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Romans 8:18-19, 22-23
Isaiah 65:17-25, from the Common English Bible
You and I and all creation were born into a world made of gifts. And while we sometimes forget that, there are places in this world that refuse to forget. And there are peoples in those places for whom remembering and naming the gifts is both sacred ritual and a way of viewing and understanding the world that shapes their lives.
In the tiny Onandaga Nation, located in what we know as central New York State, the Onandega descendants of the Iroquois Confederacy follow an “ancient protocol” of remembering and giving thanks. These native peoples have been proclaiming the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address since before anyone alive can remember, and for all that time they have been giving it precedence, reciting the long and detailed address whenever they gather, before they do anything else. 1 Indeed, another name for the address in the Onandaga language is the Words That Come Before All Else.
So central is the Thanksgiving Address to the peoples’ understanding of the world and their place in it that their children recite it in elementary school, at the beginning of the day. Instead of pledging allegiance to a flag and the republic for which it stands, they give “greetings and thanks” to one another, the world, and the Creator of it all.
The address is divided into different parts of the natural world, beginning with the people and the Earth Mother, and including waters and fish, plants and herbs, edible plants and trees, birds and other animals, the four winds and thunder and lightning, sun and moon and stars, the elders, and the Creator.
Including the closing words, there are 18 sections in all, and each one ends with the phrase, “Now our minds are one.”
It is interesting to me that this phrase resembles Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and all who will seek to follow him. Jesus prayed “that they may all be one,” 2 and when the United Church of Christ was formed in 1957, it took as its motto “That they may all be one.” To this day, the words are printed on the UCC logo: “That they may all be one.”
Can you imagine taking the essence of that prayer to heart in the way the Haudenosaunee peoples have? Can you imagine beginning each day by standing in a circle, looking your beloveds and your not-so-beloveds in the eye and saying not once but 18 times, “Now our minds are one?” Not may they be one, not “help us to recognize that we are one” but the repeated statement that we are one, that, thanks to the Creator, we and every living thing are kin to one another.
How might that practice shape us? How would it shape a community? How might it change the way we experience the world and our place in it? How might it change the world as we know it?
Our scriptures, which are at least part of our thanksgiving address, tell us that we live in a world where everyone and everything was made to be one. A world where all would be beloved. Where everything would work together. Where everyone would sit under their own fig tree. Where everyone would have a home for living out their long, healthy years. A world where even the wolf and the lamb would graze together and the lion and the lamb would lie down together. Where the river of life would never run dry. Where there would be more than enough for everyone.
That is the world of gifts that was made for us. That is the world we were made for. That is God’s vision for us and all creation: That all creation might flourish. That all might have more than enough. That all might be one. That all might be whole. That all might know goodness and peace. That all might give and receive with the same freedom and joy as the sugar maple that turns sunlight into sap and the oak that drops acorns like so many love notes to the land. That we might know God’s love for us not only through Jesus, but also through every human, through every sunrise and sunset, through every living creature and plant. That we might love as extravagantly and indiscriminately as we have been loved.
That is the world that was made for us, but it is not exactly the world we live in. We live in a wonderful world made of gifts, and yet we don’t live in the world as it is meant to be. We don’t live as we are meant to be. The natural, life-giving cycle of giving and receiving and mutual care and flourishing has been broken. Clearly, we are not all one, and we certainly do not live in peace. And we haven’t exactly done a great job of loving one another.
And yet this is what we long for, mostly unconsciously—because this Love is who and what we were made for. This world of equally shared, more-than-enough, a fig tree in every yard is what we were made for. This world of clapping trees, singing mountains, and justice that rolls down like clean, lead-free waters is what we were made for. This world of lions and lambs and more species than we can count, none of them going extinct, is what we were given and what we were made for.
But we forget that sometimes. We who may not even remember to say thank you for the gift of a new day before our feet hit the floor and we are off and running to the races—much less recite an 18-part thanksgiving address—are mostly unaware of how deeply our spirits long for rich, life-giving relationship with our Creator and all creation.
And so we spend our money on what doesn’t feed us, and our labor on a thousand different things that don’t satisfy. We hold tightly to what we have because we are afraid of not having enough. We become consumers and takers, and we strive to dominate and control, thinking that this will satisfy our longing or at least numb the emptiness or make us feel less fearful.
But these ways of living are mere symptoms and signs of our longing, not solutions for it. Our scriptures tell us, and science confirms, that even the natural world is longing—for wholeness, for mutual flourishing, for redemption, which is another way of saying, “Come back, sweet world” to the way things are meant to be.
So how do we satisfy this deep, shared longing for union and harmony, love and peace? I believe that our scriptures, our brother Jesus, our traditions, our indigenous neighbors, our natural kin, and even our open hearts tell us that there is a way to do it. And I believe the way is made by a powerful combination of grace and gratitude, community and generosity, faith and hope, gentleness and confrontation, and full and open-hearted participation in the holy cycle of receiving and giving, giving and receiving.
By now the members of our Loaves and Fishes Ministry Team are probably wondering when I am going to get around to speaking more directly about the importance of each and every one of us pledging generously to the church. Well, I will get to that, especially next week, but I want to be clear: I think we are talking about giving generously whenever we talk about how to live and how to follow Jesus, because we cannot live fully without giving freely. Because loving is the essence of living, and because giving and sharing are at the heart of loving.
I am trying to talk about giving and living and loving in something of the way that Jesus did: by acknowledging our fears and our struggles and engaging our very deepest selves. By liberating us to become who we were created to be. By assuring us of the scandalous, extravagant love of God, and by promising us that another world—the world that was meant to be—is possible, even while encouraging us to give thanks for the amazing world of gifts that is.
So, yes, this quirky, wonderful, inspiring, loving, and giving part of the world known as First Church Amherst needs your generous gifts of time, talent, and treasure. But even more than that we need you to know you are loved. We need you to know you are not alone. We need you to know that you are a vital part of something much bigger than yourself. We need you to know you have an important part to play in loving and healing this world that God so loves. We need you to know that we see you and we feel you, that our longing hearts and humble minds are one with yours. Because then you will understand that giving generously—by which I mean more than you think you can give—frees you up and makes you happy and helps to change the world.
What is your thanksgiving address?
Think about it, and may your heart and your treasure be one.