Dealing with Fear Through Thanksgiving

Cheeses with Almonds and Pritzels, by Clara Peeters, c. 1612-1615, Cleveland Museum of Art

A sermon for Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Joel 2:21-27, Psalm 126, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Matthew 6:25-33.

Often it is said that the opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is fear. 

I used to believe that more than I do now, since I think—as I grow, and age, and experience more of life—I think faith can sometimes be found precisely THROUGH fear.  By facing fear, by naming fear, by moving through fear (with the help of others), one can begin to feel the strength and care of God as a shield, as armor, and as a cloak of protection. 

Today’s scriptures might sound a little surprising for a Thanksgiving Day because they include so much talk of fear, and worry and anxiety.  The well-known words from Matthew are before us, in which Jesus says bluntly, “Do not worry about your life…” “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’  [Try telling that to the hundreds of people in the line at the grocery store last night! ] 

I wonder what the man with NY license plates (who cut me off in traffic yesterday as he was gunning for an entrance into a shopping store parking deck) would have said, if I had rolled down my window, smiled and said, “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink…?”  (Luckily, I kept my window up, said nothing but a quick prayer for the man, and so, I’m standing before you now– alive.)

“Do not fear” can sound like empty words and the phrase can sound like the worst sort of platitude.  But on Thanksgiving Day, in the context of our prayers and our pause to be thankful, this question of fear and faith can be approached in a different way. 

For fear to go away, it needs to be replaced by something: confidence, strength, know-how, information, results, assurance.  Or, fear can be replaced by the act of thanksgiving.  Jesus says “do not worry about what you will eat or drink, do not worry about tomorrow, do not worry about the future.”  And yet, when we do worry, perhaps that’s the time to try to be thankful, to try to jot down or say out loud the things we DO have, the times God HAS been present, the people who HAVE been with us when we most needed them.  Fill that fearful space with a prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving, and we’ll find that the anxiety begins to shift a little.  God gets in that space to remind us that God is God, and God will be with us in the future, just as God has been with us in the past. 

In just a few weeks, we will hear the message from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.  Seeing terror in her eyes, watching her shake for fear, the angel will say to her those famous words, “Do not fear, Mary.”  But then notice her response.  She doesn’t immediately shake off the fear with newfound faith that makes everything instantly all right.  She sings. 

She sings a song of thanksgiving, reminding herself (and all creation) of God’s nature to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, and to keep his promises. 

Thankfulness doesn’t fill the empty chair at the table, where someone used to sit, but who has died since the last Thanksgiving.  Thankfulness doesn’t magically create a job for us, or a full pantry, or friend to share our worries with; but the act of being thankful can erode the power of fear and worry.  And once fear is gone, we can begin to enjoy what is present, what is near, what is given.

Austin Farrer writes about enjoyment.  He says

The best way of thanking God is to taste his goodness with all our palate.  It is no use making speeches of thanks to a musician, if you are bored by his performance. You may deceive him, indeed, if you are a clever hypocrite, and can act the attention you can’t be bothered to bestow.  But God reads our hearts, and he knows whether we taste his kindness, or not.  Enjoyment is the sincerest thanks.  (The Brink of Mystery, p. 67-68)

Thanks be to the God of all good gifts, the God who banishes fear and fills our hearts with joy.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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