Gratitude in Liminal Times

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November 26, 2020

Gratitude in Liminal Times

Passage: Deuteronomy 8:7–18

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

Friends it is Thanksgiving Day and the Christmas lights at Kenilworth Union Church have been up for three weeks—since the first of November. I know, I know. I am normally a “wait until after Thanksgiving” person too, but this year is different. While I would love to pretend for a moment that there is no pandemic and I have never heard of COVID-19, the effects on our lives, and our ability to gather today are too glaring to ignore.

Perhaps some of us are having a virtual Thanksgiving over zoom. Or perhaps you were able to find a way to gather a small group safely with everyone quarantining ahead of time. Maybe the empty seats at your table today make it completely unrecognizable from last year. This virus is unrelenting. We are weary, perhaps even heartbroken.

If you haven’t yet, consider decorating for Christmas earlier this year. You have the blessing of psychologists who suggest that extending our holiday season, especially the planning and anticipation, also extends our ability to savor these moments. These early Christmas lights shine like teeny glimmers of hope in challenging days. There is some good news: several promising vaccines are moving forward in clinical trials. Many schools managed to open at least partially and relatively safely. Kindergarten teachers are going viral on TikTok for their creativity. Businesses are partnering with communities to make Wi-Fi available to those who do not have access.

Many are finding creative ways to connect in safe and socially distant ways—even on Thanksgiving Day. These efforts are critical because they give scientists and medical professionals time to find effective treatments that will save lives and will allow us to return to normal. A normal Thanksgiving Day with our loved ones gathered round, and all of our favorite foods, this is what we long for. Normal is what we pray for. Can you just make out the end of this pandemic journey on the horizon? It is coming.

But for now we are in an in-between place. A place between our memory of what was and what we hope for. We are on the way but we are not there yet. Even our vocabulary is in transition: pods, pivot, pandemic, coronacation—a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one—quarantine. Not only do we have zoom fatigue, our ears are tired of these now too common words. Even so liminal is a word I would like to nominate for the top 2020 list because I believe it defines the time we are in now. Reluctantly we find ourselves existing in a liminal time between what was and what will be.

Liminal also describes the space where Moses was speaking from in today’s scripture. The Israelites have been wandering in the unfamiliar and harsh wilderness for years, even decades, hoping to reach the place God has promised. This new place is described as a place of abundance with a long list of resources: land, water, wheat and barley, vines, figs and pomegranates, olives and honey, strong stones to build with, hills rich with ore. A place where they will lack nothing.

Translated for today that list of hopes might read something like this: For the Lord your God is bringing you out of pandemic isolation, out into the world where streets are flowing with people, and railway lines well with commuters, to a time of parties and pageants, with vaccines and treatments, a time of handshakes and hugs without hesitation. A time where you may dine in a restaurant and go to the grocery store without fear, a time when no one lacks healthcare. A time when we can worship together in this sacred space rather than a screen.

They are almost there. They can see it on the horizon. So close but they are not there yet. Perhaps we can see that there will be an end to our pandemic journey. But we are not there yet. These are liminal spaces between what was and what will be.

And it is here in the space between memory and hope, that Moses cautions them “Take care you don’t forget the Lord your God.” When you get to this place promised to you, when you have built fine houses, eaten all you can eat and you have become wealthy, don’t forget that God brought you here, out of slavery into the wilderness, where God provided.

Two years ago a last minute trip to the pacific coast with our confirmation youth inspired my desire to do more wilderness backpacking. This summer a five day backcountry trip in a national park wasn’t possible, but the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin was. So in September I planned a short trip with a friend. As I prepared for my first unguided trek I learned, that a big part of backpacking is planning food that is light, non-perishable, and high in calories. There are whole websites devoted to backpacking food and recipes—all with very punny names like Food for the S-O-L- E and Fresh Off the Grid.

Though many of these camp chefs tell you to avoid the freeze-dried meals, I became fixated on finding a particular brand of beef stroganoff for my trip. Why dried beef stroganoff? Because I remembered how delicious it was after a day on the pacific coast where we woke to hike at 2 a.m. in order to time the tide. With headlamps we carefully made our way over kelp covered rocks to camp on dry land. After a grueling day we sat on logs to eat. A confirmand offered a trade: their beef stroganoff for my mac and cheese. As we ate, the group gelled, sharing real stories about life and faith. The end of the trip was in sight—just a day’s hike away, but we were not there yet. At home I would never dream of eating dried stroganoff. But I remember it fondly because of that liminal time around the confirmation campfire beside the ocean, when God felt just a breath away.

“Take care” says Moses, because he knows that when your bank account and your belly are full it is easy to forget what God has provided on the journey. Perhaps it is human nature to forget God’s grace and simple gifts of manna and dried stroganoff, once we reach the destination. And so Moses tells them “Remember.”

In places of abundance, it is easy to forget. But in liminal spaces, perhaps like this one, we are forced to slow down and be patient. Waiting in anticipation for what is to come is an opportunity to reflect and remember. How did I get here? Where do I find my strength? Where do I see hope on the horizon? Gratitude often arises out of remembrance.

In March the children’s ministry along with the entire world moved online. On the verge of spring break, with many plans canceled, Greta Connor, Katie Lancaster, and I offered a daily lunchtime story. It wasn’t fancy. We said hello to one another, and then we read a picture book—one that made us laugh or gave us hope. We ended with a lunchtime prayer. “God is great, God is good….” “Thank you for the food before us,” We used familiar table graces. Several of these families shared these prayers for today’s “Entering In” children’s moment that is available on YouTube.

Day after day, when our normal routines were disrupted, and we were all just learning to Zoom, we showed up to give thanks to God for the simple gift of food and friends at our tables extended online. Months later I can tell you whose favorite lunch is tomato soup, who likes spaghetti, and who favors granola. What we found in these prayers for our simple meals was the daily assurance that even in the most uncertain times, even in a pandemic, God is with us.

Tables are often the epicenters of gratitude. They are the place we encourage our 3rd graders to talk about their highs and lows and recite the 23rd Psalm. They are where college students arrive with a new appreciation for familiar foods after months of dorm life. Tables are where we sit down with our spouses to talk about finances, potential moves, and career changes. They are the places where we look forward to gathering with our friends and extended family for Thanksgiving Day.

Perhaps our tables are yet another liminal place, where we slow down, savoring food and family. Here at the table is the threshold where crops from the earth become a feast that nourishes our journey. For these gifts, we give thanks to God, heeding Moses’ words to take care to remember what God has done as we anticipate what is to come.

The Communion Table, especially, is a liminal space between heaven and earth. Christ’s table welcomes us, connecting the socially distant, the quarantined, the joyful, the weary, the heartbroken, and the beloved saints who have gone before us across space and time. Here in the space between memory and hope, we prepare to unite our voices in praise and thanksgiving. Prepare your bread and juice, for in a moment we will gather together at this liminal table in a liminal time. We will heed Moses’ words to not forget God who has brought us here. We will remember the hope we have in Jesus Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit we will gather together. Thanks be to God.