Sermon, 11/19/23: Thanksgiving according to Paul Laurence Dunbar

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25 Pentecost

Psalm 123; Judges 4:1–7; I Thessalonians 5:1–11; Matthew 25:14–30

So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy. Ps. 123:3

We have resisted in this great country of ours the pressures to establish a state church, something our all too human founders knew from Europe.  Then, and ever since, there have been, and are those still who would force their brand of religiosity onto our nation and declare the United States “a Christian nation.”  This is not to infer that our founders and the then and subsequent elected leaders (all products of their upbringing) did not and do not believe that there is a divine power at work in the human condition.  However, refusing religious tyranny, we as a nation are resolved that each citizen is allowed to worship, or not, as he or she is so moved, not as coerced by governmental mandate.

Even so, once a year, we pause to consider and to give thanks for this freedom.   A national day of thanksgiving, instituted by President Abraham Lincoln during a time when member states within our nation were at war with each other, gave further gravity to the concept of freedom for all who dwelled in this land called the United States, not freedom for a few, for some, and not for others. 

Arguably, at that time the nation had little for which to be thankful.  Yet, President Lincoln believed that even in the bleakest of times, we would always have reason, even if we never took the time, to give thanks to a Creator God who had sustained us collectively and individually.  And so it is that, decreed by a president, now over a century and a half ago, we pause on Thursday of this week to give thanks.  That freedom, granted each of us, allows us to find the words or format or means, suited to our disposition, to express the wonderment of our being.

Given that at this very moment we sit in this sacred space, it is only appropriate that we look to scripture for an understanding of how others of faith were instructed in giving thanks.  Think back, if you would, to several Sundays ago, when the gospel of the day some posed the question of paying taxes to Caesar.  The simplicity of Christ’s response left speechless those who had attempted to catch him up.  Jesus’ response was a non-threatening question: Who provided the ore out of which the coin was forged?  His answer is also one of simple logic: It is, then, not to the originator, to whom we owe ultimately allegiance and prayers of thanksgiving?  ‘Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, but to God that which belongs to God.’

I lay before you as evidence the Book of Deuteronomy, not in our lectionary for this 25th Sunday after Pentecost.  I do so, not only for our own good, but to illustrate where the Hebrew in the time of the Judges, which is our Old Testament lectionary for this day, had gone awry.  They had forgotten or chosen to ignore the instruction of the Deuteronomist. 

In Deuteronomy (26:1-11) there is a commandment that reads “…you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” (vs.11)  The land that the people, then the Israelites, had come to call home was a gift outright from the God who created it.  All the other gifts which came from that land came, as well, from the hand of a generous and gracious God, and it is to that God that thanks are due.

The text in Deuteronomy is a liturgy, a set of rubrics, for the presentation of the first fruits at the central sanctuary.  It sets forth when and how the people of the land would make a harvest pilgrimage (Deut. 16:9-12) to the sanctuary, in order to give thanks to God for the gift of the land and for God’s bounteous blessing.   

What the Deuteronomist knew and feared was that the ancient Israelites would believe that the land was given them by virtue of some special innate goodness, a birthright, and by virtue of the strength of their armies to subdue those who were in the land prior to their arrival.  The Deuteronomist feared that the Israelites would believe that power made right.   

What the Deuteronomist knew was this: Before the Israelites came to possess the land, the land was.  It was God who had created the land, and it was God who had placed the Israelites in charge of the land, in order to be those people, God’s showcase, who established a place on earth where all peoples, with all their quirks and foibles, might come together to enjoy each other’s common humanity and the fruits of their combined labor, which was the intent of the Creator at the time of the Creation. 

On Thursday of this week, all across our nation, we pause, in part because one president asked those under his leadership and care, to look at each other as creatures of one family.  Women and men, girls and boys will sit down together at Thanksgiving tables, some in homes, some in restaurants, some in war zones, some in soup kitchens.  There, they may or may not bow their heads, but in some form or other they will reflect on where they have been in the 12 months prior.  And as we/they pause, it is also my prayer that we should also not forget those women and men who will not be seated at the table, but who sit in watch over our national security that we may pause.  

As at the beginning of my meditation I reached back to the Deuteronomist, so now I reach to a poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who benefitted from another of President Lincoln’s proclamations.  Paul Laurence Dunbar is a black American poet whom I discovered ages ago in a college English class.  Born 27 June 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been slaves in Kentucky, Paul Laurence Dunbar, writing in Black dialect, gained in his short 33 years of life (died 9 February 1906 in Dayton, Ohio) international acclaim.  He allows us to pause but encourages us to an active thanksgiving.  Paul Laurence Dunbar writes:

The Lord had a job for me / But I had so much to do,
I said, “You get somebody else / or wait til I get through.”
I don’t know how the Lord came out, / But He seemed to get along.
But I felt kind of sneakin’ like– / knowed I’d done god wrong.

One day I needed the Lord– / Needed Him right away;
But He never answered me at all, / I could hear Him say,
Down in my accusin’ heart: “Brother, I’se got too much to do;
You get somebody else, / Or wait til I get through.”

Now, when the Lord he have a job for me, / I never tries to shirk;
I drops whatever I have on hand, / And does the good Lord’s work.
And my affairs can run along, / Or wait til I get through;
Nobody else can do the work / That God marked out for you.

It is easy to forget that we are not the creator, the benefactor, but rather the recipients, such that Thanksgiving becomes a time to do just that, to give thanks, to God for all the blessings we have as individuals and as a people. 

Deuteronomy and Judges, the scriptural background of Christ’s teachings to us, are in complete agreement with Paul Lawrence Dunbar who tells us in poetic verse that when we give thanks, we need to be mindful, as a member of larger, more inclusive family at prayer, than we may be used to: the extended family, the stranger, and the sojourner.

We express pride and thanksgiving for Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s call to individual reflection and action, a call that reminds us, we ought always to pray and that our prayer should be one of unending thanksgiving to a God of faithfulness who acts in history, through other people like you and me, to make known to all that life is a gift outright, and it is to be received and shared.  To God be praised and glory.  Amen