Thursday, November 26, 2009

Look At the Birds: A Thanksgiving Sermon

     Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. - Matthew 6:26
     I feed the birds in my backyard. Year-round, they get seed, but in the winter, they also get their favorite: peanut butter suet. When I go out to refill their feeders, I like to pretend I'm St. Francis. Of course, over the years, I think I have blurred the historical St. Francis and Disney’s Snow White. I have these images of St. Francis sitting at the wishing well, singing, and the little birds land on his outstretched finger and sing with him. That has never happened for me. I thought eventually the birds would get used to me, but whenever I come out, they scatter in panic as if to say, "Aaah! The monster comes!” They never seem to make the connection that I bring them food, and so I talk to them quietly and gently as I imagine St. Francis would… it doesn’t help. They continue to fly away as if they are saying, “Aaah, the monster speaks!" I somehow expect the birds to be grateful to me, but they’re not. They seem to know Whom they really should thank; not the clumsy human who carries the blessing to them.

     What if I looked… really looked at the birds of the air, as Jesus said? They seem to trust food will be there, and they just wait. The doves are the most patient. Long after others are gone, they will rest and wait. If there’s a lot of food, they all feast; if not, they all wait. They seem content. The birds have developed a kind of theology - a way of thinking and talking about God. It doesn’t say there will always be a feast. They just seem to have faith that there will always be enough.

     I am not sure the birds at my feeders are American birds, like bald eagles. Somehow this theology my birds have developed seems un-American. With Black Friday looming, commercial America does not really want us to be thankful for what we have. They want us to shop. It is almost a patriotic duty to pull us out of recession. If there are reports of consumer spending down after the holidays, there is a vague kind of free-floating guilt we didn’t spend more.

     The theology of the birds leads to simplicity – not always a feast, but always enough. It is not a theology that says God wants me to drive a Mercedes in fact, it is not a theology that tells anything, but rather a theology that makes me ask questions like, “What do I really need?” “How much do I really need?” It changes how we view God. No longer is God some stern taskmaster doling out scarce favors and limited, conditional love, but a gentle and merciful God with unlimited grace. It changes how I treat myself. I no longer have to beat myself up because I was unkind, or because I let my anger cause me to behave badly, or because I blew my diet – because I can’t do anything perfectly. Instead, I trust there is enough wisdom and mercy and grace to eventually make me the person I see reflected in God’s eyes. It changes how we treat each other too. I begin to recognize I have enough, and I turn to another and say, “Here, I can help you, so you have enough too,” and without realizing it, we have become the hand of God. I begin to recognize you have an abundance of Christ's Spirit, just as I do. You have an abundance of God's love, just as I do.

     Adopting a theology of the birds starts with gratitude. Kris Haig, a Presbyterian minister, once wrote,

     “It has been said that gratefulness is the very heart of prayer, and so to truly observe Thanksgiving is to engage in fervent prayer. Gratefulness, however, cannot be manufactured. It is a grace, a gift that God bestows and not anything we can create in our own hearts. True gratitude bears little resemblance to the forced optimism underlying the admonition to count your blessings. Gratitude is not a denial of real pain and loss. It is not a stoic effort to concentrate on the good things in life. It isn't the power of positive thinking. ... We cannot attain a state of gratitude by presenting God with a list of things we think we should feel grateful for, but by presenting our selves and our desire to know God more closely.” - Kris Haig, "Grateful Hearts", Presbyterians Today, November 1999, 7.
     So, even in the midst of pain or loneliness… or even our most dreaded relatives, when we follow the theology of the birds and simply rest and trust in God, slowly sometimes, the gratitude comes. We begin to notice the fall colors. We start to appreciate the love we do have in our lives. We become grateful that we are blessed materially far more than so many in this world. We even are able to give thanks for the brokenness in our lives since it is that very brokenness that makes us recognize our dependence on God. We rest near God’s heart, and in our hearts, Thanksgiving has truly begun.

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