With Gratitude in Your Hearts
November 23, 2017 /Thanksgiving Day/ Pastor Richard Holmer/ First Reading: Deuteronomy 8: 7-18/ Second Reading: Colossians 3: 12-17/ Gospel : Luke 17: 11-19
Thanksgiving Day is different from other celebrations. It is not a religious holy day like Christmas or Easter or All Saints Day. Here we are in church, yet Thanksgiving is not a specifically Christian event. Thanksgiving is a national holiday, a civic celebration observed by citizens of many different faiths, as well as those of no particular faith. Thanksgiving is an American holiday. (Our Canadian neighbors already had their Thanksgiving Day back on October 9.)
As most of us learned back in grade school, we date our observance of this holiday to pilgrim days; and so as children we constructed our pilgrim hats and Indian feathered headgear, and drew turkeys using our handprint for an outline. Remember? According to tradition, the first Thanksgiving was a harvest festival held in the fall of the year 1621 in Massachusetts. Since landing the year before, those pilgrims had endured real hardship. Of the original 102 who came on the Mayflower, only half survived to celebrate that feast of Thanksgiving. Their survival was due in no small part to the generous support and agricultural know-how of their Native American neighbors. Those 53 pilgrim survivors were joined by 90 Native Americans for three days of feasting. It was an occasion of unity and sharing and genuine gratitude.
Now over time other states had laid claim to the distinction of having observed the first Thanksgiving, including Maine, Texas and Virginia. There is on the record a Thanksgiving observance that was held in Jamestown, Virginia, way back in 1610. So, in order to foster a spirit of unity and to strike a compromise between those competing regional claims, President John F. Kennedy issued this proclamation on November 5, 1963: “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of Thanksgiving. On the appointed day they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, FOR THE LOVE WHICH BOUND THEM TOGETHER, and for the faith which united them with their God.” Note again the theme of unity, sharing and gratitude. This day is a time to gather together to offer thanks to God.
A hundred years before President Kennedy issued his proclamation, another president did the same. At a time of cataclysmic division in our nation, during the Civil War which claimed more American lives than any conflict before or since, President Abraham Lincoln called upon his fellow citizens to share in a national day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. The proclamation was issued on October 3, 1863, and it included these words: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies…. “These 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 than this should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.” Lincoln concluded by urging all Americans “to 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.” Again, Thanksgiving is meant for unity and gratitude.
Today our nation is not engaged in a civil war, but we are divided in a number of ways, and the conflicts between factions in our country are far from civil. Tensions over race, religion, politics, immigration, economic fairness, and even the nature of Truth itself are bitter and acrimonious. A while back, as I looked forward to this day and what I might say, I made a note to myself in my datebook. I wrote: envy and suspicion and bitterness divide – gratitude unites.
Contentiousness and resentment do not foster peace and well-being, and certainly do not unite us. As Christians, you and I are called to be peacemakers and ambassadors of reconciliation. How might we go about reducing the level of antagonism and anger which is poisoning our national environment? Thanksgiving is a good place to begin, and our reading from Colossians points us in a good direction. St. Paul was well acquainted with divisions and factions and conflict. Many of his letters address these concerns. His words to the Colossians seem especially appropriate in our time, and on this day.
He begins by urging them to get things off on the right foot. When we approach one another with a chip on our shoulder, eager to air our grievances, the stage is already set for acrimony and misunderstanding. So instead, Paul suggests: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” Do you have such garments in your spiritual wardrobe? Can you imagine how much better things would be if our elected leaders embraced these virtues? (all right, I realize that may be hard to imagine.) But we can’t afford to wait for them to change. Change needs to begin with you and me, and how we conduct our daily lives. You could begin by recalling the 8th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” In this year marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, allow me a moment of Lutheran privilege; this is Luther’s explanation of that commandment: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.” Try working on that last bit with those you disagree with.
+ Paul continues, “Bear with one another”—That is, hang in there, put up with differences, refrain from judging and condemning. I learned a lot about what it means to “bear with one another” on a trip to the Holy Land. Our leader and guide was a Palestinian named Aziz. His travel company conducts tours that offer a dual narrative. Each group includes both a Palestinian and an Israeli guide—and along the way each guide shares the story from their own point of view. Sometimes their interpretations of historical events are quite different. I recall Aziz saying, “when I am about to disagree with my friend, I put my arm around him to indicate that my divergent narrative does not diminish my respect for my colleague.” Aziz lost one of his brothers during the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. For a while he was quite bitter and vengeful. But he came to realize that his resentment was a dead end. He belongs to a group call the Parents Circle Family Forum. The group includes hundreds of families both Palestinian and Israeli, who have lost family members in the conflict. They are dedicated to pursuing mutual respect and understanding—and to resolving the conflict through non-violent means. They go in pairs to address student groups and other community organizations to encourage reconciliation.
When I am tempted to dismiss or demean someone with whom I disagree, I try to remind myself of this better way.
+ Back to Colossians. Paul writes: “If anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.” Paul is a realist. There will be complaints and hurts and disappointments. Forgiveness is the way forward. Forgiving is not condoning or endorsing hurtful behavior—it is extending grace and mercy to heal the breath. Forgiveness is our privilege and also our responsibility as followers of Christ.
+ Paul continues: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony”. This is not sentimental idealism. Paul realizes we are a long way away from perfect harmony. And we cannot cause all persons to become loving. Yet you and I can and must aim to love our neighbor:
—Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.
— Loving even our enemies (Jesus acknowledges we do have enemies.)
+ As Paul encourages, we must, “let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts”. We cannot bring peace unless we ourselves are at peace: bearers of the peace of God which surpasses understanding.
+ And then Paul says: “And be thankful!” (you knew that had to be part of a Thanksgiving message).
I recently came upon an alarming statistic: nearly 2/3 of Americans polled believe that their “group” has been losing most of the time—that things are getting worse for them instead of better. No doubt there are genuine losses, concerns and grievances. Yet if we focus exclusively on all that we don’t have, if we are consumed with envy—we only add to our own misery and the misery of the world. Instead, in a spirit of gratitude we can recognize all the goodness we enjoy. Most of our cups are more than half full! Gratitude trumps bitterness and resentment. Paul reiterates: “with gratitude in your hearts (that is not token or gratuitous thanks, but heartfelt) sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” Which is exactly what we are about this morning. We can continue to live in such heartfelt gratitude.
Finally, Paul concludes: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus—giving thanks to God the Father through him.” True gratitude leads to a spirit of humility, compassion, and generosity—doing everything in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ.
As Christians—and as Americans—we have so much to be thankful for. By living with gratitude in our hearts, we can help to heal the divisions in our land, encouraging our fellow citizens to bear with one another, and modelling the Christ-like spirit of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. May it be so. Amen.