Thursday, November 22, 2018

Strive For Only One Thing

November 22, 2018 – Thanksgiving Day, Year B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

“Do not worry,” Jesus tells us. Easy for him to say. He didn’t have any kids to take care of or any college tuitions to save up for. Sure, many of his own people were trying to kill him, and he had the whole “I’m the Son of God” thing to live up to, but doesn’t everyone have to deal with job-related stress? “Do not worry about what you will eat,” he says. That’s coming from the guy who had the power to turn scraps of bread and fish into food for 5,000 people.

“Look at the birds,” he says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” That’s true, of course. They don’t plant or harvest crops. But birds aren’t exactly a model for care-free living. They might not have barns, but the biological drive within birds directs them to spend most of their time focused on getting something to eat. Many birds, like the Acorn Woodpecker, store food in nooks and crannies of trees for later consumption. A chickadee will eat up to 35% of its body weight in food every day. A hummingbird will eat up to 100% of its body weight daily plus thousands of tiny insects. And don’t get me started on the lilies of the field, whose splendor is the evolutionarily-designed product of precious internal resources, which are designed to lure a pollinator so that they can propagate their own genetic material.

“Do not worry,” Jesus tell us, but “do not worry” doesn’t mean the same thing as “pay no attention” or “make no effort.” The concept of worry that Jesus’ uses is different from concern or consideration. The word translated for us as “worry” is a word that literally means “divided into parts” (μεριμνάω). Literally, Jesus says, “Do not fall into pieces about your life…do not get pulled apart about what you will eat…do not become divided about what you will wear.” That gives anxiety a very different meaning, but isn’t that what anxiety always is—a divided and misplaced focus? Isn’t worry having your attention pulled in a direction where it isn’t fruitful?

Today, we refocus that divided attention and pursue the antidote for worry, which is gratitude. The act of giving thanks takes our fractured concerns, brings them to God, and reminds us that there is only one thing we need to pursue. Think about gratitude. Think about the things for which you are grateful. One is not grateful for something that one thinks he or she deserves. If we earn something, a sense of entitlement takes the place of gratitude. For example, if your neighbor offers to pay you $20 for raking the leaves in front of his house and you spend six hours raking them, you might say “thank you” when he hands you a $20 bill, but I’m not sure that thankfulness is the way to describe what you’re feeling in that moment.

Instead, we are grateful for those things in our life that are gift—the surprise check, the unexpected test result, the second chance at love we never expected to find. But Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to recognize that all things are gift—that there is nothing to which we are entitled. Our family, our friends, our job, our paycheck, our health, our home, each sunrise, each breath, each heartbeat, everything that each day brings us—all of it is God’s gift to us, and remembering that refocuses our pulled-apart concerns by letting go of the “me” within it all and seeing only God at its source.

The collect for today envisions that refocus: “Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name.” Giving thanks allows us to identify the other who is behind all of our blessings, and that helps us rebalance those concerns that often feel like they are competing with one another: “Make us…faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need.” Care for self and care for others aren’t two pursuits but the unified product of a life spent pursuing God and God’s justice. When we recognize that everything is part of God’s great bounty, we no longer wonder what belongs to us and what belongs to others. We no longer question how we will provide for our own needs and be charitable toward those who go without. There is no more mine and yours and theirs when everything is God’s.

When we give thanks to God, all fractured and disparate concerns fall into one complete whole. We no longer pursue fruitless worry or competing interests. Filled with gratitude, we are set free to “strive first for the reign of God and God’s righteousness” and trust that “all these things will be given to us as well.” Jesus’ vision for the world isn’t one in which everyone goes through life carefree and inattentive to her daily needs. It’s a vision of unified focus—one in which all the pulled-apart worries of life fall together in one common pursuit of the great giver of all gifts. It is an economy in which God—not us—is the source of all things. It’s a community in which our needs are important not because they belong to us but because they belong to everyone. And thanksgiving gives us a glimpse of the world God already sees.

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