Last year was the 150 anniversary of Thanksgiving officially being proclaimed a federal holiday. It's a shame that it has degenerated to the "start of the holiday shopping season." It's even more of shame that it is just about being thankful.
I heard an interview last year on Catholic radio of a woman who worked in a secular bookstore. She was stocking the holiday books and noticed that all the books on Thanksgiving were only about being thankful. Book after book might have told the story of the first thanksgiving and might have gushed about the need for being thankful and even things to be thankful for but not one mentioned whom we were thankful to.
Think about it. Didn't you grow up in school tracing your hand and cutting a turkey out of it? And of course wasn't Thanksgiving all about being thankful to God? You can't say that anymore. Moreover, it's perfectly acceptable to leave it not only unsaid but unthought of. You really can be thankful, deeply, deeply thankful to absolutely nothing.
But Thanksgiving without a who is not thanksgiving but thumb sucking. G.K. Chesterton said something like this. As he didn't believe a baby got his physical nourishment by sucking his own thumb, so a man doesn't get his moral food by sucking his own soul. How does a man do that? By denying his dependence on God. Not being thankful to anything outside of yourself leaves you turned in on yourself.
Luther said that whoever or whatever you give thanks to that's your God (Luther on Worship, 156). Think about it. How many times do you begin a sentence, "Thankfully.." When you do that you haven't even reached the level of Norman Greenbaum; you haven't even reached the spirit in the sky. Now and again we'll recognize the hollowness of saying, "Thankfully" and say, "Thank goodness." Now the indeterminate becomes something abstract, and "goodness" is your god. We say, "thank goodness" thinking we're saying something spiritual but it's sure not Christian. You can't pray, "Our goodness who art in heaven." Or, "O goodness protect me. Or "I pray goodness my soul to take."
So when the agnostic, atheistic, non-religious, doesn't believe in God person sits down to the Thanksgiving feast where does he see his food as coming from? He could see it as Mother Nature's bounty. He could see it more impersonally as the Laws of Nature's bounty. So he is either a native American Indian or a 19th century naturalists. Either the sun god, rain god, and earth god got together to bring him this meal, or the laws of natural selection and survival of the fittest got together using random mutation and time to bring him a turkey with all the trimmings.
Rather than being a Native American or a naturalist, I would rather be Bart Simpson. He famously prayed in a November 22, 1990 episode, "Dear God we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing." That shocked a lot of people, me included, but at last the unspoken antagonism toward God was in the open, and at least Bart heard a Who.
That's comes from Dr. Seuss's 1954 book Horton Hears a Who. "The book tells the story of Horton the Elephant, who while splashing in a pool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him." Horton surmises that a small person lives on the speck and places it on a clover, vowing to protect it. He later discovers that the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, where microscopic creatures called Whos live. The Mayor of Whoville asks Horton to protect them from harm, which Horton happily agrees to, proclaiming throughout the book that a person's a person, no matter how small'" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horton_Hears_a_Who!).
In light of legalizing abortion 19 years later this last part is ironic. In terms of Thanksgiving, of Bart Simpson's prayer, and the lack of a Who being thanked today, it's instructive. Bart's prayer at least acknowledges the unseen God. He denies He has any right to thanks, but at least he has heard the "Who" when few others do.
Do you hear the Who of Thanksgiving? I'm sure most if not all of you do. Where to you hear Him? Do you hear the Who in good things, in bounty, in success? Even pagans can do that much. Fifth century B.C. historian Herodotus said, "It was the Athenians who after the gods drove back the Persian king" (vii, 139, 415). The pagans also know that good things while the can lift one's thoughts out of you can draw them away from God. Juvenal, a 1st century Roman writer, said, "Now we are suffering all the evils of a long-continued peace. Luxury, more ruthless than war, broods over Rome, and exacts vengeance" (Satires, VI, 292).
1,500 hundred years before this Moses warned, "Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God. You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me" (Dt. 8: 11-17). 1,000 years later Hosea warns, "I cared for you in the desert, in the land of burning heat. When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me" (13:5-6).
Strangely enough we forget that our country's Thanksgiving began not only knowing a Who but thanking not for bounty but for barely enough. Thanksgiving type festivals are very old ancient Greece had them as well as Rome. The English Harvest Home also predates the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving. All these earlier celebrations celebrated plenty. America's came after only a single year of growth. The Pilgrims didn't give thanks for plenty over years, but for the scanty yield of one (Feast Day Cookbook, 143). Also did you notice when exactly Thanksgiving was proclaimed a National Holiday? 1863. During the depths of the Civil War after the 1863 battles of Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg.
Did you also catch that I said America's first Thanksgiving heard a Who? Lincoln's declaration thanked "our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." Since Scripture says the only way you can really know God as Father is through having God the Son as your Brother, this could be taken as distinctively Christian. Frankly I'm not sure if that's how Lincoln meant it since he often talked of the God of Providence in generic terms. Writing connected to the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving also specifically mention God.
Definitely throughout the 20th century most people would have said the Who being thanked is God, but that was never enough. O it's better than thanking self, the gods of nature, or the laws of nature. But you're only thanking a god not the God, and only the un-imprisoned soul can do that. That's what David says in Psalm 142:7: "Bring my soul out of prison so that I may give thanks to Thy name."
You and I are born in prison. Our wills our bound to think, do, say only evil. Our very first thoughts are only evil. We can naturally do only what Adam did after he sinned. Run and hide from God because we are afraid. Out of our heart only flows sin and evil and thick, dark unthankfulness. We can be made to say "thank you" even as jailer can make his prisoner say it, but only one freed from prison can give thanks.
God the Father sent His Son with the key. Actually, He sent the Son into our jail cell. But before doing our time which ended in the death penalty Jesus first lived our lives. Read the Scriptures. How many times does Jesus pray, "I thank you Father?" He is God in flesh and blood, and yet He receives God's bounty and God's hardships with thanksgiving. So Jesus never should have been in our cell to begin with. But He was, and while it ended gloriously for us, it ended badly for Him.
You have probably never been this angry before. You've probably never said, "Why you ungrateful little brat," to a child. You've probably never said in anger to anyone, "Is that how you show your thanks?" You've probably never felt the white hot rage when someone, even just a dog, bit your hand while feeding him. Since you've never experienced how fast, how intense vengeance can well up towards ingratitude, you can't imagine what Jesus endured to get you out of prison. He suffered, bled, cried, and died for every time you forgot to thank God for food, for every time you thanked goodness, for every time you were content to share with someone that you were thankful without pointing out to them the Who.
Since God says He makes His rain to fall and His sun to shine on the just and unjust anyone can have a measure of thanks to Him in a generic sort of way, but only the soul freed from the prison of certain death and damnation can fully see the Who and the all. The Lord doesn't give you just rain and sunshine, food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and family. He gives you all. He gives you His only beloved Son. His entire Body, His Blood, His sweat, His tears to free you from your prison of guilt, your cell of death, and your jail of shame. And since all the fullness of not only heaven and earth but of God Himself dwells bodily in this Jesus, when God gives you His Son He gives you all.
The person who has everything and God in Christ has no more than the person who only has God in Christ (Weight of Glory, 10). Hear God in Christ in every dew drop, every tear drop, every feast, every famine. Hear God in Christ in every thing that is on your Thanksgiving table and in everything that is not. Don't make this national holiday about one year of blessing. God in Christ didn't redeem you for just this. He has something far bigger and better in mind. The challenge is to hear His still small voice in all of this, in ever bit of it, without the bounty drowning out the Who and without the bane denying the Who. You're not "just thankful." You're thankful to a Who and if that Who is God in Christ you're thankful for everything because everything is yours and it's yours as blessing. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20141126)