Thankful Before Thankful Was Cool
In 1979 Barbara Mandrel sang that she was country when country wasn't cool. The Church can say the same thing to America about Thanksgiving. We were thankful before being thankful one day a year was the thing to do.
Thanksgiving started in 1621 when the Pilgrims had their first bountiful harvest after the Indians had taught them how to plant corn. No lasting holiday came from this. In October 1777 Thanksgiving was first celebrated by all 13 colonies, but this too was a one time thing. In 1789 President Washington proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving. This continued through his presidency and that of Adams, but Jefferson opposed the practice, so it ceased. In 1827 a ladies magazine editor, Sarah Hale, began a one-woman crusade for the 4th Thursday in November to be set aside for Thanksgiving. She made her last plea for this in 1863 just weeks after Gettysburg. Although many had died, it was a victory for the North, so people were grateful. This and Hale's editorial prompted Lincoln on October 3, 1863 to set aside the 4th Thursday in November for a Day of Thanks.
So our holiday was born. Only one time has anyone dared to tamper with it. In 1939 bowing to pressure from merchants for more shopping days before Christmas, Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back one week. Millions protested by not changing. The protests grew in 1940. In the spring of 1941, Roosevelt admitted he had erred and restored the holiday to the 4th Thursday.
I tell you this history, so you might see that Thanksgiving is an American holiday and that the Church doesn't need it. We were thankful even when thankful wasn't cool. Look at our liturgy. Already in the 2nd century Communion was called the Eucharist which is Greek for thanksgiving. Since the 4th century the Church has sung in the Gloria in Excelsis, "We give thanks to Thee." The Communion liturgy since 120 A.D. has begun with the pastor saying, "It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we shoulda|give thanks.a The last part of the Communion liturgy is titled what? "The Thanksgivinga It starts with the pastor saying, "Oh give thanks unto the Lord." The post-communion Collects dating to 1526 and the 1200s say either "We give thanks to Thee" or "We thank Thee." And how do you respond when the elder says, "Bless we the Lord"? "Thanks be to God."
Pause for a second and remember under what circumstances the Church has been thankful over the centuries. The Church was singing her Gloria in Excelsis and celebrating her weekly Sacrament of thanksgiving in 18th century London when 59% of all children died before age five and 64% were dead before they reached 10. Pastors have said, "Oh give thanks unto the Lord" during the midst of famine, persecution, and disease the likes of which modern America has yet to know. The Church has ended her worship services with the people saying "Thanks be to God" even when their cupboards were bare, funeral wreaths hung on their doors, and when a man of 50 was considered old.
Take Pastor Martin Rinckart, a Lutheran minister who lived through a war lasting 30 years. His own city was sacked 3 times. In addition to these violent attacks by soldiers, his city was attacked by the plague. 8,000 of his fellow citizens died from it. In the midst of these calamities, Rinckart wrote "Now thank we all our God." Where did thanksgiving come from in such conditions? Not from what Rinckart saw but from the things he didn't see; he focused on those eternal things that never change rather than on the temporal things that always do; he focused on the spiritual things which remained his regardless of how few or how many physical things did.
Likewise, when the Church sings Gloria in Excelsis She gives thanks not for food and clothes, house or home but for the great glory of God. And after Communion the pastor calls the Church to give thanks unto the Lord not because they have their health, their country has peace, or their bills are paid but because the Lord is good and "His mercy endures forever." In the post-Communion collects, the Church doesn't give thanks for the visible, temporal, material blessings She may have. No, She gives thanks for being refreshed with the Body and Blood of Christ, for being given pardon and peace in the Sacrament. Come what may: sickness, disaster, death, trials, afflictions, wars: these gifts from God are always Hers, always yours.
We were thankful when thankful wasn't cool. We were thankful long before there was an official day set aside by the government for giving of thanks to God. So the church doesn't need this day, but we can use it. II Timothy 3:2 identifies ingratitude as one of the marks of the last days. Therefore, there is no harm in coming together once a year for a special day of thanks. It gives us the opportunity to train our children in this grace. Even Luther, who always thanked God more for spiritual than temporal things said, "The best way to lift the mind up to God is to acknowledge and ponder past blessings...[T]he total sinking of the mind away from God down to hell consists in forgetting or failing to take note of goods received."
Thanksgiving Day can be like signing for a package. Signing for the package acknowledges that you actually received it. So we sign today for all the blessings that we've received from God this past year such as health, wealth, weather, food, drink, clothes, etc. But there's a tension. What if you signed for a package delivered by a UPS man and you thanked him as if he had sent it to you? This can happen at Thanksgiving. We're so thankful for our blessings that we forget these are only the "delivery men" for the God who actually blesses us. The Sender is much more important than the delivery man He chooses to use.
Thanksgiving can help us make a distinction between God the Sender and the gifts He sends. God the Sender is to be trusted, hoped in, and thanked. The gifts aren't to be trusted in, hoped in, or thanked. The gifts are visible, material, and temporal, and this means they change. The Sender is invisible, spiritual, and eternal and therefore He doesn't change. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to praise and thank the God who changes not. Sometimes He sends abundance and other times scarcity but always He sends out of love, mercy, and grace toward fallen man for Christ's sake. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to make a distinction between God the Sender who never changes and His gifts which always changing according to His merciful will. The gifts God sends belong in our hands, not in our heart. Only God belongs in our heart.
St. Augustine said it this way. It's reversing God's order to love the things God sends instead of loving the God who sends them. The only proper thing for man to enjoy is God. Every created thing is meant to be used not enjoyed in and of itself. Thanksgiving can call us to repent of using God and finding our joy in His gifts; it can return us to the truth that God alone is worthy to be enjoyed, praised, and thanked.
The Church can use Thanksgiving. Actually how could we refuse to? When our government says "be thankful," how can we who know the true God respond, "No thanks?"? Even though we gather for a Eucharist, a Thanksgiving, every Sunday, even though our prayers through the year are flooded with thanks, still we can't say to the world that we have no reason to say a special thank you.
Besides we can use this day to teach the world about true thanksgiving. We do this by gathering in thanks as the Church before us did even when it hasn't been a good year. Christians, who experienced hurricanes, droughts, and tornadoes in 2005 are gathering to thank God. Christians who suffered the ravages of disease and death in '05 still are singing "Now thank we all our God." Christians who this very moment are going through trials having no idea how they will turn out, still lift their hearts to God in thanks today. By gathering in thanks, we say exactly what the prophet Habakkuk did in the close of his book: "Even if the fig tree does not bloom and the vines have no grapes, even if the olive tree fails to produce and the fields yield no food, even if the sheep pen is empty and the stalls have no cattle - even then, I will be happy with the Lord. I will find true joy in God, who saves me."
There's another more radical thing we can teach the world about thanks. The true God isn't gracious to people because they are thankful to Him. God isn't made gracious by us giving thanks. No, it's because we know God is gracious to us in Christ that we're moved to give Him thanks. If we think we need to be thankful to God or He will withhold His blessings, if we think that our thanks makes God send us more gifts, than we are living under the law. Then we'll always have to wonder if we're thankful enough, and you can't really be thankful at all if your worrying about being thankful enough.
If you think God is gracious to you, gives you gifts based on how well, how much, how often you give Him thanks, then you really don't know the true God. The true God is so gracious that He dumps His gifts even on the ungrateful, the sinful, and the downright wicked without waiting to be thanked. 9 out 10 lepers didn't give thanks, yet they were still healed. Daily God shines His sun on those who worship false gods and live wickedly. Daily He sends His rain on those who believe the goddess nature gives rain. Daily He gives life, breath, and health to billions who turn up their nose at His Son.
Our God is good and merciful. We don't make Him that way by our gratitude. The Church rejoices in this every Sunday as She sings in the Liturgy, "Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good. And His mercy endures forever." God just keeps on giving. He keeps on opening His hands and satisfying the desires of every living thing. And He doesn't do this to be thanked. He does it for the sake of fallen humanity whom He loved enough to give up His Son for.
The Church knows this and has been saying thanks centuries before there was a Thanksgiving holiday, and she'll continue to say thanks in the mansions of eternity long after there ceases to be a Thanksgiving Day. But though we were thankful when Thanksgiving wasn't cool and though we'll continue to be long after it's not, still we're not too cool to be thankful today. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thanksgiving Eve (20051123)