Thanksgiving: Secular & Holy

Community Thanks Giving Service

1 Tim 2:1-4, Matt 6:25-33, Psalm 126

Our concept of the American Thanksgiving seems to have muddled two different traditions, Harvest Festivals, and days of thanksgiving. We call our holiday Thanksgiving—yet it was really modeled after a harvest festival. Harvest festivals are often events lasting several days; they celebrate the bounty that comes from the principal harvest and they usually have little religious significance.

In Europe, Days of Thanksgiving were relatively common religious days. Sometimes these day were for celebration, and at other times they were days of solemnity and fasting. Since the 1500s, there are records of harvest festivals and days of thanksgiving here in the “New World.” Yet it is the celebration in 1621, held by Separatists and Native Americans, that seems to have had the greatest influence on our celebration today. These separatists who we often call Pilgrims held a harvest festival to celebrate the abundance that was reaped in this new world. From the few records we have, it appears that there were little religious overtones to this celebration. Somewhere over the last three hundred years we have re-appropriated the term Thanksgiving to mean harvest celebration.

So why are we here in church today, celebrating a secular holiday? There is no one answer for everyone. But for Christians we find many passages in the Bible which speak about abundance and Thanksgiving. From First Timothy 2:1-4 we read,

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

In this letter, Paul urges us to offer supplications, prayers, intersessions and thanksgiving to everyone. He specifically mentions kings and people in high positions, as examples of those who should be included on our list of remembrances. This isn’t because the people Paul was talking to especially liked their king and high officials. They didn’t, It is actually so that “the everyone” on our list includes the people we may not like so much. I am reminded of a scene from Charles Dickens’ book “A Christmas Carol.”

You may remember in this book, Bob Cratchit is the underpaid and mistreated employee of Ebenezer Scrooge. Even though Cratchit does not have enough money to feed his family; after the family eats their Christmas meal he offers a toast, or a blessing to Mr. Scrooge. What Bob Cratchit demonstrates, is that with a little effort, we cannot only offer thanks to God, but we can offer thanksgiving to the people who affect our lives, even if they do not treat us well.

Let us compare this to Matthew’s Gospel account. 6:25-33.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

This message appears to be about faith and poverty, not abundance. Jesus said, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, or what you will wear; because God will feed us like the birds and clothe us like the lilies. Even if we are unlike the first century people in this Gospel, most people in our community, like Bob Cratchit, have struggles of some kind or another. So why is Jesus telling us not to worry? I believe Jesus is reminding us to stay focused on what we have, rather than worrying about what we do not have. When we spend our energy, throughout our days, talking to our friends about our hardships and all the thing we do not have in our lives, we lose sight of all the blessings and abundance that God has given us.

Even though Bob Cratchit’s goose was the size of a pigeon, and they had an abysmal assortment of food on their table; the family was excited and saw it as a great feast set before them. In this story Bob’s wife complained about him offering a toast to Mr. Scrooge, but Bob gently reminded her that it was Christmas Day, a day set aside for generosity; generosity of both spirit as well as money. While the mention of Mr. Scrooge, “cast a dark shadow on the party” for a few minutes, the merriment soon returned to their house, ten-fold.

I wonder if Mrs. Cratchit’s negativity was allowed to have gone on unchecked by Bob, if it would have put a damper on their entire Christmas celebration beyond just a few minutes. Would they then have seen their feast for what it was; small in size and just barely enough for such a large family? And then maybe the whole family would have become disgruntled or sad? The whole mood would have shifted from what was a terrific celebration of thanksgiving to a pity party.

The story reinforces the Gospel which tells us that even though we have struggles in our jobs or at our homes, we have blessings all around us in God’s creation. We should not let the negativity of others, or life circumstances, weigh us down. When we are witnesses to the beautiful lilies, the singing birds, or even a table set with a half-eaten pie but it still has our family around, we should offer thanksgiving as we are reminded that God is always present in our lives.

It is at these times, when we are gathered with our family and friends that we often remember stories of the past. Sometimes they are stories of the “good times,” and others are about our trials and tribulations. As we read Psalm 126 it reminds us that this “remembering” is very important. The Psalmist recalls the past when he says, “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,* then were we like those who dream. Was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” And we, like the Psalmist, not only remember the past but our current struggles and hardships as well. Yet the Psalmist does not dwell on these thoughts of the past nor is he stuck on his present hardships. The Psalmist uses verse against verse to show that the present hardships are juxtaposed with the glorious hopes of the future. “Those who sowed with tears, * will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping… * will come again with joy...” The Psalmist’s hope in the future, balances his current struggles and it balances the past struggles of his people.

Yet in the middle of this psalm, there is a prayer that grounds the past, the present, and the future. “The LORD has done great things for them, * the Lord has done great things for us, * Restore our fortunes, O LORD.” This recalling of the past, that is embodied in the present, and gives us hope for the future, is a great part of why we celebrate Thanksgiving. It is also a huge part of why we are here today.

I find it clear that the Bible helps us understand that we should give thanks to God for creation and its abundance; realizing that our lives and everything in them are blessings from God. We should offer prayers of thanksgiving to all, while we remember the past, live in the present, and have great hope for the future. I believe it is here that we should hold our Thanksgiving celebration; allowing Thanksgiving to be less secular and more holy, less about gluttony and more about sharing God’s grace with each other.

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