Thanksgiving in a time of Trial

  • Psalm 118
  • Matthew 11:28-30

The Psalmist proclaims with assurance the enduring faithfulness of God and gives thanks in the midst of trouble. Jesus calls his disciples who bear heavy burdens to remove the weight that they carry and take on his load instead, which is light and easy and in which they will find rest.

I feel like in a way that here in Thanksgiving, this is the wrong season and I am the wrong person to talk about grief and loss and God’s presence through though times. Certainly there have been those, even in our midst who have felt death and loss closely in these last weeks and months, who have struggled with illness, who have felt the wrenching change of employment, relationship, or place. I am ill equipped, from my own experience to be able to testify to God’s enduring faithfulness through times of difficulty and great trouble, especially in this time of new life and celebration in my own budding family.

Not only in our church family, but in the world this has been a year of upheaval and struggle and sorrow. We can easily look around us and see examples of what seems God-forsaken and lost – the war in Iraq, war, violence and famine in Africa, natural disasters in Asia, to say nothing of economic injustices, racism and gender inequality. No doubt about it, we have much to be sorrowful and cynical about – even me, even now.

In youth Sunday school we practice sharing the ‘sand’ and ‘oil’ of our week each Sunday. This is a practice that Adam began in his tenure as youth pastor and which we’ve carried on because it is good symbolic language…The sand is the times which have felt dry and god-forsaken and the oil is the times that have been good and anointed. And yet, in our sharing, I often find – with both the youth and the Sunday school teachers – that we share how the sand and oil are mingled. What has been difficult and gritty is also when we know God to be most present and feel ourselves to be growing in ways that what is easy does not allow. Or what we feel as an exciting new beginning may also be the loss of a precious old something.

The writer of the psalms may not use the language of sand and oil, but in Psalm 118, what is grievous and what is joyous are mingled line by line. Listen to the Psalmist, who begins,

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever.”

This writer was “surrounded,” “falling,” “cut off.” And yet we see written,

“Out of my distress, I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on y side, I do not fear…It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.”

I can still remember in my interview with the search committee when I was a candidate for my position a particular questions – what was one book that impacted me in the last year. I think it was Hillary who asked, and my answer was Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers. He acknowledges the suffering and evil in the world and yet acknowledges also the present working of God for good. Wink’s theology insists that God is indeed acting and battling in the world against the powers of injustice – against the powers of princes or principalities. God is fighting madly against the power of violence, against the domination system that enslaves people and nations. God is at work in the world! There are battles being won in spite of the powers being so strong.

Wink’s theology is provocative because in it, God is not omnipotent. God is not omnipotent. This does not mean that God is impotent, but God cannot with a snap of the fingers wipe out AIDS in Africa. God does act independently, yet is also through our prayers and actions that God continues the battle

“God may be unable to intervene directly, but nevertheless showers the world with potential coincidences that require only a human response to become miracles. When the miracle happens, we feel that God has intervened in a special way. But God does not intervene only occasionally. God is the constant possibility of transformation pressing on every occasion, even those that are lost for lack of a human response.”

The constant possibility of transformation. When we pray God can act without destroying our free will. God needs our prayers and our actions. As we pray for and look for God presence and action in the world, we will see it.

I heard someone on the radio say passionately in the wake of the recent election results, which we all know by now favoured the democratic party for the house and senate – “There is a God.” I have heard similar sentiments echoed from people here and elsewhere. Was God absent? Can we say that because the Republicans held the house the senate that God took a 12 year break, or that all God’s work will be done through these leaders?

It may be true that God can do better work through this configuration of government – that remains to be seen – but is absolutely untrue that God stopped working in the lives of faithful people – in the lives of all people in this country and everywhere. Perhaps it would behove us to put on the lenses of the Psalmist, who is able to see the work of God in the midst of oppression, and to rejoice in God not in governments. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in Princes.” God works in spite of princes and presidents as well as through them.

It is always astonishing to me when I hear about or have an experience with people who have such faith in the face of trial. It is humbling and moving when those have very little, or who have great struggle, are so gracious and indeed grateful for their lives and all they have. When I was in Guatemala about four years ago in a seminary class on liberation theology, I had the opportunity to spend the night in a village in the hills outside Guatemala City. I stayed in a house that was cinder block and tile and had mismatched rooms added onto it for family members as they grew and married and had children.

Some of my classmates stayed in one room houses with out-door toilets and dirt floors. The people we stayed with were all members of a Mennonite church (a building with cardboard covering the holes in the walls and about half the size of the adult study room). When we worshipped with them what was astonishing was the passion with which they gave thanks, over and over and over, the joyful song, and the gracious welcome – people who knew poverty and unemployment, the pollution of their one source of drinking water, had relatives disappeared and killed. I’m sure many of you who have walked and worked and worshiped with people in countries less fortunate than this one where wealth is concerned, have had similar experiences.

What was clear was that in this community, there was a trust in Christ and dependence on God that is not always evident in the affluent communities in the west. With the psalmist these Guatemalan brothers and sisters were trusting not in the work or princes but in God. We are called to much the same. We do have our personal grief and sorrow, and we have the weight of the world – indeed haven’t I just insisted that we must pray for the world and act in God’s behalf. But… that’s not the end of the story. Jesus does not invite us into a life that will further burden us. Instead, we can hand over our sorrow and grief, we can hand over the guilt of not being able to do enough, the weariness of the world and take on instead the yoke of Christ.

“Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle, and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden in light.”

When I shared my own weariness and struggle with adapting to a new job and city and community with a wise friend last year she told be about when her daughter was a toddler. This little girl was very tired and very grumpy and whiny and my friend was frustrated to no end with her. When her husband stepped through the door, the little girl turned to him, reached up and said to him, “Daddy, I cranky.” She was swept into her father’s arms and cuddled – nothing expected of her. My friend offered this advice – You just need to say to Jesus, “Jesus, I weary.” Our comforting image of Jesus and the faithful love of God appear in all shapes and forms and faces, including loving family who hug us when we are tired and cranky and worn.

This is true both of the weariness of grief and the world weariness that comes from struggling against a tide of a mad world. We can’t not feel pain, but we can let it be God’s pain. “We must let all the pain picked up be our receptor pass through us. But then we must not attempt to mend it all ourselves, but to do only what God calls us to do, and not one thing more.” And that is something for which we can give thanks.

Prayers of the People

God of every good gift, we give thanks, for this is the season of Thanksgiving, reminding us that we indeed have much for which to be thankful. We give thanks for the family and friends with whom many of us spent time over this past week, and for safety in travel for ourselves and loved ones. Your faithfulness endures forever.

In a word or phrase, offer to God your prayers of thanksgiving and praise.

Indeed, your faithful love endures forever, even in our greatest suffering and pain. Continue to be present in our grief, for those who have lost beloved family members, for those far away, for those struggling with illness and loss. These weeks of the holidays can be especially difficult when we feel grief mingled with the seasonal joy.

In a word or phrase offer your petitions.

Having heard our prayers, God, we trust that in your faithfulness to us, you will work. In the name of the one who takes our burdens, and promises to lighten our load, Amen.