This is the Day

A Sermon for Thanksgiving Day
Year B – 26 November 2015
by John Edward Miller, Rector

Jesus said, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you– you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

                                                                                                                             – Matthew 6:25-33

 The Collect

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; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Stephen Spielberg has produced a fascinating film based on a real incident in 1964 involving the exchange of a convicted Soviet KGB agent for two Americans – a graduate student and a CIA agent – held by the Soviet bloc.  The movie is called Bridge of Spies[1] because of the venue of the trade-off, a bridge in East Berlin, where Rudolf Abel and the captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers walked from imprisonment to freedom, as the East Germans simultaneously released the American student. As a prelude to that historic exchange, however, the screenwriters began with the earlier arrest and trial of Abel in 1957.

Actor Tom Hanks does a masterful job of portraying James B. Donovan, the insurance claims lawyer who is asked to defend Rudolf Abel on a charge of espionage against the United States. It is a thankless role, in that public opinion was focused on the need to punish Abel with the maximum sentence – death, to demonstrate America’s determination to eliminate the threat of spying on our soil during the Cold War. But it was also a crucially important role because it would show the world that the rule of Constitutional law, rather than that of retribution by a police state, sets our country apart from dictators and military juntas.

As unpopular as his assignment was, Donovan accepted the task of defending Abel. His argument was both principled and pragmatic. Donovan guarded the rights of an accused enemy of the United States, but in the end he failed to have him acquitted of spying. In the sentencing phase of the case, however, Donovan successfully convinced the judge that Abel should be imprisoned rather than executed. His reasoning was that Abel would be an effective bargaining chip should an American be imprisoned for espionage against the Soviet Union. It was a move that proved to be prophetic. Abel’s sentence was 30 years in a Federal prison, but four years into his term he became a key part of a negotiated trade for a captured American spy.

During the original espionage trial, Donovan and Abel built a lawyer-client relationship that transcended a merely professional alliance. Abel knew that Donovan was risking his life and by serving as his defense attorney. In a friendly gesture he cautioned Donovan to be careful, but the attorney devoutly presses on despite the costs. Donovan also grew to respect Abel as a person, taking note of his loyalty to country and his calm demeanor. Several times in the film Donovan observes Abel’s cool, unflustered behavior when facing the likelihood of death – either by execution or by KGB snipers. He is surprised by the man’s apparent absence of fear, and he remarks, “You don’t seem worried.” Abel’s deadpan response is the same each time. He asks dryly, “Would it help?”

Abel’s reply, “Would it help?” was not a quest for advice, or for some new information that could improve his quality of life. It was a rhetorical question that expected the answer, “No,” and that was his point. Abel already knew that worrying about his fate would be futile. Perhaps he was attempting to impart some personal wisdom to his attorney, to make him feel better about his heavy responsibility for having accepted the case. Abel understood that he had accepted an ultimate risk when he signed up to serve as a KGB agent. It was as if he thought, “So be it,” and reamined unfazed by anxiety.

The truth is that worrying does not help. It gets us nowhere. Nevertheless it is an instinctive reflex to danger, whether the threat is to oneself or to a loved one, and whether it is real or imagined. There are few of us who have avoided worry successfully; the ones who have qualify as saints in my book. They are standing on a foundation that does not quake, because they are aware of a strength that is greater than theirs to see them through.

I admit to worrying about my son’s safety from the moment he left the “protective custody” of his infancy. I worried when he learned to cross the street by himself, or to ride his bike to school, or to drive solo across the country. Even now I feel relieved from worry when I get a text message in the night saying, “Back in Brooklyn,” after driving his vintage Volvo home on I-95 north. These days, though, I’m better about worrying him for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that I trust and admire my son’s ability to take care of himself.

It also helps me to recognize that my anxiety is rooted in my own childhood. With my father on life support, and with his immune system compromised by illness and isolation, I worried that he could die at any time from a host of factors. So I took on a shared responsibility with my mother and brother to protect him. Some of that worry was warranted; there were measures and precautions that we could take to support his safety. But if I had simply looked to Dad for guidance about our worries, I would have benefited immensely. He was never unmindful of potential hazards, but more importantly, he was always grateful for the gift of being alive and with us for one more day. He taught by example how to be serenely in the moment, to be present to us and radiantly happy to be alive.

Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I tell you, do not worry about your life.” Being anxious doesn’t add a minute to our life, or to the life of our loved ones. What does help is to focus on the gift of today, and on the Giver of that singular gift. Gratitude is a practice that enriches and deepens the experience of life. It may even extend the span of life as a benefit of the positive will to connect with God, the source and giver of all that is, seen and unseen. Dad was a man of few words; his living was his narrative. He lived well and without complaint for thirty-five years. Worrying about tomorrow was not on his agenda. Loving us was.

Thanksgiving is a holiday – a holy day – because it reminds us to pay attention to the constant stream of goodness in which we live, and move, and have our being. Holiness means being set apart from the usual and the mundane. It is the quality and depth of our vision as we take time to consider the wonder of life, the joy of love, and the bounty of precious gifts that God bestows upon us every moment of our existence. When we take things and people and ideals for granted, it means that we feel entitled to them, and that we are owed what we are so freely given. Sometimes it takes a challenge, or a crisis, for us to understand what it means to be grateful.

In a piece on prayer entitled, “The Practice of Being Present to God,”[2] Barbara Brown Taylor about awakening to an appreciation of life brought on by a hardship. While she could have wasted her energy worrying, she peered more deeply into everything and everyone around her instead. This is her reflection:

Waiting is certainly a kind of prayer, especially if you can stand howling wide-open spaces.  Once, between the time my doctor gave me some bad news about my health and the time when I was scheduled for surgery to have the bad thing cut out, I found it possible to love my life in ways that had never occurred to me before. I never thought I could value being able to walk around my house and look out all of the windows. I never thought of the brickwork on the building where I worked as beautiful before, or the sound of people laughing on the sidewalk outside as welcome signs of life. I never allowed myself the time to take a bath instead of a shower, or to find out how long the hot water lasted if I were not in a hurry. Waiting, I found speechless intimacy with other people who were living in such wide-open spaces themselves. We lived in a whole different world from those who thought they were fine. We could spend fifteen minutes admiring a rose, a whole hour enjoying a meal. Even if my news had stayed bad instead of getting better, I like to think that these simple pleasures would not have lost their power to console me. They constituted an answer to my prayer for more life, even if that life turned out to be shorter than the one I thought I wanted.[3] 
Today is a good day to focus on the pleasure of living. It is a gift pure and simple. Savoring the gift is an act of worship, not because we are achieving it and owning it for ourselves, but because we are thankful that God is life’s creator, life’s meaning, and life’s influence of love. In response to this gracious gift, it is fitting and proper that we say this Thanksgiving Day, and at all times and in all places, “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice, and be glad in it.”

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let this be so. Amen.

[1] Bridge of Spies is a 2015 American film directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. The film’s stars include Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, and Alan Alda.

 [2] Chapter 11 of Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

[3] Ibid., p. 183.