Last Thursday I led the Thanksgiving service at the senior community where I serve as a chaplain. I thought I would post my sermon here. It is written from a Christian perspective, so I invite persons of other faiths to take whatever is meaningful.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is much simpler than Christmas in that it doesn’t involve the pressure of buying the perfect gift for others or lying to your relatives about the thing that was missing from your life until it arrived on your porch: a 20-pound tin of popcorn in every flavor from bubble gum to Old Bay. I love Thanksgiving’s emphasis on gratitude and its gentle reminder that we need never forget the source from which all of our blessings come.
We usually don’t think of it as a religious holiday, but that was the intent of its founder.
On October 3, 1863, after a multi-decade campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, activist and author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Thanksgiving, officially announcing the holiday we celebrate today. Lincoln wrote:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which habitually insensitive to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
Our sixteenth president goes on to name the blessings of his time: the peace that has been preserved in the midst of civil war, the distribution of wealth during that period, the expanded borders of settlements, growing population, and of course, the nation’s freedom.
“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” he writes. “They are gracious gifts of the Most High God.” Then he deemed the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our “beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
The History of Thanksgiving
The history of the holiday, of course, extends back to the first English settlers. Up until recently, I was under the impression that the sea-sick and fatigued pilgrims disembarked the Mayflower in 1620 once they hit land, immediately killed a few turkeys, and then sat down to eat at a long picnic table in black dresses and white shower caps.
It was a little bit more involved than that. The feast took place almost a year after their arrival, and it lasted for three days. It wasn’t so much of a hoorah for making it New England, as a thanksgiving to God for their fresh success and their abundance after enduring a wet, cold winter and harsh living conditions that led to illness, in which half of the pilgrims died.
We often forget this part of the story – what this group endured in order to obtain religious freedom. They first flocked to Netherlands, but left due to some complications there, including the possibility of another war between the Dutch and the Spanish. When they decided to settle in present-day New York City, they had to seek out investors and the negotiations were wrought with conflict. Two ships actually sailed to America: Speedwell and Mayflower. But Speedwell leaked so some of its passengers were forced to leave the ship, thus separating some families. And then once reaching Plymouth (because it was too windy to sail around Cape Cod), the Pilgrims lived on the ship while houses were being built. A combination of poor diet and lack of shelter weakened the crew, and they lost two to three people each day during their first two months on land.
I share these details to put the first thanksgiving feast in proper context. For the colonists, coming to America was a risky venture that was riddled with difficulties, trials, and setbacks. Yet their pilgrimage ends in gratitude. They did exactly what we are instructed to do in our Thanksgiving readings today: they sat down together and gave thanks to their Heavenly Father, the same God who provides for us today as he did for them.
We call the first colonists pilgrims because the definition of a pilgrim is someone who makes a long journey, typically with a religious or moral purpose, and often to a foreign land.
I made a pilgrimage of my own three and a half years ago. I walked El Camino de Santiago or The Way of Saint James, a medieval and famous path traversed by the likes of Charlemagne, Saint Francis of Assis, and King Phillip II of Spain. I started with a 15-pound backpack in St. John Pied de Port, France and walked 675 kilometers to Muxia, Spain – stopping at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
I was seeking a kind of self-empowerment. I had grand visions of what my travels would entail and the spiritual enlightenment I would find. In fact, I had already outlined the lessons I would learn in each town on my way to Santiago as part of a book proposal I had dropped off to my literary agent a few weeks before leaving. I was a professional writer at the time.
But my expedition was not unlike the pilgrims in that the result was nothing I could have imagined.
I became very sick on the trip. I made it home safely, but I remained ill for a significant stretch of time after my return. My cognitive abilities were impacted and I struggled to concentrate and to write. I could not perform professionally or intellectually in the way I had before my trip. For the first time in my life, I was forced to be still and quiet – which was far more difficult than climbing the Pyrenees in the Spanish heat. Ironically, the takeaway of my pilgrimage was not self-empowerment, but self-surrender – the realization that I can do nothing without God, and that everything I have in my life is a result of His grace.
For a long time, I could not see past the losses of this period. Things that were central to my identity, like professional accolades, were being yanked from me. But now I see it as a time of abundance, where the stripping away of the unessential afforded me a newfound perspective to see that my vocation isn’t a profession – it is love. The same vocation we all share. Sacrifice and pain are often the refiner’s fire, the pressure needed to form diamonds, or to see things accurately. If we keep our vision on gratitude, we can see that even in our loss and struggles, there are precious gifts that are revealed.
Only half of the pilgrims made it to the first thanksgiving feast. The hard work was by no means over. And yet they chose to focus on what was there: their new Native American friends, the abundance of vegetables, fruits, and meats they gathered, homes where they could retreat at night, and the freedom with which they could practice their faith.
Gratitude and Community
Gratitude isn’t always intuitive because our brain was designed with a negative bias. Without diving too deeply into the findings of neuroscience, let me just say that human beings are programmed to see the cup half empty. We have to actively work at gratitude. And those of us who are prone to melancholy need to work even harder.
If I have learned anything in dementia training, it is that the brain is a future-predicting machine, always assessing potential threats in our environment, and using the past to determine which threats are accurate. The problem that surfaces in dementia is that people don’t have all of their short-term or long-term memory with which to properly assess the future. But the truth is that we all struggle with interpreting the present and the future accurately given our brain’s negative bias.
So we have to rely on each other to see the real picture. Gratitude is the work of a community, not just an individual. I rely on so many of you for the right view because your lived experience acts as a wide-angle lens able to capture a perspective that isn’t visible to me – lessons acquired only after eight or more decades walking this earth. I’m a better person today than I was before I started as a chaplain at here because I regularly witness the courage with which you tackle your obstacles. Your optimism is contagious, and it inspires me see my cup of burdens a little differently.
When you decided to move to this community, you embarked on your own kind of pilgrimage. Like mine, it may have involved confronting some of your limitations and adapting to them as gracefully as possible. I have spoken with enough of you to know the heavy burdens that you are carrying in this season of your life – diminished mobility that keeps you from enjoying some of the things you once did, a spouse’s declining health and the complicated decisions involved there, the loss of your best friend with whom you shared 60 years of your life. I’ve also seen you come together as a community to ensure that a resident doesn’t fall through the quicksand of grief and hopelessness. For the most part, you care for each other as fellow pilgrims on the Mayflower.
The Source of Abundance
In his book What Happy People Know, Dan Baker maintains that it is impossible to be in a state of appreciation and anxiety at the same time. I disagree with him as I have achieved that a number of times. But I do think gratitude is one of the most effective tools to soften the plaque that can build up around our hearts when we endure hardship and conflict, the gunk that prevents us from living and loving as fully as we could.
That’s why gratitude is such an important virtue — one that is found in so many passages of the Bible, and emphasized in our readings today. Gratitude is the attitude that we should strive for not only when manna falls from the sky, and we receive signs from heaven that God is surely with us, like the Israelites did as they made their way toward the Promised Land. Not just then, but also in the scarier moments, when we are wandering aimlessly in new territory and we are hungry and thirsty and sick and grieving — and we fear that God has deserted us. When illness or grief has threatened our hope, when we stop believing there is possibility beyond a diagnosis, when we are so overwhelmed by our losses to entertain the chance of new life or to recognize the abundance around us. That’s when gratitude is needed.
Gratitude is possible then and always not because of our own aptitudes or smarts – our ability to navigate out of Egypt safety like the Israelites or to successfully secure the Mayflower like the pilgrims – but because we depend on our faith in a loving God. In Deuteronomy, we read that it is the Lord that brought the Israelites out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Upon settling in their new land, they are instructed to place the first fruits of the soil, much like the pilgrims did, before the Lord and bow down to him, acknowledging that all of the abundance comes from him.
Lest we be deceived to think it was Moses or the work of mankind that sustained the Israelites with manna from heaven, the Gospel of John sets us straight. No, this was all God. Jesus’ words in that passage parallel Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in identifying the source of all blessings and giving credit where it’s due: “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” Lincoln writes. “They are gracious gifts of the Most High God.”
Although it’s a hard truth to digest at first, this is actually good news – dare I say empowering –that we can’t sustain ourselves with our own efforts. Because when they fail, we have a source of hope beyond us. The foods we eat later on today, as nutritious and delicious as they may be, are not enough to get us through the twists and turns of our own pilgrimage. Only the Bread of Life can do that: the strength, the promise, the optimism that is available in Jesus and in a loving God who is very much with us even when we can’t feel Him. Our faith assures us that despite the surprises that may arise in our journeys, that we can and should sit down in a feast of gratitude and give thanks for our abundance.