For God and Neighbor

a sermon for Thanksgiving Day

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

“Come, ye thankful people, come
Raise the song of harvest home.
All be safely gathered in
Ere the winter storm begin.
God, our maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied
Come to God’s own temple come,
Raise the song of harvest home.”

So begins one of the most well-known and beloved hymns sung at Thanksgiving and the end of the year as harvests are collected and families celebrate. Yet this year I’ve been told there is much less coming together, far fewer parties and celebrations of “gathering in.” We have been encouraged (and in some cases ordered) by authorities to refrain from traveling and limit the size of our parties. Many of us may be trying to have a Zoom Thanksgiving, which is probably something I’ll try with my own family later today. The COVID pandemic may as well force us to re-phrase the hymn something like this.

Stay, you thankful people, stay.
That is the best thing today.
Raise your songs and eat your food
With solitary attitude.
Bake and baste with cautious flair
For the germs are in the air.
Wear your masks but ever pray!
Celebrate this way today.

In all seriousness, this may be a very difficult Thanksgiving for some folks. Those who count on big holidays as one of the few times a year they may receive family in their nursing home are likely sequestered away, denied the life-giving visits from people they love.

Some people may be celebrating their first Thanksgiving alone. And yet others may be relishing the chance to do something different, to scale things down a bit, to cook a smaller turkey breast rather than an entire bird.

Whatever the case, our prayers are with those for whom this day seems very strange and they are with those for whom nothing has really changed. No matter how you are gathering and eating today, may none of it get in the way of giving thanks to God nonetheless, for despite the hardships this year has brought, God still crowns the year with goodness. Giving thanks is perhaps our first language of faith. When we look around and see that we have been brought through to another day, when we take even the briefest stock of what is around us that helps us live, we notice that it comes from somewhere besides ourselves. It is not our own doing. It is the gracious gifts of God that sustain us.

That is God’s word to his people ancient Israel as they come into the Promised Land to possess it. In the words from Deuteronomy this morning God gives a different kind of stay-at-home order. God intends for them to enjoy the land they are receiving, for it is a rich land, and filled with many blessings. Pomegranates, olive trees and honey. It’s almost as good as Wegman’s, but not quite. But then comes his order: don’t fail to remember me, God says, and to keep my ordinances. That is, as they are to enjoy their land with its many blessings, they are to always keep in the back of their mind just how bad they had it God brought them out of slavery and through a wilderness with scorpions and snakes. God fed them in the arid wasteland with manna and sustained them with water from a rock.

Don’t forget this, God says, especially when times are good and there is no pandemic and you don’t have to limit the size of your dinner parties. When you’re sitting in your house and life is good, remember God’s commandments because it will be easy to forget. Life in God’s kingdom involves a devotion to God and neighbor, an intertwining of service and love that weaves the whole community together. This the ordinances make clear.

This reminds me of a poem my former bishop in Southwestern Pennsylvania once shared by the Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Runeberg, who lived in the 19th century, is the national poet of Finland, in fact, and this poem is one of his most beloved. It describes the challenging conditions of people living in rural Finland. There was the need of mixing bark with flour to have bread, a staple of life. Today I’d like to share this poem with you, and to help make its message clearer—at least I hope—I’ve done some very rudimentary drawings. Here is “Farmer Paavo,” by Johan Ludvig Runeberg:

High ´mid Saarijärvi´moors resided
Peasant Paavo on a frost-bound homestead,
And the soil with earnest arm was tilling;
But awaited from the Lord the in crease.
And he dwelt there with his wife and children,
By his sweat his scant bread with them eating,
Digging ditches, ploughing up, and sowing.

Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
And with it away flowed half the young blades;
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
And with the ears were half down beaten;
Autumn came, and frost took the remainder.
Paavo´s wife then tore her hair, and spake thus:
“Paavo, old man, born to evil fortune,
Let us beg, for God hath us forsaken;
Hard is begging, but far worse is starving.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Nay, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh,
Mix thou in the bread a half of bark now,
I shall dig out twice as many ditches,
And await then from the Lord the increase.

Half bark in the bread the good-wife mixed then,
Twice as many ditches dug the old man,
Sold the sheep, and bought some rye, and sowed it.
Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
And with it away flowed half the young blades;
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
And with the ears were half down beaten;
Autumn came, and frost took the remainder.
Paavo´s wife then smote her breast, and spake thus:
“Paavo, old man, born to evil fortune,
Let us perish, God has us forsaken,
Hard is dying, but much worse is living.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Nay, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh,
Mix thou in the bread of bark the double,
I will dig of double size the ditches,
But await then from the Lord the increase.”

She mixed in the bread of bark the double,
He dug then of double size the ditches,
Sold the cows, and bought some rye and sowed it.
Spring came on, the drift from cornfields melted,
But with it away there flowed no young blades.
Summer came, burst forth with hail the shower,
But with te ears were not down beaten,
Autumn came, and frost, the cornfields shunning,
Let them stand in gold to bide the reaper.


Then fell Paavo on his knees and spake thus:
“Aye, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh.”
And his mate fell on her knees, and spake thus:
“Aye, the Lord but trieth, not forsaketh.”
But with gladness spoke she to the old man:
“Paavo, joyful to the scythe betake thee!
Now ´tis time for happy days and merry.
Now ´tis time to cast the bark away, and
Bake our bread henceforth of the rye entirely.”

Paavo took the good-wife´s hand and spake thus:
“Woman, he endureth trials only,
Who a needy neighbour ne´er forsaketh;
Mix thou in the bread a half of bark still,
For all frost-nipped stands our neighbour´s cornfield.”

So, from the Promised Land thousands of years ago to the moors of Finland a hundred years ago to the United States in the year 2020, God’s commandments remain the same: In good times and bad we look to God’s presence as well as the needs of neighbors. We are a community, tied together in God’s love. Thankful hearts are aware of both God and others.

No matter how we celebrate this year, or every year, whether we are coming together or staying apart, the gift of Jesus Christ is always the same. He is the bountiful land, the great harvest, the plentiful blessing that God has given to you and to me. And because he has crossed the biggest barrier we could ever know on the cross, we can be confident that he overcomes any separation we feel today.

Like the one leper who has been restored to his community after being healed by Jesus, we return our thanks to God for the ways COVID is being conquered through scientific progress and through the daily sacrifices of millions of people. It is through patience and perseverance, given by God, that our communities will be restored. And it through the courage of many that God’s name is praised as they work in hospitals, on the police beat, in grocery stores, food pantries, on farms, and in other places that build up our society.

Perhaps we’re all mixing a little bark into our bread this year, with the promise that God will not forsake us. So, whether Thanksgiving 2020 it is Come, you thankful people come, for you or stay, you thankful people, stay, may the God who overcomes all hardship and stills the roaring of the seas and the clamor of the peoples bless you and your loved ones today.

Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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