“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”
Now there’s a powerful and relevant, if unsettling, word for us today, friends! And what’s particularly interesting about it is that it’s not the editorializing of some media pundit, nor is it even a sermon quote from a random preacher; it is, in fact, the words of a Presidential “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” issued in 1863 by then-President Abraham Lincoln; a sentiment expressed 150 years ago this week to a nation embroiled in civil war, yet words that could well have been written for and about us today!
For you see, friends, ultimately what lies at the heart of what we celebrate this week is that truth that even now in these most interesting and challenging of times, we are the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven! Consider this with me for a moment; that as this Thanksgiving approaches we are indeed blessed. We have our families who love us, support us, and perhaps occasionally even chide us to be the best persons we can be. We have our homes that are warm and dry and secure within, even as the wind blows cold outside; something to be greatly appreciated not only as we remember the great and tragic devastation that continues to plague the Philippines, but also as we consider those in our own midst who have spent the long nights huddled in makeshift shelters along the Merrimack River. And on our tables we have food in abundance: come Thursday, we’ll feast on roast turkey (yes!) and homemade pie and be well fed; indeed, for most of us, sustenance will not be an issue but rather over-indulgence.
Moreover, we’re blessed to have each other; sharing in all the myriad joys and struggles of life, embracing as one its laughter and its tears. And we have the blessing of the church of Jesus Christ, this family of God in which we belong, a caring community redeemed and preserved by the hand of God and led forth in the ways of love and peace. And, lest we forget, we also live in a nation where, despite all manner of struggle and challenge and partisan bickering, we nonetheless rejoice in the manifold blessings of liberty and freedom. Truly and in so many ways – personally, nationally and spiritually – we have, as Lincoln said it back then, “grown in numbers, wealth and power.” We are blessed!
And yet, Lincoln’s words cannot help but echo back to us in other ways as well; for somewhere in the midst of all the rituals of feasting, family, and football about to unfold – not to mention all the “Black Friday” mania (or as is sadly the case this year, the “Black Thursday Afternoon” mania) that’s already begun to ensue – we too have often run the risk of forgetting God! It is one thing to “count our blessings,” after all; quite another to acknowledge to true source of those blessings! The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, in writing about the great importance of the Sabbath in our lives, that six days a week we work to overcome the world, while on the seventh day we rest that we might overcome ourselves. Well, it seems to me that Thanksgiving Day at the very least ought to provide us with just such a Sabbath moment; a time for us to draw back from the temptation of allowing ourselves to feel privileged and entitled to rather see our lives and living from the proper perspective: that of persons and a people summarily blessed by the God who is the source and end of all that we have, all that we are, and all that we can ever hope to do or be.
I think that’s what I love about our reading from Deuteronomy this morning, in which Moses, after having eloquently described to the people of Israel just how wonderful things are going to be for them in the promised land – that after all their years of wandering they’ll finally lack for nothing, they’ll “eat bread without scarcity,” have fine houses and large herds, and even their silver and gold will be multiplied (!) – but then hastens to add, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.” Actually, once again The Message offers up a wonderful translation of this; there it reads, “If you start thinking to yourselves, ‘I did all this. And all by myself. I’m rich. It’s all mine!’ – well, think again.”
This passage is a beautiful reminder of something that I do think that most of us know down deep in our hearts but all too rarely acknowledge in this age of celebrated self-reliance: that everything is a gift from God, and that we dare not succumb to the arrogance of claiming our own power and strength as the source of our blessing. Ultimately, it is always God’s great providence and generosity which provides for our need; that our lives be filled with light and hope, tenderness and love, peace and prosperity is because God has blessed us. And so when we start looking at life from that perspective, then Thanksgiving can no longer be reduced to a hastily worded “grace” spoken before the food gets cold, a mere verbal receipt for divine services rendered; no, it becomes our soulful confession that we walk, live and love in partnership with the divine! It’s a matter of faith, friends; a choice we make to pay attention to God’s presence and power in and through every facet of our lives; as the Psalmist has sung and we read this morning, to “bless his holy name” with all that is within us and “forget not all his benefits.” And that’s important; because it’s there, friends, where not only does true Thanksgiving start, it’s where our blessings really begin!
Of course, the question is how we make that transition from what we might call an “environment of entitlement” to an “attitude of gratitude?” Because that’s never been an easy thing, especially in this culture of competitive consumerism in which we live today. Indeed, as the late Henri Nouwen wrote in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, “the choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But,” he goes on to say, “each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seeming mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.”
In other words, true thanksgiving is built on awareness – awareness of God’s grace in all things. And the more we are aware, the more we are thankful; and the more thankful we become, the more we are aware of God and just how vast are God’s blessings upon us. It’s a cycle of sincere gratitude that builds a life of thanksgiving, in which, to use more words of the Psalmist, serve “to praise you, O Lord, giver of all good things, to thank you for your boundless mercy, which renews us and makes us whole.”
Barbara Myeroff, another well-known Jewish author and anthropologist (I seem to be somewhat rooted in Old Testament thought today!), tells the wonderful story an elderly lady of the Jewish faith named Basha, who lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods of New York City. Now, because of her age and her poverty, she could not have possibly afforded the feasts that were so much a part of the observance of holy days; and yet when a day of feasting came, Basha improvised and celebrated nonetheless. “She ate alone in her tiny room,” Myeroff wrote. “Over an electric hot plate, she cooked her chicken foot stew (chicken feet were free at the supermarket). [And] before eating, she spread a white linen handkerchief over the oilcloth covering the table, saying: ‘This my mother taught me to do. No matter how poor, we would eat off clean white linen, and say the prayers before touching anything to the mouth. And so I do it still. Whenever I sit down, I eat with God, my mother, and all the Jews who are doing these same things even if I can’t see them.’” Such a meal was a feast, Myeroff concluded, “superior to fine fare hastily eaten, without ceremony, attention, or significance.”
Though I’m not at all sure how I’d feel about Chicken Foot Stew on the menu, we’d do well to take our holy-day cues from Basha! Because that’s true Thanksgiving, beloved; more than the turkey and the stuffing and all the rest of it; more than the family gatherings and seasonal sentiment. It’s what happens in that exquisite moment of grateful fellowship between the Almighty and his people; it’s our word unto the Lord; our joyful remembrance of this one who forgives all our sins, who heals all our diseases and “crowns [us] with steadfast love and mercy;” who“wraps us in goodness – beauty eternal.” I can only hope and pray this morning that wherever our holy feasting finds each one of us this coming week, each one of us will dine as splendidly.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”
Happy Thanksgiving, beloved;
And thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry