Sunday, November 22, 2015

Butter Turkey Sculpture and Eternity

John 6: Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

How many people are getting ready to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving? At my house we have been doing the same thing the same thing for Thanksgiving year after year. Matt makes the stuffing, my sister’s brings squash and maybe a dessert and my parents make salad and cranberries. Matt’s family brings pies. Sometimes we have the meal at our house and sometimes we make the short drive to my parents’ house and take the food over there.  But I always made the turkey. I feel like I’ve made a pretty good turkey every Thanksgiving for about the past 10 years. This is a big accomplishment for me because I’m not much of a cook.

But this year is different. This year we are going to drive down Virginia to have Thanksgiving with my husband Matt’s parents. Instead of baking a turkey, I’m taking this…

It's a turkey butter sculpture. I didn't even know they existed until I saw it in the store!

This year we are the guests, not the hosts for Thanksgiving.  It changes the dynamic a little bit. It makes me wonder about how we give our thanks—do we give thanks for the joy of decorating and hosting our families? Do we give thanks because we have a table full of food? Is a butter turkey any different for a 15 pound bird? Or are they both just something that is transitory?

As I was doing some reading about giving thanks, I was struck by a comment by Rev. Martin Copenhaver made about our human nature. He says: Nobody is born knowing how to be thankful. We are taught thankfulness in childhood.

And you may disagree with that. You may believe that infants and toddlers children do have an innate sense of gratitude. Either way, I think we can agree upon is that somewhere along the way we are taught to name gratitude and practice it in good times and bad. Our gratitude helps to shape our response to the events of our lives.

Our phase of life influences our gratitude. Image a Christmas morning. Children are genuinely surprised and delighted by the gifts that they get. They know they could never get them on their own. When Billy gets the right Xbox game from his grandma, he learns that the excitement he feels is a form of gratitude. Dad tells him to remember to go hug grandma and say thank you. Billy learns that gratitude is part of the excitement when he gets a really cool gift. But then, one year grandma gives him socks. He’s about to toss them aside to open the next gift when he hears his mom’s voice.

Go give grandma a hug and thank her for the gift. And he does. And he learns that gratitude isn’t about getting what you want. It’s a response to the love of the giver.

But as we age, many of us get to the point where we can buy things for ourselves. We get jobs and have incomes. We can buy own Xbox games and socks. We aren’t dependent and on others anymore and so we run the danger of shallow gratitude. In this phase we write checks for a lot of things—church, house, cars, kids, college, retirement, etc. We say a quick prayer of thanks in the morning or before a meal and then rush to the next thing. In the busyness of life gratitude becomes more mechanical.  We may practice it, but we do it by rote.

But then life changes again. And I’m not at this stage, but this is what some of you saints of church have taught me. We age some more and our incomes are limited and our bodies start to slow down or even hurt. Because we are living so much longer, we have a new third phase of life. It’s not childhood or adulthood. Scholars call this new phase from the late 70s on the third phase, but I’d call it wisdomhood.

In childhood our toys and socks are a reminder that someone loves us and is caring for us—and we are taught to say thank you. In adulthood, our stuff is symbolic of our accomplishments in life. It’s proof that we have become independent, productive people—and again we give thanks. In the third phase or Wisdomhood, it seems that the lifetime of practice becomes second nature.

Some of you who are entering into wisdomhood are the most grateful and giving people that I know. You know how to be thankful not just for the things. Your thanksgiving becomes deeper and richer and truer and frankly, is an inspiration to me.

People in wisdomhood remember to give thanks for things that people like me take for granted. For waking up and getting out of bed. You don’t even take that simple act for granted.

People in wisdomhood seem to be grateful for the most elemental thing—life itself. It doesn’t have to be a life with the right toys or a life of independence., but being itself.  It’s not excited gratitude for  the gifts and stuff of life but a great thanksgiving for the one who gives the gifts—God. 

Those of you who are living this phase of gratitude aren’t doing because it’s easy or it comes naturally. You are doing it because you practiced it your whole life. Your parents taught you to say thank you when you received a gift, even boring ones like socks. You probably write thank you notes for things that you receive.  You’ve come to church where week after week you’ve practiced giving when your income was steady.

You still come and give of your time and treasure even though you may have less—less money, less energy or less physical ability. And so I am thankful for you. For the gifts you give to God’s church and the gift of wisdom that you share with us here.

In our Gospel story today, we don’t have a turkey and stuffing Thanksgiving, but we have a big meal. A large crowd is following Jesus and listening to his teachings. There were a lot of people because the Passover festival was near. Jesus looked out on the crowd who had been following him and decided that they needed something to eat. Jesus had a plan to feed them but he turns to his disciple Phillip and asks where they might buy some bread for the people.

Phillip, thinking that it’s all up to him says they can’t afford to feed all the people who showed up. It would cost hundreds more than they had. Andrew must have overheard them because he pipes up—there’s a boy with five barley loaves and two small fish. But the idea that 5 loaves and two fish could feed 5,000 was ludicrous.

That’s like taking a lunchbox from an elementary student and trying to feed the whole school with it. A sandwich, an apple and a drink for 300 kids.

But Jesus knew better. Jesus didn’t look at the loaves and fishes and worry about how little was there. He looked at the loaves and fishes and trusted that God would provide.

Jesus looked at the loves and fishes and blessed God.

All of our English translations say that Jesus gave thanks. But in Jesus’ Jewish tradition he would have said a blessing. But this blessing was not for the food. The blessing was for God, who provided the food. The blessing was for the giver, not the gift. Jesus’ gratitude was directed toward God.

As a good Jew Jesus would have said the bread blessing. One of the things I learned in Israel is that there are different blessings for different foods. AND there is an order in which the blessings are to be given.

In our story, Jesus starts with the bread blessing because bread is the first food blessing to be given:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Hamotzi lechem min haaretz.

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.

Then he did the same with the fish:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Shehakol Nihyah bidvaro

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe by whose word all things come into being.

Even if you don’t know anything about Hebrew, you can hear that the opening in the prayers is the same. They all start Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam. They bless God, the giver of all gifts.

This is a subtle change in language but I think it makes a big shift in the way we see our lives. A shift that many of us make as we enter old age. At Thanksgiving, we say thank you God for the food. Or we ask God to bless the food we are about to eat. This makes the object of our thanks and prayers the food. We are thankful for the food, which is good. But even better is when our thanks are for God. The food is temporary. God is eternal.

It’s like the difference between a thankful child and a grateful adult. The immature child is excited for the Xbox and the things of life. The wise adult knows that gifts come and go, but living and loving and faith are what really matter. The wise adult blesses the things that are of eternity, not the things that can be unwrapped or eaten or worn.  

In the feeding of the 5000 Jesus, takes the bread and gives thanks, saying Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.

Jesus recognizes what is temporary and what is eternal. Jesus knows the difference between the gift and the giver. We take a lifetime to learn that the Xbox game or the socks are not what we are saying thank you for. We are saying thank your for the person who cared enough to give the gift. We are thanking God, the ultimate giver.

Is a butter turkey different from a 15-pound bird on the Thanksgiving table? Not really. In our lives the turkeys will come and go--literally and metaphorically--but God remains steadfast and eternal. Let us give our thanks to the giver.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who gives us everything. Amen.

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