before this passage, Jesus has stated that we cannot serve both God and Mammon—money, wealth—and what he says here seems intended as a continuation of that, and that he concludes with a direction to seek God’s kingdom and dikaiosune, a word that might be translated “justice” just as well as “righteousness.” So I think what he have here is not Jesus offering some kind of cheerful, and incorrect, reassurance that God will always give us stuff, but rather, a direction not to become so preoccupied with our own food and clothing—and, by implication, preoccupied with that food and clothing being of some expense and high quality—that we neglect the need to feed and clothe the people around us. Justice is primary. It does not mean ignoring our own needs, for we too are part of the kingdom, but seeing our needs as inherently joined with the needs of others. We are not enemies. We—all of us, all humanity, all creation—live or die together.

And there is in this passage a deep and extravagant reassurance. Those singing birds, those brilliant lilies, that pointless beauty. The extraordinary well of creation, which has no economic value, which contributes nothing beyond the bare and magnificent fact of existence. It reminds me of something I once heard from an Indigenous elder at Aamjiwnaang, near Sarnia — “These plants, these animals, they’re still carrying on the way we’re meant to carry on. The laws of creation haven’t changed. I feel sorry for settler people. I mean, what can you do with your lives? The economy controls everything. You have to pay to live on the earth. Think about that. We’re the only species that has to pay to live on the earth.”

Jesus and the elder Kiyoshk are setting before us the same vision—a society where we are not controlled by economics of exchange, where we are not judged by our material productivity but each infinitely loved beyond deserving, where existence is valued for simple being and beauty, where competition for status or the anxiety of manufactured scarcity have no place. And both of them remind us that this is the normal way of creation, it is the nature of the earth, it is only we who have changed it. It is in this that our gratitude must be rooted, in the generosity of creation itself, the world as it was meant to be, even if we see only shreds of it now.

We cling to those shreds, to the moments of grace, to the wild growth of herbs and berries, to water and rock. To those moments when we briefly escape calculation and exchange, and can give and receive, love and be loved, in simplicity. To those glimpses of the greater justice, of the mending of our world and of our hearts.

It is to these shreds that the prophet Joel clings, as well, in his own hard time, holding onto the promise that God is not finished, that there is justice coming, however long delayed. The promise that we will be given back the years which the locusts have eaten. All the years lost to grief or fear or hunger, to our own mistakes or the cruelties of power or the terrors of chance. Somehow, they will be redeemed. Do not fear, the prophet says to the much-abused earth. The rain will come, and return your life. The presence of God will come like rain.

And we are pledged to this promise, that there is healing beyond our understanding, a redemption of the years in ways we do not now understand; and that, here in this bad time, it all matters, every person, however much they fail in the terms of the world, every small bird, every wild green thing. For each one is part of the whole, and the divine love which made us does not abandon us.

We hold that promise, and we hang on. In the times of cruelty and malice, in the times of violence against the weak, in the times of hunger and grief. When refugee children are held in mass jails in the desert, when powerful men mock the victims of power, when wooden crosses line Queen’s Park to remember those who’ve died in the overdose crisis, when we ourselves are tired and lost and beaten down, we hang on. For the brief beauties of the sparrows and the lilies is eternally valued, and so are the complex beauties of our strange human lives. Even if we cannot know it in the moment, we are held, we are cherished, we matter. We must take that love and try to bring it into the world, in our small kindness and our small resistance. For all that the concerns of daily survival are real, we will, as Jesus tells us, be more alive, more human, more true, if we can also take strength from the birds, from the flowers, from the bright transient creation, and move that small strength in the direction of justice.

And so we give our complicated thanks. Knowing our complicity, our guilts and failures and weaknesses, we give our thanks still for the assurance that we are loved, and that we are working towards our healing. We give our thanks for the earth which we have so mistreated, and which even in its damage still abides, for its persistence and its stubborn astonishments, for wild raspberries by the road. We give thanks that we are still here, to fight for justice, to mourn for the lost, to love each other. And when we can’t find it in ourselves, we can be held within a community, people who will give thanks on our behalf, and perhaps even give thanks because we are here with them, poor things that we are.

“Consequently I rejoice/having to construct something upon which to rejoice,” T.S. Eliot wrote once. It may be like that. But we do not construct it alone. We must hold each other up when we cannot stand. If God is to supply each person with food and clothing, it must be through us; and if we are to be supplied with what we need, it will come from the community around us. Build that community. Seek that kingdom. And be thankful, as you can, because we are here, because our hearts are beating, because the world is still beautiful, and we are in it together.