As I was preparing for my Thanksgiving sermon, I began by reflecting on both poverty and abundance. My initial though for my sermon was to say a few important and meaningful words about living mindfully and graciously in our abundance. Yet to remind us of our abundance, I knew I needed to illustrate poverty and wanted to come at it from the “closer-than-you-think” angle, so I search around for some facts and figures about poverty and need in Ontario. I found statistics on food bank usage, child poverty, and the working poor in our province (Check out the Ontario Hunger Report ,Poverty by Postal Code and the Ministry of Labour page on Minimum Wage). I began to put together a list of numbers and percentages to include in my sermon. I also reflected on my own experiences, mainly through my own experiences in ministry with real people living in poverty and homelessness. As I gathered together these facts and my personal experiences, the reality that even in the abundance of our society and culture poverty continues to be very real, settled more and more deeply than ever before. Poverty is multi-dimensional, being physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. In the face of it all, I began to feel overwhelmed by complexity of the issues of and the reasons for poverty and I felt myself being paralyzed in despair and helplessness in how I might even speak to the congregation about this in my sermon.
That might have ended my sermon right there, with nothing to say, if God would have let it. But as always I found myself turning to scripture for some answers.
Like in Luke chapter 12. “Then Jesus told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Luke 12.16-21)
Or in Matthew chapter 19, when Jesus is speaking to a similar “rich man” and he says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)
Both of these teachings of Jesus from scripture certainly highlight the challenge we face as people being blessed with abundance. Yet, it is the Gospel reading appointed for Thanksgiving Sunday, where I found Christ speaking most deeply to my conflicted and tormented, abundance-blessed soul.
This Gospel reading, Matthew 6:25-33, is different from so much of Jesus’ practical and demonstrative teaching. So often, he is teaching by example, acting in the manner he is encouraging, or by performing great miracles that demonstrate his authority. Yet this passage shows a more personal way. Jesus deals in the concepts, the motives, and in the inner workings of our heart and mind. He speaks about those things that paralyze our ability to act generously from our abundance. He asks pointed rhetorical questions like “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Mat 6:25) and “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Mat 6:27). Both questions challenge some of the deep seated and misguided priorities of our beings. Jesus also warns us against both greed and materialism when he refers to the Gentiles who “strive” for wealth and earthly possessions in verse 32.
In this teaching, Jesus is calling us to remove those barriers inside us, me and you, that keep us from being focused on the things that matter most when we follow Christ, to love God, and love our neighbour as ourselves. When we act in love nothing belongs to us, even our abundance. Our heart is not ours, but it belongs to another. In love, my struggle becomes our struggle. Your struggle becomes our struggle and no one is left alone to face their troubles. It becomes the struggle of the community, who together has an abundance of resources to bring to bear in overcoming any challenge.
It really should not be of a surprise to me that I find my answers in this is the passage from scripture that has been chosen for Thanksgiving Sunday by those who carefully, thoughtful, and prayerful designed the order and combination of readings we hear read each Sunday. So I should not be surprised that they also chose to include in our readings for Thanksgiving Sunday, verses 1 to 6 of Psalm 126, which was written at a time when God’s Children had suffered loss, drought, and famine as a community. The Psalmist makes clear that as the sorrow and weeping belongs to the community, so to does the joy that the psalmist prays for and awaits. In Psalm 126, the Psalmist prays, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Ps 126:4-6)
The Rev’d Rob Park