Thanksgiving Family Traditions
I hope that many of you have had the opportunity to spend time in thanks and reflection over the Thanksgiving holiday for our many blessings. For some, the holiday can feel a little lonely, if we find ourselves far away from family and friends, but whether we take the opportunity to gather with new or old friends or family, it’s a great time to connect with others.
After our Thanksgiving dinner and cleanup, my extended family likes to watch TV we remember from childhood. For our adult children, that means old movies, like Mrs. Doubtfire, Lion King, or Peter Pan. For my sisters and me, it’s funny old children’s TV shows we grew up watching. Does anyone remember Captain Kangaroo or The Friendly Giant? These old beloved shows are a fun way to reconnect with each other and remind ourselves of our shared history.
As we look toward Commitment Sunday on December 8, I have been thinking about one of my very favorite stories from childhood, Stone Soup. Captain Kangaroo used to read it on his show to Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose — and to all of us at home, as he used to say. It’s a story that has stuck with me all of my life. I’ve read it to the Emmanuel Day School children in chapel, and I think it has an invitation to connection for all of us.
The story goes roughly like this: three tired and hungry soldiers are on their way home from the wars and trudge into a village hoping to find a good dinner and a warm bed for the night. The story is set in France at a time that looks from the illustrations like the 18th century, so the soldiers could have been fighting any of the several long wars in France then. The villagers see the soldiers coming, and knowing that soldiers are always hungry and fearful of having too little for themselves, they hurried to hide their food. Their fears were reasonable — the soldiers were hungry, and the villagers were hard-working peasants. When the soldiers asked for a meal and a bed, the villagers replied that there were none to spare. So the soldiers regrouped, and one then called out, “We are three hungry soldiers in a strange land. You have no food, so we will have to make stone soup!”
Soup from a stone? Remember that the soldiers are on foot, headed home from the wars, so they not only have no food, they have no pot, no water, and no wood for a fire. They don’t even have any stones. What they do have, though, is the full attention of the villagers. So how do you make stone soup? You can probably guess how the story goes from here. The villagers can’t wait to witness the miracle of making soup from a stone. But of course the miracle is what happens in community when generosity rises up.
Villagers rush to bring a large iron pot, wood for the fire, buckets of water to fill the pot, and three round smooth stones. Then they realize how much better the soup would be with a little salt and pepper — then carrots, cabbage, potatoes, several sides of beef, barley, and milk. Soon they have a stew that is fit for a king, as they say, and they feast together long into the night with bright torches and beautifully set tables — and with bread, and a roast, and cider. They dance, laugh, and celebrate, enjoying the miracle of generosity, fellowship, and Christian community that they themselves have created.
Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, our season in the church of hopeful expectation as we await our celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25. Advent is a season of waiting, when we listen to prophecy about the Messiah we hope to come. Our readings today turn us away from a time of darkness, disunity, and conflict, and direct us to the light.
We prayed together in our Collect, and then read in the Epistle that our opportunity — our hope — is in laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day. The reading from Isaiah is really clear. Isaiah tells us that the Word of the Lord — that’s Jesus! — shall go out from Jerusalem to judge between nations and arbitrate for many peoples. And then — Isaiah’s prophecy goes on — they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Then here comes that part of Isaiah’s prophecy that we all know from the spiritual Down By the Riverside: neither shall they learn war any more.
I ain’t gonna study war no more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! We’ll lay down our sword and shield down by the riverside and put on the armor of light.
Our psalm today is a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem — for peace within its walls, and plenteousness and quiet in its towers. The theme in the lectionary today is pretty clear: Advent is a time for us to wait. To get ready. To prepare. To leave aside conflict and darkness and put on the armor of light.
Waiting and Preparing
Here at Emmanuel, we use purple vestments and altar hangings (and pulpit frontals) as we transition into Advent. We also use purple at Lent, which is our season of penitence as we remember Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness before his passion and crucifixion. So at Emmanuel, Advent — and waiting — has a little bit of a sense of penitence too — like a mini-Lent — and we can hear that in our scripture readings today for Advent.
Each of the readings has a warning to turn away from darkness and conflict, and encourages us to put on the armor of light. In other words, repent. We have a difficult relationship in our modern day with the word repent. In its biblical, historical sense, repenting doesn’t mean not doing bad things — many of us probably have an image of fundamentalist preachers and evangelists urging people to “repent” of “evil deeds” like card-playing and drinking. There’s an old country song that warns of the evils of drinking — not because drinking is a sin in the eyes of the Lord, but because drinking might lead to dancing, and every good Southern Baptist knows that God definitely is against that.
Actually, the idea of repentance — and you can hear the word penitence in repentance, right? — is from the biblical Greek word metanoite. Metanoite, like the English word metanoia, is less about actions — like card playing, or drinking, or even dancing — than it is about a turning toward, or a change of heart. Or just seeing things in a new way. Like beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, putting on the armor of light and not studying war no more.
How to Wait
What will you do to prepare the way of the Lord this Advent? How will you wait for Jesus? Matthew’s gospel today tells us that we have to be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. So how do we wait?
I think that the soldiers in that old story of Stone Soup have something to teach us about waiting, and being ready for the Messiah to come. Remember that they were tired and hungry. They were turning away from fighting, and not going to learn war any more. With nothing more than the bold claim that they knew how to make soup from a stone, they drew a community together in feasting, fellowship, and plenty — like today’s psalm, the community was at unity with itself, with peace within its walls and plenteousness in its palaces. The community drew together — bringing their gifts to lay down before God — to rejoice in abundance and generosity.
In the story of Stone Soup, at the end of the evening, when everyone is tired, the soldiers ask if there is a loft in a barn where they could sleep. But by then a community has formed, and hospitality has taken hold. Jesus has shown up. There is no bed in town too good for these honored guests.
The first soldier sleeps in the priest’s house, the second in the baker’s house, and the third in the mayor’s house. A miracle has happened, and it’s not that soup was made from a stone. The miracle is the abundance that is created when we share our time, talent, and treasure. The villagers thank the soldiers, saying “We shall never go hungry, now that we know how to make soup from stones.”
Indeed. Maybe that is how we should spend our Advent while we hope and wait. Do we know how to build community, making soup from stones, so that we shall never go hungry? As we look ahead to Commitment Sunday next week, when we lay down our gifts before God, is anybody up for a big pot of stone soup? Amen