It appears as though in the coming days and weeks we’re going to be governed more by a pandemic than by personal preferences, or as one friend put it, held in the grasp of a virus instead of the embrace of loved ones. Travel plans have been upended. Family gatherings curtailed. “Stay home” is the wise and well-considered message we’re getting from national and community health advisors. The number of those infected with the Covid virus continues to climb, as does the number of those who’ve died of this disease. And every number has a name. Add to this the confusion and division generated and exacerbated in the wake of the recent election of our new president.
As we approach one of America’s favorite holidays this coming Thursday, how do these disruptions and discouragements, these fears and griefs all fit on the same plate with Thanksgiving? How is a holiday about giving thanks supposed to be observed in such an atmosphere of sadness, and frustration, and—oh, my goodness—pandemic fatigue for so many of us? Covid Thanksgiving is a contradiction in terms. As it happens, the week comes bearing its own gifts, as though Manna from heaven, to help us along, three in particular: the legendary origins of the Thanksgiving feast; the formal establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday; and this ancient, time-kept psalm we have just shared with Laura.
As is now generally known, the first Thanksgiving of legend in the Plymouth Colony in the fall of 1621 was characterized not by bounty, but hunger, illness, and grief. In the short year since those 102 Separatists first landed on the shores of the New World, they’d experienced their own pandemic of sorts, and exactly half of their number had died from disease. Furthermore, their fledgling crops had mostly failed. These pilgrims brought to this makeshift thanksgiving meal a few meager ears of corn, a couple of scrawny wild turkeys—mostly probably gristle—some fish, and a few ducks—hardly a “feast” by our standards. Their local hosts, the natives of the various tribes of the Waumpanaug Nation, generously added an abundance of venison to the spread. How did they observe that meager gathering, with loved ones missing, and no assurances as to how they would make it through the approaching winter season? Remarkably, they observed it with thanksgiving. To God, and surely to their native hosts as well.
Two and a half centuries later, Thanksgiving was formally established as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln. What’s difficult to fathom about that is that this occurred in October 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War. How was this new national holiday proposed by the president? With thanksgiving.
In his proclamation, Lincoln speaks of “the gracious gifts of the most High God . . . It seemed to me fit and proper that these gracious gifts should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”
The original legend of Thanksgiving and its formal establishment as a holiday both reveal a certain disposition of gratitude that rises above any current circumstance of the time. And then there’s the psalm, at the center of which we heard this phrase: “With thanksgiving. Enter into God’s gates with thanksgiving.”
And very much like the setting of the pilgrims’ feast, and the historical context of the holiday’s formal establishment, giving thanks for the psalmist is understood to be not an expression of personal or communal good fortune and prosperity, but a response to something deeper and more enduring. There is not a single mention in this brief psalm of bountiful harvests, vanquished enemies, healthy families, abundant possessions. But there’s ample mention of something else. Give thanks to God, the psalmist sings, not because everything’s going your way, or the cupboard is filled, or all is right with the world; give thanks to God because God is good, because God is loving, and because God is ever-faithful.
To come into God’s presence with thanksgiving is to be grateful not for having found our way toGod’s goodness somehow, but for God’s goodness, by some amazing grace, to have found its way to us.
Thanksgiving originated even as a disease ravaged the population; and it was formally established as a holiday during a time of national conflict; which means for our Thanksgiving celebrations this year, we should be right at home. Which is just what our national and community health advisors are saying: stay right at home.
On a personal note, I’m very appreciative of you, Laurel Heights, of our congregation, for our sense of community responsibility and congregational care during this Covid year. Wearing masks, washing hands, staying connected while keeping physical distance. Thank you, church, for your witness, your example, your spirit in the midst of awkward and arduous times. And thankful for our Covid Response Team for exceptional guidance and leadership in helping us move safely and responsibly through a precarious season.
If we stay at home this week, then we may have some extra time on our hands. So, maybe there’s time for a gratitude list. You’ve heard of these. Some of you may have these as a spiritual discipline already. A gratitude list can be an activity for one, or for many, for young and old, in person or remotely, online or on the phone. When building that list, start with things, and try staying with things, that are not of your own making, but rather gifts of God’s goodness and of the kindness of others. That’s an exercise, a practice, a spiritual ritual and discipline that we might find our way to this week.
That’s if we stay at home. If, on the other hand, you and I were to travel anywhere this week, travel somewhere, this is the trip I’d like for us to take together—this week, this year, or certainly sometime before our life is done.
It’s the trip that takes us from the small confines of the self-absorbed, self-centered heart in which we think of blessings in terms of personal prizes and possessions, acquisitions and accomplishments. From there to a place that the soul immediately recognizes as open country, as big as all outdoors, where as far as the eye can see, we offer thanks and number those blessings that have to do with God’s goodness, as the psalmists leads us, God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s faithfulness, only to realize as that list of blessings that we make of that sort grows longer and longer, grace upon grace, only to realize that we find it more and more difficult to come up with blessings of any other kind.