Thanksgiving Message by Rev Jenny Carter
October 7, 2018
(Based on Psalm 126)
So here we are! Another Thanksgiving Sunday. A day sandwiched in a long week-end where families and friends gather and do what families and friends do. We eat, we remember, we celebrate weddings, grieve lives lost, we sometimes fight, but mostly we simply love one another the best ways we know how. Thanksgiving is awesome.
While Thanksgiving has been marketed as a harvest festival where we buy the biggest turkey we can, cook for days, and enjoy pumpkin spiced lattes as we shop for Halloween decorations, it is something quite different in the church. In a community of faith such as ours, thanksgiving is a time set aside to practice being grateful for the abundance we have. Not a harvest festival. Not a celebration of abundant bank accounts. Not even a celebration of turkey. But a festival of faith that celebrates all of the beautiful things that life has to offer, and delivers, when we remember to look at our world through the eyes of a pilgrim, instead of the eyes of a tourist.
Tourists are not particularly connected to the places they travel to. They visit towns and cities and they rush to see the sights, furiously ticking off the places visited, post photos to their Facebook and Instagram accounts, buy souvenirs and return home unchanged by the experience. Tourists use themselves as a reference point, so things are either good or not good, based on how it affects them, and they tend to see only the surface of a situation. Pilgrims, on the other hand, look at the world and the events in front of them differently. A pilgrim looks upon the world and seeks to understand what they are seeing. A pilgrim looks for the meaning, and the struggle, and the hope that is constantly unfolding in front of them.
When I was in Israel and Palestine, there were definitely times I was more a tourist than a pilgrim. For example, the food in Israeli hotels is amazing. Such abundance! Fresh fruit and vegetables of all kinds, lavishly laid out. Different kinds of freshly baked, still warm, bread piled high, with buckets of butter just waiting to spread on it. Beef and chicken and fish served in so many different ways it was really hard to choose what you were going to eat. And the desserts! Well, let’s just say I still dream about some of them.
The food in Palestinian hotels is not the stuff of dreams. Our first night in Palestinian territory, we stayed in Bethlehem at a marvellous hotel, and, tired after a long day of seeing the sights, I was looking forward to the feast that would surely be waiting for us. (I had become quite spoiled by that time in the trip.) The food was “okay”. Choice of what to eat was limited. Fresh fruit and vegetables found their way into a couple of salads, but so did some kind of smoked fish, so those were a no go. And, I was pretty sure I spotted a hotdog floating in some kind of tomato sauce. Let’s just say, I made good friends with the pita bread that night.
So, as a tourist, I made a mental note that the hotel didn’t serve good food, and if I ever made my way back to Bethlehem, that hotel would be off my list. Then I had a conversation with our tour guide. He told me that because of the wall and certain trade restrictions imposed by the Israeli government, Palestinians had difficulty accessing meats, cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, and just about everything else that made the lives of tourists so great on the other side of the wall. He went on to tell me that the food we were being served was the very best they had to offer, and that none of the Palestinians who prepared that food would be eating that well in their own homes.
It was after that conversation that I began to look at my experience in Bethlehem with the eyes of a pilgrim. What I saw then was a generous, hospitable, hard-working people that went without, so that I could have the best food they had to offer and the best experience they could give me. So instead of focusing on the amount and quality of the food, I saw the abundance of grace and love that went into the meal. The pilgrim experience is very different than the experience of the tourist.
The psalm we heard read this morning is a psalm all about seeing the world and life through the eyes of a pilgrim. Imagine it. The people have just returned to their homeland after the 60 plus years spent as slaves in Babylon. Since most of them would have been born in Babylon, born into slavery, their memories of what Jerusalem and the Temple had been were borrowed from their parents. The older generation would have told of the big, beautiful city filled with markets and homes and shops – and they would have most certainly told the young ones about the stunningly gorgeous Temple – and how it was a beautiful building filled with beautiful art and rich tapestries.
Yet sometimes the stuff of memory and the lived reality of the moment are nothing alike. You see the people singing this psalm as they made their way up to the temple mount, were not making their way through a beautiful city filled with shops, and markets and homes. They were not walking toward a beautiful temple filled with rich art and gorgeous tapestries. They were singing this song while walking through a city that had been destroyed by the Babylonian army 60 years prior, and walking up to the temple mount to see, not a temple, but a pile of rocks where a temple once stood.
Did you notice the words to the psalm? They were happy and hopeful and joyous. Had they been looking upon their lives with the eyes of the tourist we would have heard about the destruction, and how all those tumbled down buildings made life uncomfortable, and difficult and sad and scary. Yet they are seeing their lives through the eyes of a pilgrim – so they do not see the scarcity or the inconvenience, they see an abundance of blessings. They see their freedom. They see their being restored to their home. They see their history, their families, their religious centre, and they see their God, in front of them – all things that had been denied them for 60 years, was now right there, and a part of their reality.
The truth is we often go through our own lives, more as tourists than pilgrims. We focus more on the mundane aspects of life than the holy ones. In fact, modern life is structured in ways that encourage us to act like tourists in our own lives. We don’t have time to sit and talk and get to know one another – and when we do sit with one another we have learned to make small talk, so that we can all just have a pleasant chat. We have jobs to do and standards to keep, so our “to do” lists grow ever longer and we often become distracted and exhausted. We live in a society that values workaholics and sleep deprivation, and rugged individualism. No wonder we move through our lives like tourists. When you’re running so fast, you only have time to see the surface of things.
Today, Thanksgiving, is about hitting the reset button and learning to look at ourselves and our life through the eyes of the pilgrim. When we look through pilgrim eyes, we can see the Holy at work and at play. And when we walk through our lives in the expectation of seeing God and blessings – guess what – we see God and blessings. Pilgrims see the world differently. Pilgrims no longer see the world as a place where scarcity rules, but a place of abundance – and once we see the abundance, our fists unclench, and we begin to live in more open, more generous, and more loving, ways.
So, how do we stop being tourists in our own life? Well the first thing we need to do is pay attention. We need to pay attention to our feelings, to the people that share our lives, and to the big wide world in which we live. And, we need to pay attention to our tears.
I came across a quote by the theologian Frederick Beuchner. He writes, “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially the unexpected tears, pay really close attention. Your tears are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, God is speaking to you through them. God is speaking through your tears and telling you something about the mystery of where you have come from, and is summoning you to where it is you should go next.” I often find myself at airports, and every time I get off the plane and enter through the arrival gates tears always spring to my eyes. I see grandparents hugging their grandchildren – partners reuniting by baggage carousels – I see friends gathering and going on adventures – and I am reminded that I live in a world filled with love. And that realization is so beautiful to me, it moves me to tears.
All of us have had tears spring to our eyes. Sometimes our tears come from sadness and grief – sometimes they come from anger – and sometimes they come from glimpsing something of great beauty. Sometimes our tears are expected, and sometimes they come at the most peculiar times and in the most inconvenient of places. Yet all tears have something to teach us, and if we pay attention, we can even hear God speak through them. This is the Holy – this is God – reminding you to look with pilgrim eyes upon the delightful mystery that is you, your family and your world. Reminding you of the mystery of where you have come from, and where it is you need to go next if your soul is to be healed and your hearts made whole. So this Thanksgiving, may you notice the tears in your eyes, and through them, may you see the beauty, the grace, and the abundance of blessings that surround you today, and every day.