November 20, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Deuteronomy 26: 1-10; Ephesians 1:15-23
Twice each month I breakfast with area clergy. It’s an informal support group. Sometimes we problem-solve, other times we just enjoy each other’s company. Tonight’s Community Thanksgiving service, which I hope you all attend, developed from this group. This kind of clergy get-together is a fairly common practice and apparently has been for some time. During the dark days of 1929, a group of ministers in the Northeast, all graduates of the Boston School of Theology, were part of such a gathering and at one of their meetings, discussed how they should conduct their Thanksgiving Sunday services. Things were about as bad as they could get, with no sign of relief. The bread lines were depressingly long, the stock market had plummeted, and the term Great Depression seemed an apt description for the mood of the country. The ministers thought that they should down-play Thanksgiving in deference to the human misery all around them. After all, what was there to be thankful for? But, a pastor of one of the larger congregations in the city rallied the group. This was not the time, he suggested, to make light of Thanksgiving, just the opposite. This was the time for the nation to get matters in perspective and to thank God for blessings always present, but perhaps unnoticed due to intense hardship.
The most meaningful and beneficial moments of thankfulness are not experienced in good times, but when difficulties abound. The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving after half of their community members had died, and likely when they very much missed their homeland and its relative comforts, not to mention the loved ones they had left behind. Still there was thanksgiving to God. Their gratitude was not for something but in something.
In 2014, Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams published a book together entitled Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All that Is. In it they state that no matter what, the proper stance of the “Christian in the world” is one of gratitude. A section of the introductions reads, “Alleluia is not a substitute for reality. It is simply the awareness of another whole kind of reality – beyond the immediate, beyond the delusional, beyond the instant perception of things. . . Alleluia,” the text continues, “means ‘All hail to the one who is.’ It is the ultimate expression of thanksgiving.”
Martin Rinkert was a Lutheran pastor in the town of Eilenburg in Saxony some 350 years ago. Though the son of a poor coppersmith, he managed to acquire an education, and in 1617, was offered the post of Archdeacon in his hometown parish. A year later, what has come to be known as the Thirty-Years-War broke out. His town was caught right in the middle. Eilenburg was a walled city, so it became a haven for refugees seeking safety from the fighting. But soon, the city became too crowded and food was in short supply. Then, a famine hit, followed by a terrible plague and Eilenburg became a giant morgue. People died at the rate of fifty a day and Martin Rinkert was the man called upon to bury most of them. In one year alone, Pastor Rinkart conducted 4,500 funerals, including one for his own wife. The war dragged on; the suffering continued. In all, over 8,000 people in his parish died. Rinkert served as a minister in Eilenburg for thirty-two years. In all but the first and the last year his town was besieged by war. These had to have been extremely difficult times and circumstances in which to be thankful. But he managed, writing these words:
Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices;
who wondrous things hath done,
in whom his world rejoices.
It takes a magnificent spirit to come through such hardship and express gratitude. Melody Beattie, one of America’s most beloved self-help authors and a household name in the field of addiction and recovery states, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense.”
So how do we thank our God with heart?
Even while he lived in the midst of destruction, Pastor Rinkart was able to lift his sights to a higher plane. He kept his heart focused on God’s love when the world was filled with hate. Gratitude is an attitude and stance about life. Some people seem to come by it naturally. Others, not so much. But like all virtues, gratefulness as a way of viewing the world can be developed.
It was this sense of gratitude that lead Abraham Lincoln to formally establish the first Thanksgiving Day in the midst of national civil war, when the list of casualties seemed to have no end and the very nation struggled for survival. Here is that proclamation:
“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. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. 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.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State”
With this proclamation Abraham Lincoln led us to thank our God with heart.
How do we thank our God with hands?
Our first reading gives us guidance. When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you . . . put some of the first produce from each crop you harvest . . . and set it before the altar of the Lord your God. . . .(Stating) With this gift I acknowledge to the Lord that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us.” The practice of giving some of our first produce is an act of gratitude and one way that we can thank our God with hands. Few of us here are in agriculture, so our first fruits are usually in the form of money and time. Tom and I have what I call a “corporate meeting” at the end of each year. We take out all of the request-for-donations mail that has come in and piled up over the past few months and decide together what we will support and in which amount. But this is after we have shopped for or at least decided what we will get everyone for Christmas and what we will do this year for vacation. That is not what is being asked of us in Deuteronomy. Nor is deciding where and how much time I will contribute to volunteerism after I’ve figured out how much time I need for exercising, for gardening, for practicing my harp, and for visiting with friends. Though these are all worthwhile endeavors a true act of gratitude is that we give of ourselves off the top; that we mirror the generosity God has shown us. Through this action we are acknowledging that all that we have comes from God and that we believe this so strongly, that we don’t look out for ourselves first. We don’t take care of our needs or fill our desires and then if there is anything left, give it. We give first – an act of trust to a generous and gracious God.
With my gift of first fruits I proclaim my faith in the Good Shepherd believing that I shall not really be in want. With my gift of first fruits I manifest my trust in God’s care for me. I calm my anxieties and He restores my soul.
How do we thank our God with voices?
There’s an anonymous quote that says, “Silent gratitude isn’t very much use to anyone.” In an old Peanuts cartoon, Lucy is down in the dumps and says to Linus, “My life is a drag. I’ve never been so low in all my life.”
Linus, the deep thinker and theologian of the comic strip tries to cheer her up by saying “When you’re in a mood like this you should think of the things you have to be thankful for, count your blessings.”
Lucy replies, “That’s a good one. What do I have to be thankful for?”
“Well for one thing,” Linus says, “you have a brother who loves you!”
Lucy responds, “Sometimes, you say the right things.”
I shared with you the stories about the pilgrims, , the thirty years war, the plague, and even the civil war because many of us feel that we are, right now, living in dire times and it’s helpful to remember that there were many other calamitous periods in history that people survived with grace. When we hear people bemoaning the plight of our country, we can at the very least avoid contributing to the complaints, which only raises the level of anxiety people are feeling and if appropriate we can even be a voice of hope.
In our second reading this morning Joe read, “Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, I have not stopped thanking God for you.” We have much to be grateful for in this strong, faithful, supportive worshiping community. We don’t have to face this world alone. We can express our gratitude for our church by following Paul’s example who continues, “ I pray for you constantly, asking God, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light . . .I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power . . . far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else.”
Paul is asking that we pray that each of us will believe that God will always provide. Paul is asking that each of us will remember and trust in God’s promises to be with us no matter what.
In ending I invite you to thank God with heart, hands and voices as we pray Psalm 23:1-6 together:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
As we prepare our tables this Thanksgiving, let these words comfort and strengthen us so that we can truly and fully celebrate in joy, Alleluia for All that Is. Amen.