by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
18 November 2012
Our current national holiday stems most directly from the day of Thanksgiving declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. This was in the midst of the Civil War. I find it rather poignant that this day of celebration, my favourite holiday, arose in the midst of our darkest and most violent conflict. Here is the substance of that proclamation:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They 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 that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and 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, tranquillity and Union.
There had been days of thanksgiving in America before. They had previously been declared by presidents and governors. Their origin was the harvest festival, and celebrations of the providence of God.
Drawing upon this tradition in the midst of great conflict and suffering, President Lincoln called for the country to seek forgiveness for its sins, pray for those in need, and to thank God for the blessings it had received. Despite those troubled and dark days, we were to take time to consider the blessings God had given us. This history reminds us that no time is too dark to be devoid of hope and the blessings of God.
Psalm 107 may have been written after the return from exile, when the ancient people of Israel were celebrating their homecoming. It is likely a liturgy that was used in some communal act of worship.
In the psalm, God's kindness is celebrated, for having gathered the people. In their distress, the people had cried out, and God had heard their cries. They have moved from darkness and shadow into light, security, and new life. Some were sick, and now are well. Some were tossed by storms at sea, and have now discovered tranquil waters. Some were hungry and thirsty from drought and desolation, and for them springs of waters have burst forth and the land is abundant. Some were oppressed by injustice, and they have been raised up.
The people have been brought to what scholar Robert Alter describes as "the realm of their desire." What do you desire today? Can you sense God at work to fulfill that desire?
If so, then as the psalm announces, let all acclaim the kindness of God.
Much like those mentioned in Psalm 107, the Pilgrims were exiles in search of a new home. They too had been through a difficult time.
They were English Separatists who rejected the doctrine and worship of the Church of England. Unlike the Puritans, who felt that the Anglican Church could be purified of its sins, and therefore remained part of the established church, the Separatists did not think the establishment church could be saved. They were dissenters and nonconformists who violated English law because it violated their religious liberty. In the 16th century dissenters were routinely executed, though by the 17th they were generally only persecuted with imprisonments, fines, and other forms of harassment.
They eventually left England and spent years in Leyden, Holland where they enjoyed the protection of a more diverse and tolerant society. However, they found Dutch culture alienating and eventually decided to establish their own colony. As they departed for Americanin July 1620, their pastor John Robinson declared, "I am confident the Lord has more truth and light to break forth from His holy word."
After the long and difficult sea voyage, they arrived at Plymouth on December 16, 1620 and struggled that first winter. Half of the company died. They endured extreme cold, hunger, and illness. It was only after they made friends with the natives that they learned the skills necessary to care for themselves in this new land. It was the kindness of Samoset, Squanto, Massasoit, and others which helped them. After that first harvest, they invited members of the Wampanoag tribe to join them in a feast. Edward Winslow wrote that the purpose of that first feast was "so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor."
We do not know for certain the menu of that first meal, except that it involved deer and wild fowl. Odds are it was very different from our current celebration. It is speculated that the meal could have included cranes, eagles, swans, partridges, geese, ducks, cod, bass, lobster, oysters, mussels, clams, eel, seal, rabbits, corn, pumpkins, dried beans and peas, lettuce, collards, turnips, spinach, parsnips, radishes, squash, cabbage, carrots, onions, grapes, plums, and maybe dried blueberries.
Now, how would your guests respond if you served up seal meat or eel for your Thanksgiving dinner?
We look back on this historic meal and invest it with much symbolism. It represents a new creation in a new world. It speaks of friendship and communion across cultural and racial divides. It represents new hope in the struggle for religious liberty and the freedom of conscience. It speaks of the power of hard work and diligent struggle. Of the common good and the importance of family and friends. There are so many important messages we can derive from this event, that is one reason it has become the ubiquitous American holiday, adopted by every immigrant group, of every nationality, culture, or religion.
For us it represents a part of our denominational heritage and makes theological claims upon us. To me the Thanksgiving meal, both the historic event and our annual recreation of it, stands in that great tradition of God's provision for the people. From manna in the wilderness during the Exodus, through the feeding of the 5,000, to the images of a feast at the end of time, God has provided bounty for our table and has also invited us to share it with one another. This act of thanksgiving creates communion. It both celebrates blessings we have received, while also blessing those involved.
When we give thanks, we celebrate God's deliverance. God has been kind to us, even and especially in the midst of our distress. But at Thanksgiving, we not only celebrate a past event, we also invest in hope and the future. By acknowledging our reliance upon God's providence, we also courageously commit ourselves in faith for the days ahead. Because we have received blessings, we can believe that our desires and God's dreams can come true.
Thanksgiving is an act of worship. It is an act of worship that helps to create the new world of God's dreams.
Enjoy your turkey this week, and when you are filled to satisfaction, resting content on the couch watching football, and just before that nap overtakes you, give thanks to God, for God is good.