Sermon - Thanksgiving 2019
In the Name…
A Sunday School teacher was showing her class a traditional picture of a New England pilgrim family going to church and remarked that children enjoyed going to worship in those days. “Then, why” asked one child, “is the father carrying a gun?”
Thanksgiving Day is a uniquely American holiday. It contains within it charming customs, optimism, and the offering of thanks. Like most national holidays, it is based on some facts and a lot of myths. From the perspective of our church, the Prayer Book calls it a major feast, yet its origins are civic. And the popular observance of Thanksgiving Day among the inhabitants of our nation is concerned less with attending worship than it is with travel, a gathering of family and friends, a turkey feast, football, and for many of us, a satisfying nap.
Indeed, the placement of Thanksgiving Day on November's fourth Thursday does not reflect any ancient church tradition, but is the work of a vestry member of St. Thomas’ Parish in Washington, D.C., named Franklin Roosevelt who, when he became President of the United States, fixed the date in 1939 – only eighty years ago.
So, Thanksgiving Day is in a bit of an odd situation. We encounter it as a hybrid of sorts, involving elements of secular and sacred traditions. But, it remains attractive for the most part because thankfulness is a very human, healthy expression.
Indeed, for some of us, thankfulness is a very easy and natural state of being. For others, though, it is very easy to slip into the temptation to think that we deserve what we have; that our own intelligence, hard work, physical attractiveness, and luck are to be praised for our prosperity and health.
That is what the writer of Deuteronomy is warning against. Don't forget the God who brought you to this good land, he tells the Hebrews. "When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God."
Those last words are the critical ones: do not exalt yourself forgetting the Lord your God.
Each Sunday, there is a part of our liturgy called the Offertory, when we prepare the altar with the offerings for the sacrifice - the bread, the wine, and, yes, the money. No, that's not a joke. The bread and wine will become the Flesh and Blood of Christ, but, the money already is our own flesh and blood. And if you doubt that, just consider the pain some folks feel when they have to part with it.
But, my point is that we always conclude the Offertory with words of thanksgiving. At 8:00, we say, “All things come of thee and of thine own have we given thee”; while at 10:30, we sing a paraphrase of Psalm 100, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” which we call the Doxology.
I note that, in the Bible, the Hebrew text calls Psalm 100, “A Psalm for giving thanks.” And, even though there are many thanks-themed psalms, this is the only one specifically titled that way. In Old Testament times, the Jews used it as part of their worship and the same has been true in the Christian era. Thus, these simple words have blessed the hearts of God’s people for nearly 3,000 years.
So, today, I would like to focus our attention on the last verse of this psalm because it gives us three reasons that we should praise God for all his blessings. It reads, “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations"
First, “For the Lord is good." In Nigeria, pastors often use a simple antiphonal chant for the Offertory in their congregations. The pastor will proclaim: “God is good,” and the congregation responds “All the time.” Then he says, “All the time” and the congregation replies “God is good.” And, they repeat this over and over, several times.
Now, I’m sure we could all make a list of reasons to give thanks to God: for family, friends, good health, good job, and so on. However, the Nigerian Offertory asks us to praise God not for what he does but for who he is, even when things do not seem “good.” A bishop from that part of the world made this comment, "We have no good government. We have no good economy. We have no good society. But, we have the good God." In other words, we have purpose and direction for our lives when we live surrounded by chaos, civil war, AIDS, Ebola, famine, corruption, and despair.
That is why the term "African missionary" no longer means people who travel to Africa, but, Africans who travel to us, because surrounded as we are by so much that we can call “good” we have become satisfied and preoccupied with what we have made.
Then, “His love endures forever.” Some translations use the word “mercy” instead of love, but either works well. If God’s goodness speaks of his character, God’s mercy speaks of his nature. Mercy is God’s goodness in relation to those he loves.
God’s mercy, God’s love, is not like the weather. It does not change with the seasons. And, it does not depend on us or on anything we may do. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more and there is nothing you can do to make him love you less. His mercy is so great and his love so free that it is truly infinite.
Which leads us to, “His faithfulness continues through all generations.”
Suppose we line up a man, a son, a grandson, and a great-grandson. This text tells us that what God was to the grandfather, he will be to the son. What he is to the son, he will be to the grandson. What he is to the grandson, he will be to the great-grandson. And so it goes across the centuries. Generations come and go, one after the other, but God will remain forever
This is our hope and this is why we rejoice even as we bury our dead. A 2nd Century pagan philosopher named Aristeides, observing the Christians of his day, said that he found their funeral practices strange, to say the least. He wrote: "Whenever one of them dies, they rejoice and offer thanks to their God as if the dead person was only setting out on a journey to another place nearby." For Aristeides, death was the end of everything. For us, it is a continuation of a loving relationship.
So, as odd and as secular as some of today’s practices; as unreliable as the national mythology may be; behind it all is something special and sacred.
“For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations"
In the Name…