(Pastor’s Note: Our worship this morning at East Church served as a grand celebration of the season and spirit of Thanksgiving, with hymn singing, special music, sacred dance and prayerful reflection. What follows are the series of vignettes that accompanied our congregation’s beautiful singing!)
We’ve already heard a lot of beautiful music today; and though in all honesty our very first hymn this morning, “We Gather Together,” is probably my favorite of the Thanksgiving hymns, this next one, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” comes a close second. For me, the imagery is perfect: the joyous ingathering of a bountiful autumn harvest; the fullness of knowing that “all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin;” and the underlying truth that while our lives and that of the whole community does indeed depend on the bounty of that harvest, “God our Maker does provide,” and we will be well fed, come what may.
It also provides a fitting accompaniment to the story of the very first Thanksgiving; especially when one considers that only about half of the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower – around 50, and of those, only about five women – even survived their first horrific winter at Plymouth Colony to sit down at that famous feast the following autumn. Indeed, for these pilgrims to have engaged in such a grand celebration not only in the midst of lingering grief, but also in anticipation of yet another difficult winter seems to us a nearly impossible proposition; but celebrate they did, “with grateful vows and solemn praise” to the God who by providence had brought them safe thus far; and who, they were certain, would lead them in the difficult days to come.
You and I may never have found ourselves in such dire circumstances; and yet, I suspect that most of us understand what it is to sometimes feel as though the struggles of life have created for us nearly unbearable burdens with no relief in sight! But here’s a song that reminds us that while the struggles are real and the way ahead might indeed be hard, God will provide for us and bless us every step along the way; and because of this, we can gladly and thankfully “raise the song of harvest home.”“Come, ye thankful people come, Raise the song of harvest home; All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin; God our Maker, doth provide For our wants to be supplied; Come to God’s own temple, come, Raise the song of harvest home.” –“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”
So what are we thankful for this Thanksgiving? There is so much that we can name: our life, our health and our food; family and friends; safe, warm homes; and the opportunities before us to do good work in the world, serving God as we do. I do have to say, however, that for me at least, a true spirit of thanksgiving can be cultivated simply in beholding the wonder of God’s creation.
Growing up as I did in northern Maine, the week of Thanksgiving Day was not only wrapped up in family gatherings and – of course (!) – turkey dinners, it was also the last week of deer season; and so a great many of those weekends were spent at least in part tramping out in the woods with my Dad; and if not walking, then sitting quietly with him out on some snow-covered stump, peeking out at the trees for any signs of life and movement in the forest. In all honesty, we never found many deer (!) but I can tell you that the experience of just sitting out there in the silence taught me just how intricate and precious and utterly awesome this world our God has created truly is. It actually became for me an act (and attitude) of prayer and worship as I, “in awesome wonder” considered all the worlds God’s hands had made: the very first step in proclaiming, “How Great Thou Art!”O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; How great thou art, how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; How great thou art, how great thou art! –“How Great Thou Art”
That’s one hymn that when you sing it, you need to sing boldly! Creation is not there merely for the wonder of it, however; from the very beginning, it has been meant as a gift – a divine gift – intended for us to use and to care for responsibly… and faithfully. Our next hymn this morning is actually one of the newer ones that we have in our hymnal: though the melody is drawn from the Celtic tradition, the words were written in 1970 and reflect not only a strong environmental awareness but also an understanding that true thanksgiving might well begin with heartfelt affirmation of God’s blessings, but it doesn’t end there! “For the fruit of all creation,” as well as the “harvests of the Spirit,” our thanks is unto God; but the way we use those blessings is how God’s will is done!
Actually, my favorite part of this hymn is found in the last few lines: “for the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us, [and] most of all, that love has found us, thanks be to God.” It reminds us both that our work in creation, yours and mine, is far from done; but also that its direction and purpose might, at times, be far from clear. What’s the old maxim, “may you be cursed to live in ‘interesting’ times?” Well, these are interesting times indeed; in which our stewardship of God’s blessings become all the more crucial for the sake of the world and people that God loves. All the more important for us to keep LOVE – the love we’re given and the love we’re called to share – at the forefront of everything we say and do.“For the fruit of all creation, thanks be to God; For good gifts to every nation, thanks be to God; For the plowing, sowing, reaping, silent growth while we are sleeping, future needs in earth’s safekeeping, thanks be to God. For the harvests of the Spirit, thanks be to God; For the good we all inherit, thanks be to God; For the wonders that astound us, For the truths that still confound us, Most of all, that love has found us, thanks be to God.” –“For the Fruit of All Creation,” Fred Pratt Green
What’s hard about Thanksgiving, of course, is that many of us are approaching this week not particularly feeling thankful at all! And it’s not because we aren’t aware of our blessings – it’s just that life, in its inimitable and mysterious way, has just seemed to be relentless in its trouble! In other words, when your kids are all sick and you’re not feeling all that well yourself; when the bills are mounting to the point where you’re concerned how to make ends meet, much less do what needs to be done for Christmas; when you’re struggling with how to handle a job, or a relationship, or one of the countless transitions of life that comes your way; when simply to “keep on keeping on” seems next to impossible, in all honesty, pausing to “ask the Lord’s blessing” in the midst of all that just seems… well, hard!
That’s what I love about this next hymn, written over 200 years ago by John Newton, who also wrote “Amazing Grace.” It is a beautiful affirmation that “though troubles assail us” in this life – there’s no denial of that here (!) – through it all we have this assurance that “The Lord will provide.” It’s the kind of song designed to rekindle a thankful heart!“Though troubles assail us and dangers affright, Though friends should all fail us and foes all unite, Yet one thing secures us, whatever betide, The promise assures us, ‘The Lord will provide.’” –“Though Troubles Assail Us”
What a wonderful thing it truly is to know in your heart of hearts that “whate’er betide” (I love that phrase!) that “God will take care of you Thro’ every day, o’er all the way.” It seems to me that for you and I to affirm that truth is in and of itself a prayer of thanksgiving: it’s giving thanks not only for what God has done, but also for what God is yet to do! For God’s promises to us are sure and certain, as is his refuge and strength; and what else can we do for this except to give thanks!“Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you. Beneath His wings of love abide, God will take care of you. God will take care of you. Thro’ every day, o’er all the way, He will take care of you; God will take care of you.” –“God Will Take Care of You”
God provides; and God will take care of you and me. And so, in all things we are able to “count our blessings.” A good and spiritual practice; understanding, of course, that to do so is not to deny our struggles and disappointments in life, nor is it to ignore the hurt or confusion we might be feeling, but it is open our hearts unto the Lord, who knows the pain we feel, and who can even provide blessings in the midst of the struggle. That’s what our next song is about: but friends, let me warn you that this is not a song to be sung with weak resignation, but with enthusiasm and genuine thanks to our God who provides the light that will brighten up the dark places in our lives!Count your blessings; see what God hath done. Count your blessings; name them one by one. Count your many blessings; see what God hath done. –“Count Your Blessings”
Let us pray:
1… 2… 3… 4… O God, you have greatly blessed us, but the truth is that they are so many that we could never begin to count them “one by one.” But help us, not only on Thanksgiving Day, but always to be aware of your providence, your grace and your love and to be truly thankful. For it is in Christ’s name that we pray with joy and thanksgiving.
And the people of God all said, with all enthusiasm…
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry