Sunday, November 24, 2013–“Thanksliving”

November 24, 2013


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Nov. 25, 2012


I Thessalonians 5:12-28

          Thanksgiving, 2012 is now being written in the history books.  But the real work of Christian thanksgiving is just beginning.  Today, I want to talk about “Thanksliving” – a deeply faithful response to life no matter the time of year.

It was 1632.  Five kernels of corn was the daily portion “allowed to each individual (Pilgrim) on account of scarcity,” according to the History of Plymouth, by James Thacher, written in 1832.  It’s a disputed but persistent tradition of the stories that mark the beginnings of settlers in the New World.  Undisputed is the fact that there was scarcity.  I was gripeing about having to cook a Thanksgiving meal in a tiny apartment in Kansas City this week.  It was a galley kitchen for one and there were 2 of us plus our dog trying to move around.  But we certainly had more than 5 kernels of corn and much more to offer our thanks!

Only 47 Pilgrims survived that first winter in America.  Thirty-nine more settlers arrived from England as the second winter began.  Food supplies were inadequate.  The Pilgrims rationed what they had.  They survived that second, hungry winter.  So when Thanksgiving rolled around, their feast was a celebration of life.  They were grateful to simply be alive.  “Just to be is a blessing.  Just to live is holy.” Said Rabbi Abraham Herschel.

Two hundred years later, in the midst of the bloodiest carnage in American history, President Abraham Lincoln called for a national “day of Thanksgiving and Praise” on the last Thursday of November, 1863.  What was he thinking?  Thousands of Americans on both sides of the Civil War were dead and the War was in full swing.  Thanksgiving at a time such as this?

Americans had several reasons to be thankful that year, the proclamation said: bounteous harvest that fall, respect for the rule of the law, peace with other nations, growth of industry and population, and the “large increase in freedom” anticipated in the future.  Of course, slavery had not actually ended at the time of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863.  Emancipation still was unenforceable in states where active rebellion was taking place.  It was more than two war-filled years later that the 13th Amendment permanently and universally abolished slavery in the United States.  And you’ll remember that Lincoln was assassinated eight months before the 13th amendment was ratified.  Thanksgiving during a war when people were in heavy combat, others enslaved, the country divided?

Lincoln’s call for national thanksgiving at the end of 1863 required a huge leap of faith, a commitment and vision that transcended the harsh reality of the present circumstance. Why give thanks in the middle of chaos?  The cynic in me replies, “Wait until chaos is absent, and there will never be a good time to offer thanks!”

The better and more faithful answer is found in the scriptures.  Just look in the psalms – many of them move inexplicably from grief and anger to praise and thanksgiving.  Psalm 22 is perhaps the most famous example:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

          Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

          I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. 

          My heart is like wax, melted within my breast.

          My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws.

          You lay me in the dust of death.

Halfway through verse 21, the psalmist abruptly shifts:

From the horns of the oxen you have spared me…

          In the midst of the assembly I will praise you…

          All who respect YHWH, praise!

          All you children of Jacob, glorify!

          Stand in awe, you children of Israel!

This movement from lament to praise is a familiar biblical pattern.  And it teaches us that Thanksliving is an act of will, a leap of faith in a time of distress.  Praise grows out of lament and sorrow.  Thanksgiving is more hope for the future than gratitude for the present.

Our scripture lesson for today follows this same pattern.  The apostle Paul is writing to the church at Thessalonica, perhaps because he was asked a question about how the kingdom of God would finally come about.  They were tired of waiting while they were enslaved, persecuted, hungry, and just waiting for the justice Jesus had promised.  Paul responds that although we worry and become frustrated by present circumstances, we have a responsibility as Christians to have faith and to live with love and hope.

          “But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work.  Be at peace among yourselves.  And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.  See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

          Beloved, pray for us.

          Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.  I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. 

          The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”       (I Thess. 5:12-28 NRSV)

The Biblical writers were hardly Pollyanna-ish about the world.  They clearly and prolifically wrote about anger, mourning, sorrow, pain, frustration, and hurt.  But in bold defiance to the despair they felt, they raised voices of hope for the future.  Thanksgiving is an affirmation of life in the face of death.

Seeing beyond the painful despair of the present calamity, thankful people are shaped by the future they envision.  They, themselves, are fashioned by hope.  Their praises call and equip them to live toward a just and righteous future for which we all hope.  You see, thanksgiving is a liturgy of commitment to build a better world.  “There are two ways to live your life,” said Albert Einstein, “One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

  • You want to make your life better?  Start claiming promises of hope for your life and those you love!
  • Want to make your relationships at home or at work better?  Speak your praise and thanks for the other, claiming a new relationship built on mutual respect.
  • Want to help your children behave?  In your words and actions, offer thanks and appreciation for the things they did right.
  • Want to improve your own inner dialog?  Give yourself positive messages about life and living!

Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

Out of the pain of the present grows vision and commitment to a better, more productive future.          We stand in faith and proclaim with the voices of history that we are thankful.  We claim promises for the future, daring to hope and believing that love always wins.  We offer to build a better world.  Thanksgiving unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity… thanksliving makes sense out of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Lincoln called the nation to envision a better world, to “heal the wounds of the nation,” even while he summoned the people to “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience”, the sins of slavery, oppression and “lamentable strife.”  In thanksliving, we do not stick our heads in the sand and pretend that things are rosy and wonderful.  Rather, we look adversity in the eye, acknowledge our anger, pain and fear and then commit ourselves to change.

Lewis Smedes, an ethics professor at Fuller Seminary, wrote: “I learned that gratitude is the best feeling I can ever have, the ultimate joy of living.  Gratitude is better than sex, better than winning the lottery, better than watching your daughter graduate from college, better and deeper than any other feeling; it is perhaps the genesis of all other really good feelings in the human repertoire.”

We celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday.  Let us begin Thanksliving today!