From Secular to Sacred
There's a tension between Thanksgiving and Franksgiving. In 1939, to bolster the economy by giving one more shopping week before Christmas, Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back a week. There was much protest. Some scorned the holiday as Franksgiving. This tension between the secular and the sacred remains. Christianity has had a Thanksgiving meal, the Eucharist, which is Greek for Thanksgiving, since 30 A.D., so when we're called by secular authorities to Thanksgiving that's what we have. But the world too associates Thanksgiving with eating and so their holiday is linked to food. It's also linked to football. College football in 1882; pro football since Thanksgiving 1920, and Christmas shopping became linked with the day after in the 50s. My memories and feelings of Thanksgiving are connected more to the secular than to the sacred. Where's the way back? Is there a way?
"Say thank you." "Did you say thanks?" Or, "What do you say?" is how we train kids. But that's not thanksgiving, is it? You can hear it in the kids perfunctory, reluctant, mechanical tone. I'm not saying it's wrong to teach kids that way, but we know we're not making thankful kids but kids with manners. What about the tradition of going around the table and each person telling what they're thankful for? This has become the gold-standard for this holiday but it's not necessarily Christian. I can reproduce this sort of thanks by pointing out that your garbage disposal eats better than 30% of the world does (Ill. for Bib. Preach., 74). Or that "while we wonder what do eat half the world is wondering when it will eat" (Ravenhill, Am. is too Young, 98). But such things move you to thanks for things not God, and Luther called this "a fools sense of blessedness" (LW 14, 247). Pagans can rise to this sort of thankfulness and some can even see that it's dishonorable. The pagan Seneca, a contemporary of St. Paul said, "'Although it may be a most honorable thing to give thanks, yet it ceases to be honorable if it comes out of necessity'" (Melanchthon, Locci, II, 584).
What we really want to avoid is training our kids or us to be thankful on demand. Being able to cry on demand is a coveted ability in Hollywood. Not all actors can do it, so they have fake tears for them, but the actor who can make the waterworks flow out of necessity is prized. But God, as we heard on Sunday, values our real tears; likewise, our real thanks, and we know that, but how do we get there from here? How do we go from "say thank you" to being thankful? Psalm 142 can help.
When David writes it, he is "in the cave" the superscription says. Read 1 Sam. 22 and 24. Twice he was in caves hiding from Saul who was seeking to kill him. Here's what David says earlier in verses 4-6: "Look to the right and see; For there is no one who regards me; There is no escape for me; No one cares for my soul. I cried out to Thee, O Lord; I said, Thou art my refuge, My portion in the land of the living. Give heed to my cry, For I am brought very low; Deliver me from my persecutors, For they are too strong for me.'" David's cave is a prison. He's trapped with no help from men.
You could feel that way right now. You could be trapped by age issues, health issues, money matters, job, marriage, kids, or personal troubles. You too look to your right and left and see no help. No one cares for your plight, but someone does care for your soul. There are all sorts of bodily prisons that I can't get you out of or even promise you'll ever get out of in this life. But I can bring your soul out of prison. Well, I can't but Jesus can. It starts with realizing your real problem is not that you have less than a month to get ready for Christmas, that you lack the Christmas spirit, or that health, wealth, or people troubles "threaten" Christmas. Your real problem is that you're imprisoned by sin and sinfulness. Death surrounds you, and your jailer is the Devil himself. The key that keeps your jail locked is the Law. The Devil hangs it on peg just outside the locked doors. If you do everything absolutely perfect, you can get that key. If you can come up with enough money to pay your fines, you can go free. But try as you may, suffer as you do, and that key remains out of reach.
"Bring my soul out of prison, so that I may give thanks to Thy name," David prays. This I can do; rather, this Jesus did do. Jesus took the key of the Law out of the Devil's cloven hands. Not by brute force; not by being very God of very God, but by being True God in flesh and blood. What you don't do, say, or think perfectly, ever, Jesus did all the time. He had not one covetous, jealous, lustful, unbelieving thought. He never flipped someone off in traffic. Never gossiped let alone lied, never thought of violence let alone used it.
In escape shows, as in video games, there is always something or someone that comes up when you think you're home free. Once outside the prison walls, there's rolls of razor wire; kill the troll guarding your prison only to find the giant ogre. Well, the Law that accuses you, convicts you of real sins has been kept perfectly by Jesus' holy life. It can't hold you in prison any longer, but on the way out the door the Devil, others, or your own conscience says, "Not so fast" and presents you with a bill. All the pains, sorrow, filth, shame and guilt you brought to others and self, must be paid for. In teaching kids one of the hardest concept to get across is the weight of indebtedness. When my kids were young, they kept breaking light fixtures with balls. Yelling, spanking, threatening didn't slow the damage. One time it was a light with a fan. I told them if I have to call an electrician they charge 60 bucks and hour and bill in 15 minute intervals. I could fix the light, but took my time and made several false attempts saying, "Oops there's another 15 dollars you owe." They got that point. They never broke another light.
You need no illustration. You know what it means to owe. Well the key of the law that unlocks your prison can only be reached by going into a machine that beats, whips, crushes, damns for eternity, and then kills once and for all. Jesus climbed into it through the womb of the Virgin Mary and made His way through it drinking God's wrath till He started to choke and having His face rubbed in our filth, our shame, and pain till He could say: It is finished; the debt is paid. So the doors to our prison swing open: go you are free. But your Jesus didn't leave this is the realm of feeling forgiven. He made a Meal out of the Body He gave into death on the cross and the Blood He shed there and said, "Take eat; take drink for the forgiveness of your sins." That meal is the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving. And the last words of the Communion liturgy by the congregation are "Thanks be to God" which "leaves the word thanks' as the final expression of the congregation at every Eucharist" (Reed, 383).
Going from saying thanks to being thankful is the journey from the secular to the sacred, and it's a miracle. It can't be produced by us on demand but only by God's grace touching our bodies with baptismal water, our ears with forgiving words, and our mouths with Body that is Bread and Blood that is Wine. Read David's Psalm 108. He says he will awaken the dawn which means he has been awake in the wee hours of the morning giving thanks to God, why? Because the Lord's mercy is higher than the heavens. Read Psalm 30 there David sings of the transforming power of God that has brought him out of the pit of despair. "Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness; That my soul may sing praise to Thee, and give thanks to Thee forever."
You know such thankfulness. But it's not always at the deliverance from danger, death, disease, or disturbances. Sometimes by God's grace it comes out of the blue. One of the last things my mother told me is that she remembers waking up in the middle of the night with the snow softly falling blanketing the landscape. All of her family was asleep, and she said that she was overwhelmed with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving produced by God is a miracle that can even come in difficult times. Habakkuk is shown God is bringing the wicked, unbelieving Babylonians to judge the idolatrous OT church. Habakkuk struggles with that but concludes in the end: "Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flocks be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation." His body may be imprisoned but his soul will be out of prison giving thanks.
But there is even more to sacred thanksgiving than it flowing in the face of adversity. It's knowing that God's goodness toward men in general is not dependent on our giving thanks. God's good gift of creation come to the just and unjust "only out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy without any mercy or worthiness" in anyone. "'Ingratitude is a vice which dries up the fountain of goodness'" in man not God. This is the truth of that saying if a bride wants to be remembered forever just don't send thank yous. But ingratitude doesn't dry up God's kindness. It's inexhaustible in Christ (Bernard, LW, 2, 124). This is the NT state of affairs. This is why Paul can make the blanket statement "be ye thankful" (Col. 3:15). And in the Epistle Paul can say every prayer can be "with thanksgiving". And in 1 Thessalonians he can say, "In everything give thanks;"
In this world Thanksgiving will be associated with food, football, and shopping. Our thanksgiving is associated with the 4 living creatures in heaven (Rev. 4:9), the angels around heaven's throne, and the 24 elders face down before the Lord (7:12) because it based on God's creation and recreation in Christ. Our thanks is expressed on earth but it's heavenly. It's not Franksgiving but Christ's-giving. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20191127); Psalm 142:4-7