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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Thanksgiving Eve, November 26, 2014

 How Not to Give Thanks

Psalm 65;Luke 18:9-14

             Thanksgiving is a peculiarly American holiday, and some of the best abiding evidence we have of our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage. The Pilgrims who gathered sometime between September and November in 1621 on Plymouth Plantation for the first Thanksgiving did so “in response to God’s providence.” The Mayflower took sixty-six days to cross the Atlantic, arriving in Cape Cod on November 19, 1620. One hundred two passengers and thirty crew members made the journey. Two boys were born on the boat, one named fittingly, Oceanus! By the time of the first Thanksgiving, after a brutal winter, only fifty-three Pilgrims were still alive. Of the eighteen wives who started, only five were still alive. Only three married couples survived the first winter. They added ninety Native American guests to their feast, including three chiefs of the Wampanoag tribe – Massasoit, Squanto and Samoset. The Wampanoags had experienced a terrible plague themselves in the years prior to the Pilgrims’ landing, which historians now think may be why the Pilgrims were able to settle on their land. This was a three-day celebration, and it centered on giving thanks to God for God’s providence and mercy. The Wampanoags provided ninety deer for the feast, but it also included at least a little turkey!

             For the next one hundred sixty years, the early colonists would declare days of prayer and fasting, “national days of prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving.” The first truly national observance of Thanksgiving was decreed by President George Washington on October 3, 1789, to be observed on November 26, 1789. An original copy of Washington’s Thanksgiving Decree, one of two that survive (the other being held by the Library of Congress since 1921), sold for $8,400,000 last year! Washington wrote, “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, (so this day is set aside) that all may unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection…. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national transgressions….”

             I am struck by Washington’s request for pardon for our national sins. Where the Native Americans had been invited guests at Plymouth Plantation, Washington knew that by 1789 we had failed to honor many of the treaties we had established with the Indians, and the tone of his proclamation was marked by humility and penitence. Washington, of course, would also free all of his slaves in his last will and testament, giving evidence that he felt great anguish over slavery’s hold on this country as well.

             From 1789 to the time of Abraham Lincoln, every president except Thomas Jefferson would call for a day of prayer and fasting, and a national day of thanksgiving. And then on October 3, 1863, with the nation torn asunder by a long, terrible war, Lincoln signed into law that the fourth Thursday of every November should be set aside as a day of national thanksgiving. It was Almighty God to whom we were to direct our thanks. Thanksgiving was always meant to be not just an act of gratitude by our nation, but also an act of humility and an expression of our utter dependence upon God “for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

             The only departure from the fourth Thursday of November came in 1939 when November had five Thursdays, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided that Thanksgiving should hereafter be celebrated on the next to the last Thursday of November. Roosevelt was hoping the extra week of shopping would help our depression-ridden country to climb out of the Great Depression. For two years we tried this. The Republicans called it “Franksgiving” and in 1941, Congress pointedly pushed back and decreed that Thanksgiving would always fall on the fourth Thursday. I like the notion of the old language of Thanksgiving as “a national day of prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving.” I like it because humility always befits a nation, and prayer should ever be an expression of both thanksgiving and humility.

             The Talmud, that great source of learned Jewish commentary on the Torah, says, “Be humble, or be humbled.” And Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

             Jesus tells His parable of the Pharisees and the tax collector to make this point. They were stock figures to first century Jews. Pharisees were seen as scholars of the law, and compared to many, as liberal interpreters of the Torah, trying to make it available to all Jews. Tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans. They made their money by charging as much as they could, keeping everything over what Rome required for themselves.

             So the parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Jesus sets up this contrast because many of those listening were arrogant or smug about their own goodness, and contemptuous of others who were not. He says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people….” Of course, we are always far more like other people than we dare ever to admit to ourselves.

             The Bible teaches two things about being human. One: We are all created in the image of God, and two: we are all sinners who can only be saved by grace. God knows what a wretched sinner that I am – and God loves me anyway! This is why we give thanks – God’s mercy is the source of all gratitude. And just as it is possible for us to forget what the tax collector could not forget, so we can give thanks for our nation in arrogant ways, in triumphal ways. We can pray triumphantly or arrogantly about our nation, as the Pharisee prayed about himself! “I thank you God, that America is not like other nations….” All nations, of course, not least ours, are the same in their need for God’s merciful and abundant grace. Humility befits a nation, as it does an individual. All of our prayers of thanksgiving should lead to humble acknowledgement of our utter dependence upon God, and our need for God’s providence, grace, forgiveness and mercy. In 2008, George W. Bush signed into law the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. It was a small act, a small way of our nation remembering our great indebtedness and our great sins against the first inhabitants of this land. As such, Bush’s act is one more thing that makes me so very grateful to be an American.

             God be merciful to this land that we love! And God bless America.


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