Are You Hungry? Thanksgiving Day sermon

“Are you hungry?”
Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2013
RCL Year C: Dt. 26:1-11, Phil. 4:4-9, Jn 6:25-35
Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Norfolk, VA
The Rev. Gillian R. Barr

Are you hungry?   Are you hungry?

Today is a national holiday focused on thanksgiving and built around a feast–and to enjoy a feast, you need to be hungry!  I’ve been getting hungry all week as I’ve read my Facebook feed and seen all the menus and recipes people have posted of what they’re planning to eat this afternoon.

Sharing Thanksgiving menus and recipes on Facebook and via email has been an internet tradition for years.  But this year I’ve been seeing other things.  Some new holiday observances have cropped up this year.  Now, we know that today is Thanksgiving, and tomorrow is Black Friday, with door buster deals starting at midnight or dawn, and Monday is Cyber-Monday, when we sit at our desks at work and shop for deals online.  But this year I have also seen mention of the “30 Days of Gratitude,” where each day in November people post something they’re grateful for, with a special hash-tag. And tomorrow is not only Black Friday, now it’s also “Bless Friday.” instead of shopping we are encouraged to spend our time being involved in one hands-on act of service–whether at a food pantry or soup kitchen or any other service project–anything so long as it is a hands-on way of being a blessing to others.  And this coming Tuesday is now Giving Tuesday.   Giving Tuesday is a network of charitable organizations who have each registered a specific initiative for which they’re raising funds on Giving Tuesday.  We can give to charity online on Tuesday using the same credit card we shopped with on Cyber Monday and Black Friday.

As for Black Friday, it has been pointed out that “Only in America will people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.”

We have begun to realize that perhaps our celebration of this holiday and Christmas have gotten out of perspective.

We are hungry–so we try to fill that hunger with things and achievements.  What were meant as holidays to give thanks for abundance and to celebrate God’s love for us in the birth of Christ have become festivals of competitive giving, competitive bargain hunting, and competitive cooking.

But, there is some lingering memory of the true meaning of these holidays, and so people are creating new observances to recover the original themes of giving and gratitude.

This week a Canadian food critic wrote a column about how to best observe Thanksgiving–he’s already had his own Thanksgiving this year, since it happens in October in Canada.  He points out that in our desire to mimic the perfection seen on competitive cooking shows, we focus so much on the preparation of the meal, and people’s recognition of our culinary skills, that we forget that we are really throwing a dinner party.  At a dinner party our primary duty is to our guests, not to the food or to our reputation as cooks. Above all we are to make our guests feel welcomed, and valued, and part of the family or group gathered around a table.  We are to focus on ensuring our guests have an enjoyable day, not on whether our Instagram photos of the side dishes match the pictures in the foodie magazine.

Brené Brown is a Ph.D. psychologist and scholar from Texas, best known for some TED Talks she’s given on shame and vulnerability.  She’s also a devout Episcopalian.   For the past 10 years she has been studying what makes people able to be resilient in the face of things like anxiety, depression, and shame.  In her latest book she describes her conclusions about how to engage in what she calls “whole-hearted living.” She shares ten interrelated guideposts.  One is the relationship of joy and gratitude.  She’d noticed they were linked in some way. Before her research, which is in the style of deep ethnographic interviews, she’d assumed joy preceded gratitude–that grateful people are grateful precisely because they have so many joyful things in their lives.  But it turns out the causality runs the other way.  Gratitude is the prerequisite for joy.  It is people who have an intentional practice of being grateful who are the most joyous.

She points out that the two biggest things that get in the way of gratitude and thus of joy are fear and a sense of scarcity.  So it is no surprise that as we linger in the after-effects of a recession, and are surrounded by news of war and random mass shootings, when our national psyche is dominated by fear and scarcity, that we should so lose sight of gratitude and joy, instead substituting consumption and pleasure.

She also makes a useful distinction between joy and happiness.  Happiness is a transient emotion dependent on external events and stimuli.  If things are going well, we are happy; if they aren’t, we are unhappy.  Joy, in contrast is an abiding attitude, the product of regular gratitude, something more subtle but more sustaining than happiness.  But we focus on having happy holidays, instead of having merry and joyous ones.

Those who put together the New Revised Common Lectionary readings for today point us in the same direction–in Deuteronomy we are called to give thanks for what God has provided, and invite outsiders to share the abundance, and in Philippians we are told to “rejoice, always.”  Gratitude and joy are linked.

This week Pope Francis released a document which has been getting a lot of attention, a “papal exhortation. ” I don’t usually read papal writings except for academic purposes, but this Pope has such a habit of saying interesting things that I looked it up and am working my way through it.  It’s titled, “The Joy of Evangelization.” Now, for Episcopalians, the words “joy” and “evangelization” really don’t go together.  But another way of translating the title would be “The Joy of the Good News.”  All the photos of Pope Francis show a face full of joy.  In his exhortation he talks about the source of that joy: it is the joy of knowing yourself to be deeply loved by Christ.  Francis exhorts us to seek out and to be open to a personal encounter with Christ, an encounter with God’s incredible love.

Brené Brown, using more secular language, says that whole-hearted living requires us to embrace vulnerability and community, connection, belonging. and love.  Belonging is the desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.  Love requires us to be vulnerable, to allow our most authentic selves to be fully known and then to experience them as being accepted because of who we are, not in spite of it. She invites us to claim our innate worthiness and dignity rather than thinking we have to  hustle for it via achievements or competition or consumption.   Just as Pope Francis says that the source of our worth and our joy is to know that we are truly loved by Christ–it doesn’t matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we’ve done–and we are invited to open ourselves to an encounter with that love.

Now we get to the Gospel lesson.  The passage we just heard comes just after John’s version of the feeding of the 5000 when Jesus commands his disciples to feed thousands of hungry people with three loaves and two fish.  The people, amazed by this sign, follow Jesus to his next resting point, and he then engages them in the dialogue I just read.  He points them away from a focus on satisfying their physical hunger, and towards God’s feeding of them in a more profound way.

John’s language about eating Jesus who is the true bread, points us here–to the Eucharist, where we eat the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.  As you probably remember from “Episcopal 101” or 102, Eucharist, a Greek word, means “thanksgiving.”  The prayer we will say over the bread and the wine in a few minutes is called “The Great Thanksgiving.”  Lift up your hearts–it is right at all times and in all places to give God thanks and praise.   This is the ultimate place of gratitude.

We believe we meet Christ in flesh and blood in some mysterious way in this supper.

Jesus invites us to be his friends and to share this dinner party with him, to celebrate the dignity of being loved by God.

And so we come.  We bring our hunger here, our hunger for connection and belonging, our hunger for joy and meaning.  Our hunger that the story of our faith is actually true–that God loves us and is alongside us in all parts of our lives.

We come with hunger, we come sensing that the food offered here, the connection and communion offered here, the gratitude invited here, will satisfy that hunger and quench our thirst in a way deeper than any other recipe.

I want to close by telling you about Sara Miles. She is a writer and editor in her 50s who is the author of an amazing spiritual memoir titled, Take This Bread.  Which, if you haven’t read, I strongly recommend you do.   She grew up in an atheist household, totally non-religious–but she has always sought out deep connections with people, and found profound meaning in sharing food, both in her years working as a cook, and when she found herself being fed by others when she worked as a reporter in the midst of civil wars in Central America in the 1980s, where she found herself  constantly being  offered food by those who seemingly had nothing.

One day, on a whim, she walked into St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.  St. Gregory of Nyssa is a test-bed for innovative liturgy, and one of their distinctive features is that after communion, the altar vessels are cleared away and then coffee hour is served right there, on the altar.  Sacred feeding and mystical communion leads immediately to more mundane feeding and fellowship.  Sara happened to walk into the church during a communion service.  She received communion, having no idea of the Christian tradition or of what she was doing.  But when she put the bread in her mouth she had what was almost a mystical experience, and knew with certainty that Jesus was real.

Her first encounter with Jesus in communion was a mystical one, and isn’t necessary what we experience each time we come to the rail. But she kept coming back, and that initial mystical encounter deepened into a more embodied one, as she found herself accepted by the community, welcomed to the Table and to the body of believers, even though as a single mom who lived in a bad part of town and who didn’t have a college degree or a steady income, she did not look anything like the upper-middle-class people who made up the congregation at St Gregory Nyssa.  Yet she was finding herself becoming more deeply connected to them as she joined them around the altar each week. And then she was invited to serve, to feed others as a Eucharistic minister.

Her experience of radical and total acceptance and love first led to her serving within that community.  But then she began to take Jesus’ words about feeding his sheep literally–and found herself compelled to begin a food pantry at St Gregory’s.  The altar that served the bread of the Body of Christ and the canapés of coffee hour now also became the same table from which several tons of healthy food are distributed every Friday to 300 or more people from San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods. And then it expanded into a network of food pantries across the city.

One way that Sara would recruit volunteers for the food bank was to work the crowd of worshipers at Sunday coffee hour.  She would tell them about the food bank and then she would invite them, “This Eucharist continues on Friday–come feed, and be fed.”

There it is again–the interplay of feeding and being fed, of hunger and food, of being served and serving, of gratitude leading to service.

So we come forward here today, we come forward with hunger but also with gratitude.  We come to be fed here–to feed on God and be fed by God –and then we go forth, to be fed and to feed others at other tables and places–in our houses, and in our parish hall [where the Thursday Lunch ministry is feeding the homeless and working poor as we speak], and on street corners.   Amen.


Sources in Order Referenced

“Bless Friday”

“Giving Tuesday”

Black Friday and many similar memes

Mintz, Corey. “In the End, It’s Not About the Food.” New York Times, Dining Section, November 26, 2013

Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection: let go of what you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.  Hazelden, 2012.

Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, of The Holy Father Francis To The Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons And The Lay Faithful On The Proclamation Of The GospelIn Today’s World.

Miles, Sara.  Take This Bread: a radical conversion. New York: Ballentine Books, 2006.

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