One Day Won't Do It
I think Jefferson was closer than anyone; let me explain. In 1621 the Pilgrims didn't have 1 day of thanks, they had 3. But of course, that only happened once. In 1777 at Valley Forge, Washington called for 1 day of thanks. Again in 1789, as President, he called for 1 day. This day of thanks ceased in 1801 when President Jefferson bluntly condemned it. When it was revived by Lincoln in 1863, it was again only a 1 day thing. Perhaps Jefferson was right. One day won't do it.
First, if Thanksgiving is a day to teach people to be thankful, we really don't need a whole day to do that, do we? All you have to do is copy Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. Run a series of ads; "Just Say Thanks." Isn't that what we do with our kids? Don't we teach them to just say "thanks?" Every time we give them something we say, "What do you say?" And if they tell us someone else gave them something, we say, "Did you say thanks?" It doesn't even take a day to teach a 5-year-old to say thanks. But is getting people to say "thanks" what we are hoping to do by this holiday? If so, I'm wondering if setting aside one day of thanks works against teaching anyone to be thankful.
In the Scriptural sense of the word, I know it does because the Bible just doesn't have such a limited view of thankfulness. Ephesians 5:20 directs us to give thanks "always for all things unto God the Father." Philippians 4:6 says all of our prayers are to be with thanksgiving. I Thessalonians says that we are to give thanks "in everything." I Timothy 2 admonishes us to make thanksgivings "for everyone." And in heaven, the Book of Revelation shows us that all day every day, saints and angels fall down before the throne of God giving thanks.
One day won't do it. It's not enough thanksgiving. And when it comes to teaching thanks 3 days wouldn't be enough, neither would a week or even a whole National Thanksgiving month. Why? Because when we come to the issue of thanksgiving we're confronted with much more than an uninstructed or a forgetful mind; we're confronted with a sinful flesh.
The sinful flesh is never content. It always wants more, better, different. The flesh doesn't care what it has or doesn't have it continually wants something else. What can you do with that? How can you teach the sinful flesh? In paradise, in the very Garden of Eden filled with everything a man or woman could ever desire, even there the flesh was not content. Though it had all in the Garden, it wanted the one thing it could not have.
Without contentment it is impossible to be thankful. If someone is pouring you a glass of milk, and they stop with a 1/4 of a glass, you wouldn't normally say, "Thanks." You would say, "More, please," and then, "thanks." The flesh is an endless, aching need. It never sees anything but a few drops of milk in's glass, so it never says thanks because it never has enough. O you can calm you flesh by reciting all your blessings and you might even be able to shut it up for 1 day, but that yearning, desiring, and wanting will begin before the turkey leftovers are gone.
Not even abundance makes the flesh thankful. Abundance only stuffs the flesh and makes it lazy. 9 out of 10 lepers surveyed didn't take the time to come back and thank the God that had healed them. In Hosea 13:6 the Lord describes what goes on, "When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, the became proud; then they forgot me." II Chronicles speaks of Hezekiah after the Lord built his kingdom and saved his life, "But he gave no return for the benefit he received; his heart was proud."
"But he gave no return for the benefit," it says of Hezekiah. Do you know what "returning thanks" is? It's the prayer AFTER the meal. You say grace before meals; you return thanks after. That was how Lutherans use to pray. Now we all say "grace," but hardly any "return thanks." Do you know why? Because once the flesh gets full it gets lazy. Full bellies, lazy heads.
Even if you can get the flesh to say some sort of thanks, the flesh thanks the gift not God the giver. Augustine writes about this. He says it is popular to love the things God has given rather than the God who gives them. This leads us to enjoy things and use God rather than to enjoy God and use things. I struggle every year to illustrate this. Let me try a true story. Two 9-year-old girls come crying to the school janitor. Heather had been given Elizabeth's $700 retainer at lunch. She had put it in her lunch bag and accidentally threw it out. The janitor took the sobbing girls to the dumpster where 6 huge garbage bags held the lunch trash. Into the dumpster the janitor goes to search the gooey mess. 40 minutes later, the janitor finds the retainer. He climbs out of the dumpster and presents it to Elizabeth. She stops crying, rushes past him, throws her arms around her friend, and says, "O Heather, thank you!"
Friends, the flesh will thank the sunshine like any good pagan sun worshiper does. The flesh will thank the doctor like any polite person does. The flesh will thank its country for the freedom it enjoys like any patriotic person does. But the flesh never grabs hold of the smelly janitor and says thanks. The flesh never grabs hold of the blood spattered, bruised God-Man and says thanks. It rushes past such a lowly, humbled God and clings to the mighty gifts His suffering and death have won for all mankind.
One day won't do to make the sinful flesh thankful. Neither will days, months or years. Now you see what a real fix we're in. Thankfulness isn't an option; it's commanded by God. But true thankfulness is utterly beyond our reach. That's why the best thanksgiving prayer comes from the era of the Pilgrims before the concept of thankfulness was tainted by a 1 day a year Thanksgiving. It is simple: "O Thou who hast given us so much, mercifully grant us one thing more - a grateful heart."
That's why we come here each Sunday of our lives begging our Lord to create in us a clean heart and to renew a right spirit within us. The thankful heart is not natural to us. We're born with hearts of stone: hard, cold, wanting but never filled. You can no more make such a heart "thankful" than you can make it "loving." Thankfulness must be given to us just as love is. You know, as Scripture says, "We love because He first loved us." God acts then we respond. Well, we give thanks to God because He first gives gratitude to us.
But gratitude doesn't come in a packaged marked "Gratitude." It comes in a package marked "forgiveness." Follow the order in our liturgy. No, mention of thanksgiving occurs in the liturgy till when? Till we've been absolved of our sins. Only with free, forgiven, uplifted hearts are we able to sing in the "Gloria in Excelsis," "We give THANKS to Thee for Thy Great Glory." Hearts burdened by their sin and guilt can't be thankful. The Lord by His Word of Absolution takes the blood shed by Christ on Calvary and applies it to your sin and guilt washing them away, lifting them off you. THEN you sing.
But thanksgiving doesn't really get going in the liturgy till the Holy Communion. Then there is so much thanksgiving going on in the liturgy, that the early church called Communion "the Eucharist." Eucharist comes from a Greek word meaning "giving thanks." The Sacrament begins with the pastor saying, "Let us give THANKS to the Lord our God," and the congregation responding, "It is meet and right so to do." The pastor then says, "It is truly good, right and salutary that we should at ALL times and in ALL places give THANKS unto Thee O Lord."
The Communion liturgy ends with the part called "The THANKSGIVING" which begins with the pastor saying, "O give THANKS unto the Lord, for He is good." And then he prays either, "We give You THANKS that you have refreshed us with this salutary gift." Or, "We THANK You that for Jesus' sake you have given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament." The last thing the congregation says in response to what God has just done in the Holy Communion is, "THANKS be to God."
You're familiar with the cornucopia as a symbol of Thanksgiving. Do you know what the "horn of plenty" really is? It's from Greek mythology; it comes from Amalthaea. Amalthaea was the nurse of the god Zeus. She was often depicted as a goat with wonderful horns. One horn was broken off and it magically filled with whatever food or drink the owner desired. It was a non-stop filling. Whenever the owner needed food or drink the horn of plenty filled to overflowing. Friends, even the noble pagans realized that the blessing of the gods was not a one day, once a year filling. No, if the blessing came from the gods, it kept on going and going and going. It filled to overflowing.
The Thanksgiving Cornucopia is usually shown overflowing with many wonderful things, but the Christian sees it overflowing differently than the non-Christian. In Louisiana, we had one on the altar on Thanksgiving. Since we celebrated Communion at every service, the cornucopia appeared to not only overflow with produce but with the Sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood. That's good symbolism. Our horn of plenty is filled with the Lord's Body and Blood; no matter how much we eat of it or how much we drink of it, there is always more there for next time. And our horn of plenty of course is not a horn broken off from some magical goat. Our horn of plenty is the crucified Christ from which flow not only fruits and vegetables, but His Body and Blood, the waters of our Baptism, and the Words of our Absolution.
Do you see that our thanksgiving, today and everyday is not to be based on physical survival like the Pilgrims, or on military assistance like at Valley Forge, or on a government that gives us safety and security like in Washington's time, and not on the "blessings of the year" as in Lincoln's time? Our thanksgiving is based on nothing less than being saved for eternity. It's a response to eternal salvation won for us and given to us by Christ crucified.
The crucified Christ has to be the cornucopia our Thanksgiving flows from; otherwise, it will dry up easily. This year we're thankful we're winning the war on terrorism, next year we might not be. This year we're thankful biological war missed us, next year it might not. This year we're thankful that our loved one is better, next year he or she might not be. This year we are thankful for peace in our family, next year it might not be there.
I can't promise you what physical blessings God will shower upon you because He pours them out on the just and unjust, so I can't predict when and where they'll fall. But the blessings on that altar, in that font, from this pulpit, I can promise you they'll be here next year. Though war destroy our peace, the peace of God which passes all human understanding will still be here for us. Though a biological agent prevail against our country, the gates of hell shall not prevail against our Church. Though disease destroy your loved one, your body will always be renewed by the Body and Blood of Christ. And though your family be disrupted, your Christian family will always be gathered at this Table.
From these facts flow your thanksgiving, not only today but everyday. Everyday is thanksgiving for Christians; for everyday our cornucopia is overflowing not just with food and drink, house and home, and everything that we need for this body and life, but everyday it overflows with the innocence, blessedness and righteousness that Christ won on the cross. That calls for not a day of thanks, but an eternity. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thansgiving Eve (11-21-01)