The calendar says today is November 22, but the liturgical calendar says this is the last Sunday after Pentecost, which means it is the last Sunday of the Church year.
The regular calendar says we still have almost six weeks left in 2020, but in church we leave this year behind as we start a new year next Sunday with the first Sunday of Advent.
Typically the last Sunday of the Church year is also known as “Christ the King” Sunday. The idea is that we end the year triumphantly, acknowledging Christ as “King of kings” and “Lord of lords.”
But this year I’ve taken a little bit of liturgical liberty. Instead of the scripture readings for Christ the King Sunday you’ve just heard the readings for Thanksgiving.
Thankfulness is most likely not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about the year 2020. This has been a year of loss and grief on a scale that still seems unfathomable, and which grows exponentially each day.
First and foremost are the more than 250,000 deaths from the coronavirus since March. That’s a quarter of a million empty seats at Thanksgiving tables, a quarter of a million waves of grief sweeping over families and friends throughout the nation.
Then there are the almost 12 million people in the country who have contracted the virus, some of whom were asymptomatic, but many of whom were devastatingly ill.
There really is no part of life that coronavirus has not touched. It has hit our economy, where millions have lost their jobs, and thousands of businesses have closed. Record numbers of people are filing for unemployment, lining up at food pantries, and wondering how they’re going to pay their mortgages or rent.
Even those of us who have been fortunate enough not to have our lives or livelihoods threatened by the virus have still experienced loss.
High school and college graduations did not happen. Study abroad was cancelled. Classes at all levels moved online, as did many people’s work.
Playdates and dinner parties are a thing of the past, as are visits with grandparents and extended family gatherings. Travel plans have been cancelled or delayed indefinitely.
Sporting events have been played in empty stadiums and arenas; concerts are a thing of the past.
Weddings, baptisms, and even funerals have been postponed or scaled back to include only a handful of people. Hospitals and nursing homes allow no visitors.
Of course, the way we do church has also changed dramatically. I’m acutely aware that I have not seen most of you in person in more than eight months, and that it will be many more months before we can all gather in the church again.
All of these losses, big and small, take a tremendous toll on us.
That hit home to me this week when a friend posted on Facebook that her 10-year-old daughter wants two things for Christmas.
First, she wants the coronavirus to go away.
Second, she wants to be able to hug her friends.
All of us are affected by this pandemic.
In the midst of this cumulative and ongoing loss and grief comes Thanksgiving. It will be a different kind of holiday for most of us. No holiday travel, no gatherings of extended family.
We may not feel very thankful this year, but it will still be Thanksgiving. And maybe 2020 is a year when we need Thanksgiving the most.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians.
Notice that Paul does not say give thanks for all things. Instead, he says to give thanks in all things, in all circumstances. There is no giving thanks for the coronavirus, for the deaths and hardships and losses it has brought to us.
But even in this situation, Paul would say, we should look for things for which to give God thanks.
And when I start to think about it there is much to give thanks for in this crazy year, and much of it has to do with you.
I give thanks for the technology that often frustrates the heck out of me, but also allows us to gather online to worship on Sunday mornings and weekday evenings, for vestry meetings and study groups.
I give thanks for the community that has formed in these gatherings. Not virtual community, but real community. Not virtual worship, but real worship.
I give thanks for our vestry, which since the beginning of this pandemic has been guided by two questions: What can we do to support one another in our community? And what can we do to support our neighbors in need outside our community?
I give thanks for the abundance with which those two questions have been answered by all of you. In normal times we think of outreach beyond our community as a combination of hands on work and financial support.
This year the hands on has necessarily stopped, but the financial support has been generous beyond anything I could have imagined.
Since March of this year you have given a little more than $100,000, from the church’s outreach funds and your donations, to people in need. You’ve helped forgive $6.5 million in medical debt for some of Atlanta’s poorest families and provided medical help for people in Tanzania.
You’ve financially supported five different food pantries across the city, and made generous donations to ministries run by the Episcopal Church, including Emmaus House, Holy Comforter, Church of the Common Ground and Path to Shine.
That doesn’t include the mountains of food you have brought each week for the Sandy Springs food pantry, the stacks and sacks of sandwiches and lunches you have made for people at Church of the Common Ground, the dozens of grocery and gas gift cards you’ve given for Family Promise, or the Christmas collections we are now doing for children and families at Emmaus House.
“Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver,” Paul writes in today’s reading. I promise you God loves all you have done and continue to do in this pandemic.
That generosity is also evidenced in your care for one another. You have set aside money to help our own parishioners whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic.
You have provided meals for parishioners in grief, in sickness, or recovering from surgeries or accidents, including our family. You have called and checked up on one another, and been there for each other in difficult times.
While many churches are wondering how they will survive the pandemic, you have continued your financial support of St. Dunstan’s, giving more money in stewardship this year than last.
Your generosity in all ways has made me think of 2020 not only as a year of grief and loss, but as a year of abundance.
Paul could have easily been writing to the Christians of St. Dunstan’s when he said, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.
“You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
“You glorify God by the generosity of your sharing.”
And I am deeply grateful.