This sermon was delivered at the 104th ecumenical Thanksgiving service in which the congregations of St. Anselm Catholic Church, St. John's Episcopal Church, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, and First Presbyterian Church gather to give thanks. The service was held November 21 at St. Anselm Catholic Church, Ross, CA.
Lesson: Sirach 50:22-24
You may or may not know this: Sirach, one of the four lectionary passages for tonight, is not part of the Protestant canon. Which is to say, it’s not in the Bible used by Presbyterians or Episcopalians. It’s a long story but the quick and dirty version is that there were some Hebrew scriptures that were included in the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, but left out of the Hebrew Bible approved by the ancient rabbis. Those books are part of the Roman Catholic Bible, and – I only know this because I looked it up – and the Orthodox Bible. But they aren’t in the Protestant Bible. I didn’t even know how to pronounce Sirach. I had to look it up and there were differences of opinion, so someone can correct me later. And then, I realized I may never have another opportunity to preach from Sirach. So that is what I’m going to do.
Tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day, many of us will sit down with family, friends and loved ones to share a meal. Many of us will say grace, and we may pray something pretty close to the words of Sirach:
May God give us gladness of heart,
and may there be peace in our days
in Israel, as in the days of old.
May God entrust to us God’s mercy,
and may God deliver us in our days.
A good prayer, a worthy prayer. O God, give us gladness of heart, peace and mercy. We will pray this for ourselves and our loved ones and that’s as it should be. These are the prayers of our hearts and God wants to hear all the prayers of our hearts, whatever they are.
But, my friends, the problem is stopping there. With “us.” This is laid bare in a much-loved hymn we Presbyterians sing at Thanksgiving, a hymn I’ve sung since my childhood and that I dearly love. It’s called, “We Gather Together.” I’ll read you the first verse rather than singing it, and you would thank me for that if you heard me sing it:
“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings.
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.”
He forgets not his own. Just who is included in “God’s own”? The writer of the Sirach passage prays, “give US; deliver US.” But who, exactly, is this “US”? While Sirach describes God as “the God of all,” the passage doesn’t actually ask for God’s blessings on all. Specifically, Sirach asks for God’s peace and mercy for Israel. We in the Christian traditions have long believed we’re included in God’s covenant with Israel. That means we’d be included in the blessing, should God choose to bestow it. There was a time when we may have looked around this room and thought, “Well, maybe we’re included, but perhaps the rest of you aren’t.” After 104 years of gathering each year to give thanks, I trust we are beyond that stage. Still, this passage, which is not even included in everyone’s Bible, is a reminder that we are from different traditions – that in this room, we look across religious boundaries, even if that’s mostly evident in our good-natured jokes. Like the fact that I never know what color stole to wear tonight.
But what about those outside the covenant? I don’t think Sirach, or whoever wrote the lyrics of “We Gather Together” way back in 1626, had a clue about the damage done to human life and spirit when we think of ourselves as God’s own, and think of others as somehow not God’s own. When we think in terms of Us and Them. Sadly, this is not ancient history. Political and cultural commentator David Brooks calls our current movement away from a focus on our common humanity a “retreat to tribalism,” and it is tearing our diverse nation apart. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “‘God bless America’ is often heard on the lips of American presidents. But whether God blesses America will become apparent when it emerges whether America is a blessing for the peoples of the world, or their burden and curse; for one is blessed only in order to be a blessing oneself.”
Which points to a second challenge with Sirach’s prayer; it’s related but touches us perhaps more personally. When the blessing stops with “us,” it’s called privilege. Look at it this way: I’ve been praying fervently for the people impacted by the fires to the north and relief for us from poor air quality. Last Friday, San Francisco had an Air Quality Index or “AQI” of 274 – the worst of any major city in the world that day. But that same day, Delhi had an AQI of 268; Lahore, Pakistan had 251; Kolcotta, India had 215; and Dhaka, Bangladesh was at 203. These cities weren’t downwind of major fires. It’s just what they live with, every day. And I listed only the cities with an AQI over 200, the “very unhealthy” purple zone. There are loads more cities perpetually in the red zone – merely “unhealthy.” When we focus on the calamity of our own air quality without paying attention to the fact that this is routine for other human beings on God’s precious planet every single day, that is privilege; that is a blessing that stops with us.
I’ve been thinking about an interview I heard earlier this year with Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who’s dedicated his life to working with former gang members in Los Angeles. “I’m lucky,” Father Boyle said. “I won all the lotteries – the parent lottery, the sibling lottery, the zip code lottery, the educational lottery.” It was the word “lucky” that stopped me short. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a person of faith call himself lucky instead of blessed. I’ve even hesitated to wish someone “good luck,” because I was afraid it sounds superstitious and un-Christian.
But the more I think about it, the more I understand Father Boyle’s word choice. Naming our material circumstances – the home we live in, the food on our table, the vacations we enjoy, our health and the health of our family, the status of our bank account – as evidence of our blessedness implies that, at the same time God has chosen to bless us with these gifts, God has chosen not to bless others in the same way. If I say I’m blessed because I own a lovely home in a safe neighborhood, or blessed because I have a good job with health insurance, or blessed because I have a bountiful feast spread out on my dining room table, what does that say about the single mother living in the one room apartment in the Canal, or the man with the change cup on the corner of 4th and B Streets, or the family huddled in a makeshift camp right now in Tijuana or the Walmart parking lot in Chico?
Are they not blessed? Has God decided to bless me, but not them?
Jesus describes blessings entirely differently, doesn’t he? In all of our Bibles, printed in red in some of them, Jesus defines the blessed as those who mourn, those who are persecuted, those who are meek and those who are poor in spirit. I wonder whether some verses were omitted from the Beatitudes. Maybe they deleted the verses where the disciples responded by saying, “Waitest thou for one second, Lord. What about ‘blessed art the comfortable,’ or ‘blessed art thou who havest good jobs, a modest house in the suburbs, and a yearly vacation’? And Jesus said unto them, ‘Apologies, my brothers, but those did not maketh the cut.’”
The truth is, I have no idea why I was born where I was or why I have the opportunities I’ve had. It’s beyond comprehension, and I am profoundly grateful. But I don’t believe God chose me above others because of the veracity of my prayers or the depth of my faith, or the tribe or the denomination or even the faith in which I’ve landed. If I take advantage of the opportunities set before me, a comfortable life may come my way. It’s not guaranteed. But if it does happen, I still don’t believe Jesus will call me blessed.
I believe he will ask, “What will you do with it?”
“Will you use it for yourself?”
“Will you use it to help?”
“Will you hold it close for comfort?”
“Will you share it?”
So many hard choices. So few easy answers.
Tomorrow, when we gather around our tables, of course we will give thanks and pray for our loved ones, for us, because we must. But my prayer for all of us tonight is that when we do so, we understand our true blessing. It’s not turkey-laden tables, or our houses, our jobs, or our standard of living. It’s not even that we are Americans, or Christians.
Our blessing is this. We know a God who gives hope to the hopeless. We know a God who loves the unlovable. We know a God who comforts the sorrowful. We know a God who always welcomes the outcast and the stranger. And we know a God who has planted this same power within us. Within every one of us.
And for this blessing, may our prayer always be,
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 144.
 Scott Dannemiller, “The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying,” February 20, 2014, https://theaccidentalmissionary.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/the-one-things-christians-should-stop-saying/.