This sermon was given the day we celebrated the work of our organist, Ginni Peterson, who has been the organist at First Presbyterian Church in Medford for 57 years. She still has her chops! But, she is retiring at the end of the year.
Thanksgiving is almost here. How can we, as Christians, best prepare ourselves for the upcoming holiday, other than preparing a feast and starting the Christmas decorating? What is Thanksgiving really about, and what can mean for us as Christians?
In the Old Testament Lesson we heard Hannah’s prayer, from I Samuel. Hannah was the wife of Elkanah, one of two, and was childless. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had born children, but not Hannah. And, people being people, Peninnah tauted Hannah. In that day and age, a wife that could not bear children was seen as inferior. Elkanah did not see Hannah that way. We are told that he loved her very much, but that was small consolation to Hannah. More than anything, she wanted to give her husband a child. Every year, when they went to temple, Hannah would pray and pray and pray, asking God to open her womb. She prayed so hard, that when the priest, Eli, saw her, he thought she was drunk.
And one day her prayers were answered. She became great with child, and bore a son, Samuel, who became a great prophet of God. In response to the birth, Hannah prays the prayer we heard this morning. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift God had given her. Although the words Thank You do not appear in this prayer, it is her prayer of gratitude to the God who gave her a child. It is in many ways similar to Mary’s prayer in Luke, where she thanks God for her unborn child, Jesus. Both Hannah’s and Mary’s boys would serve God, and both Hannah and Mary would lose their sons to the service of God. As soon as Samuel was born, he was given to the high priest Eli, to raise for service in the temple. God had other plans for him, and he became one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament. And of course Mary’s boy, Jesus, gave his life for the salvation of the world.
In her prayer, Hannah thanks God by recounting his actions. It a bit like going to an event to thank someone for their service, and recounting how they affected you and others. For example, we are thanking Ginni this morning for her years of service, and we might talk about her skills as a organist, her faithfulness in playing week after week, after week. We might recount the hours of practice she puts in every week before she plays, or we might talk about how just being around Ginni just makes you feel better. Hannah recounts how God looks after the those who are hurting, those who hunger, those who long for justice.
“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” Mary’s prayer is very similar:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
Both of these women offered thanksgiving prayers for the great thing God had done in their lives, heartfelt prayers that takes us into the heart of thanksgiving, which we will be celebrating this week.
Every year we have this holiday called Thanksgiving. It is a time of turkey, cranberry dressing, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie. It is a time for families to get together. It is a time to watch football. The first Thanksgiving, back in 1621, was not called “Thanksgiving.” It was a fall harvest feast. Although we celebrate our Thanksgiving on the third Thursday in November, the original feast that it took place sometime between September and November. The original 102 pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower was whittled down to 53 by the time of that feast in 1621. They had managed to get through the first year, but just barely, and as the record shows, around half of them had died. Were it not for the local Wampanoag tribe, they might have all died. But the second winter, they were more prepared. They had stored up food for the long winter, and had a surplus, enough to have a harvest feast. There were Indigenous people at the feast, 90 of the Wampanoag tribe, including their leader Massasoit, but we don’t know if they were invited, or if they just showed up. They roasted five deer and plenty of wild fowl, some of which might have included turkey, but we don’t know about that. And I am pretty sure they did not have that canned cranberry sauce prevalent at many meals today, or pecan pie.
We don’t if they continued having the feast on an annual basis. The documents from the pilgrims that survived only talk about the first feast. However they did have a thanksgiving celebration in July of 1623, which was not a harvest feast, but a day of prayer and fasting. Toward the end of the 1600s, some of the settlements in the New World combined the harvest feast with a celebration of thanksgiving, similar to what we celebrate today.
The Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving on December 18, 1777 and then in 1789, George Washington declared the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving as well. But these were merely declarations and not official holidays. Future presidents did not continue the Thanksgiving declaration.
It was an editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who researched documents about the first Thanksgiving, who was responsible for it becoming an official, national holiday. She wrote letters to five presidents: Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln asking them to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln, seeking to bring the civil war torn country together, worked with legislators to proclaim the last Thursday of November to be a national holiday called Thanksgiving. Now you may be asking, if Thanksgiving is supposed to the last Thursday, why are we celebrating it this week, which is the second to last Thursday. There are five Thursdays in November this year, and according to Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving should be next week.
Well, in 1939, a year in which November had five Thursdays also, FDR broke with tradition, and said Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday, not the last Thursday. He did that because the country was just pulling out of the depressions, and back in that day stores did not advertise for Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving (the good ole days!). Moving Thanksgiving back a week would give stores and shoppers more time to prepare for Christmas. The move was controversial, and for years afterward some states still celebrated what they called Republican Thanksgiving, on the last Thursday.
In any case, this Thursday we will celebrate a traditional meal that goes back 397 years.
But from a Christian perspective the tradition of a Thanksgiving meal goes back to the beginning of our faith.
The Greek word for “thanksgiving,” is εὐχαριστία, from which we get the word Eucharist, one of the names for communion. Every month here we celebrate Thanksgiving, not with turkey and sweet potato casserole, but with the Bread and the Cup. In the Presbyterian Church we call it communion, but for centuries it has been known as the Eucharist, the meal of Thanksgiving. At the beginning of the meal I say,
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
The prayer that follows is called the Great Thanksgiving, and starts, It is truly right and our greatest joy to give you thanks and praise, eternal God, our creator. The prayer then goes on to list the things that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, how at times humanity has lost its way in the world, and how Jesus came to call us back to God, and not only call us but to give us the way to return to God through him.
You made us in your image
and called us to be your people,
but we turned from you,
leaving sin and death to reign.
Still you loved us and sought us.
In Christ your grace defeated death
and opened the way to eternal life.
This mirrors several of the Psalms, where the Psalmist remembers and gives thanks for how God rescued the Hebrew slaves from the Egyptians, and how God gave them a way of living when they were in the Sinai Desert, and finally how God brought them to the promised land.
One of the ways we give thanks is to remember. We remember how significant people have changed our lives for the better. For example I might remember the things I got from my parents that taught me how to good person. Living in the segregated South in the 1960s, I remembered how they taught me to treat all people with dignity. I remember the people who mentored me over the years when I first entered ministry, and those who were there for me when I needed help with something. I remember who my wife has supported me in ministry, and I give thanks to all those people.
As a church, we remember how Ginni has brought the beauty of music to us for the last 57 years. The first time I met with the session, I asked them what they loved about this church–in essence, why they were thankful for this church, and over half of them mentioned Ginni. They talked about how, week after week, she brings angelic music out of the organ. They remembered a concert she had given here.
Another way we give thanks is to tell people of our gratitude. In prayer, we address God and thank God for all the the good we have received from our Creator’s hand. We tell the people around us how they have influenced us, and thank them verbally. For some people that just comes naturally. For others, it can be a hard thing to do. It can be even harder for some people to receive. Back when I was in seminary, we had a class where we talked about our experiences in our internships. One student, I remembered, talked about how hard it was for him to receive thanks after the service when people were exiting, and he was shaking their hands. “They tell me it was a good sermon, but I could only remember how badly it went, and how I could have done it better. What do I do?” he asked us. The teacher just looked at him and said, “You say ‘thank you!’ End of story.”
Some of things we may be thankful for are not things we were thankful for at the time. My father taught me the value in hard work when I was young, and I can truly say I was NOT thankful for those lessons at the time. I am now. But I sure wasn’t back then.
There are experiences we have that, in retrospect we can see how they changed us for the better, but we did not see them that way at the time. Losing a job may have led to a better job down the road, but at the time it can be a very painful experience. At the time we may be yelling at God–“Why did you do this to me? Why did you let this happen?” But down the road, we can give thanks for what happened.
What are you thankful for? As Thanksgiving approaches, why are you thankful? What fills your heart with gratitude?
I want to issue you a challenge. I said that a lot of thanksgiving had to do with remembering. Think back on your life. Who has made you who you are today? Who has had the greatest influence on you? What are some of the things that have happened in your life for which you are thankful.
Over the next few days, I challenge you to tell people “Thank you.” They may be people from your past, or they may be people you see everyday. Counting today, there are five days until Thanksgiving. Everyday tell one person why you are thankful for them. Every one of those five days, say “Thank you,” to at least one person.
And, over the next five days, I challenge you to say “Thank you” to God. You may thank God for the people who helped you along the way, people who are not alive today to hear it come from your lips. You may thank God for circumstances and situations that molded and shaped you. There is a prayer in the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, which I pray every morning:
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
What are the blessings in your life? And how do you experience “the means of grace and the hope of glory”? This week, as we approach Thanksgiving, tell God “Thank you,” and maybe with the prayer, you might pray that you can show forth your praise for God, not just with your lips, but by giving yourself to his service.