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Ephesians 1:15-23, from The Message
“I do not cease to give thanks for you,” said the writer of the letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul or one of his disciples. “I do not cease to give thanks.”
In another letter, written to a different church, Paul echoed this theme. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he told the Philippians. And then, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
It sounds straightforward enough until you stop to consider that the recipients of his letters were being persecuted for their faith. Until you consider that Paul, the rejoicing ambassador in chains, was writing from prison.
The German poet Rilke described his art with these seemingly simple and occasionally impossible words: “I praise.”
O tell us poet, who do you do.—I praise.
Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous phase,
how do you take it, how resist? —I praise.
No matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how extreme the scenario posed by his imaginary interrogator, Rilke’s answer remains the same: I praise.
Yet he had suffered from debilitating depression.
Diedra Kreiwald, one of my seminary professors, was 25 years old and newly married when she and her husband led a church mission trip to Mexico. Their hard work done, they were enjoying a few days’ relaxation before going home when there was an accident. Diedra’s husband and three young people were killed.
I don’t know how long Diedra’s grief lasted, how angry she got at God, how she managed to get through the lonely nights, how many twists and turns her spiritual journey took, or how often she struggled to trust anything or anyone at all.
But when she wrote a book about her experience, a book about suffering and grief, faith and life, she called it Hallelujah Anyhow.
Which is, essentially, how legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen ended his most well-known, endlessly covered song [sing]:
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah
And when President Abraham Lincoln issued Proclamation 118 declaring the last Thursday of November “a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe,” the year was 1864 and the United States was, quite literally, at war with itself. Two years earlier, 22,000 men had been killed in a single day at Antietam; a year after that, 51,000 had died at Gettysburg; and the war raged on.
Still, Lincoln said that it had “pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad and vouchsafing to us in His mercy many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household.”
Considering the nation’s blood-soaked battlefields, death-ravaged families, and bitter hatreds, Lincoln declared a day of repentance, prayer, and thanksgiving. It must have seemed an odd—or desperate—prescription for a nation well on its way to self-destruction, but the president said, in essence, Do not cease to give thanks. Rejoice in the Lord always. Praise. Hallelujah anyway.
So here we are, on the brink of another Thanksgiving holiday. For a change, the most pressing issue at our privileged tables may not be how to slice our abundance, whether to have stuffing or dressing, sweet potato casserole or mashed potatoes with gravy, pumpkin pie, apple, or pecan—or a little of each. This Thanksgiving finds our nation, once again, deeply, even painfully, divided. While some Americans are thrilled with the prospect of setting America on a much more conservative track, and some simply want a Trump administration to attend to their needs for decent-paying jobs and economic security, others have felt emboldened to harass and even attack women, African Americans, Muslims, immigrants and LGBTQ folks.
Many of us, meanwhile, are mired in a surreal fog of grief and fear, almost immobilized by a growing horror at what is happening and what it could mean for people we love, issues we care about, the earth that we live on. The headlines reflect events almost unfathomable (white nationalists in the White House? an anti-immigrant, racist-talking senator as attorney general? in 2016?). We want to take a stand, we want to stand strong, and yet the ground is shifting beneath our feet. We are newly committed to trying to understand those with views different than ours, but we are appalled by the hatreds laid bare and the behaviors unleashed. We vow to organize, to resist, to double down in our commitments to justice and peace, equality, diversity, basic constitutional protections and just plain kindness, but every day the implications of the situation become a bit clearer—and we are tempted to despair.
Thanksgiving, meanwhile, is upon us.
Thanksgiving, a holiday that for many in our midst this year will also mean an empty chair at the table, a gaping hole in the heart.
How do we make a joyful noise at a time like this? How can we worship with gladness? When the world seems to be coming apart at the seems, how can we give thanks?
Our wise friends in recovery remind us to take one day at a time. The psalmist, the prophets, our Jewish siblings, and the spirituals call us to remember the mighty things God has done for us, the times in our lives when the Holy One made a way out of no way. Jesus tells us to consider the dazzling lilies of the field and that our Creator loves us even more than these and will satisfy our every need. Time and again Jesus says to the lame, the left out, the lonely, and the despondent, “Take heart.”
Take heart, your sins are forgiven. Take heart, your faith has made you well. Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.
And our newest beloved holy writ, the songs of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” tell us to [sing] “look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!”
So look around. Look around:
At the beloved child of God we have affirmed and blessed this morning, well aware of the many ways they have already blessed us with their honest struggle and open embrace of a sometimes dangerous truth.
Look around at all the new, creative, and hopeful ways people have started coming together since November 9th: In our own pews, where a post-election service that began with angry moans of lament ended with candlelight and shouts of intention; on social media and in peaceful protests all across the country; on college campuses nationwide and right here in Amherst, where immigrants’ rights are being defended; atop Mt. Tom yesterday, where an interfaith group gathered to reclaim and consecrate a space recently desecrated by hateful graffiti; at reports of an event in Seattle yesterday where friends and strangers clasped hands and created a cord of human kindness three miles long.
Look around at all we have, which surely is more than we need.
Look around at our children and their wide-eyed wonder, their trusting hearts, their God-given sense that anything is possible.
Look around at this community of faith, which has survived and thrived, been challenged and changed through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the culture wars, and how even now, in these days of the church’s much belabored decline, the homeless and the outcasts are welcomed, the hungry are fed, babes in faith are baptized and the weak in faith are beloved, the sick visited, the old cared for, the disabled upheld, the hurting simply held. Look around and marvel at our generosity, our ministries of peace, justice and compassion, our commitment to both reconciliation and, when necessary, resistance.
Look around even at yesterday’s Cranberry Fair, a decades-old tradition coordinated by a 20-year-old: at the neighbors and strangers buying treasures for a song, at the once-a-year members who work hard to make it happen, at the 60-, 70- and 80-somethings whose love and dedication wouldn’t let them be anywhere else, at one stalwart couple heroically serving lunch to throngs of shoppers; at a bright-eyed daughter working the white elephants’ room wearing her dead mother’s name tag, sitting in her mother’s spot and doing her beloved mother’s job, at a new widower who leaves his post as cashier of the luncheon cafe only to return a while later, limping along slowly, carrying a Thanksgiving turkey he has just bought for Not Bread Alone.
Look around at the world God so loves, so many broken and hurting people. Look around at our divided and fear-filled nation, and consider that it needs God’s love and our faithful resistance more than ever. Look to the One who made us, redeems us, and sustains us still. Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who reminds us to take heart and not be afraid, because a seed must die before new life can be born.
Look around and consider all that you’ve been given. Look around and ask where your gifts are most needed. Look within, and remember who and whose you are—even now, especially now.
Look around right here, right now, at your siblings in faith and love.
Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive and together and beloved for just such a time as this.
Friends, how can we keep from singing? Even as the darkness deepens, how can we not give thanks? God is good, and God’s steadfast and extravagant love endures forever. God is good, and living and working within and among us. It is God that made us and we are God’s beloved people, the sheep of God’s verdant pasture. The Lord is our shepherd; we shall lack nothing.
So let us not cease to give thanks. Let us rejoice in the Lord always. No matter what happens, let us not fail to praise.
And from the depths of our being, the rawness of our grief, and the freshness of our fears, let us shout with all our might, HALLELUJAH ANYWAY!