Giving thanks is an important exercise, and living in gratitude is a fundamental characteristic of people of faith. Living thanks-giving lives allows us to reflect on all the ways in which we are truly blessed. We were all taught as children that it is appropriate and even essential to say thank you for gifts and compliments, for kindnesses and even for a job well done. We thank people for a whole host of things, and we give thanks in a lot of different ways.
Yet, while we were taught that giving thanks is the polite and appropriate thing to do, in a lot of ways, expressions of gratitude are actually more beneficial for the person giving thanks than for the person receiving thanks, even if that is not always the way it seems. When we give thanks in our personal lives, we are humbled to acknowledge that good things come from outside ourselves, and that in some way we are indebted to the giver, not in the way of reciprocity, but in our attitude, in our heart, and even sometimes, in our behavior.
When we offer our thanks to another, we honor them for a contribution they have made to our lives, for a gift they have imparted, or for the benefit we have received at their hand. Today we gather together to acknowledge before God and in the company of one another that as individuals, as families, as a church, and as a nation, we are blessed. No matter what challenges we face in any of those spheres in our lives, there is much for each of us individually, as a community, and as a nation to give thanks for. In particular we give thanks for bountiful harvests and for all the gifts imparted by God for our physical sustenance and betterment.
In the past few weeks there has been a good deal of focus on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy once said that she feared that the way he died would overshadow the way he had lived. But I wanted to bring some of his words to you today, as we contemplate what this holiday means for our living, for us as individuals and as a nation. These words come from Proclamation 3560, issued by Kennedy on November 5, 1963,
“Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in 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.
So too when the colonies achieved their independence, our first President in the first year of his first Administration proclaimed November 26, 1789, as "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God" and called upon the people of the new republic to "beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions... to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue . . . and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best."
And so too, in the midst of America's tragic civil war, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November 1863 as a day to renew our gratitude for America's "fruitful fields," for our "national strength and vigor," and for all our "singular deliverances and blessings."
Following further reflections of his own, President Kennedy declared,
Now, Therefore, I, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, in consonance with the joint resolution of the Congress approved December 26, 1941, [55 Stat. 862 (5 U.S.C. 87b)], designating the fourth Thursday of November in each year as Thanksgiving Day, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 28, 1963, as a day of national thanksgiving.
On that day let us gather in sanctuaries dedicated to worship and in homes blessed by family affection to express our gratitude for the glorious gifts of God; and let us earnestly and humbly pray that He will continue to guide and sustain us in the great unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist.”
Still, there are some who question why we need to come to church to celebrate the Thanksgiving Holiday. After all, it is a national holiday, a secular holiday. With emphasis on the separation of church and state being stronger perhaps than it ever has been before, why have some of us chosen to gather together this day?
The first reading for today, this text from the book of Deuteronomy, lays out for the people of Israel the appropriate response for thanksgiving – the offering up to God the first fruits of the ground. For this agrarian people, that meant making an offering to God of the first cutting or first harvest from the land, trusting that God would keep God’s promise to care for them and therefore there would indeed be further “fruits”, more to harvest for their own consumption. For herding peoples the first fruits would be the fatling lamb or goat or calf. It is here that we find support for a theology of tithing. We return to God first and foremost what we ourselves have received, harvested, done, because in having received all things first from God the first fruits are holy.
This week we celebrate a national Thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest, for homes, families, and for all that we need to survive and thrive in love for God and one another. And as the people of God and the Body of Christ here in this time and place, we are drawn together in holy love by this Lord who offered himself up as the first fruits of God’s bountiful plan of redemption, and feeds us himself, the bread of life.
We come together today because we know ourselves first and foremost as people of God; and as people of God everything in our lives is framed in holy thanksgiving, first giving thanks to God for the richness of God’s grace and mercy to us. Before we gather in our homes, before we break out the turkey or keep our reservations at the inn, before we begin any other celebration of this holiday, it is entirely right and salutary that the first fruits of our joy and gratitude are laid at the altar of God’s grace. God desires this of us, but we truly need to do this. We need to be reminded of God’s gracious good will to us.
Jesus modeled this attitude of thanksgiving for us himself, when he himself thanked God at every opportunity, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper by first giving God thanks and praise, when he offered himself as the first fruit of the dead.
As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, may we be reminded and inspired by these words, of the late president, trusting that in the precious meal of this bread of life, we will be endlessly given all that we need to accomplish God’s will. “let us earnestly and humbly pray that [God] will continue to guide and sustain us in the great unfinished tasks of achieving peace, justice, and understanding among all men and nations and of ending misery and suffering wherever they exist.”
May it be so.