November 24, 2011 – Thanksgiving Day, Year A
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
I remember how I felt the first time I led worship at seminary. From time to time, people ask me if I get nervous when I preach or preside at a service in church. Usually, the answer is no. Occasionally, something special will stir up inside of me, and I’ll feel those exhilarating butterflies in my stomach. But, when it comes to leading worship for a bunch of future priests, nervous doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Here in church, everyone is watching and paying attention to what I say or do, generally just interested in how the service will go. In seminary, everyone watches with a hypercritical eye, waiting to pounce upon the slightest error with that smug sense of clerical superiority. They might not say it, but they all think that they can do a better job than everyone else. And, when I wasn’t standing up here, those thoughts weren’t far from my mind.
Only in my second month of seminary, I hadn’t been around long enough to appreciate that fact, so, when I noticed that November 27 was available, I signed up to lead worship that day without really thinking about it. That year—2003—November 27 fell on a Thursday. For an American like me, that was Thanksgiving Day, but, for the rest of the seminary residents, it was just the fourth Thursday in November. I saw it as a chance to bring a little American holiday observance to Cambridge.
As I prepared for the service, I told some colleagues that I hoped to mark that occasion by incorporating elements of the Thanksgiving holiday into our usual morning worship. The response I got caught me off guard. “Why would you do that?” they asked. “That’s typical of Americans, isn’t it? Needing to set aside a special day to be thankful. Aren’t we supposed to give thanks every day?” I panicked. How could someone not like Thanksgiving? What is there not to love about it? Turkey and dressing and pilgrims and Indians. Come on, it’s Thanksgiving? But, then again, maybe they were right. Do we really need to set aside a national holiday in order to induce a sentiment of communal gratitude? Shouldn’t we be thankful every day?
In our Old Testament lesson, we get a glimpse into why structured observances like Thanksgiving Day are not only good but also necessary. With more than a hint of foreshadowing, Moses said to the people of Israel, “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinance, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord.” What happened? Of course, it was exactly what Moses had feared. The people did forget. They moved into the land that God had given them, and they built their fine houses and ate their rich foods and amassed their great wealth, and then they forgot that it was God who had given it all to them in the first place.
There’s something about human nature that causes us to take more credit than we deserve. Just as Moses warned, our tendency is to say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But, of course, that isn’t true. Behind every success and beneath every accomplishment is God’s gift. It all comes from God. And that’s easy to remember when it first happens. We remember to say thank you to God when we land that new job, when our child is newly born, or when that first lottery check comes in. But, once we’ve lived in that place of plenty long enough, the real source of our blessings gets buried beneath our own self-importance. “Look at what I’ve done!” we say to ourselves. But that’s a long way from thanksgiving.
We forget to give thanks because that’s our nature. Remembering to be thankful takes one of two things. Either the bottom falls out, and we become thankful out of necessity, or we set aside ritual observances through which a greater sense of gratitude can develop. In the former case, the motive has less to do with thanksgiving and more to do with fear. When the markets crash and we have nothing left, we suddenly realize what it means to depend upon God’s generosity. When the doctor walks in and gives us bad news, suddenly everything in life is worth being thankful for.
But, thank goodness, those moments are rare. And I think you’ll agree that it’s better for us to be grateful when things are plentiful than to wait for catastrophe to hit. So what does it take to be thankful when everything is going well? What do we have to do to stay in that place of total gratitude even though it’s our tendency to forget the source of our blessings? I think it starts with days like today—with appointed occasions for giving thanks.
In order to help them remember the source of all that they had been given, the nation of Israel had a host of obligatory gestures of thanksgiving. Offerings from individuals and the whole nation were appointed for everything from the birth of a child to the ingathering of a harvest. Each day, people would give to God an offering of thanks as a reminder of all for which they were grateful. I’m sure that some of those offerings were more heartfelt than others, but that’s not the point. The purpose of having a regular, ritualistic pattern of thanksgiving is so that habits of thankfulness can form. That’s why Moses told his people not to forget those statues and ordinances—because once we stop going through the motions of being thankful, gratitude itself begins to slip away.
What are some ways in your life that you are regularly and routinely thankful? And I hope the answer is something more than observing the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday. How have you incorporated a practice of gratitude into your life? Do you write down those things for which you are most grateful in a daily journal? Do you thank God each day in your prayers for all that he has given you? Have you decided to give back to God the first ten percent of all that he has given you—that stewardship practice known as the tithe?
My friends in England were right about one thing: we are supposed to be thankful more often than once a year. But getting to that place of true gratitude starts with a pattern of thanksgiving. Adopt a practice of giving thanks to God for all that he has given you. Often the practice itself is what leads to heartfelt gratitude. Amen.