Thanksgiving is a great holiday. And not just because of the food. Though, I’m not going to lie—that is a big part of it. And not just because it marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Though, that is a big part of it, too.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
November 21, 2021
For me, Thanksgiving is a great holiday because it has a kind of simple purity to it. It resists commercialization, unlike the Christmas season, which retailers move up every year and starts just after Labor Day. Now, unlike Halloween, which gets an entire month of observance, Thanksgiving is pretty much confined to one day and is largely immune from over-commercialization, however much the Gravy Lobby and Big Cranberry would have it otherwise. You may be thinking, Ah, but the stores are full on Thanksgiving now! They are. With Christmas shoppers.
Another wonderful thing about Thanksgiving is that it does not matter what religion you are. It does not matter how long you’ve been in the country. It doesn’t matter what your politics are or anything else. It’s a holiday meant for everyone.
Now, of course, the Fourth of July, Presidents Day, and Labor Day are also meant for everyone, but this is the only holiday with a spiritual component independent of faith or creed.
Because giving thanks is a spiritual value. And while Thanksgiving Day is a secular holiday with a broad interreligious and ecumenical appeal, the idea of thanksgiving has deep roots in the traditions of faith.
II. THE TEXT
We see something of those deep roots in tonight’s gospel lesson.
This passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount and has followed passages on fasting, wealth, and light. Jesus transitions to this passage in which he instructs his disciples not to worry:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. … And why do you worry about clothing? … Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’…
I notice that he doesn’t say, “Don’t worry about the rent….” But to be honest, even what Jesus does tell us not to worry about is challenging enough.
Do not worry about what we’ll eat or drink or wear? I suppose it’s one thing if you’re going out with friends and suddenly become really anxious about what to order. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s talking about basic provisions for living. And he makes this clear when he continues:
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
This is an astonishing statement when you think about it. The only way that people ate was by sowing, reaping, and storing in barns. It’s not like they had Amazon Fresh or Door Dash to bring them food. But Jesus is telling them not to worry about that; trust in God who feeds the birds everything they need.
Jesus says a similar thing about clothing:
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Now, I submit that it’s even harder to find clothing laying around than it is food. You can forage for food I guess—pluck some figs off a tree, grab a fistful of grain as you make your way through the fields—but finding something to wear: that’s a lot harder.
And again, Jesus is not talking about worrying about what you’re going to wear to the fancy gala or to a dinner date with someone. He’s talking about what you’re going to wear period.
Don’t worry, Jesus says. God’s got this.
I don’t know about you, but I rarely stop worrying when someone says, “Don’t worry.” That may work for a couple of minutes. “Alright,” I’ll say. “I won’t.” But then a few minutes later in the quiet of my own thoughts, the worry and the anxiety shows up again. So, I don’t know that I can just not worry about food and clothing just because Jesus said don’t worry about it. And even though he’s exactly right about the fact that worrying can’t add a single hour to your life. I worry anyway.
For example, I’m halfway through this sermon and I’m worried that it doesn’t have anything to do with Thanksgiving.
I confess, this scripture lesson doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with Thanksgiving. Sure, it’s the lection to be read on Thanksgiving Day, but the word thanks doesn’t even show up in the text. Unlike the word worry. It doesn’t feel like a Thanksgiving Bible passage.
III. GIVING THANKS
For example, next year on the schedule will be this passage from Luke’s gospel:
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”Luke 17:11–19 NRSV
See, that’s a Thanksgiving text. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus, who’s told them to go show themselves to the priests. But on the way, one of them went back to thank Jesus. And we’re told the extra detail that he was a Samaritan—a non-Jew and one whose people had a long enmity with Jews. And in Luke’s overall theology of lifting up the legitimacy of the Gentile Christian movement, highlighting the thankfulness of a Gentile as the example of faithful discipleship makes Luke’s point clearly. Belonging to a particular tribe or group is less important than faithful living, and faithfulness is defined as giving thanks for what God has done for you.
See? Simple. No need to figure out what that text has to do with Thanksgiving. Clear: be thankful! The sermons kind of write themselves.
But it does make me wonder: what if you don’t want to be thankful? I don’t mean out of spite or meanness or entitlement, but just because you’re having a hard time mustering the feeling of gratitude?
Sure, it’s easy to be grateful when you’ve just been cured of a chronic skin condition that has ostracized you from the community, but what if you haven’t been cured of that skin disease? What if you feel like the universe has been dealing you a bad hand for a while now? What if you’re having a hard time giving thanks because you feel like the balance sheet of your life is deeply in the red—the debits far exceed the credits. What are we supposed to do then?
There isn’t a person among us who doesn’t know that feeling. Who dreads that moment at the Thanksgiving dinner table when we all have to go around and say what we’re thankful for. (I mean, more than we usually dread that awkward moment.) That moment when we stammer out an “I’m grateful to see everyone,” or something like that because what we really want to say is, “Nothing.”
How do we muster a sense of gratefulness then?
IV. A SONG OF THANKSGIVING
This is one of those times when it’s worth remembering that what we think of as feelings or emotional states, the Biblical authors consider behaviors. And that’s important. Because in that understanding lies the answer to our question.
Jesus tells his disciples not to worry, not because the emotions of anxiety and worry are easily dispelled. He’s telling them to adopt a life of faithfulness, of trusting in grace. He reminds them that the natural world is sustained by God’s grace. God feeds the birds, clothes the fields. Can you not trust in the God who ordered the heavens and the earth to care for you?
He’s telling the disciples to act as those who trust in that grace. It’s why he sends them out two-by-two with nothing but a staff, no second tunic, no food. Just trusting in the grace of those they encounter. He is training up the disciples in faithful living.
This kind of faithfulness doesn’t mean you are sure that everything will work out; it just means you go ahead anyway. Jesus rightfully notes that worry cannot add a single day to our lives and so it is of no use. Live as if everything will work out, even when you’re having a hard time believing that it will. There’s a quote I came across years ago—in a fortune cookie of all places—that said, “The very act of believing creates a power of its own.” Are you feeling beaten up by the world and have no expectation that life will work out? Great! Act like you believe it will. Do the things that someone who trusted in grace would do. There is transformation in that. Power.
This is the secret to thankfulness and thanksgiving. It is a habit, not a mental attitude.
The entirety of the Jewish law is built around this idea. The law was given after God liberated the Jews from captivity in Egypt. The law was never the condition for deliverance; it was the response. It was a way of living in thanksgiving for what God had done. It remains that way. Sometimes we Christians like to think that the Jewish law was a bunch of rules you had to follow to be saved, but the Jews never believed that. (In our defense, much of that interpretation comes from Martin Luther, who projected his issues with the Catholic Church onto Judaism). The Jews have always understood that the law was a joy; it was a statement of gratitude for God’s grace. The law gives you some things you can do to encode faithful and grateful living into your life. What does it look like to be thankful to God for deliverance? We observe the sabbath, take care of the widow and the stranger, do justice, and so on.
It’s the same for us. Christians don’t earn our salvation; we act out in thanksgiving for the grace that has already been given us, for the salvation we already have received. And how do we give thanks? We welcome the stranger, care for the poor, clothe the naked, liberate the oppressed, bring good news to the captive, bind up the brokenhearted, love our enemies, love one another… you know, all the things Jesus said to do.
What’s great about this is that you don’t have to feel any particular way to do this. You don’t have to feel particularly grateful to act grateful. It’s one of those “fake it till you make it” circumstances. But a curious thing happens: if you begin to adopt the behaviors of a state of mind you do not feel before you know it, you do feel that way. We get so focused on how our attitude shapes our behavior that we forget that our behavior can shape our attitude.
We can become a people who are thankful by acting out thanksgiving for the God who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the fields. We live into thankfulness.
This is Thanksgiving Sunday when we anticipate the wonderful holiday that awaits us this week. And as we reflect on that approaching day, we no longer need dread the “Say what you’re grateful for” ritual. For, if we do it right, we make our whole being a practice of living out thankfulness. Even when we’re not feeling it.
For if we choose to live lives of gratitude for what God has already done, we make ourselves open to the possibilities of what God can do in our lives. If we choose not to live out of worry but out of faith, we can join with all things now living and make of our entire lives a song of thanksgiving.
Matthew 6:25–33 • “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”