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Before the were nouns…

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds…instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”–Lk 12:22-25,31

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the 50 day time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. As I have preached to you in the past, before Christmas became a noun it was a verb.  Christmas is not first a collection of stuff in stores, on your lawn or in our house, but rather the action of God revealing himself on Earth; in people’s hearts, in our community.  This primary action of Christmas is reflected in the Armenian name for it, Asdvadz-a-haydnootyoon, literally “the revealing of God.”

This week as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we would do well to notice the same thing; before thanksgiving became a noun it also was a verb.  We know thanksgiving as a day off, a day for family to gather and to eat. It also has become the kick off of the high holy days for retailers with black Friday and Cyber Monday.  But before it was any of these things, thanksgiving was a reminder to thank God for the harvest, and to be as generous with fellow brothers and sisters as God has been with us.  Thanksgiving as a noun stays as long as your leftover turkey, thanksgiving as a verb, as a spiritual practice goes to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

It seems so simple right?  Why do we allow for so much stuff to clutter up the revelations of God and our thanksgiving for his gifts? Why are we so preoccupied with the stuff of Christmas and the stuffing of Thanksgiving, rather than the living God who reaches out to us through these holy day?  In today’s reading for the first Sunday of Advent, Jesus puts his finger on the problem; in a word, it is anxiety.

Back in Jesus’ day, and for all the early celebrators of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the anxiety which came with the winter season was immediate and primal.  Little food grows of course, so if you didn’t store a good crop in Fall, you might not make it through the winter.  Few of us here, thank God, are worried about physically living through the winter. But most of us are worried about living up this winter.  Living up to the expectations of who we want to be in our families, living up to high standards at work, to making this or that event a success, to being well esteemed in the eyes of someone whose opinion we care about, etc. This worry, like a disease causes discomfort, sleeplessness, irritability, pettiness, paranoia and fights that threaten to destroy the good will and love that God has given us to enjoy. 

Thankfully the cure to anxiety is as simple as it is profound.  It is simply thanksgiving. “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for,” is how Jesuit theologian Anthony DeMello put it. In other words, instead of nursing our worries, we should change our focus. Look elsewhere, beyond self-absorption. Cultivate a grateful heart. These things are easy to say and hard to do, especially when we’re caught in the grip of anxiety.  But it is a spiritual discipline we can learn, a slow turning away from worry, and in its place focusing on something, anything, for which to thank God. Jesus understood this. In today’s reading he takes some simple and common things for which to give thanks: a bird, a flower, a blade of grass. Anything will do: a breath of air, a beautiful flower arrangement, the rainbow in our chandelier. Just take that small step of surrender to move out of self to notice the something or someone greater beyond.

This small step leads to huge results. It leads to finally getting what Jesus is trying to tell us: that everything is God’s, and God is eagerly waiting to give us more and more – if only we would allow it, if only we could keep first things first. Jesus wants us to notice what is in front of us, to believe that God is present and to be thankful. Change the subject, Jesus admonishes, from self to others, to God. The several holy days we celebrate this Sunday help us do just this; changing the subject of our worries to focus on abundant life with God. What are these holy days?

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. What if for the next 50 days we put our worries aside and noticed the movement of the living God in our lives? This Thursday is Thanksgiving.  What if we celebrated not just one day, but a lifetime of thanksgiving for all our blessings? Today is also stewardship Sunday. What if we saw our life as the undeserved gift it is, and made it tour life’s mission to return God’s blessings as generously as we have received?  Though these holy days and our holy God have become nouns, let us remember that they are first and foremost verbs, actions of the living God.  And if we are willing, God invites us to cut through the clutter of stuff in our lives, to reveal his awesome presence and participate in the life of thanksgiving and grace for which we were created, now and always, amen.

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