Last night I preached at Macon's annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mulberry Street United Methodist Church and Temple Beth Israel have been celebrating this service for over 30 years. This year it was at the Methodist Church. Next year it will be at the Jewish Temple and the following year at St. Joseph. One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council is the encouragement to enter into ecumenical dialogue with Protestant denominations as well as interfaith dialogue with Jews and other religions. Macon's interfaith celebration at Thanksgiving brings Catholics, Jews and Protestants together at least once a year in prayer. In doing so we do not sacrifice anything that we believe but we acknowledge that which we hold in common. this is truly the work of the Holy Spirit.
I print my homily below. Since it is a homily meant for oral presentation, I don't have any footnotes to properly acknowledge my sources for stories or quotes.
The Scripture for the Service which I selected: Zephaniah 3:14-15
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.
Introduction: A young rabbi was facing a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday evening Sabbath services, half the congregation stood for the prayers, while the other half remained seated. Each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did could resolve the dispute. In desperation, the rabbi went to the synagogue’s founder, now well into his 90s and living in a nursing home. The young rabbi poured out his troubles to the elder rabbi. “So tell me,” the distraught rabbi pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?” “No,” answered the old rabbi. “Then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?” “No,” answered the old rabbi. “Well, what we have is chaos! Half the people stand and shout the other half sit and scream!” Ah,” said the old man, “that was the tradition!”
Topic Statement: Thanks be to God we gather together, Jews, Protestants and Catholics, all people of good will, not to sit and stand shouting at one another about our traditions, but to shout our thanks to God for the many blessings we receive.
1. We should be grateful to God that He calls us to be His very own, to be His people.
a. There is a story told of a woman whose beloved pet had died. She was grief stricken. Her French poodle was more like a child than a dog. She treated him better than she did her husband. She wanted a proper burial for her dog. She went to see a rabbi and asked him to perform the burial. The rabbi said pointedly that burial was sacred and in no way would he defile himself or the burial rites of the synagogue. Next she went to the Methodist minister and asked if he would give a proper burial for her beloved pooch. He said, absolutely not, the Methodist Church takes Christian burial very seriously and would never put a dog on the same level as human being. Finally the grieving woman went to a Catholic priest. By this time she was very stressed out. She stated the rabbi would not bury a dog and the Methodist minister said the same thing. The priest said, well there is no way that I can preside at the funeral of a dog, I simply cannot do that. In exasperation, the woman said, what am I going to do? I was going to make a generous contribution to the congregation that would perform my pet’s funeral. With that the priest said, my dear mam, you didn’t tell me your dog was Catholic! Membership has its privileges!
b. Let’s face it; there are many theological and doctrinal issues that separate us. Jews still await the Messiah, Christians shout back He has come and will come again. Protestants insist on faith alone and Scripture alone. Catholics shout back Tradition too and good works as well. Catholics see the pope as the head of the Church and he’s infallible, Protestants shout back that only the Word of God is infallible. Jews say there God’s chosen people and Christians shout back, we’ve been adopted! There’s a lot of complaining and shouting and excluding. Yet tonight we gather together to shout out our thanks to God for acknowledging us as His Chosen people and for Christians as His adopted children; for the God we worship in common, for the faith that tells us that God is a part of salvation history not separate from it and for the good works that we can offer this community together and not in competition with one another, but in collaboration. There is no need to complain only a wonderful moment to shout out thanks in common. O how I pray we could do it more often.
2. Our ability to shout out our thanks to God is itself a gift from God who is not far off and distant but in our very midst.
a. A Catholic priest, a Methodist minister, and a Jewish rabbi were discussing when life begins. "Life begins," said the priest, "at the moment of fertilization. That is when God instills the spark of life, the soul into the fetus."
"We believe," said the Methodist Minister says, "that life begins at the age of reason, because that is when the baby becomes an individual and is capable of making its own decisions and accepting Christ." "You've both got it wrong," said the rabbi. "Life begins when the children have graduated from college and moved out of the house..." Life, no matter what, can be quite beautiful or it can be very tragic. As people of faith, we rely upon the Lord in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better for worse. Our faith enables us to shout out our thanks to God no matter the circumstances.
b. Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in the little city of Eisenberg in Saxony during the Thirty Years War. This walled city was the goal of refugees during that time. They came and ate all the food, and then there was starvation. With the starvation came pestilence, until practically the whole population of the city died. Martin Rinkart, the only pastor left in the city, had as many as fifty funerals in one day. One evening after having conducted funerals all day, he sank down exhausted, thinking that he could bear it no longer; but then it was he wrote the words of the famous hymn:
“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices. Who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices. Who, from our mothers’ arms hadth blessed us on our way. With countless gifts of love, And still is ours today.
c. We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving. Even though the pilgrims and Native Americans could have complained, theirs is a story not of complaining but of thanking. The pilgrims were not in good condition. During the harsh winter, nearly half their number died of exposure or other diseases. They were in a desperate situation. Out of their pain and suffering, help came to them in the form of the Indians who observed their dire circumstances. Two Native Americans, in particular, Squanto and Samoset stayed with the Pilgrims for a few months to teach them how to survive in their new place. They brought deer meat and beaver skins. They taught them how to cultivate corn and other new vegetables and how to build Indian-style houses. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be sued as medicine. He explained how to dig and cook clams, how to get sap form the maple trees, use fish for fertilizer and dozens of other skills needed for their survival. By the time the fall arrived, things were going better for the pilgrims, thanks to the help they had received. They had food; lodging and their health had improved. Born of suffering, they planned to give thanks to God for the blessings they had received with a sumptuous feast. The Pilgrims and Indians had a feast of Thanksgiving that lasted three days. Their uncomplaining heart enabled them to give thanks despite the hardships they had endured. The ability to give thanks is an act of faith in Almighty God and His power to save us.
Conclusion: I’m tempted to say, let us hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Yet that would trivialize the moment. Let us suffice to say that our time together in prayer and thanksgiving is a gift from God, a precious gift. Let us join the prophet Zephaniah shouting for joy!