Thursday, November 27, 2008
Thanksgiving--A day to remember
When I was in my twenties, I went to Mexico as a missionary. I knew that the area I was going to was poor by American standards, but I was not prepared for what I saw. In those days we did not see beggars on the streets in the US. We sometimes saw disabled vets of WWII selling pencils or giving out poppies but nothing like the beggars around the doors of churches in the Mexican town I lived in. Everyday on my way to Mass I was confronted by Dona Paulina, a woman who saw my blond-haired, blue-eyed, tall, Nordic self walking down the street and she would accost me with her hand out, and a keening whine to help a poor soul.
I had been warned not to give to such beggars by the sisters in my community and by the members of the parish. For weeks I tried to avoid her, but I couldn’t hide in a populace of small, dark eyed, dark-skinned people. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the NordeAmericana who was rich—because all NordeAmericanos were rich in her mind. Finally when I could fight her off no longer, I began to talk to her in my broken Spanish. Slowly I began to know more about her. She was in her 80’s, lived in a small ranchito outside of town. She lived in a shack made of sticks with a corregated tin roof that had once been a grain bin. And she was the sole support of her 9 year old great-grand son. I began to bring her things from our kitchen rather than give her money. She would teach me the proper words in Spanish and we would share the things that we liked to eat—she was intent on me knowing the totality of Mexican cuisine. And slowly but surely I began to enjoy my visits with Dona Paulina.
While I was there I fell and broke my hip. It ended my missionary career. I had to return to the US to have it operated on. It took me several days before I could get all my things together to catch the bus back to Mexico City so I could fly to my home in Texas. But when the time came for me to catch the bus, there were many people from the parish there to wish me well. On the fringe of the group was Dona Paulina. Quietly she came up to me to say good-bye. Tears were in her eyes as she pressed 2 cintos—worth at that time a 10th of a cent US. She said—“buy some gum on the trip.”
Those two coins burned in my hand as I got on the bus. I could not keep back the tears. And there I sat, chewing my gum with tears running down my face.
I have preached about this story before. I preach about it as an illustration of the widow’s mite. I preach about it on stewardship Sunday. But most of all I remember this story because it was such a touchstone in my life about generosity. It is an incident in my life that spoke to me of what it meant to be gifted with so much when I had done so little. Even in my mid-twenties I did not know what it really meant to be thankful down to my toes. I don’t think that comes easily to us Nordeamericanos. We don’t accept the gifts of others easily. We are rugged individualists. We like to do for ourselves. We are do not have the humility to accept the gifts of others. And consequently we have difficulty giving thanks.
It takes humility be people of gratitude. We have to allow ourselves to receive the gifts of others—to be in that step-down position, to be appreciative of what we have been given.
Now I do not mean to be a guilt-producer in this sermon. I just want us to reflect on what it means to be in the position of receiving. What do you have and who are you now because of the Dona Paulina’s in your life? What was in your life it that taught you of gratitude? When did you understand that being grateful was a way of living that made a difference in your life? I found that I was changed by those 2 quintos pressed in my hand—they were worth nothing in real life but they were the gift of finest gold. They taught me so much about the basic goodness of people that I cannot ignore because they don’t fit my image of people I want to hang with. They taught me about the need all people have to give. They taught me that the act of giving is more important than what is given. They taught me because it had never occurred to me that Dona Paulina might think me valuable enough to gift me in her poverty. So many lessons learned with such a small thing.
We all have touchstone moments in our lives. We have those moments when thanksgiving becomes real. Tonight we remember those moments in the humdrum of our lives that we will celebrate tomorrow with family and friends. It is a time when we stop and give thanks for those incidents that brings us to that place of humility that we do not deserve the blessings that are bestowed upon us.
In the midst of writing this sermon, I had to go to the grocery store. Now, Wegmans in Binghamton is where many go for special items for the holidays, and it was a mad house when I went. There were too many carts trying to get down filled aisles and too many people pushing them. I was pushing my cart and a young man in a wheelchair came my way. He most likely had cerebral palsy and was having difficulty pushing a regular cart and managing his wheelchair. Because I had once worked at Wegmans, I knew the store had some motorized carts that would have made it easier for him. I suggested the motorized cart to him. “They are all being used,” he said. “I am just glad I can get out,” he said, “I’ll be fine.”
I walked out of the store touched by his thankfulness—a kind of gratitude that most likely if I had not come to know who God was in my life, I would not have understood. All too often I find myself grumpy because things don’t go my way. I let myself forget the Dona Paulinas in my life who remind me of living a life of gratitude. I know when I am reminded of her generosity, I can let go of my busyness, my need to control my world. I also can give up the idea that I have to be in charge.
Within the Judeo-Christian world thanksgiving is most often marked at meals. Whether it is the blessing at the Shabbat meal, or the grace before dinner, the act of eating is a time of remembering all that we have received. This is true in other religions too. Thanksgiving as a feast is one which all humanity can share. Every religion teaches its believers to be thankful.
As we come together to share the bounty of God’s goodness there are many things that we are thankful for: family, friends, food, a home, community, and even for our existence. But we also need to be thankful for those who taught us how to know what it means to be grateful. It might be a family member—a loved neighbor, a teacher, a friend. These saints are those who allowed us to understand what it means to be vulnerable enough to return thanks.
Like the Samaritan leper—who was the only one who had the humility to return to Jesus, we often need to be reminded to be grateful. And even though Thanksgiving Day ends up being more about football and turkey, it is a time when we can remember of all that we have been given. We can also give thanks for all those who have given us hearts know the power of God who provides for all of us. AMEN