Gratitude and Thanksgiving

     “Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God…Sing to the Lord with Thanksgiving!” I have never counted the times the Bible admonishes us to be grateful, to thank and praise God, but it’s a lot. Thanksgiving and praise are a major motif in the Psalter, ancient Israel’s hymn book. And the reason, I conclude, is that we need the reminder to be thankful and furthermore, gratitude is good for us.
     I suspect I’m not the only who had to be taught the practice of gratitude before the feeling of gratitude arrived. I’m not sure we come with grateful hearts. I didn’t. A source of constant irritation in the home of my childhood was my procrastination when it came to saying “thank you.” The occasion was usually a birthday card from my grandmother with a few dollars tucked inside. “Have you called and thanked your grandmother yet?” Mother would ask.  “No, not yet, but I will. I promise.” It went on for days. “Have you called and thanked her?” “Not, but I will.” Finally, I was firmly escorted to the telephone and she actually stood over me as I called my grandmother, who was a real sweetheart, and thanked her for the five-dollar bill. She kept at it until I was well into adulthood, until the feeling of gratitude caught up with the habit, and for her tenacity I am grateful.
     I love Thanksgiving because it is the institutionalizing of the habit and practice of gratitude. For many people, myself included, Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday precisely because our market culture has never been able to exploit it. No Thanksgiving gifts, a few cards maybe, not many Thanksgiving cocktail parties to attend – just a quiet day and a great meal to remind us of simple but important truths – the goodness of the fertile earth, the delight of good food, the gift of family and dear friends, and the reality of gratitude.         

William Sloan Coffin, long time preaching minister at Manhattan’s Riverside Church once said he could really “get into” Thanksgiving, the only victimless National holiday “if you can overlook several million turkeys.” (Collected Sermons, p. 39)
     “Praise the Lord” we read this morning. “Sing to the Lord with Thanksgiving.” It’s the heart of Israel’s faith. An Old Testament scholar says that the Psalmist “is so effusive in praise, so over the top in declaration of God’s goodness that it sounds like a love letter from someone newly smitten.” (Walter Buhar – Feasting on the Word, p. 145)
     It was ancient Israel’s unique and distinctive idea that the creation, the world around us, created by God, is essentially and fundamentally good, that it’s obvious abundance, the fertility of the earth, sun, rain, trees and flowers, the amazing animals – cattle and sheep, birds and fish, lions and elephants and whales – all of it – is a sign of God’s generosity and goodness. When you look at the world, the Bible says, you are seeing something of God. In the Bible, faith begins with an awareness of God’s good and beautiful creation. And the human response to all of that is awe, praise, gratitude, thanksgiving.
     The great Karl Barth said that when you look around and behold all the gifts that have been given you – all you can do is “stammer praise.”
     And the late Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian scholar said: “The distinctive word in the Christian vocabulary is “Grace,” and if Grace is the distinctive word to describe God’s attitude toward us, there is also a word to describe the response we are to make. That word is “gratitude.” (The Pseudonyms of God)
     The best hymn, Brown said, suitable for every occasion: birth, baptism, wedding, funeral – is the great Thanksgiving hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.”
     And the thing about gratitude is that it is not only obligation – it is delight, pleasure, satisfaction. C.S. Lewis once observed that the emotionally and spiritually heartfelt people he knew were the grateful ones, the ones always thanking. “Praise” Lewis said, is “almost mental health made audible.” (Reflections on the Psalms)
     There is a New Testament story about how gratitude is related to health and wholeness – the story of Jesus and the ten lepers.

Leprosy was the scourge of life in first century Palestine. The word referred to any kind of skin disease, some of which were contagious, serious and even fatal. A priest made the diagnosis and the decision that a person with leprosy must be separated from the community totally; separated from family even – spouse, children. So, they lived outside the boundaries of society, on the margins, usually in small groups, dependent on begging – from a safe distance, or whatever food their families might leave for them. A group of ten lepers approached Jesus. From a distance they called out to him: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” “Go and see the priest” he tells them, and on their way their leprosy, whatever it was, disappeared so that the priest, when he sees them declared that they are in fact clean, fit and safe to return to their families and communities. It is a great occasion! I imagine them running full speed toward home, throwing arms around wives, scooping up little ones in joyous embrace, hugging parents once again. One of ten returns to Jesus and falls at his feet in intense gratitude. Jesus’ response: “Were not ten made clean? The other nine, where are they? None of them except this one, a foreigner in fact, returned to give thanks to God.” And then he says a very important thing to the man who returned to express his gratitude: “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well. Nine are healed of leprosy. This man, who expressed gratitude, is more than healed. His faith has made him whole.” From the givers’ point of view, gratitude completes the act of giving. You don’t give a gift in order to receive gratitude, but if you don’t receive it the act feels incomplete…empty. How foolish it feels finally to find yourself saying “Did you receive my gift? I hadn’t heard so I wasn’t sure it arrived.”
     When you cultivate the practice and habit of gratitude, the experience of gratitude actually deepens over the years. The late John Updike wrote a personal memoir, Self Consciousness, in which he remembered his father-in-law stopping the car and exclaiming “What a view!” about a view no one else in the car appreciated or even much noticed. Later, in his final years Updike wrote: “Like him (my late father-in-law) am I in my amazed, insistent appreciation of this planet with its scenery and weather – that pathetic discovery the old make that every day and every season has its beauty…that even a walk to the mailbox is a precious experience, that all species of tree and weed have their signature and the sky is a pageant of clouds. “Aging,” Updike wrote, “calls us outdoors…into the lovely supplication we thought we had outgrown as children. We come again to love the plain world, stones and wood, air and water. The act of seeing itself is glorious and of hearing and feeling and tasting.” (p 246) I know exactly what Updike meant. We have driven by the same field in the Michigan countryside probably a thousand times in the past 33 years. But only recently have I noticed how the different shades of green evolve, beginning with the palest, barely visible pastel in early spring, to light green, to a deep, rich green in whatever crop is planted as mid-summer arrives. It’s truly amazing- and I never noticed it before.
     The years do teach us gratitude, what University of Chicago theologian, Langdon Gilkey used to call “the exultation of our own being – My God, it’s good to be alive.”
     Poetry reminds us to pay attention. The extraordinarily gifted poet, Mary Oliver, called her cottage on the tip of Cape Cod “Gratitude.” Many of Oliver’s poems are about seeing, noticing, awe, wonder, and gratitude. In a poem entitled “Praying” she wrote:

    It doesn’t have to be the blue 
    Iris, it could be  
    weeds on a vacant lot, or a few
    small stones: just
    pay attention, then
    patch a few words together and don’t try 
    to make them elaborate, this isn’t a
    contest, but the doorway
    into thanks, and a silence
    in which another voice may speak.

     Question: can you thank and praise God when things are not going well, when you are not feeling at all grateful, when you have lost your job, when a long-held and precious hope just shattered, when a dream died? We must be cautious, careful here. Nothing is more unkind, more pollyannish, than insisting someone be happy when they are not happy, to force a smile when your heart is breaking. But gratitude is deeper and in a real sense more profound in difficulty and tragedy. It is precisely in the valley of the shadow that words of gratitude are drawn out of us, “Yes, even now, dear God, thank you. Thank you for your presence in the darkness with me. Thank you for your love that will never let me go. Thank you for you.”
    I like to remember how it really was for the ones who began the tradition we will celebrate Thursday. It is a simple story, and we know now that they were seriously flawed in many ways, particularly in how they regarded the people who were already here. They arrived in 1620, sailed into what they called Plymouth Harbor after exploring several alternative sites, cleared some land, built a small, crude settlement and called it Plymouth Plantation. The New England winter was harsher than anything they had ever experienced. They survived on the meager rations they had brought along on the Mayflower. Half of their number fell ill and died that winter. Every family lost someone – a grandparent, a husband or wife, a child. When spring finally arrived, they planted crops with the help of friendly natives who showed them how to fertilize. By harvest time they knew that they could survive another winter on the corn, squash, beans, peas and barley to brew beer – which they drank in impressive quantities.
     Their leader, William Bradford, declared “A time to rejoice together” and sent four men “fowling” to bring ducks and geese from Plymouth Harbor. In addition to the ducks, geese and vegetables they had harvested there were shellfish, cod and striped bass. Contrary to romanticized Victorian paintings of the event, they did not sit down at a long table covered with a white linen table cloth, praying as Native Americans stood around watching. They all would have stood, throwing pieces of meat into stew pots that simmered on spits over open fires. They ate with their fingers and knives – forks wouldn’t appear for another 70 years.
     And there probably was no turkey. The New England turkey was lean and fast, notoriously hard to shoot and, even if you got lucky, the meat was notoriously tough. What they had and enjoyed was an abundance of venison. One hundred native people showed up and brought five freshly killed deer.
     In his fascinating book, Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick observes: “The first Thanksgiving marked the conclusion of a remarkable year. Eleven months earlier they had arrived at the tip of Cape Cod, fearful and uninformed. They had spent the next several months alienating and angering every Native American they happened to come across. By all rights none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from that first winter alive.”
     Philbrick says they survived because of their faith and resolve – and their decision to take advantage of the extraordinary offer of some native people to help them. Significantly, their faith, which could be narrow, exclusive and regard the native people they encountered as inferior – either to be converted or killed – in this remarkable case caused some of the Pilgrims to regard native people as allies. Some even began to see the native people as brothers and sisters rather than as enemies. Philbrick is convinced that made the difference.
So when the harvest was in and they knew they could survive another winter they took a day off from their labors to celebrate together and give thanks to God.
     Every year in my childhood and youth my mother insisted that we attend one of those Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving neighborhood church services – over my objection and protestation. Those services were usually combined – several churches got together – frankly because none of them could generate much of a Wednesday night crowd. They were always poorly attended, not very well put together and I found them utterly boring. “Why do we have to go to church?” I argued. “There won’t be many people, the combined choir will be out of tune, and the sermon will be boring – and long.”
     “We’re going” she said “because of the hymns. They’re the best, the Thanksgiving hymns – so, if we don’t do anything else, we’re going to sing “Come Ye Thankful People Come” and “Now Thank We All Our God.””
     So we did and I’m grateful.
     It’s the very heart of our faith – the conviction that our lives are part of God’s life. That all is grace, finally. No matter what happens to us we belong to God. That is the opening line of a “Statement of Reformed Faith” and it’s a good way to conclude this sermon. “In life and in death we belong to God.”
And so whatever your circumstance this morning – worried about your health, your savings account, your relationships, your children and grandchildren, the prospect of surgery, having suffered a great loss, hear the truth.
You belong to God.
Nothing will ever change that.
So do give thanks.
The Lord is Good.
God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Amen

Comments

  1. I thank God for many gifts, including eyes to continue to read your thoughtful words. Thank you for memories of life and Fourth Church and before, for your vivid words, and for reminders that despite looking for a job (still, still), despite the virus, I still have so much to be thankful for. My heart is steadfast, I will sing.

  2. Karen Fanwick says:

    John: I loved reading this! One of your sentences reminded me of a writing by Rabbi Karyn Kedar of Chicago…
    I”magine how your life would change if you awoke every morning and declared: Thank You, God, for Your abundant gits. And imagine if things weren’t going to well and still you awoke every morning and said: Thank You, God, for Your abundant gifts. How would that change your life?”

    Be well and have a joyous Thanksgiving!!
    Rabbi “Casey Wallick” Fanwick

  3. Stephen W. Littell says:

    Thank you so much, Dr. B. Beautiful words and reminders. I look forward to singing throughout this dark season.

  4. Milton Winter says:

    John, I needed this, for I will not hear a Thanksgiving sermon this year. And yes, it is the hymns. All of them are favorites. When I first arrived to begin my pastorate in Holly Springs, MS, shortly after leaving 4th Church to serve in my native state, an urgent request arrived asking if the Presbyterians could host the union Thanksgiving service. It was the first year that the town’s white and black churches were to have such a service together, and the white congregation where the service was supposed to be held had balked at having African Americans in their church. Our session voted unanimously to move the service to our church. The congregation turned out in large numbers to underscore their support for the session’s decision. The Holly Springs Presbyterian Church was full of public school teachers and administrators who had done their best to make court-ordered integration work. That Thanksgiving service let me know I was in a good place, and I went on to serve in Holly Springs for 28 years. These people were a joy to work with and taught me many things, for which I am thankful.

  5. Deborah Pettry says:

    This is a lovely piece, which I will share with others.
    Are you familiar with a Facebook group called “View from my Window”? People post photos of the view from their windows — usually a home window but I do remember during early Covid times a nurse posting the view from an ICU window. Anyhow, over time, many views have been what we might think of as common — a suburban street, a small balcony in a city, a stretch of barren field, or wall-to-wall high rises. I mention this because nearly every message, regardless of the view, is one of gratitude. For example, one from Hamilton, Canada, this morning says, “This is the view outside my kitchen window. I’ve worked really hard to make it beautiful and balanced- across seasons, species of plants and life (there are chipmunks, snakes, frogs, bugs, butterflies etc…) but I’m losing the use of my hands. So it’s bittersweet view. Beautiful but sad too…Hard to know how much longer I’ll be able to take care of it but for now, especially the last 19 months, it’s been such a gift 🌱 ❤️” And another this morning taken from a high rise, looking across at other high rises: “I live in Moscow, Russia on the 17 flore of the huge house. The best here is that windows look east and every morning I can watch different stages of sunrises. I miss it when I am out of my flat. This is the today one.”
    I recommend this Facebook page, which is uniting people from many nations in sharing gratitude and beauty.

  6. Sarah Odishoo says:

    Thanksgiving is America’s holiday and So American
    for it’s inclusivity to All…To give thanks to God
    For Being in a New Country that feeds the Soul
    With A New promise…freedom to learn, to be free,
    To worship God and know that Love that Christ had
    Was a path to a new freedom…a new way …
    Love in a land of the free and the home of the brave!
    Thanks Giving is required…Amen

  7. Sarah Odishoo says:

    Thanksgiving is America’s holiday and So American
    for it’s inclusivity to All…To give thanks to God
    For Being in a New Country that feeds the Soul
    With A New promise…freedom to learn, to be free,
    To worship God and know that Love that Christ had
    Was a path to a new freedom…a new way …
    Love in a land of the free and the home of the brave!
    Thanks Giving is required…Amen

  8. Victoria Brander says:

    John, I am so very grateful for you. Vicky

  9. A lovely message. Thank you.

  10. Brian Paulson says:

    Thank you, John.

  11. Hope Daniels says:

    Oh John, Thank you so much for this wonderful Thanksgiving sermon. Your comments are informative and inspirational and I am also grateful for you. Stay safe and continued blessings, Hope Daniels

  12. Happy New Year, Dr, Buchanan. I hope that you and your family are safe and well. I am, and always will be, grateful for the time that you spent with us at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church in Dallas. I took copious notes during your sermons, and this very afternoon I shared your traditional benediction with a friend who is struggling.. That prayer and blessing continues to be a great comfort to me. Thank you. Best to you and yours.

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