Jeremiah 30: 18, 19; Ephesians 1: 15, 16; Colossians 1:11-13
Thanksgiving as discipline
Today is our annual Thanksgiving service. So it is our job to tie our faith and gratitude to our life and how we live it. There are three themes I want to point out: first, thanksgiving and sacrifice, second, thanksgiving and promise, third, thanksgiving as discipline. We have read four brief texts. One is found in our verses of the week. The second is found in our call to worship. The third is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and the fourth in his letter to the Colossians. The Jeremiah text is another lofty text from one the prophets about hope and restoration. It tells us of the thanksgiving people will feel. The call to worship presents Psalm 100 which is a hymn of thanksgiving to God as Creator. The third thankfully celebrates the faithful followers and the fourth calls to gratitude in the face of hardship. The text shows the many occasions for thanksgiving and the versatility of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is appropriate in relation to Creation, to hope, to faithfulness and even to challenges we might face.
However, today is kind of a special thanksgiving time, for there are three events that are being commemorated in the week around thanksgiving. First is 150 years of the Gettysburg address, the second is the 50 year commemorations of the Kennedy assassination and the third is the nineteenhundredth or so year celebration of rededication of the Temple in Hanukkah (the temple Jeremiah refers to in his poetic words), thereby making this year “Thanksgivukkah.”
The last words of the Gettysburg address commemorating the Union Dead are: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” I asked an English professor in The Netherlands once who he thought the greatest poet in the English language was and he said: “The American Robert Lowell.” Lowell wrote a famous poem about a statue to the Union Dead in Boston. Here are some lines: “On a thousand small town New England greens the old white churches hold their air of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic. The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier grow slimmer and younger each year-wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets and muse through their sideburns…” Friends, when we listen to the words of the Gettysburg address and see the statues we are giving thanks for sacrifice, sacrifice that opened the way for all of us. When we think of Kennedy, we think of a kind of meaningless sacrifice of a man who symbolized the future to the whole world. Yet in a way his passing made the world less naïve, but also left the world of a youthful, optimistic image of America that will never age. Hanukkah is a feast of thanksgiving of the revolt when the always oppressed Hebrew people stood up against the Seleucid empire. Thanksgiving itself is an expression of gratitude for the sacrifice of the Pilgrims. When we think of nations and peoples, what people are mostly grateful for is sacrifice. So that is our first theme: thanksgiving and sacrifice. The second is thanksgiving and promise. This we find mostly between the lines of our texts today. Thanksgiving for God our Creator is thanksgiving for the promise of creation, the gratitude of the prophet is the thanksgiving for the promise of hope, thanksgiving for the faithfulness of the apostles affirms the promise of the future. Thanksgiving in spite of hardship affirms the promise that there will be things to be grateful for.
This leads us the final theme, friends, that of thanksgiving as discipline. You see, I think you and I think of gratitude, thankfulness as a feeling, in the same way we think of fear, sadness, joy, as feelings. But feelings are not sustainable, if we are not medicated that is. For many people feeling thankful is just too hard: their depression, their grief, their bitterness, their physical pain stand in the way. They cannot feel grateful. But what if thanksgiving were not a feeling, but a discipline? What if it was like breathing, or like drinking coffee in the morning or doing tai Chi or meditating or praying or walking or exercising? What if it was part of the simple routine and rhythm of life? We think of giving thanks as an acknowledgment of something unusual happening to us. So we wait for things that merit our thankfulness, something worth being grateful for. Instead what the texts call us to is thankfulness for the promise. If thanksgiving is a discipline, we can look back at the sacrifices of our nations remembered in pigeon poop covered monuments and we recognize in the old battered Lincoln and the young handsome Kennedy and in the Hebrew revolutionaries and in the Pilgrims the constant promise of things to be grateful for. Thanks be to God.