Thanksgiving in a Plague Year

(Deut 8 / Psalm 65 / James 1:17-27 / Matthew 6:25-33)

Collect

Most merciful Father, we humbly thank you for all your gifts so freely bestowed upon us:  for life and health and safety, for strength to work and leisure to rest, for all that is beautiful in creation and in human life; but above all we thank you for our spiritual mercies in Christ Jesus our Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Here’s a question for you:  Is it possible to preach a Thanksgiving sermon in the midst of a pandemic?  That’s the question I’ve been grappling with as this day has approached.  It must be; priests and pastors around the world are doing it today.  So, the real issue apparently is not whether it’s possible to preach a Thanksgiving sermon, but rather what kind of Thanksgiving sermon it’s proper to preach in this plague year of 2020.

I looked backwards to the Thanksgiving sermons I preached in 2018 and 2019.  They are quite serviceable, true to Scripture, at least adequate if not inspiring.  But, I couldn’t recycle either one of them and preach it today, not that I would.  The “tone” would be off and I would appear a bit tone deaf myself — perhaps like Polyanna — or, worse still, insensitive to the real pain — physical, mental, and spiritual — this pandemic has caused and is causing.  The sermons are true, but they are not timely for our present circumstance.

I started one sermon and wrote for two, two and a half hours, knowing full well that it would not be the one I preached.  I wrote it to exorcise certain thoughts and words from my heart and mind — to exorcise my words so I might have some hope of hearing God’s words.  Then I worked an hour or so on a second attempt.  No good:  it preached “around” the given texts and not from them — a bit cowardly.  It’s a strange business, this writing of sermons, even in the best of times.  And these aren’t the best of times.

Well, if it must be done, best to grasp the nettle and get on with it.  Listen again to Jesus’ words from our Gospel lesson; his words are the nettle we must grasp:

Matthew 6:25–34 (ESV): 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. 

Do not be anxious about your life.  How does that sound to you right now?  We are as awash in anxiety as a fish is in water.  We can’t escape it.  It’s in every masked face we see, and in the eyes above the mask.  It’s in the distance between people and in the isolation that imprisons us in our homes.  It’s in the absence of family gatherings today or in the empty chairs around the table.  It’s in every media outlet we read or watch or hear; it overwhelms social media.  It’s in the graphs of Covid cases, Covid hospitalizations, and Covid deaths.  It’s the unspoken context of every conversation, the largest data point in every decision made.  “Do not be anxious about your life,” Jesus says, and we puzzle now, perhaps more than ever, over that seemingly impossible command — not a friendly suggestion, not merely an encouraging word, but a command:  Do not be anxious about your life.

I wish I could honestly tell you that I have banished anxiety from my life, but I can’t because I haven’t.  But, I’m working on it as a spiritual discipline, because I want to be faithful to our Lord and because I want my relationship with the Father to be like His relationship with the Father, the essence of which is love and trust:  God’s love for us, and our trust in Him.  God loves his creation, right down to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.  They are care free in the care of God.  God has not forgotten them, has not abandoned them for even a moment; He feeds them freely and clothes them with splendor.  Given that, Jesus asks this rhetorical question:  “Are you not of more value than they?”  And, if you are of more value that they — as of course you are — then how much more God will do for you than merely feed you or clothe you.  So, why are you anxious?  Why are we anxious?

Perhaps we don’t like the way God cares for us.  Even the Israelites grew tired of manna and quail:

Numbers 21:4–5 (ESV): 4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”

Are we perhaps anxious because we want something more or different than God provides — something beyond manna each morning, something beyond our daily bread?  Are we perhaps anxious because we want something more or different than the kingdom of God, when God has nothing more or different — and certainly nothing more glorious — to offer us than himself and his kingdom?  May I adapt the words of James, the brother of our Lord?

You desire and do not have, so you are anxious.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you worry.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your comfort and security (James 4:2-3, adapted).

God has given us himself this day, and has given us the day itself.  Do we want more?  Do we need more?  Are we anxious for more?

Are we perhaps anxious because we don’t know what tomorrow holds or because we are fearful that God might run out of provisions or might forget us?  Jesus’ words about that can sound a bit depressing on the surface, but there is great comfort there when read in light of the whole Sermon on the Mount.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. 

It sounds as if Jesus is saying, “You don’t have time to worry about tomorrow.  You’ll be too busy dealing with today’s troubles.”  I don’t think that quite captures his meaning.  Sure, we may have trouble today.  We do; we are in the midst of a plague.  But, we also have grace for today, grace that abounds freely from God, grace sufficient for this day’s trouble.  It’s not mainly about trouble; it’s mainly about grace.  And the same will be true tomorrow, when tomorrow comes.  What I do not have, what God does not necessarily give me, is tomorrow’s grace today.  Just as the Israelites had to gather manna each morning — daily bread provided by God — so I have to wait on God to provide each day’s grace, day by day, not in advance.  But, I know this:  just as God was faithful to provide manna in the wilderness day by day for forty years, so he has always been faithful to provide grace in my wilderness day by day for sixty-three years.  He has not failed me yet and I have no reason to believe he will fail me tomorrow.  I am as certain of tomorrow’s grace as if I already had it.  So we need not be anxious about tomorrow just because we don’t know what it holds or even if we are fairly certain that it holds trouble.  God will give us tomorrow’s grace tomorrow, and that is enough.  It has always been more than enough.

Perhaps we are anxious for our very lives or for the lives of those we love?  Rising infection and hospitalization rates throughout most of the country would seem to be cause for anxiety.  Hospital ICUs nearing maximum capacity and exceeding that in some places would seem to be cause for anxiety.  Over a quarter of a million deaths would seem to be cause for anxiety.  Now, I don’t want to minimize the devastating toll of this pandemic on human life, and I don’t want to be flippant about any of this.  But, here’s the truth.  I am going to die, and so are you, if the Lord tarries.  It seems this pandemic has caused many people to confront — to personally confront, to really confront — that difficult truth for perhaps the first time.  And that is a great, though perhaps hidden, grace.  To them, perhaps even to us, Jesus’ words initially may provide only cold comfort, if any comfort at all:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?

Is this just some kind of Jewish fatalism?  If it’s your time, it’s your time; no need to worry about it.  I don’t think so, because that’s not the Gospel.  Jesus tells us not to be anxious for our lives because they are in God’s hands.  Jesus tells us not to be anxious for our lives because, soon for him and long ago for us, death was defeated and no longer exercises any real power over us.  One day death will beckon us into its dark prison, and we will enter that cold door.  But, it will open not onto the grave but into paradise and the presence of God.  Our death is not a problem to be solved; that problem was solved on Calvary and in the Garden when Jesus died our death and rose again for our eternal life.  So, we need not be anxious for our lives.  I will die.  I may die in this pandemic, though I will take every reasonable and faithful precaution to prevent that.  But, when I die, by the grace of God, even at the grave I will make my song, Alleluia, Alleluia!

So, here’s a question for you:  Is it possible to preach a Thanksgiving sermon in the midst of a pandemic?  I think so, and it starts with these words:  Do not be anxious.  Not about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.  God knows, God cares, God’s grace abounds.  And that is reason enough, and more than enough, for Thanksgiving today, tomorrow, and every day unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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