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Thanksgiving – St. Paul’s

With apologies to the Pilgrims, the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States are more complicated than most people think.  Was the first Thanksgiving meal in present-day Massachusetts, complete with buckled, wide-brimmed hats, in 1621?  Or was it an English celebration (different hats!) on the shores of Virginia, in 1619?  Or how about a Spanish gathering in what became Texas, in 1598 – or Florida, in 1565? Or really was it the fact that the Native Americans of eastern North America had observed such a celebration for centuries prior to the Puritans landing at Plymouth Rock.

The reasons for those celebrations varied, of course.  The English colonists in Virginia, for example, declared the day a commemoration of their arrival, thanking God for safe passage across a forbidding ocean; likewise, the Spanish explorers thanked God for survival.  President George Washington, on the other hand, declared a national Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, to thank God for the birth of a new nation.  And the current annual date in late November – which is far too late, after all, for a “harvest festival” in New England! – wasn’t established until Abraham Lincoln’s declaration in 1863, explicitly giving thanks for the Union’s military successes in the Civil War. Thanksgiving is a deeply human expression whose tradition continues.

To fully understand how a yearly day is set aside…go back to 1822 where a young widow in New Hampshire named Sarah Hale–she who gave us the nursery rhyme, Mary Had A Little Lamb–began a 40 year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents to get Thanksgiving officially recognized as a national holiday. Three Presidents turned her down. Her obsession became a reality, however. In 1863, president Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as an annual celebration of Thanksgiving. 

What is interesting is that of all the Presidents it should have been Lincoln who responded to Sarah’s request. His own life was at very low ebb at the time. The country was literally falling apart, and Lincoln’s political future looked bleak. Many of the members of his own cabinet openly despised him and joked about him in public. His wife had been investigated as a possibly traitor–a process Lincoln found to be bitterly wounding.  In the face of such personal and national circumstances, Lincoln call for a day of prayer would have made sense. But Thanksgiving? At a time like that? What must this man, who apparently had little to be thankful for, have been thinking of? 

Anyway, he did establish the day, and we are here to give thanks. Giving thanks reminds us how blessed we are. Yet, I think today we’re very much in the mindset and situations of Abe Lincoln: how can we give thanks with all that’s going on?

On a personal level, there are those among us who have lost family and friends who will not be here to share the Thanksgiving meal with us this year. Many due to the pandemic. The empty place will bring tears. I think especially of the rash of teenage and law enforcement suicides this year.

We are physically sick, perhaps seriously so, or have someone who is, and that weighs on our mind. Will I, will they be here for next Thanksgiving.

Our relationships may be under strain,  our marriage on the rocks, our jobs shaky, and so Thanksgiving and Christmas will be leaner this year. We feel the burden of taxes and debt…both personal and national. We worry about how we will make out financially, how our children will survive, how the next two generations will shoulder the burdens of national debt and climate change we are leaving them.

On the national level, our country seems to be waging endless wars with itself. We think of the all-too-common headlines, about mass shootings or other forms of mass murder as seen this past week in Wisconsin using a car as a weapon. Too many gangs in place of families. So many of our leaders are self-serving, if not outright dishonest, and have deeply betrayed us and our constitution. Like Lincoln’s time we have a deep split in our civil life. We have immoral and bad laws and laws which do not follow international law in place in our borders which has an impact on those people seeking asylum and those people on the Border Patrol having desperate people at our borders tugging on their hearts and at the same time trying to enforce the laws the are given. Our nation seems to be suffering from a deep soul sickness, unattached from any deep spiritual vision or meaning or anchor.

We have never been so polarized. We seem adrift. Like Lincoln we are beset from all sides. Yet, like A beleaguered Lincoln, we are asked to give thanks this week. Why was he able to do it?

I suggest he tapped two sources….First from an anonymous author who wrote:

If you woke up this morning and were able to hear the birds sing, use your vocal chords to utter human sounds, walk to the breakfast table on two good legs, and read the newspaper with two good eyes…you are more blessed than millions of those who could not do these simple things.

If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world…

If you can attend a faith community meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture…you are more blessed than 3 billion people in the world…

If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overheaD, AND A PLACE TO SLEEP…YOU ARE RICHER than 75% of the world…

If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish some place…you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

If you are over 30 AND EITHER OF YOUR PARENTS IS STILL ALIVE, YOU ARE   very rare. Over a billion people are orphans by then.

If you hold up your head with a smile on your face and are truly thankful…you are blessed because the majority can, but most do not.

Perhaps, that’;s the kind of thing Lincoln saw among the misery. Perhaps, therefore, like Lincoln, we must look past our troubles to appreciate the deeper truths we have just mentioned and give thanks for them.

The second source of motivation for giving thanks, looking for the moment beyond the heartaches and headlines, is to remember and remember deeply everyday, ordinary heroisms—and they are countless–that pass quite unnoticed and unheralded but which are absolutely necessary to gentle our lives, comfort our hearts, and secure our place in this tumultuous world. You know, the love, the service, the care, the subtly planted seeds of faith, hope and love that someone puts quietly there every day that makes a difference.

It is summed up in a reflection which begins with when you thought I wasn’t looking…

Today, when they think we’re not looking, someone will guide the disabled, nurse the sick, take food to the grieving, wash clothes, fix a meal, visit the homebound, put a flower on the table, decorate a house, do an honest day’s work, provide clothes, blankets and food at our southern border for people who are desperately seeking a safe place to live and a better life…

When they think we’re not looking…someone will buy a gift for Christmas, tell a story to wide-eyed child, fix a toy, mend a broken heart, listen with their heart, work for peace and justice, bless the world, and include us in their prayers. No fanfare. No cameras. No headlines. But when they–millions and millions of them–thought we were not looking, today we take time to look, and so we say thanks for these people.

Friends, these are difficult and scary times. Like President Lincoln we are sorely conflicted personally, nationally and internationally and there seems little reason to celebrate Thanksgiving.

So the holiday we inherit is a complex, morally ambivalent amalgam of different kinds of gratitude: for good harvest, for safe passage, for colonial conquest, for military victory.  All of which only sharpens the question, How will we celebrate Thanksgiving today?

Remembering this history of immigration and cross-cultural connection, we may give thanks for the diversity all around us, including Native American communities.  Giving thanks in this way, our gratitude can spur us to reach out and work together to create a more just and equitable world.

Likewise, remembering the holiday’s links to war, we may give thanks for times of peace: in our hearts, homes, neighborhoods, and between nations.

Remembering the holiday’s links to creation, we may give thanks for that nourishing abundance.  Here, too, our gratitude can serve as inspiration to redouble our efforts to be genuine peacemakers, serve the hungry in our neighborhoods, and care for God’s good Earth, all creatures great and small.

For all our admirable riches, O God, we do give thanks.