Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Beatrice, Neb., celebrated our nation’s Day of Thanksgiving on Wednesday evening, November 24, 2010.
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We come to you, Holy God, and give to you what you have first given us: our lives, our talents, and the abundance of your creation. Help us by your Spirit’s guidance, to live with gratitude for your generosity and commitment to sharing your blessings with others; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Thanksgiving is an odd national holiday.
It doesn’t have the same civic and patriotic flavor
of our other days of celebration:
Independence Day and Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.
We don’t much talk about it anymore,
but there’s something deep in the bones
of Thanksgiving that aspires to reach out,
to reach up, to turn our gaze to God.
If even we get to the point of saying that,
we don’t really, as a people,
find much agreement on what we mean by “God.”
Our money says, “In God We Trust,”
but which God we mean by that is an open and unsettled question.
And yet, if we dig down into the rich soil of our history,
we can uncover the roots of Thanksgiving.
And here is what we find.
Throughout our nation’s history,
people celebrated days of Thanksgiving.
We all remember learning about the Pilgrims
and their feasting with the Abnaki Indians
in 1621 to celebrate surviving cruel winter weather
and living to gather a bountiful harvest.
Communities and colonies and then states
held similar observances over the years.
But it wasn’t until the dark days in the midst of the Civil War
that our nation—at least the Union part—
observed a national Day of Thanksgiving.
In his proclamation of October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln noted,
The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed
that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added,
which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
He then went on at some length to describe the ravages of war
and the richness of the country’s wealth, despite that war.
Then the proclamation concluded:
They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
President Lincoln defines the holiday
as “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise
to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
It’s a blessing to be reminded that Thanksgiving
is a day for giving thanks
and for giving that thanks to God our Father,
the One who has given us all good things in the first place.
So, underneath the trappings of football and parades,
tables laden with traditional foods,
newspapers thick with Black Friday advertisements,
there hides this simple idea
that for one day each year,
we set apart a time as a nation, a people, to give God thanks.
It’s not a new idea.
In Deuteronomy, we hear the instruction,
“you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground”
and bring it to the house of worship
and give it to the LORD our God. (Deuteronomy 26:2, NRSV)
And when we give that “first of all the fruit,”
we tell God the story of how he has blessed our lives.
you have watched over us and guided us
this last year and a half in our search for a pastor.
You have led Pastor Linda Walz to us.
You have blessed us with the possibilities
that come with new beginnings.
In the meantime, you have raised up
so many individuals in this congregation
who have used the talents you have given them
to serve your mission and to show your love to others.
You have comforted us in times of loss.
So many have died,
and we have commended them to your care
and we have asked you to receive them into your blessed rest
and to console us while we mourn their absence from our lives.
Some of us have seen dark days this past year.
We have lost jobs, known pain in our families,
felt betrayed by the institutions we had grown to trust,
wandered about in confusion about our callings as disciples.
In the midst of this turmoil,
you have been our rock and our fortress.
With prayer of thanksgiving like these,
we offer our gratitude to God Almighty.
And then, with the people of Israel,
we follow the instructions in Deuteronomy:
“You shall set [your gifts] down before the LORD your God
and bow down before the LORD your God.
Then you, together with the Levites
and the aliens who reside among you,
shall celebrate with all the bounty
that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”
(Deuteronomy 26:11, NRSV)
This whole passage lays out worship
that contains old and familiar parts:
Offerings, Prayers, and a Meal.
It’s what we do each Sunday
and what we will do together in a few minutes.
So, while our nation celebrates its Day of Thanksgiving,
we, as Christians, observe our Thanksgiving
each and every time we come together
to hear the Word of God,
to offer him praises and prayers,
to place our gifts before him upon his altar,
and to join him at his Table in the Meal.
And if we think about it that way,
if we look at all that we have as a blessing from God,
and if we look at all that we give to him
as our act of returning the first of the fruit,
and if we look at the Eucharist
as the meal of celebration and thanksgiving,
then things look and sound a little different.
Let’s listen, one more time,
to St. Paul’s little declaration from his letter
to the Christians at Philippi.
“Rejoice in the Lord always;
again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The LORD is near.
Do not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your request be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 4:4–7, NRSV) Amen.