When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was always a family affair. It was one of the few times during the year when all my family on my mother’s side would get together. I didn’t see my two cousins very often even though we lived only a town apart from each other. But, at Thanksgiving, we came together as a family; we shared food, laughter, and stories and we gave thanks to God.
Now, I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious family. Prayer in my house was a rare event. I never heard my parents pray and the Bible – we did have one- wasn’t opened very often. We did go to church but back in the 50’s and 60’s pretty much all families went to church. At home, the subject of faith was seldom mentioned; praying was not something any of us felt comfortable doing.
Thanksgiving was one of those infrequent occasions when we did pray together. I vividly remember the moment when we bowed our heads at the table and offered God our thanks, asking that God bless the food we were about to enjoy. Sadly, it was always an awkward and foreign experience for me…an uneasy moment, more so perhaps because my cousins, both my cousins seemed so comfortable with it. They inevitably would be asked to lead this time of prayer and even my cousin Carol, the youngest of the two could offer the grace very well. This was in contrast to my brother and I who would breathe a sigh of relief when our names weren’t lifted up as potential prayer leaders. Not sure what we would have done but I was grateful I never had to find out.
Now many years later, I look at the roads we all took. My brother, who at one time directed church choirs and still leads a community choral group with a bent toward religious music, now never begins a meal without a member of his family leading a prayer of thanks. And me, a United Methodist clergywoman, who not only prays regularly but also, leads others in prayer. Life holds its own ironies, doesn’t it?
I regret now that the simple act of asking God’s blessing over our food was a once or twice a year occurrence in my childhood. Giving thanks to God is such an essential part of my life and of your lives too. When we pause during our day to offer up a thank you to God, it reminds us that God meets all our needs and that God can be relied on for every good thing.
Giving thanks to God is rooted in the memories and the stories of God’s people. No doubt even before words were put to paper, the people God created gave thanks to their Creator. Those burnt offerings that we hear mentioned in the Old Testament represent a portion returned of the bounty God had bestowed on the people Israel. To give back to God a portion of what God had given was, for those who lived then, not a mindless ritual performed without meaning. It was the Law by which one existed, no more oppressive than our words of grace said before each meal. It was a Law entered into willingly, eagerly and gratefully, the highest form of praise and thanksgiving to the God who gives life and sustains it. It was a way of affirming that in God we need not worry about receiving the necessary things that give life. God will provide. We could quibble with that simplistic thought recognizing the pain and injustice of hunger and need throughout our world, but I suspect that if we opened our hands and our hearts, we would open the way for God to meet all those needs. Are we the ones that stand between God’s promise to fulfill the needs of all God’s children simply by taking more than we should, holding on to more than we need. It’s a thought and one I often find puzzling.
The New Testament understanding of thanksgiving went a step further. A blessing over the food was offered when the early churches gathered to share the common meal and to remember as one community of faith the death and resurrection of Jesus. They did this by the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. That’s why our word “Eucharist”, which is derived from the Greek word thanksgiving means just that: we gather to thank our God for the gifts we have received, especially the great gift of Jesus Christ. Eventually, as the common meal became less frequent in the life of the church, the elements of bread and wine were retained and offered in the ritual meal of the Lord’s Supper. The Christian church was making Eucharist or giving thanks.
What astonishes me about the many instances we read of, when people offered God thanks, is that more often than not, it is done in the midst of great uncertainty. The Hebrews of the Old Testament existed alongside hostile nations. They had to scrape out their living and find ways to feed their families under the trying conditions of war, famine, drought, and disease. The early Christians were persecuted and killed without mercy simply because they were Christians. Yet, in the midst of possible death, huddling together in the dark, dank lower regions of the catacombs, they would pause and they offer their gratitude to God.
In this country, those who braved an ocean to settle here have passed down our Thanksgiving celebration to us. They wrestled with the rigors of an unfamiliar terrain and climate. They starved and struggled and some of them died, but when the harvest was in and the long winter lay ahead with all its unknown dangers, the pilgrims paused in prayer and they offered their thanks to God. They didn’t know what tomorrow might bring. Their prayer wouldn’t eradicate the potential dangers in this new home of theirs, but they prayed with grateful hearts to the bountiful God who had saved them and would continue to do so. Perhaps, as they were praying, they remembered this passage from Matthew – not to be anxious over their lives, not to worry about what they would eat or what they would wear. Perhaps, even though their future was uncertain, they believed in the God who clothes the lilies of the field and who feeds the birds of the air. Perhaps they knew that they must first seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and all the things necessary to live would be theirs. Perhaps they knew all that giving us the legacy of faith lived out in a time of adversity, of uncertainly.
Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday in this country until 1863. In 1789, Congress authorized and requested that President George Washington proclaim a day of Thanksgiving for the nation. In a message to the people, Washington set aside November 26, 1789 as National Thanksgiving Day. For about a hundred years after this, there were local celebrations but no national holiday. It was not until 1863, that the editor of the then popular magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book Sarah Josepha Hale, raised the issue of the need to make Thanksgiving a national observance to be celebrated annually. Still shuddering under the conflict of the Civil War, yet another time of adversity and uncertainty, it was time for the nation to give thanks to God as a nation.
So, on October 3, 1863, President Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving holiday to be held on the last Thursday of November and it has been so, with one minor exception, ever since.
We come now into another period of our history, fraught with uncertainty, laced with fears about the future of our nation and the potential for world peace. We are again, in the midst of a period of war and crisis, social and economic upheaval; on the other side of another fractious political campaign so once again as we gather together we are reminded of our connection to each other. We are one family, God’s family.
As we sit with our families and friends over Thanksgiving feasts this coming Thursday, our thoughts will no doubt stray to the many families around our nation and beyond our nation whose lives have been irretrievably changed by the events this past year. The world still struggles under the burdens of death, disease, famine, and war. There are still people hiding in their own dark, dank, catacombs of fear. Nations and families still gather on the battlefield of life, still tote weapons of anger and distrust, still wage civil wars. We may not know what lies ahead of us. We may never fully understand what the pain of the last several years have left us as a legacy. Only God knows how the past will affect the future. Yet, in spite of all the uncertainty … No, because of all the uncertainty, we must give thanks to God. For God is the giver of the inexpressible gift of life. God has created life in and for us. We have received the promise of God’s grace, which will sustain our lives with all the things we need. We look to the birds of the air and see the hand of God as it holds them up. We look to the lilies of the field and see the hand of God as it clothes them in splendor. We are promised that our God who cares for the birds and the lilies will surely provide for us. It is to this God that we give our thanks this day and to this God that we will offer our thanks tomorrow and all our tomorrows. In God’s grace and through God’s gracious gift of Christ in us, we give thanks. Amen.