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Thanksgiving: The American Holiday 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

NOVEMBER 23, 2011

Thanksgiving: The American Holiday
Habakkuk 3:17-19
1 Thessalonians 5:12-22

Thanksgiving is a story in the life of our nation that bears telling and retelling. I confess I never tire of the story, first heard in the earliest years of grade school and repeated each year of school. It is probably very similar to all of you who grew up in the United States. (Dopico, I know that doesn't include you and a few others, but maybe it will be a fun story for you to hear!) All of us, of course, know about the Mayflower and the one hundred two passengers on that boat, that took sixty-six days to cross the Atlantic, landing first on Cape Cod then eventually making its way toward Plymouth in the Massachusetts Bay. Only half of them survived through that first winter, and the other half perished from disease, from the cold, from difficult conditions. And so as that first harvest season in the year 1621 approached, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor William Bradford declared that they should engage in a three-day celebration of thanksgiving. This was the very first recorded Thanksgiving celebration on American soil. He included in his invitation and proclamation that this celebration occur, the Wampanoag Indians, a group of Indians who helped to save the settlers through teaching them how to hunt and farm. I might add, it was a relationship, a very positive relationship, that was sustained for over fifty years. (Tragically, this is one of the only good stories of how colonists and Native Americans managed to live together!) 

We know a great deal about that first Thanksgiving Day celebration. We know from records that have been kept what the menu was that three-day feast: lobster, rabbit, chicken, fish, squash, beans, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, leaks, eggs, cabbage and goat cheese, are known to have made up that first feast. Interestingly, no mention at all is made of turkey. (Though, of course, this year 46 million turkeys will be consumed over the Thanksgiving holiday in America, and about 80 million turkeys a year are consumed in our country!) By the way, Ben Franklin expressed the hope that the turkey should be named the national bird in America. He did not prevail in his wish. As well, no mention is made of pumpkins or sweet potatoes or cranberries, all foods we since have enjoyed at Thanksgiving.

The first Thanksgiving that we celebrated as an American people came in the year 1789. In Philadelphia, the first year that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church would meet, found George Washington issuing his Thanksgiving Proclamation where he announced that we should thank God for "His providence and grace" and thank God for "the United States." Washington thought that it was very important to make the name of our country singular and not plural. He thought that if we continue to think of the United States as a plurality of different states, we would never manage to forge a nation.

In the year 1837, a woman who worked as a magazine editor at a time when magazines had a huge influence on American life, began to wage a campaign to get Congress and the President to establish Thanksgiving as an official national holiday. And from 1837 until 1862, Sarah Josepha Hale would not give up in her persistent efforts to establish Thanksgiving as not simply something that presidents in time of crisis would proclaim as a day of thanksgiving, but instead would establish it permanently. By the way, you might know some of the work of Sarah Josepha Hale besides her passion to create Thanksgiving as a national holiday. She wrote a wonderful children's poem that was later set to music. Mary Had a Little Lamb was the work of Sarah Josepha Hale! Hale is the mother of the Thanksgiving Holiday because in October of 1863, when our nation was torn asunder by war, and when we wondered if we would survive as "one nation under God," Abraham Lincoln signed Thanksgiving into law as a national holiday. He said it should be "a day of thanksgiving to God," and a day for all Americans – and he meant Americans north of the Mason Dixon and Americans south of the Mason Dixon – to pray, "to heal the wounds of the nation." And it strikes me to this very day that this ought to be a fitting part of all of our Thanksgiving celebrations. 

By the way, there is one more piece of the American story with Thanksgiving that remains to be mentioned, and that is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. At the beginning of the shopping extravaganza that moves from Thanksgiving through Christmas, it began in the year 1924. Though, at first, it was called the Macy's Christmas Parade, and it later found the name the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. All of this led the great American short-story writer, O. Henry, to pen these words: "Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American." And I would suggest to you that the challenge for us on this Thanksgiving is to remember who it is that we gather to thank, because Thanksgiving has come to mean so many things, but at its heart it is thanksgiving offered historically in the life of this nation (even before we were a nation) to the God we learn of in the Holy Scriptures.

I have a friend named Cornelius Plantinga; he is the President of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I know Neil because we were racquetball opponents when we were in seminary. Since, he has become a very widely respected and read theologian, and he ponders this vague notion of thanksgiving as a holiday where we can be left forgetting who it is that we thank. Neil writes, "It must be an odd feeling to be thankful to nobody in particular. It's a little like being married in general." The Pilgrims and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were thankful to the God revealed in the Scriptures, the Creator God who was revealed fully in Jesus Christ. It was a very specific form of thanksgiving for those who have gone before us and for those who gave their lives to establish this holiday. And so it is altogether fitting on the eve of this Thanksgiving, that we turn to that oldest of all books in the New Testament, the very earliest book to be written, and that is 1 Thessalonians, where Paul writes, "Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ for you." "Give thanks," Paul writes, "in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ for you." It reminds me of Martin Luther, who said, "Do not just give thanks for the blessings of this life, be thankful for the lessons you have learned even through the difficult times."

I recall a wonderful teacher from the days that I was preparing for the ministry, a gentleman named Diogenes Allen, who grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and played baseball at the University of Kentucky. He won a Rhodes Scholarship. He has been struggling with cancer the last eight years. Just a couple of years ago, he was in a small group who have known him for years, and he said, "If I had the choice between having cancer or not having cancer, and not learning the things that God has taught me through my struggle with cancer, I would choose all over again the path that I have trod." 

Thanksgiving in all seasons is always in season. Henry Ward Beecher, the subject of that great biography called, The Most Famous Man in America, that nineteenth century Congregational preacher, who was Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother, wrote and said, "Hem all your blessings with thankfulness so they never unravel." And then he makes an interesting observation. He says, "Pride slays thanksgiving. A proud person is rarely a thankful or a grateful person." Beecher saw a direct and important connection between thanksgiving and humility, and nothing becomes any of us more than the gift of humility. "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ for you." 

This past Tuesday, we laid to rest one Merle Stanford Davis. Merle Stanford Davis was the oldest member of the First Presbyterian Church of Nashville. She died this week at the age of 104. I don't know how many of you knew Merle. Ironically, I was introduced to her when she was ninety-five. Her home partner and dear friend in the life of this church was none other than Nancy Johnson. Nancy and Victor Johnson one Sunday went to pick up Merle at McKendree Village where she had lived with her older sisters since 1986, after she sold her home a block up the street on Franklin Road and brought her to church. We all went out to eat with her that day. It is poignant for me because, of course, in between those five short years, we have lost both Victor and Nancy Johnson, and now Merle Davis as well. Merle Davis understood what it meant "to give thanks in all circumstances." She married twice, and she lost two husbands. She ran a dairy, Clover Bottom Dairy, after her husband A.F. Stanford died, for twelve years. She sold it to the State of Tennessee in 1949. She then moved to Nashville when she married Hewitt Davis. The two of them ran the Biltmore Court Motel down on Franklin Road where the interstate now crosses Franklin and 8th Avenue. When that land was sold, Merle went to work as a widow for the second time at Vanderbilt Holiday Inn, not because she needed to work, but because she wanted to work. The point is this: Merle was a radiant soul and even though she outlived most of her contemporaries, our chapel had a healthy dose of friends that Merle had managed to make through the years that she lived at McKendree Village. And though she never was blessed with a child, she had more nephews and nieces who absolutely adored her because Merle Davis knew what it meant to give thanks in all circumstances. I always felt blessed whenever we would speak, and she could not say enough good things about this church.

I mentioned to you in church the last couple weeks the death of my dear friend Tom Gillespie. At his funeral the minister mentioned that Tom had the task of preaching at his predecessor's funeral. When he preached at the funeral of James I. McCord, he said this: "When we die, we do not offer to God our trophies. When we die, we offer to God our thanksgiving for the gift of eternal life that comes to us by grace through the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." 

I love the prayer that Teresa of Avila wrote. She said this: "Thank you, dear God, for all you have given me. And thank you, dear God, for all you have taken away from me. And thank you, dear God, for all you have left me." Give thanks to God, dear friends! Give thanks to God in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you and for me and for all God's children. Happy Thanksgiving!

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