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John Witherspoon was the only active member of the clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence. At the time of the signing he was then the President of Princeton University and the Pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in the city. One day a parishioner raced into his study all out of breath. The man said that he had been driving his buggy on the Rocky Hill Road when his horse bolted and his buggy crashed on the rocks. He had barely escaped with his life and he came directly to his Pastor to ask him to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Pr Witherspoon did that, but before the man left, he said, “I can tell you of a far more remarkable providence than your delivery from the rocks. I have driven over that same road a hundred times and never has my horse bolted and never have I been hurt. God’s providential care is new to us each morning.”
Maybe it is easier to be thankful when you see your broken buggy and yet are able to touch your bruised but living body. Old Israel could have run its hands over shoes and feet that had not worn out in 40 years of wandering, and they could have tasted the honey sweetness of manna every single morning. Yet instead they forgot the Lord and actually grumbled. In fact, they had barely left the basin of the Red Sea where they had seen the Lord destroy Pharoah’s crack Cavalry when they set up a calf god and offered their thankful hearts to it. So as Israel approached the Jordan and made ready to cross over into the promised land, Yahweh warned them, “When your crops overflow, when your houses are built and secure, don’t forget the Lord Who gave you all of this!” He warned them because He knew their hearts as He knows ours…………how sights and sounds tempt us, and how impatient we are to get our hands on the next blessing.
Jesus had taken a little boy’s offered bread and prayed. It was a lonely place and the disciples were frustrated because Jesus hadn’t sent the crowd home. The Twelve felt helpless when Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” But when John wrote about the great miracle of feeding more than 5,000 out in the wilderness he chose to focus on the crowd’s reaction to the miracle. Today’s Gospel is one of those and it is from the day after: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life.” Yet we do. In the shadow of a national election, we know how much of this race focused exactly on food that perishes, and how many of our politicians appeals were to our basest instincts. Blessings are fine, but the sinner who walks in my shoes wants the next blessing, and wants it when I want it. It is easier to listen to folks who promise my heart’s desire than it is to listen to the Lord Who warns me about my sinful short sightedness.
This Lord has the power to fill every pantry. The crowd in this Gospel hoped that He would get busy and fill theirs. That had so much to learn about Jesus. When the Devil came to Jesus after 40 days of fasting and urged him to turn a few stones into bread and feed Himself, Jesus put the “If I want it I ought to have it” mentality off limits to all who would follow Him. When this Gospel crowd tried to turn Jesus into a bread-making king, Jesus was already walking on a path that was leading Him to suffering and the cross to atone for sins like the crowd’s demanding. Even when He was in deep agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus still prayed, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” We follow a Lord Who calls us to seek the kingdom first, not second or fourth or last. He summons us to be overflowing with mercy because that’s how He is to us. Thanksgiving will not come for you by adding up your balance sheet – though that will also amaze you. Thanksgiving comes by walking hand in hand with the One Who says, “I am the Bread of Life.” Thanksgiving is my response to Him Whose arms are unfailingly around me.
A thankful life can truly begin at a basket overflowing with bread because that basket is a gift of God. But those baskets in the wilderness were a sign, Jesus said. “Don’t chase after the bread that perishes.” We sinners often barter with God for more miracles, often pledge future devotion in exchange for more bread, more disasters stayed, more successful job interviews. But a child of the kingdom, wet with Baptismal water, basks in the embrace of God, and in His faithful companionship along our pilgrim way. We are thankful even when we are hungry, and even when we must endure chemotherapy. Faith sees and trusts the One Who says, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This national holiday remembers a moment in the life of the Massachusetts colony when our pilgrim ancestors sat down to feast with their Native American neighbors. It was not nearly so lavish a feast as our myths about it suggest – conditions were very harsh. When they met more than half of those who left England with them were already dead and many of the rest were grievously ill. Wm Bradford was the Governor who called them to come together. He called them because their first Governor was already dead. This is what Governor Bradford said:
Could not the children of these fathers now say, “Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the ocean and were ready to perish for this wilderness?” But instead they cried to the Lord and He heard their voices and looked down on their troubles. “Let them therefore praise the Lord because He is good and because His mercies endure forever.” He went on, “Now I, your Magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with ye wives and little ones, do gather at the meeting house on ye hill, between 9 and 12 of the day time on Thursday, November 29th, in the year of Our Lord Sixteen Hundred and Twenty Three, the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor, and render thanksgiving to Almighty God for all His blessings.”
So we have gathered again, before the same gracious God, to say thank you for all His bounty, and most especially the bountiful mercy that He showers down upon us in Jesus. As you feast with your families on this holiday, taste everywhere the bounty and unfailing love of the Lord Who is indeed the Bread of Life. Give Him your thanks because He is good, and His mercy is everlasting.
1st Lesson Deuteronomy 8.11-20
Gospel: John 6.22-27 + 35
2nd Lesson Philippians 4.4-13
Almighty God our Father, your generous goodness comes to us new every day. By the work of your Spirit lead us to acknowledge your goodness, give thanks for your benefits, and serve you in willing obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Epiphany 5 Sermon
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From Pastor Lehrer
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