Our culture has compelled us to accommodate tradition. We have made adjustments and perhaps some of us go to a Thanksgiving Eve service on one of the preceding days, be it Sunday evening or, as we do today, gather at noon on a Tuesday.
But our country has for the most part put worship aside on this day.
For football fans, Thanksgiving has become a festival of wall-to-wall games from noon to midnight. The typical family gathering around the table has in some places given way to the trays around the TV set. He who has the remote rules.
For retailers, Thanksgiving itself has become almost an afterthought. It has become the curtain that, when raised, welcomes us into the Christmas shopping season. Yes, there is that component called commercialism that has crept into our culture and has cleverly corrupted the conventional customs of this national celebration.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the countless number of retailers that have already begun to seduce you with super sales and bargains to get you out of the house and into their stores start your Christmas shopping barely after the beginning of November. The fanfare of “Black Friday” has become a phenomenon so peculiar that in some places people actually camp out at the store’s doors in order to be among the first in line.
Our modern culture encourages us once a year to "be thankful" but seldom if ever says to whom. We live in an age of diversity, living in the most multicultural, multiethnic, multi-faith country in the world. Society may have valid reasons to respect the fact that others may not embrace the same religion or the same God that we worship. But the result is often a "thankfulness" that is merely self-congratulation and self-satisfaction for something we have done instead of what someone has done for us.
It is also a thankfulness that somewhat denies the realities of life. A thankfulness that does not come easily, especially when we are caught in the grip of anxiety.
On this national holiday many will gather for Thanksgiving in settings that are strife-or tension-filled, in a culture that is deeply divided, in a nation overwhelmed with anxiety, a world long at war, and around family meals where hurts long past are still carried as burdens.
In the midst of all this, the word of God offers us an invitation in the form of the Psalm we heard a few moments ago. It is an invitation from God, who invites us to be still…be still and know that I am God.
The psalms are sometimes called the prayer book, or the hymn book, of the Bible. The psalter, or the collection of psalms, speak to us across the ages. We see ourselves in them, and know that we are not the first to go through such things. And that is tremendously comforting.
Let me interject here that I love Psalm 46. It is among my favorites. When I was serving in the parish, it was among the ones that I would read most often to parishioners when I visit them in hospitals and nursing homes. I personally find it a source of comfort and assurance. From the beginning sentence, there is no question that the psalmist who wrote this was convinced of the fact that, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
And pay close attention to those three words: refuge, strength, and help.
These words are written by someone who most assuredly has faced the trials and tribulations of life. The message of the Psalm is security amid great turmoil because of God’s presence. “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”
The promise of God's protective presence is not a guarantee of an easy, care-free existence. Rather, the promise of God-with-us comes in the midst of trouble.
We can look at Psalm 46 both on an individual level and as a community. From an individual standpoint we can find in it a personal confidence to enter into a relationship of dependence upon God, to find ultimate security in God. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
In other words; in time of crisis, in the hour of need, when our own resources have dwindled down to nothing, where do we turn?
When people we thought we could rely upon disappoint or desert us, when support systems that we have carefully put into place collapse underneath us, when every earthly defense is gone, where do we turn?
Perhaps it is only in times like this that we realize how small and powerless we truly are. It is precisely then – when we are faced with the naked truth of our existence before God – that God can then step in and act. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
From a collective or communal standpoint, there are crises that we suffer on a national or global level. “Though the earth be moved and the mountains shake into the sea.”
In the last calendar year alone, we’ve experienced hurricanes and earthquakes in various parts of the world. I have never been in an earthquake. People who have gone through earthquakes say they don't know of anything else that makes a human being feel quite so helpless. Where can you go? You run into a building because the building might collapse on top of you. There's no place to go!
Sometimes trouble comes to people like that – without any warning, with no way of resisting it, with total finality, and suddenly they find that everything has dropped right out of the bottom of their life.
I know people who take annual mission trips to Haiti, where, you may recall, an earthquake devastated that country some five years ago. There are people who are still living in tents and vulnerable to the natural elements. Yet my friends tell me that some of those folks are coping because deep in their hearts they have that assurance that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
I couldn’t help but think of these words as I heard the horrific news that came out of Paris on Friday, the 13th, where the number of deaths seemingly kept rising with each new report of the attacks that took place in various places around that city.
Our country has been rocked by gun violence and mass shootings of people in churches, college campuses, on the mean streets of Cleveland, and other public places. And we’re almost numb to the news coming out of the Middle East, where countless numbers of our men and women have died, fighting a war which seems to have no end; not to mention the millions of people who have been displaced, refugees seeking a safer place to live, many of them dying in their search for safety and security.
Our world seems bent on destruction. Some time ago a magazine article put together this incredible statistic: since the beginning of recorded history, the entire world has been at peace less than eight percent of the time! In their study, the journal discovered that of 3540 years of recorded history, only 286 years saw peace. In that time more than 8000 peace treaties were made--and broken.
If you can’t have peace between nations, wouldn’t it be nice to have peace within our own government? Wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t so much partisan bickering among members of our congress?
Countless politicians seek election and power by playing upon what we’ve come to know as "the politics of fear."
In the last few days there has been a wave of politicians panicking and trying to stop any Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S., because it’s believed that one of the Paris attackers might have entered Europe alongside refugees from Syria.
We must not, they tell us, let the terrorists win; and this means arming ourselves and our allies in order to fight violence with more violence. The implicit, and often explicit assumption, is that "God is on our side."
But Psalm 46 does not promise this country or any other nation that "God is on our side." Rather, it promises that God is "with us." And contrary to what we often think or are told, this means not arming ourselves but disarming ourselves.
The nay-sayers today tell us that world peace is not possible, and that it is naïve even to envision the possibility. But Psalm 46 is precisely God's vision of a world at peace.
It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.
In the midst of overwhelming circumstances in life that threaten to consume us, where is our refuge and strength?
Our real strength, as communities of faith, as a nation, and as God’s people, comes from our spiritual nature in showing compassion, tolerance, and a deeper understanding of our humanity.
Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.
And for that we say, “Thanks be to God.”