The Rev. Anne Michele Turner Thanksgiving Day (Matthew 6:25-33) November 23, 2006 Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA Trail Magic It is a hot May afternoon—the first hot one of the year—and we are climbing up a steep hill. My husband and I have decided to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. It is the end of our first day’s walk. Our packs are loaded against all contingencies, bursting with two weeks’ worth of clean socks and dried fruit, and so we struggle uphill with enormous loads on our backs. What we don’t have is the one thing we want: water. We have walked fourteen miles since the morning, not realizing that we wouldn’t pass a spring all day. The light is low in the trees as we struggle around a bend in the trail. We are met with a strange trinity: three men sitting in folding chairs by the side of the trail. At their feet is a large cooler. Seeing us coming, one smiles, opens the cooler, and pulls out two cold sodas. And we have our introduction to Trail Magic. Through hikers who stay on the trail for months at a time will tell you about trail magic. It takes many different forms: The bandages left at a shelter waiting for you the day you walk in with blistered feet, the ride down into town the day before a snowstorm, the warm cocoa or the fresh coffee or the ice cold soda on the day you so desperately need it. Trail magic may sometimes be anonymous but it is never random. Our mysterious benefactors have come back to the trail that day after hiking it years earlier simply for the joy of sharing it. Almost four hundred years ago, a band of seekers was exhausted at the end of their journey. They had sailed away from suspicion and persecution and walked into an unmapped continent. I do not doubt that they packed all the wrong things, too. They spent months sifting strange seeds in their fingers, turning earth under their plows that felt different from the earth at home. And then as the light of summer grew shorter they found it: the welcome of the natives of that place, the wisdom to make the crops grow, the miracle of grain in the fields. A different trail, a different journey, but trail magic just the same. Today is the feast day of trail magic. Matthew tells us of the gift. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” “God . . . clothes the grass of the field.” We round the corner and find ourselves nose to nose with this promise of grace—not just the intervention of one season but the regular way of doing business in this particular kingdom we are journeying in. What it is like to be a people who live under trail magic, who celebrate trail magic as the logic of our lives? Despite this annual feast, I wonder if many of us have been properly introduced to the concept. We are like that crowd so long ago, hungry for teaching, and a little bread, too. “Do not be anxious . . .” We are glad to listen at the foot of the mountain to Jesus’ sermon but we are also wondering at the back of our minds what on earth all this spiritual stuff is going to do about getting us something to eat at the end of the day. When will we have to go back to the real world? We know salt is just for making supper and the lamp is only lit so that we can see to work. Only Jesus keeps telling us that the real world doesn’t work the way we expect it does, that God’s grace is not as parsimonious as we think. It is all around us, this littering of goodness, magic along the way, abundance for the taking: seeds and nuts and worms, light and air and warmth, the harvest at the end of the summer, the cold drink at the end of the long walk. We cannot pack any of those things to carry on our backs. We cannot wrap them into storage and take them across oceans. But they are real, real and magical all at once, and we need them to survive. For they bless us in their nourishment—and they also bless us in giving us an experience of a life dependent on grace. Can we live so dependent? What changes when we do? What happens when Thanksgiving is not one holy day but the reality of every day, when Thanksgiving is not only our reflection on things past but also our faith in things to come? That May in the mountains we discover the adrenaline rush of living by trail magic. We meet a man hiking from Georgia to Maine in only sandals, confident enough to leave his toes exposed. We eat wild mushrooms that another hiker has found. We enjoy chocolate and butter and wine, none of which we have carried ourselves. Trail magic is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, you see, because it creates in its recipients a desire to take part in the delight. And so it was for us the last night of our hike: emptying our packs, still so laughably heavy, we find a jar of sun-dried tomatoes at the bottom. We know how delicious they will taste to the thru-hikers who sleep alongside us, and we leave them with joy and pride at finally belonging to this itinerant community. “Make us . . . faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities aid the relief of all who are in need.” So we have prayed. This feast day tells us that we can’t understand the full meaning of trail magic until we can be givers as well as receivers. There comes a place, if we can live into it, where we are so awash in grace that we do not know whether our hands are giving or taking and it really doesn’t matter, because all of it is God’s inexhaustible gift, anyway. One year later we return to the trail. It is autumn this time, and I know we will be out of sync with the through hikers. The shelter is empty when we arrive that night. But there is a log book there, as there is in each shelter, where hikers record their names, their mileage. Sometimes there are hopes; sometimes there are disappointments. Often, there are comments on mice and where to sleep to avoid them. I thumb through the pages of all the poetry and prose until I find this written: “Trail Magic? Trail Grace. Not proof that God exists but possible clues that God uses people to pass on ‘daily bread.’” And I know that I am coming home to the kingdom again. And so the promise of today is the same as its challenge: Be lilies. Be birds. Be grass. Be pilgrims. Under-pack with confidence. Give thanks for yesterday and know that you are making a claim about tomorrow as you do. Leave your tomatoes, scatter your seed. Break your bread and know there will be enough because someone else has broken his bread for you first. Or—as Matthew put it—seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. It is the only path we ever need to walk on, and the only home we ever want to reach.
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