November 18, 2018 The Day of Thanksgiving

Joel 2:21–27, Psalm 126, 1 Timothy 2:1–7, Matthew 6:25–33

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the Name of Jesus, who is Resurrection and who is Life. Amen.

Thanksgiving Day is one of two secular holidays (the other being Independence Day) that the Prayer Book considers to be “major feasts” on its list of Holy Day observances. Thus, “unless otherwise ordered by the…rules concerning Sundays,” say the instructions in the Prayer Book, “they have precedence over all other days of commemoration or of special observance” on the liturgical calendar. (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 16.) What is fascinating about this is that neither of these feast days are overtly religious observances; rather, they are national holidays specific to the United States, and thus the main thrust of each of these holidays is to celebrate some aspect of this country—its history, its ethos, indeed its very existence—and ask God’s blessing upon it.

Thanksgiving originated as a harvest festival tied to the settlement of Plimoth Plantation by religious dissenters from England. The first festival in 1621 was a three-day feast giving thanks to God for a successful first growing season. It was attended by fifty-three Pilgrim settlers and ninety Native people who had provided food to the settlers in the winter after landing because the supplies they brought from England proved to be inadequate, and who had taught the settlers how to grow corn and catch eel, that is, taught the settlers how to survive in the harsh New England climate and landscape. After the United States was founded, Thanksgiving was celebrated sporadically beginning with the presidency of George Washington, but it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday. In 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War, Lincoln declared a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to be observed on the fourth Thursday in November. It was Lincoln’s hope that such a national holiday might help bridge the divide between the two factions in the Civil War and perhaps bring the war to a speedy end by appealing to their shared history and faith. While that, obviously, did not work, the Day of Thanksgiving has endured as a national holiday to the present time, joining Christmas and the New Year as part of a broader fall/winter holiday season.

Designating national holidays as ecclesiastical feast days is tricky business. The temptation in the United States especially in these celebrations is to claim a divine blessing on the United States above all the nations of the world; and indeed, there is a long history of such a claim, which can be traced back to the Puritan theology of the Pilgrims themselves. John Winthrop, a Puritan minister, delivered a sermon before he and his fellow settlers reached New England. The sermon is famous largely for its use of the phrase “a city on a hill” to describe the expectation that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would shine like an example to the world, but also reveals how Winthrop expected Massachusetts to differ from the rest of the world. Indeed, this imagery has become a part of the “secular religion” of this nation, with president after president serving as its high priest, invoking these “sacred words” to promote the doctrine of American exceptionalism. But secular religion is different from the Christian religion and talk of such exceptionalism betrays the core belief of our faith that all people in all the nations of the world are beloved of God and that no nation possesses a specific blessing or calling from God.

Still, a holiday, even a secular one, whose primary purpose is to give thanks for our many blessings dovetails nicely with many themes of our faith. At the center of Christian prayer, for example, before we raise our intercessions, that is, our requests to God, we give thanks. The principle Christian prayer serves, The Holy Eucharist, which we celebrate every Sunday, is designed that way. Before we ask God for anything in the Prayers of the People, we sing our praises and listen to God speak to us through the proclamation of the Word in scripture and sermon, and we confess our belief in this God. Only then do we approach God with our intercessions. And many, including many in this room, in their own private prayers include a “gratitude list,” that is, a list of the blessings God has given them as a prelude to approaching God with their petitions. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” says the Westminster Catechism, a principle doctrinal statement of the Reformation. This is simply another way of saying that as people of faith, our primary call is to give thanks to God for all things and in all circumstances; to adopt gratitude as a core piece of our call to turn the whole of our lives over to the care and will of God. Thus, what it means to shine with the light of God in the world is, in no small part, to express gratitude in all things remembering above all else that we are held in the arms of a loving and generous God. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” says the apostle Paul to the Thessalonian Christians (and to us), “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Give thanks in all circumstances, even, perhaps especially in those circumstances that are difficult or challenging. Over the past couple of days, you received news that indeed is difficult and challenging for this community of faith: that I have accepted the call of another congregation, St. Barnabas Church in Denver, to serve them in this transitional season of their life as a community of faith. Now, I am humble enough to know that there are some in this community of faith who will generously offer to help me load the moving van and see me on my way, preferably sooner than later; but there are many more who have welcomed this news with sadness and anxiety (and perhaps some anger), and it is these folks who may be finding it difficult to muster up a feeling of thanksgiving right about now. Indeed, I myself am nursing bittersweet feelings—excited about the challenges ahead of me, but sad about leaving you, a sadness that I expect will become more profound as the day of our parting draws closer. While it is not my intention to lessen your hurt or mine or be dismissive of your grief or mine (for we all must acknowledge these feelings and walk through and not around them), I would like to find reasons for thanksgiving amid our pain and the many challenges that lay ahead.

In my announcement, I stated that as I prepare to leave, I am grateful for “many fond memories, good friends, and a sense of accomplishment and work faithfully done.” The memories are too numerous to mention, but some that immediately come to mind for me are:

  • The grand celebration of our Japanese heritage in this parish and the presence of Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori with us;
  • Almost sixty funerals celebrating the faithful of this community, great and humble, who have gone on to glory and now surround and encourage us;
  • Hundreds of liturgies joyfully celebrated and faithfully attended;
  • Hundreds of hospital visits, homebound visits, death bed vigils, and counseling sessions in which I was invited into the most intimate places of your lives;
  • Thousands of nutritious meals served to the poorest of our community;
  • Numerous theological conversations prompted by books read, movies viewed, or Bible studies prompting the most profound insights about God and life lived in God;
  • The rededication of our fine organ and the retirement of our longtime organist and dear friend, Naomi;
  • The continued maintenance and improvement of this beautiful building for which we are stewards and caretakers;
  • Countless people in need who found in this place a warm welcome and help when possible;
  • Countless homes visited, meals shared, conversations had, and friends made;
  • The privilege to work with some of the most talented and dedicated leaders I have ever known.

For these and many more memories, I give thanks.

In this room sit some of the dearest friends I have ever made in my life—people I have ministered to, yes, but also people who through their love and care have ministered to me as well. You welcomed me into this parish; you walked patiently alongside me as I engaged in my work and made many, many mistakes; you loved me through my mom’s illness and death; you offered no judgment as I sought and finally found love in my life, and celebrated that love with Curt and me; you welcomed my dogs into your hearts, homes, and offices, doting over them even more than I do; you became friends and family to me, supporting me in a job that can be very lonely. For your friendship, I give thanks.

And you have grown as well. You welcomed a gay priest into your midst, not sure at first about the whole thing, but willing to give me a chance, and in the end, discovered that I’m just another person struggling like the rest of you to be faithful; and in the process, you opened yourself more fully to the diversity of God’s creation and have become more welcoming of those on the margins, as Jesus calls us to be. You opened yourself to the poor, the marginalized, and dispossessed in our community, offering them food, shelter, conversation, and most importantly, friendship. You continue to be generous in your giving to this parish, and to the many other ministries that ask so much of you: Christmas offerings, Easter offerings, UTO, Almoner’s Fund requests, Bishop’s Discretionary Fund, and many more. You welcome people into your midst, grateful for the gift they are and the gifts they bring to this community of faith; and you say goodbye to people graciously, thanking them for walking with you for a time and wishing them well on their journey. You love well and deeply and you are loved well and deeply in return. For your witness to Jesus, I give thanks.

We now enter a transitional period in which we will say our goodbyes and prepare for the next season of our lives. And in such a time, it is easy to become anxious: Who will lead us? What does the future hold? Who are we called to be and what are we called to do as we walk into the future? You will worry and fret over these and many other questions. But before getting too caught in your anxiety, let me assure you, it will be okay, for God will provide. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” says Jesus. “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?…Therefore do not worry, saying, `What will we eat?’ or `What will we drink?’ or `What will we wear?’…But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

And give thanks. Amen.

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