Based on Psalm 107
Toast, popcorn, jellybeans, and pretzels. A veritable feast set out on folding tables, quickly covered by bed sheets, surrounded by old lawn chairs hastily pulled out of an overpacked garage. Friends sitting down, sometimes enemies, sometimes frenemies, enjoying a simple meal that they have prepared themselves. In each other, they find thanksgiving: a reason to be grateful for each other and for the life they share.
I love A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Our family watches it together every year on or around Thanksgiving, usually with popcorn. It’s a great family tradition that helps us mark the great holiday we mark today: Thanksgiving.
One of my favorite moments in the Charlie Brown special is when Lucy fools Charlie Brown into thinking that this year, unlike other years, she won’t pull away the football. She tells Charlie Brown that it’s a Thanksgiving tradition to play some football. So of course she won’t pull it away. Convinced by the necessity of adhering to tradition, Charlie Brown, duped again, runs full blast at the ball, declaring that he will kick it clear to the moon! Only to have Lucy pull the ball away, once again.
While he’s lying flat on his back, Lucy says, “Isn’t it peculiar, Charlie Brown, how some traditions just fade away?”
Funny how some traditions just fade away.
Thanksgiving is a time of grand family tradition. The time you have the big meal, the favorite dishes that will be placed on the table, and of course, the way the turkey is cooked. Perhaps you’re like Dana and watch the Macy’s Day Parade. Perhaps you’re like me and find something to do rather than be annoyed by a parade. Maybe you and your family have a football game outside. Or you watch football that evening, together with your family.
When I go back in my mind’s eye, I see so many family traditions, warm and fuzzy memories of hearth and kin gathered at the table, sipping drinks after the meal, enjoying a fire, relaxing together; much reason for thanksgiving.
And then, of course, there’s the tradition of getting the house and food ready.
There’s so much to do leading up to the big feast! There’s grocery shopping to do. There’s a house to get cleaned and presentable, a yard to make sure is in order, sleeping accommodations to prepare for overnight family and guests, and so many other little details that pop into our heads as we’re making our preparations.
Then comes the big day. You wake up early to get started cooking. You have to do it in an organized fashion to make sure everything’s ready for the big meal at the appointed time. Make sure you get the turkey started first; prepare the stuffing, put some in the bird and some outside of the bird. Then you remember that your niece Judy is gluten-intolerant, so you make a third batch of stuffing with gluten-free bread. Make the pies are ready to go in after the turkey, but make sure to bake a pie that doesn’t have any milk, for uncle Freddy has a lactose intolerance.
As you’re preparing, people keep coming into the kitchen wanting to socialize. They want to tell you all sorts of stories, all sorts of things about their lives, catch up with you…as if you’re not busy. You could probably win the Iron Chef competition right now, you’re so efficiently getting everything prepared, while listening to your nephew drone on about how awesome his fraternity is. You don’t want to be rude, but you want them out of the kitchen.
Then, Thanksgiving has the grand tradition of all those awkward social interactions: the family member who wants to tell you all about their life and, if you’re honest, you just don’t care…or the family member who is always saying the most obscene and awkward things; the kinds of things you’re not supposed to be talking about. I’m sure, if your family is like mine, somehow the Rachel Maddow of the family ends up in an argument with the Rush Limbaugh of the family, driving everyone crazy, and too often bringing the disagreement to the dinner table.
And for some families, the awkward social situations translate into the darkness of despair. At the dinner table, as people give thanksgiving for their blessings, one family member sits down across from a broken relationship, one that’s never fully been mended, and has left deep scars. Another family member sits down next to his abuser, a dark family secret never shared and never acknowledged. Still another family member holds a secret of alcohol abuse that everyone knows, but no one will admit, even as the table cringes while she pours herself yet another glass of wine.
Funny how we wish some traditions would fade away.
Seems Charlie Brown was more right than he knew when, near the beginning of his thanksgiving special, he declares to his sister Sally, “We’ve got ANOTHER holiday to worry about. It seems Thanksgiving Day is upon us.”
Thanksgiving, all too often, moves from warm and fuzzy feelings to stress, worry, and anxiety in preparation and even, for some, worry, dread, and fear, as our broken families get together. When we think of thanksgiving, we’re supposed to have the fluffy, warm, feel-good memories and inclinations that Hallmark and Publix sell us, but if we’re brave enough to admit it this morning, we know that sometimes, Thanksgiving doesn’t feel that way at all.
Our Psalm this morning tells us to give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever. But during holidays like this, while we might long to give that kind of thanksgiving, such a faith seems far away. How are we to find thanksgiving when there are family dynamics pressing at us on all sides? When our fridge and freezer overflow like a laundry hamper, demanding our attention? When awkward or even toxic relationships dominate our vision of the holiday? Or simply when the stress of getting everything ready dominates our hearts and minds, preventing us from truly experiencing the warmth of Thanksgiving.
When so much demands and presses, how are we to get to the place of the Psalmist, when we too can declare to God our steadfast love and devotion? The Psalm says “let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble.” But if we’re in the midst of the trouble, if we do not yet know redemption, how are we to say so?
’Tis the season to put on airs, to act as though all is well, to present our family in the best possible light, to prove that we have it all together and can handle all the burdens, stress, and anxiety of preparing the house and the food and the yard while making sure we don’t offend anyone by sending out all the right presents and cards and inviting the right people to the right occasion. ’Tis the season to put on airs.
So, in light of all this, all that we don’t usually want to talk about because we put on airs, how are we to find thanksgiving?
“Then they cried to the Lord and he saved them from their distress.”
That language from our Psalm this morning is the answer to our question: how are we to find thanksgiving? The people in the Psalm yelled, they screamed, they made their needs known. Each and every stanza of Psalm 107 declares a problem, says that the people cried to the Lord, made their needs known, and God was faithful to answer. In this pattern, we know that the people who cried to the Lord had problems, deep problems; they were in the midst of their own deep and dismal realities of illness, oppression, storms, impending disasters, unfruitful fields, and hunger.
The people in our Psalm didn’t put on airs. No, they got real with God. And that’s just how we find thanksgiving; that’s just how we experience the warmth of the season:
We find thanksgiving through emotional honesty with God.
Angry, forceful, rhetoric; yelling and screaming speech, is not the language of faith that we’re used to hearing. Perhaps because it’s in scripture, it’s easy to overlook the demanding, angry, forceful rhetoric of the Psalmist. When we pray, we’re too often taught to keep it respectful, to remember that God is holy and “His ways are higher than our ways.”
But that’s not the example of the Psalms. Rather, the speech of the faithful, so often throughout scripture, is the language of anger, pain, suffering, and demands the people make of God. They say exactly how they feel in their times of prayer and even in their times of worship. They don’t hold back; they let God know exactly what they think of him, even if that borders on blasphemy and even if it can seem disrespectful.
The prayers of scripture don’t treat God with kid gloves. They give it full force to God, crying out for deliverance in language that puts emotion on full display, regardless of whether that language is respectful or blasphemous.
The path to a happy thanksgiving is the path of prayer that gets real with God. We find thanksgiving through emotional honesty with God.
So often during the thanksgiving celebration, pretense dominates the family dynamic. We put on a face, we put on an air, so we can avoid dealing with the difficult relationships in our family. We keep a distance between ourselves and others when we choose to not reveal fully how we’re feeling.
We do the same with God when we don’t tell God exactly how we’re feeling. We keep God at arm’s length, we put a distance between ourselves and God, by putting on airs, by keeping up a pretense.
And when there’s a distance in our prayer life with God, it’s impossible to have thanksgiving. It’s impossible to give thanks for the ways in which God has blessed us because we can’t see them; there’s too much distance between us and God. It’s impossible to truly have thanksgiving, whether the holiday or the attitude, so long as we keep up a pretense, an air, with God.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the way to a happy thanksgiving is to yell at God, scream at God, shake an angry fist at God, make demands of God; give God your emotions, tell God exactly what you think. Exclaim How long?! And really mean it. How long, God, must I continue to suffer?
The catharsis of that moment, the release, will enable you to see afresh and anew the blessings in your life. There’s no guarantee of a positive answer from God. Certainly, the Psalmist had no expectation.
And yet, amidst staggering around like drunkards on a ship about to capsize, amidst hearts and hands bowed down with heavy labor with no one to help, amidst terrible disease, amidst oppression, disaster, and sorrow; in all the troubles Psalm 107 declares, the people cried out to God, they got real with God, they were emotionally honest with God, and then, the Psalm declares in each and every case:
“Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress.”
And so, amidst our anxiety preparing our home for visitors, amidst our stress over preparing the food, amidst our worry about family dynamics, amidst our fear of conflict arising, amidst all the troubles the holiday season can bring, in the midst of our own Charlie Brown attitudes that we have “another holiday to worry about,” we can cry out to God, get real with God, be emotionally honest with God, and then, our faith declares in each and every case:
“Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress.”
This is not always salvation from the problem, not necessarily resolution to the issue, but it is always emotional release from our distress. Our Emmanuel, God with us, comes in and shares in our problems, walks the journey with us, holds our hand, carries us when we need it, comforts us and gives us peace.
That’s the promise of this Psalm when we get real with God, when we are emotionally honest with God. So long as we put on airs, act as though everything’s ok, not telling God exactly how we feel and exactly what our troubles are, we keep the door to our hearts shut, telling God we can handle our problems on our own.
But the minute we get real, the minute we tell God exactly what we think, the minute we yell at God, scream at God, make demands of God, give God our emotions, we open the door to our hearts and the dear Christ enters in.
Then, as we experience God entering into our troubles, as we experience release from our distress, we will be able to say: O give thanks to the LORD for he is good. His steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble.”
Then, we will know the warmth of thanksgiving.
Then, we will find thanksgiving.
We come to the table this morning to celebrate The Great Thanksgiving, the name of the prayer we pray together over the bread and wine. We can give thanks, we can know what it is to have a happy thanksgiving, because Christ went to the cross for us, took on our sin and death and destroyed their power forever.
And lest we forget, in agony, Jesus prayed in the garden, begging God to take away the cross. While on that cross, Jesus himself quotes the Psalms, as we did this morning, screaming the words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?
In his agony, Jesus himself, our savior, told God exactly how he felt. And so we come to the table this morning, perhaps in thanksgiving, perhaps in despair, perhaps somewhere in between, to get real with God, to tell God exactly how we’re feeling. I invite you especially this day to kneel at the rail after receiving and get real with God, whether that getting real is in joy or sorrow, glee or distress, knowing that as we open the door to our hearts, the dear Christ enters in and saves us from our distress.
“O give thanks to the LORD for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.