Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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|A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation||
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
We Have a Story, Too
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson: Deuteronomy 8:7-10, 26:1-11
Rev. Deb Jameson and I had a good session with Dr. Elliott this week. We went in search of oral history and he provided many stories about Emmanuel and Albany in the 1960’s and the beginning of what became FOCUS. I am very grateful to have met him and to have heard some of Emmanuel’s story from his perspective.
We are each part of many stories --stories that connect us on different levels. One is the American Thanksgiving story. This story varies a bit, depending on which historians you consult. The version that I know says that the pilgrims who came from England arrived at what is now Massachusetts instead of farther south as they’d intended. They had planned to arrive in time to have a full growing season ahead of the winter, and expected the more southern winter to be mild. Instead the Massachusetts winter was harsh. Every family lost someone. Fewer than half of those who made the voyage survived that first winter. And yet, at the end of that first year, having learned some survival skills from the native Americans, they sat down together and gave thanks to God who they trusted for their future. As Americans, we claim that story or some version of it, as part of our story. It shapes our national identity.
Another story that we have is our faith story. Our second reading from Deuteronomy might be considered the Jewish Thanksgiving story. After harvest every year, each farmer was to bring a certain portion of the harvest and offer it to God. And every time, he was to tell the story, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. Then Pharoah treated us harshly. We cried out to God who delivered us with a mighty hand and brought us to this good place.”
This was an oral culture. Remembering the stories was part of keeping the faith. This was also a communal culture. Contemporary Americans pride themselves on individualism, but these were people who understand themselves as part of the group. So when they say, “My father was a wandering Aramean,” they are referring to Jacob, who is many generations removed from them, but still he is father to all. And in describing the oppression in Egypt, it says “they mistreated us and we cried out to the Lord.” The speakers of these confessions thoroughly identify with the whole prior history of the people of Israel.
When in response to God’s saving acts, they say, “And now, behold, I bring the first fruits of the ground which you, O YHWH, have given me,” there is a sense of a direct link between the current generation and its predecessors. “When YHWH called Abraham, all future generations were called too. When the current generation enjoys the fruits of the land YHWH has given, it does so because YHWH has been faithful to his promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. Future generations will also depend both upon YHWH’s faithfulness to his promise and the current generation’s faithfulness to YHWH.”
Our national Thanksgiving story and this story from Deuteronomy have some things in common. First they recognize God’s goodness, the bounty of the land that God created. Secondly, they involve sharing with others. Our national story says that the pilgrims feasted with the Native Americans. And the Israelites were commanded to share with the Levites, who were priests who did not possess their own land, and with the foreigners living in their midst.
Both stories have a negative side as well. The gift of land to the Israelites and the pilgrim’s claim on the New World, both of these came at the expense of the dispossession of others. The Cannanites lost their land in many bloody battles, and we all know the accounts of shameful treatment and broken treaties with American Indians.
What strikes me most about these thanksgiving stories is that are about hard times and real suffering, but the point of the story is not the hardship, but the gratitude that comes with survival. It is often true that we are most appreciative of what we have when we can remember what it was like to be in need.
The first set of verses that Barb read, the ones with the flowing description of the very good land – these verses come from a section that emphasizes the importance of being faithful and obedient to the covenant with God. The authors re-tell the story of leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness. They remind the ancient Hebrew people about the times that God provided manna and quail for food, and how their shoes and clothing did not wear out for all those years. Now that the people live a more settled existence in a place with rich farmland, there is a concern that they will forget their story; that they will forget God’s care for them. When they wandered without a homeland for 40 years, they learned to rely on God. Now there is a warning that success and a more comfortable way of living may prove more dangerous in terms of their faith and spiritually than a generation in the desert ever could. And so the reminder to remember their story, especially the hard times, is repeated again and again.
We are part of a national, cultural story. We are living into the faith story called Christianity. And we each have personal stories, family stories, stories that remind us who we are and what is important to us. And each of us has a story that we would rather forget: Sins that we’re ashamed of, times of suffering or loss that are painful to think about, stupid, embarrassing things that we wish had never happened, --the kinds of things that we are not grateful for, the kinds of things that we would never mention in a list of blessings if someone asked us for one.
And yet, those difficult times often become highlights of our faith stories because they are often the points when we are closest to God. When a marriage fails, when our health deserts us, when we suffer what seems unbearable loss, when we can’t pay the bills and don’t see a way forward – for many of us, these are the times when we find ourselves praying without ceasing, knowing our dependence on God in the most urgent of ways. If you’re in the midst of one of those times, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Outside of those times, many of us live under the illusion that we control our own destiny. We rely on our education, our competency in our vocations, our scientific understanding of cause and effect, our family and friends, our status in the community – all of which may be very good things. Or they may be things which keep us from recognizing God’s loving care for us.
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who is known to many of you for his writing and teaching on spirituality. One of his newest books is called Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. In this book, he suggests that the second half of human spiritual development is often shaped by a serious falling or crisis. He says, “Some kind of falling is necessary for continued spiritual development. Normally a job, fortune or reputation has to be lost. A death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured.” The crisis undoes you. The flood doesn’t just flood your house – it washes out your spiritual life. What you thought you knew about living the spiritual life no longer suffices for the life you are living. One of his main points is that “we grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”
This week we celebrate the day designated as Thanksgiving, the day when gratitude is almost commanded. I have always been puzzled when people told me to be grateful. It seemed to me that you either felt that way or you didn’t and it seemed very difficult to summon those feelings on demand. What I hear in these texts opens the way for more gratitude. If I don’t feel grateful about my life right now, I can look to the past, to my family story or my faith story. I can be grateful for my ancestors who had the resources to leave Ireland during the potato famine. I can be thankful for the early Christians who stood fast, for the Reformers who delivered the Bible into the hands of common folks, for the courage of men and women who answered the call of God in various ways, enabling future generations to also hear and respond to that call. I can also look to the times when I fell or when I got it more wrong than right and be grateful for what I learned and how I grew in my dependence on God, even though at the time, it was very painful.
It may be hard to feel very grateful when the economy is poor and our designated leaders don’t seem to be finding solutions, or when our personal circumstances are difficult. In 1637, all of Europe was at war, in the midst of the Thirty Years War. It was a terrible time. There was a walled city called Eilenburg in Germany and thousands of refugees came there seeking safety. Then the plague came. Soon thousands upon thousands upon thousands of children and teenagers and men and women were dying. At this point in history a 51-year-old pastor named Martin Rinkart, was serving a Lutheran Church in Eilenburg. In one year, more than 4,000 people died, including Martin’s own wife. At one point, he was the only pastor remaining in that city – one had moved to a safer place and Martin performed the funerals of the other two. So, in the midst of his own grief, Martin was conducting 40-50 funerals a day.
To his congregation he said, “We must lean on God’s presence. We must be the presence of Jesus for one another. We must have the sustaining presence of the spirit to guide us or we will not survive.” And in this time when thousands of people were dying every day, Martin Rinkart was so focused on the presence of God that he wrote a hymn. It is the hymn that we are going to end with today “Now Thank We All Our God.” I understand that this hymn is still sung in Germany on occasions of national thanksgiving. I think the second verse is my favorite:
O may this bounteous God through all
our life be near us,