Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2020 || Proper 27A || Matthew 25:1-13
I spent Election Day saying “thank you” to people, and it completely changed me. Going into November 3rd, I was a ball of raw nerves and tension and indigestion and fear. And while much of my tension remains, I found myself breathing a little easier despite the lack of immediate electoral clarity. I was even able to manage a four-hour chunk of sleep on Election Night. I had been praying for the election – for safety, especially, and for the process to run its course smoothly. I had been praying for those who are most vulnerable in our society, whose lives change more dramatically than mine does depending on who is in power. I had been praying for myself, for sleep, for peace, for patience. And still I was a ball of tension going into last Tuesday.
Until 6:03 a.m Tuesday morning. That was my first “thank you” of the day, and the last “thank you” came at 7:56 p.m. This year, I participated in the election as a poll worker at Precinct Seven in Groton at Fitch High School. It was my first time, and I really didn’t know what to expect. I have been interested in electoral politics since fourth grade when I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch the returns of the 1992 election, dutifully marking my electoral college map as states were called for Clinton or Bush…or, potentially, Ross Perot. I’ve been interested for nearly 30 years, but until this week, I had never taken a direct part in an election beyond the act of voting. And I’m so glad I did.
I got to be the machine tender. That’s the person who stands near the ballot machine (which looks like it comes from the mid-80s, and maybe does). My job was to make sure the ballots processed through the machine correctly as voters fed their ballots into it. Once the machine successfully took the ballot, I handed the voter a sticker and said, “Thank you so much for voting.”
I said “thank you” 1,142 times last Tuesday. All day long, I said “thank you” and handed people stickers. How cool is that!? I said “thank you” to every voter at Precinct Seven. I knew that, statistically speaking, somewhere between 45 and 55% of them voted for different candidates than I did, but that was the farthest thing from my mind in the moment of my spoken “thank you.” And so many of the voters thanked me back for working at the polls. There was mutual gratitude abounding in the polling place, and that gratitude transformed my outlook. I wasn’t looking upon potential rivals or adversaries on the other end of the political spectrum. I was looking upon fellow children of God and both saying and hearing those transformative words: “Thank you.”
The act of thanksgiving grounds us in the midst of uncertainty. The last few days, our collective uncertainty has been turned to eleven, but uncertainty abounds all the time. Nothing is truly certain. We live in the illusion of certainty. Our routines, our habits, our expectations move us along particular pathways that become, well, habitual. We like to think that if we go to the Starbucks every Monday morning at 7:35, the line will be only so long and we’ll get the non-fat venti mocha latte with two pumps of hazelnut and be out of there by 7:40. If enough weeks go by where we achieve the desired latte, we stop analyzing all the ways – from the mundane to the dire – that we might not receive our morning beverage. And then the day comes when we get a flat tire on the way or Starbucks is out of hazelnut, and we feel personally attacked by an impersonal universe that somehow conspired to deprive us. But in reality, the trip to Starbucks was always uncertain. We just don’t dwell on it.
And that’s where the act of thanksgiving comes in. Taking a moment to ground ourselves in thanks – to God, to another person – gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the small and great moments of our lives before they get sucked on by in the inevitable march of time. Saying “thank you” is a tiny ritual that marks a specific moment or gesture or gift or surprise, marks it so we appreciate that in an uncertain world, it might not have happened at all. Jesus prays before every meal in the Gospel because he does not want his friends to let such beautiful moments fade into the scenery of certainty. He wants them to recognize how special those moments are. And they are. As is every meal we ever share with another person.
Each time we stop to say an intentional “thank you” we combat the human tendency to ignore uncertainty. And Jesus is big on gratitude because he knows this human tendency all too well. He ends our parable today with a little moral: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Jesus tells the whole story of the bridesmaids to illustrate the point that humans are not too good at living with uncertainty, even though there’s not really such a thing as its alternative. And so he gives us the image of a trimmed lamp.
Our intentional acts of thanksgiving are lamps of gratitude. We shine them within the fog of our uncertain lives, illuminating the blessings that anchor us in the midst of uncertainty. We say “thank you” at a meal to remind us that so many – technically, including us – are uncertain as to where their next meal is coming from. We say “thank you” to God for the compassion of the nurse who is caring for us during the days of an uncertain prognosis. We say “thank you” to the voter who casts a ballot despite the uncertainty of an unwieldy electoral system.
When we say “thank you” intentionally, we shine our gratitude lamps against the darkness of uncertainty. We illuminate the uncertainty of life instead of ignoring it. And in so doing, we live lives of awareness, the kind of lives Jesus invites his followers to live. This past Tuesday, I had the great blessing of saying “thank you” 1,142 times. And it was not until I was done handing out stickers that I realized what a gift those eleven hundred moments of gratitude were. I realized that the voters and I were shining our lamps of gratitude upon each other, and what I saw there in the light of thanksgiving was the one certain thing, upon which this uncertain world is built. I was shining my lamp of gratitude on the certainty of the love and the grace of God.