Sermon on the Day Before Thanksgiving

Jane Strohl
Sermon for PLTS Chapel—November 22, 2000

Joel 2: 21-27
Psalm 126
Matthew 6: 25-34

It’s my turn to provide a green vegetable dish for Thanksgiving, so there I was in Albertson’s with my eight boxes of frozen spinach and two heads of celery. Look at those lines; why this could be the dance floor at the Saddle Rack Club; all those carts doing the boot-scooting boogie back and forth but ending up right where they started—far from the check-out stand. The store is in a great neighborhood, and the clientele reflected its full ethnic diversity. A lot of these folks and their forebears clearly wrote a chapter in American history far different from that of the Massachusetts Bay Colony pilgrims. Nonetheless, it looked like the vast majority was planning to eat turkey with the traditional fixings on Thursday.

Thanksgiving is an awkward celebration in some ways. It is, as the ecclesially right-minded insist, not a religious holiday but a civil one. And Christian churches need tread with care; we must not pander to nationalist sentiments when our first loyalty is to Christ and His body. But Thanksgiving is not the Fourth of July either when it comes to patriotism; it’s “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” versus “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” So rather than sit on a blanket under the stars, oohing and aahing over fireworks, a good number of us will hear the president’s reverential message to the people over the airwaves and then take our place in church. If the American flag were ever a fit liturgical accessory, this, it seems, would be the moment. For many this situation is awkward, a scarcely veiled chauvinism; for just as many it is not awkward: why wouldn’t God bless our community, our nation? Don’t we regularly reap a harvest of plenty and security? Haven’t we reason to echo the psalmist, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced”?

Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, or better translated, the twofold reign of God, is helpful here, I think. Of course you have a primary vocation as a hearer and proclaimer of the Gospel, but that good news and its life-giving possibilities come to us as particular persons within particular communities. Our discipleship unfolds as part of multiple stories—born into a family line, baptized into the people of God, enrolled as citizens of this republic.

Martin Marty in his essay “Public Religion: The Republican Banquet” offers a helpful analysis of the role of religion in our civil life. He writes: “First, the American laity, often without benefit of clergy, as it were, came to differentiate sharply between what we may call ordering faith and saving faith… Alexis de Tocqueville came close to developing the new public distinction when he remembered that society itself, having ‘no future life to hope for or to fear,’ was not in the business of providing salvation. For that reason, individual citizens banded into groups where ‘each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God.’ The essentials of all religions served well enough to order government, but they did not save souls, make sad hearts glad, give people wholeness, or provide them with the kind of identity and semse of belonging they craved. For salvation, then, millions of Americans kept on making their choice of the ‘best and only true sect’ for themselves… ”Ordering and saving faith, related but not identical; to collapse them, to confuse the two kingdoms, is no more the American way than Luther’s way. And abandoning the one for the other is not legitimate either.

So where does that leave us? Well, eating two feasts. Today we gather at this table where our sins are forgiven, our hearts made glad and our faith strong. We give thanks for the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus. Tomorrow we gather at tables across these fifty states, neighbors coast-to-coast. We remember who we are; we give thanks for our place and share in God’s creation, as individuals, as communities, and as a nation; we turn to the future chastened and hopeful. It is right to rejoice in this feast of victory and in the Thanksgiving banquet of the republic, for God graces our lives at both.