A Service of Thanksgiving

Deuteronomy 26: 5-11

Then you must solemnly recite before the Lord your God: “My father was a homeless Aramaean who went down to Egypt and lived there with a small band of people, but there it became a great, powerful and large nation. The Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us: they imposed cruel slavery on us. We cried to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us, and, when he saw our misery and hardship and oppression, the Lord led us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying deeds, and with signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Now I have brought here the first fruits of the soil which you, Lord, have given me. You are then to set the basket before the Lord your God and bow in worship before him. You are to rejoice, you and the Levites and the aliens living among you, in all the good things which the Lord your God has given you and your family.”

Turkey day. Is there any other national holiday so associated with a dumb bird. My favorite turkey story concerns the actress Helen Hayes. She rarely ever cooked but one year expressed her determination to fix Thanksgiving dinner for her family. But as she was preparing Thanksgiving dinner, she felt it necessary to warn the family, “This is the first turkey I’ve ever cooked. If it isn’t right, I don’t want anybody to say a word. We’ll just get up from the table without comment, and go down to the hotel for dinner.” When she returned from the kitchen about five minutes later, all family members were seated at the dinner table – wearing their hats and coats.

So much for the bird. Now, how about the day. Ironically, although it is a national holiday, I find it in many ways the most religious. It is relatively unadorned by the flurry and frenzy, the commercial accoutrements of Christmas, and even Easter. A kind of quiet pause at the approach of winter, where we can take time out, enjoy one another, and hopefully get in touch with the meaning.

Turkey and TV. That is not what real Thanksgiving is all about and we know it. Here as with so many other things it comes down to a matter of the spirit . It is attitude which
makes this day as it makes all of life. “You are to rejoice” is not only a word from Moses on that hillside overlooking the Jordan valley three thousand years ago – it is the word for today. You shall rejoice for all the good things which the Lord your God has given to you and to your family.

But how do we do that? How do we break through the worries and concerns dragged home from the office or school, break out of the “life as usual” syndrome, and do what we are supposed to do on this day, feel what we are supposed to feel, rejoice with gratitude and heartfelt thanksgiving?

I think part of our problem may lie with our imagination, or lack of it. We have become too much a people of prose rather than poetry, of TV rather than fantasy. I read a list one person compiled the other day to shake his soul loose into gratitude. We must admit it does not lack for imagination.

“I am thankful” , he writes, “that there aren’t twice as many congressmen and half as many doctors, that teenagers ultimately will grow up and have children who will become teenagers, that teenagers give parents an opportunity to learn a second language, “ (this fellow obviously has teenagers), “that the space available for messages on T-shirts is limited, that snow covers unraked leaves, that hugs don’t add weight or cause cancer, that smoke alarms let you know when the turkey’s done, that I am not a turkey.”

Imagination, and that is what this old account I read to you this morning is all about. You shall solemnly recite, “My father was a homeless Aramaean. The Egyptians ill-treated us, humiliated us. We cried to the Lord. He listened to us, saw our hardship and distress. The Lord brought us out of Egypt. He brought us to this place.”

Now the reality is that not one of the people to whom these words were addressed by Moses prior to their entry into the Promised Land had been there. Their forbearers were generations before, but not one of them was any longer alive. And yet, if Moses’ people are, year in, year out, to rejoice at harvest time they must go there themselves in imagination, be there, feel it in their very bones, the hunger and humiliation, the thrill of deliverance, the feel of the new land under their feet. No wonder the Pilgrims loved these words.

“We were in Egypt, in England” and that is how it must be today with us also if we are truly to rejoice as thanksgiving intends. Fred Craddock said some years ago in the Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale, “A person who cannot remember farther back than his own birth lives in far too small a world. This old faith, however, gives us a larger imagination, a larger world in which to live and rejoice.

We were at Plymouth, we Americans, even if we just arrived in this good land yesterday. To be an American is, above all, to embrace old stories as our very own story. Did you take the time to read the excerpt from the records of the Plymouth colony in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal? Far more important to this day than what the stock market did. The words of William Bradford, 1620: “Being now passed the vast ocean and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses or much less towns to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts. Besides what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? And what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not; for which way so ever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended all things stand up in appearance with a weather beaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets represented a wild and savage hew.

“That first winter half of our number died, men, women, and children until we were down to five grains of wheat per person per day. And for that, we the next year gave thanks, not for abundance, luxury, ease, but for survival by the providential hand of God.”

Just a distant story unless we learn to say, “We were in Plymouth.” Unless we can feel a bit the long nights and bitter days, watch the endless grief and burials, feel the ache of mother’s hearts, know the anxieties of father’s minds. Unless we can say that we were there, come aware, we are part of them and they of us, and without them and their agony and courage, we would never have come to this day.

We are there in Plymouth, and in that barn on Hay Island where one George Washington stood before hungry and dis-spirited soldiers and said, “I promise those who will follow me further no chance of victory, for by my God, I see none, no glory or gain, or laurels returning home, but rather wounds and death, cold and disease and hunger.” We were in that Emperor’s court where Luther said, “Here I stand” and shook religion loose from authoritarian tyranny. We were with those monks who struggled through Alpine snows to bring our ancestors a word that would end superstition and human sacrifice. And yes, even there on a hill outside Jerusalem where one man died to make us all free before God. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.”

So this old faith gives us a larger world to live and rejoice in, and it gives us a new way to live in our present and personal lives. The story says to us, “If you want to get close to God, look not into your soul or out into the night sky. Not first.Look back into your own story. What do you see there? Surely not just misery and meaninglessness, random and empty days. Far more than that.”

“You shall solemnly recite before the Lord your God, ‘My father was a homeless Aramaean, my father was a Washington, a Bradford, a Luther, a Jewish carpenter.” Only then do we begin to see what a large world we are heirs to, how much we owe, on whose shoulders we stand, what has made us who and what we are and has brought us to this day. Only then do we truly rejoice.

This old faith gives us a larger world to live in, and then it gives us a new way to live our present and personal lives. The story says to us, “If you want God to become intensely
real, look not into your soul or out into the night sky. Not first. First look back into your own story. What do you see there? Surely not just misery and meaninglessness, random and empty days. Far more than that.”

Two places I have learned to look and be grateful, thank God.

There are the so-called accidents of my story which have brought me to this day. In his biography, On the Street Where I live, Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist for My Fair Lady and Camelot sums up his life this day. He remarks that he became what he was by virtue of a cigarette, a left hook to the side of his face, and a wrong turn on the way to the men’s room.”

Isn’t that the way with most of us? I don’t mean those curious particulars, which he doesn’t explain. But look back over your own story. I think of what I would not enjoy this day if I had not taken Spanish in high school, and if my younger sister did not yield to the impulse to set me up with a date with a certain young woman of a summer evening. Or what I would have missed if a Greek professor whom I had not seen in years had not thought to mention my name to the retiring minister of Kenilworth Union Church, a Greek professor of all things. I have a whole string of them, and so do you if you will imagine your way back into your past.

But I have learned from this old story to look back and see something Alan Lerner did not see. I have learned to see and say “God.” We may, out of reticence, speak of strange coincidences, twists of fate, whatever. But he didn’t. The secular historian, had he lived in the days of Moses and Pharaoh might have made the judgment that they were lucky, weak Pharaoh that year, fortunate shift of the winds over the Red Sea. But they learned to sense within it all a benevolent loving will at work, and said “God,” and rejoiced. So may we.

There are the coincidences, and there are the faces. “My father was a homeless Aramaean.” The faces. I shall not name mine for they are legion. But they are there in imagination, images in the mind’s eye, so many of you and so many of the departed, who have given me so much and without whom I would not stand here this day, whose lives have touched mine with support and affirmation, whose thoughts and loves are part of my bones, to whom I owe an un-payable debt, with whom and for whom I rejoice this day. When I think of this great family of friends in Christ, I cannot help but feel gratitude arise within.

Whenever I heard that expression, “He is a self-made man,” I feel the impulse to respond, “What? He has had no father or mother or brothers or sisters? No teachers, no mentors, no scout leader, no friends of childhood or the mature years?” We are what we are, by virtue of the faces with which God has peopled our lives. A great good company and I, for one, am ever thankful.

“Thank God for life! For the sigh of the heart, for the contagion of laughter, for the longing when apart, for the joy that comes after. For the things that we feel, when we
clasp, when we kneel. Thank God for the sharing, the caring, the giving. For the things of life’s living.

Thank God for the riches of flowers in ditches. For the roof from the weather, the fireside together. For the step at the portal, for the love we have treasured. For something unmeasured, for something immortal. For our grief, for our mirth, for heavens on earth. Thank God for this life, our gift of birth.”

Imagine. He brought us to this place and gave us this land. And you shall then set the basket before the Lord your God and bow down in worship before him. You shall all rejoice, you and the friends and the neighbors, for all the good things which the Lord your God has given to you and your family. You shall all rejoice. .