I first learned about the religious meaning of Thanksgiving in junior high school. Miss Crawford, our teacher, had us construct tableaux for holiday assemblies. For a tableaux at Lincoln Junior High School, Mr. Rohleder, the principal, closed the auditorium’s blue velvet curtains most of the way, highlighting a rectangular wooden frame inside of which we seventh graders stood like Pilgrims and Native Americans. The Native Americans wore blankets borrowed from their brother’s or sister’s beds. Pilgrims wore dark hunting socks, like those in an L.L. Bean catalogue. Someone had lugged in an old iron kettle from a farm and Pilgrims and Native Americans stirred an unappetizing stew and that was “The First Thanksgiving!” But even then, in the rural Pennsylvania of a different era, we figured that trading land for stew was not a good deal for the native inhabitants, and that Pilgrims had something to do with religion.
Throughout our history, and the history of this Cathedral, Thanksgiving as a national and a religious commemorative day are intertwined. But we are never quite sure how to treat them. It is easy to be thankful in victorious times, as at the end of a successful war against a clearly defined enemy. It is easy to turn to God in times of great adversity, as the nation did in this place following the tragic events of 9/11. We do intuitively reach out to God when we are happy or when we face tragic reversals.
But what about those in between times, like now? How do we individually give thanks? And what constitutes a nation’s thanks to God?
First, as individuals saying “Thanks” is at once very easy and very hard. Being able to say thanks is one of those basic forms of connectedness between people that are absolutely necessary if we are to be a loving people, and if our relationships with each other, and as communities of church and state, are to hold together in healthy ways.
We need to look another person in the eye, and it is surprising how many people can’t do that, and say directly and thoughtfully, “Thank you.” It is one of life’s great sayings, like “I love you,” I’m sorry,” and the other honest, direct words that convey a message of thoughtfulness and caring. (That does not come easily for males of my generation.)
I do not see any deep theology behind this, only the discernment of a caring heart. A social worker once visited a client for an annual audit of the woman’s resources. “Honey, they don’t make ‘em any poorer than me,” the client said, but on the next social worker’s visit from her meager resources the woman bought a small birthday cake for the two of them. It was a costly gesture, but who could refuse it?
Sometimes the poor give thanks more easily than the affluent.
Here is the theology behind giving thanks: God does not need our praises, but we need to be praising people. God has survived through time and eternity without us, sometimes in spite of us, but without praise and thanksgiving we will atrophy and die. In the film Amilie, the old miser who lives in a one-room apartment encounters the young woman from the floor above him who is falling in love. She is not sure she can make that leap, but he points around his room cluttered with the junk of a lifetime and says something like, “You have a chance, take it. I didn’t, I ended up dried flesh, a skeleton, and bones.”
Turn now to the thankful nation. Here our tendency is to first draw a line in the dirt and thank God for all we have received, and to have pity on the rest of the world. That is the language of so many Thanksgiving proclamations, documents that made sense in their time, but which provide little guidance in our own day. It is also the tendency on Thanksgiving Day to look for quotations from George Washington or Winston Churchill, but such figures appear rarely in history, and the great crises they faced, are not the crises we face in our daily lives.
What concerns me most, as I read the papers and listen to the news, is the hardness of heart that is so often evident in our national life. The well-intentioned reform legislation that is quickly watered down before it is ever voted on, the campaign rhetoric that is designed to appeal to our deepest hopes and then goes nowhere. The hardball “me first” or “my interests first” attitude that is so much a part of our political language. Where is the compassion and gratefulness of a thankful people in that?
Of many possible examples, I chose but one: as a nation, we are faced by increasing global hostility from Islamic fundamentalists, a small percentage of the over a billion Muslims scattered around this planet and in this nation, one out of every five persons in the world. We also face growing discontent among the peaceful mainstream of such peoples, many of whom have been our traditional allies. What is our response? To declare one pitiful figure the personification of evil. Now, nothing good can be said about Sadam Hussain, but he is only part of the problem. And the massive expenditure of money and human energy aimed at Iraq, a tattered Third World country by any measurement, means that our country’s fragile economy and priorities are further disrupted.
Programs of domestic and foreign aid and education that could help transform unstable, hostile regimes into allies are left to atrophy. We risk creating an international climate whose political and religious sores are left to fester for a generation.
What would it cost to build sources of clean running water in countries on our high risk list?
What would it cost, in relation to the price of advanced weapons, to help unstable nations establish minimal health, nutritional, and literacy standards for their women and young children?
If our first goal is the protection of our frontiers and international political-military security, can we not reorder our national priorities to address some of those acute sources of frustration in the Middle East that flare up in the absence of minimally acceptable human living and human rights conditions?
Finally, a personal and national vision of thankfulness will help us, one that has worked its way inside our hearts and does not depend on outside slogans. Without such internal thanks to God, our compassion is as stale as an old news magazine in a doctor’s office. Without linking the divine and human, our thanksgiving is as cold as a tape of a last month’s newscast.
Many in this congregation spend their working lives in government offices, or in businesses, associations, or law firms intersecting with our national life. You logically ask how to make the connection between thanksgiving and national life?
A partial answer is in the biblical account of that formative political-religious event the Exodus. In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses, mightily impatient by now, tells the wandering Hebrews, to get real and get their act together. The requirements are clear.
First, in thanksgiving offer the first fruit of the harvest to God. “And worship before the Lord your God; and you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and to your house, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11).
There is nothing soft or weak about such a worldview. All the questions of power politics and confronting armed conflict are there, but the Hebrew people were first called to be God’s people among the nations, to respond to their own needy and dispossessed, and to those in the wider world, as fragile then in the Middle East as it is now.
There is really nothing difficult about such a perspective. It can represent our faith as well, and our call to action in today’s world, for its sources are the deepest wellsprings of our faith. Amen.