Thursday November 28, 2002
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Thanksgiving Day 2002
O give thanks unto the Lord, and call upon his Name; tell the people what things he hath done.
I begin this morning with a brief and familiar history lesson; an epic tale of adventure, peril, and the journey that founds a nation. On December 11, 1620, the Mayflower, with the Pilgrims on board, arrived at Plymouth. December on the Massachusetts coast can be harsh, and that winter was particularly unforgiving. By the autumn of 1621, forty-six had died of the original one hundred two that had sailed to this country, thus leaving less than half the number of those early colonists as survivors. The harvest, however, that year was plentiful, and preparations were made to celebrate with a feast. Ninety-one Native Americans, whose assistance had sustained the Pilgrims from the time of their landing at Plymouth, and without whom all would have died, were invited. The feast was in the style of the English harvest festival and lasted three days. That was the first Thanksgiving. It was not until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln set the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. Today, therefore, is a civil holiday of images and imaging, where truth is more than fact, where meaning is conveyed in a fiction that outlasts us, a story repeated that tells us who we really are as a nation.
Now, I move to a short theology lesson. The point I want to make is that in setting a day apart in which to give God thanksgiving after a year that had mortally devastated them and called for tremendous sacrifice, the Pilgrims, in that autumn meal of 1621, tell us in 2002 about greatness; that the greatness of a country is its humility before God. “Praised be the Lord daily…” writes the Psalmist, “even the God who helpeth us, and poureth his benefits upon us. He is our God, even the God of whom cometh salvation; God is the Lord, by whom we escape death” (68.19-20), these words stating what I think it means to walk humbly with God amidst the perils, devastations and sacrifices of this earthly life. Today is not a celebration of a military triumph or of human accomplishment, has nothing to say about perfection, efficiency, and success – the strengths we so often elevate as estimable in our cultural and civic religions. The Pilgrims in that simple and human act of a common meal, shared with the native peoples, in gratitude for what God had seen fit to grant them, establish a precedent set within the heart of our beloved republic, acknowledging not an independence but a profound dependence on the grace of God. And, with the annual commemoration of that unique Thanksgiving on the Massachusetts coast, a hierarchy of priority is re-established that seeks to initiate us annually as citizens into a larger way of life, a fuller way of being alive or living. This new way has less to do with being full of turkey, dressing, squash and pumpkin pie than with being open, that is to say, surrendered to what no nation can ever possess but only receive, the might of God to deliver and save. Thanksgiving Day magnifies, I think, this nation’s need before God, celebrates it, glorifies it; the repetition of old images, like the icons from Currier & Ives prints or Norman Rockwell illustrations, imagining a cosmic time and establishing a vitality to this repeated tale, part true and part myth, and recalling values we have inherited from ancestors long dead, who faced the worst with human best and gave thanks. We experience Thanksgiving in parades, meals, football games, travel home to family and friends, but we must not miss the meaning that was the catalyst and reason of that first gathering in good will by our Pilgrim forebears, where greatness is a relationship of mystery that all nations of peoples on this globe share with the One God who created them – a bond of trust that is the pattern, understanding, character, and habit of the power upon which not only this country but all nations are dependent. “All kings shall fall down before him…” writes the Psalmist, “all nations shall do him service” (72.11).
The importance of what I am saying is also a message to our individual lives, that the greatness of a man is his humility before God. Who amongst us survives on his own? Who hasn’t been helped through one of life’s bleak winters or has known that kindness of friend or stranger? We, as the children and family of God, need this day in which we can ask some blessing of the goodness of The Creator on our mortality and this world’s fragility and finitude. Our creatureliness depends on this beneficence that the Immortal God may do in and for us what we cannot accomplish by ourselves. Our life and the lives of others, need support, kindness and compassion if we are to grow and live fully. Today, we are reminded to be willing to walk with God thankfully through the often imperfect and complex relationships that are the people, places, things, and events of our daily life, mindful that those to whom greatness has been given, much is therefore expected. Less of our self-fulness this Thanksgiving, I would say, more of God in this world.
And, with walking in mind, let me illustrate my remarks with a story. Last month, I was walking with two friends, Arthur and Bradford, on the road that borders the harbor of Mt. Sinai on Long Island’s north shore. It was afternoon, and we were talking as we walked along in the autumn air. We turned off the road to walk up a suburban street that led to a housing development atop a hill overlooking the harbor. Suddenly a silver SUV pulled up next to us, a man and woman inside, yelling, “This is a private street!” As Arthur and Bradford looked down, I said to the couple matter-of-factly that, “I didn’t see the street posted as private.” The couple recoiled like attack dogs and yelled again, “This is a private street!” Obviously, we retreated, but I can’t help but wonder if Arthur and Bradford had not been black but white, would this have happened? - for seemingly black had become to that white couple an image of fear, imaginings of threat to their private and luxurious hilltop world. The real victims in this story are the couple in the SUV. We were free to turn and walk on in peace, but they were prisoners of that fearful, private street, where having everything materially was little comfort. I cannot help to think that perhaps fear is the great obstacle to thanksgiving both nationally and personally. This may be because thanksgiving has nothing to do with isolation and everything to do with death to fantasy goals and illusions of independence and self-satisfaction. It is about leaving our emptiness and violence behind and stepping out in the direction of mercy, freedom, and hope – a national and personal dream of peace within the might of God’s fullness, His saving and redemptive love. “For [God] satisfieth the empty soul….” says the Psalmist, “and filleth the hungry soul with goodness” (107.9).
In summary, I have said three things. 1) Thanksgiving is none other than the experience of prayer, life in the kingdom of God. 2) God is the help and succor of the nations and peoples of this earth. And, 3) gratitude is part of the landscape of our inner life, illuminating and transforming us, making us different, less earthbound, less self-seeking.
I conclude with three actions we can practice. 1) Enter into thanksgiving to let God take possession of you, remembering to pray, “Thy will be done…” Surrender is the first step in gratitude. 2) Profound thanksgiving is not something that we fall into casually. If so, it is a divine happening. Prepare for gratitude by setting a time and place within your day for prayer and meditation. And, 3) choose to be grateful. Thanksgiving cannot be imposed, won or deserved, yet it remains one of the fundamental realities on which nationhood and personhood rest. Surrender, prepare, choose – three actions of this day that redeem time, set our hope and effort on a kingdom that is here with us now, demands our cooperation and yet, awaits fulfillment.
O give thanks unto the Lord for he is gracious; because his mercy endureth for ever.