Happy week of Thanksgiving. This is one of my absolute favorite weeks of the year, and no matter what disaster or disappointment took place last year I seem to be able to erase it from my mind and look forward to that chilly day of football, bourbon and turkey legs with delight. Thanksgiving is in my mind every year as this perfect day, which of course it isn’t, but I return to it time after time with perfect memories that I must have stolen from some magazine or TV show as my own. And no matter what, good or bad, year after year I return to Thanksgiving Day with loftier expectations, higher hopes and in need of even more turkey and stuffing than the year before.
It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think that the author of this letter to the Hebrews that we just heard read is talking about a similar sort of thing in our lives. Intent on drawing a clear line of distinction in our minds between the sacrifices made by the religious leaders of the day and the sacrifice that Jesus himself made, Hebrews shows us the difference between the world we try to create through our own works on one hand, and the truth, redemption and transformation that Jesus offers us all freely on the other.
“Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” Much like my memories of Thanksgiving, this is describing a fool, returning to the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This is a description of the burnt offerings made in the Temple in Jesus’ day, a tradition thousands of years old going back to the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament. Every morning and every evening a one year old male lamb, without blemish, was offered as a burnt offering. There was also a meat-offering and a drink-offering and an offering of incense to begin and end every day upon this religious treadmill of sacrifice. All of these sacrifices were made, day after day, in an attempt to bring the priests and Jewish people closer to God and have the guilt and weight of their sins removed.
These sacrifices may sound a little barbaric, and far removed from anything we might consider familiar, but they’re actually not too different from the things we do each and every day, or at least the sentiment behind them isn’t.
We make sacrifices every day for ourselves and the ones that we love. We often laudably do them from a genuine place of love. We sacrifice our time and our money and our health for the sake of our friends, family or child’s well-being and future. We sacrifice our pride, acknowledge our guilt, and ask for forgiveness from the ones we love in hope of being reconciled and making amends. We sacrifice for our ourselves—we work hard to earn financial, academic or physical success.
And we can end up placing our hope in these sacrifices that we make, thinking and hoping that what we do or what we offer will finally bring us peace or rightfully take the blame for what ails us. We do this with people too, particularly politicians. We make them a burnt offering for all of the world’s problems, but our personal problems too—the reason my friend is suffering or my marriage is falling apart, or why my hair is turning grey. We attach our guilt or sense of what’s wrong deep down within us and we shift the blame towards someone else, often someone on TV or someone very close to us.
We sacrifice a lot, and you might be right to say that we could and should sacrifice even more for those in need around us. But no matter what or who we’re sacrificing for, one thing remains the same; these sacrifices are not final, they will be required and demanded of us again, time and time again. And slowly but surely, we all begin to feel inadequate, incomplete and just a little bit resentful. Our guilt, anxiety and sadness linger and we end up back where we started, in need of another scapegoat, still in need of a true sacrifice, still in need of a savior.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is highlighting the problem for us, but also directing us to the solution.
“Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins…’I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
As we say in the words of our Communion service:
Christ suffered death upon the cross for our redemption; who
made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full,
perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for
the sins of the whole world;
I don’t know why we say oblation twice, but the good news here is that this sacrifice for our sins, our guilt and the weight of all that we have done and left undone, all of that was taken away through Christ’s one, single and perfect sacrifice upon the Cross. You have been forgiven, you have been released, you have been blessed, you have been given eternal life and you are loved, not because of you, but because of him. When it comes to our burdens being removed and our hearts set at ease, when it comes to the source of our salvation Jesus says to us, it’s not you, it’s me. It’s not us, it’s him.
A few days ago my parents dropped off some of my favorite baby books for us to read to our daughter. And in the bag was something else incredible. Included was another book, a book of poems that I wrote in middle school, that I of course I titled; “Tangled up in Emotions”. Courtney and I almost got sick from laughing so hard. For the cover, I cut out a picture of a turtle, just floating in some water. I wrote a self-portrait poem called, “Half Awake Thinking”. In another poem I wrote I describe myself breaking my brother’s nose for the first time. It’s quite clear that I need to show this to a therapist, not a publisher. And another gem with the simple title; Religion.
Now, before I read this, which I am absolutely going to do, I actually want to warn you, and warn my middle school self, that I’m going to tear apart this poem because it is the 100% opposite of the Gospel. So, here we go:
The road that you choose to take,
The guide from which you find your way,
The decisions you make that make your life,
The guidelines that you set out for yourself,
The things you believe are right and wrong,
I’d like to give myself credit for this on point critique of the futile slog that is religion based on our own work and sacrifices, but unfortunately this is what I truly thought Christianity was about. And I think that unfortunately if many of us were to write our own poem about religion, with our too common understanding of religion as nothing more than some sort of divinely inspired self-help, many of our poems would be just like mine, completely focused on ourselves, not even mentioning God, and simply ending with the word “you”. This is who we are as human beings, we have an incredible ability to make anything about ourselves, even religion, and even Thanksgiving.
As sad as it may sound, I’ve actually been listening to cooking podcasts about turkey and side dishes and all things Thanksgiving. No pictures, no smells, just people talking about food. One of these from Bon Appetit was actually pretty great talking about everything Thanksgiving, even Thanksgiving etiquette. So after a list of commandments much longer than ten, it said something like this:
Many of us have been taught how to be good hosts, but it’s just as important to be a good guest. Bring a gift, a bottle of wine, some flowers, some spiced nuts. Ignore the host who tells you “Just bring yourself!”—you should never arrive empty-handed.
Many of us have been taught to act this way, to never show up empty-handed. But what hear in the Gospel is that unlike our dinner host, all that Jesus asks of us is our empty hands. While his hands are full of the wounds of the Cross, our hands are empty as we come to the communion rail, as we kneel and clasp our hands together in prayer, as we receive the grace of God. Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden, come unto me with empty hands and broken hearts, and I will refresh you.
This is the true beauty of Thanksgiving. Rather than gathering around a table or altar and lifting up the sacrifices of our own piety, or presenting the burnt offerings of our works, we simply sit with those we love and those we fail to love, and we offer thanks. We hold hands, bow our heads and raise our glasses in thanksgiving for what has been done for us. In giving thanks we acknowledge our need and the work of another; we acknowledge the incompleteness of our sacrifices and the perfection of his.
Thanksgiving is nothing like my poem all about ourselves, because Thanksgiving is a bit like the Gospel. Thanksgiving is day when we reflect upon the good news that Jesus has died for all of us—it’s not you, it’s me. A day of looking away from ourselves and to the one from whom all blessings flow. A Thanksgiving feast, in thanksgiving for the supper of the lamb.
Happy Thanksgiving, and Amen