Thanksgiving Day
The Very Rev. Steve Lipscomb, Dean

It’s every year. Every year the parades, every year the football games, every year the big family get-togethers. Every year the kids are home from school, and banks and stores and businesses of all kinds take the day off. Every year there are favorite foods and sec­ond helpings and third helpings and so many helpings that you have to loosen your belt and lie down and take a nap on the floor. Okay. Maybe that’s just me—and maybe that’s a bit too much detail—but we all celebrate Thanksgiving Day every year and have been celebrating it on the same day every year since 1863, when President Lincoln declared that a national Day of Thanksgiving would be celebrated annually, on the last Thursday of November. Since then, the date has been moved to the fourth Thursday of November, but it usually works out to be the same day.

So here we are, celebrating a national holiday, a day of over­eating and television watching and catching up with the relatives. Here we are celebrating this holiday in church. You have to wonder why. It’s not in the Bible. Jesus and the disciples didn’t sit around a long table and eat yams and canned cranberry sauce every fall. It’s not part of the ancient tradition of the church, either. Thanksgiving is not really a religious celebration. It’s a national holiday. You don’t see people going to church on the Fourth of July (unless, of course, it’s to Grace Cathedral, and a rather unique tradition among churches). Even at Grace Cathedral there aren’t special services for Presidents’ Day or Labor Day or Veterans’ Day. So, why are we in church on Thanksgiving?

We are in church on Thanksgiving because a day set aside for giving thanks raises an inescapable question. To whom, exactly, are we giving thanks?

You give thanks to someone. We teach our children to be polite and respectful. We teach them to say, “Please” when they ask for something, and to say, “Thank you” when they get it.

But you can get a gift and use that gift and love that gift without ever saying, “Thank you.” Giving thanks isn’t about the gift. Giving thanks is about the giver. Because you say, “Thank you” to someone. Saying, “Thank you” acknowledges that there is another person involved. Giving thanks establishes a relationship. If we as a nation are giving thanks today, then somewhere wrapped up in all of it is the question of whom we are thanking.

On that well-known first Thanksgiving celebration in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the autumn of 1621, there was no question whatsoever as to whom they were thanking. They were thanking God. It was a day and a feast set aside for the express purpose of thanking God. The colony was new and survival was anything but certain. Colonial settlements had collapsed or given up or just plain vanished before. But the harvest had been a good one in 1621. The colonists had learned to adapt to the climate of their new home. They were in good shape, with enough shelter and enough food to survive the harsh New England winter. The colonists were Puritans, a conservative group of Christian believers. God had clearly blessed them with life and survival in a new world. And they knew it. They had been taken care of and given gifts, so they gave thanks.

What is somewhat less well known is that there was no thanksgiving celebration in 1622. The harvest was not so good the next year, and so the colonists were going into the winter with more fear and much less security. The Puritans had concluded that God had not chosen to bless them that year, and so a feast of Thanksgiving would not have been in order. To the Puritans, Thanksgiving was not an automatic celebration that happened year in and year out no matter what. They gave thanks in times of plenty. They repented in times of want.

Unlike the Puritans, we celebrate Thanksgiving annually. That, in itself, raises yet another question. If we are thankful every year, right on schedule, then what is it that we are giving thanks for? Not every year is a good year. Sometimes things are going great for our selves, our families, and our nation. Sometimes there is health and happiness everywhere you look. Sometimes there is peace and plenty. Sometimes, but not always. There are other times when war and want dominate our thoughts and our days and our head­lines. There are times, perhaps years on end, when our lives are filled with sickness and worry, dysfunction and anxiety. Yet, in those times and in those years, the fourth Thursday in November is still Thanksgiving Day.

So what is it that we are giving thanks for? Do we give thanks for our material blessings? Absolutely we should and absolutely we do, although fortunes come and go.

Do we give thanks for the people that we love and that love us? Of course we do, knowing full well that families and friendships have good times and bad; that people come into our lives and people move out of our lives. Tragedy and heartbreak can come upon us at anytime. We don’t know what will happen. So what makes us so certain that there will be something to give thanks for next year? Why do calendars come already printed in the confidence that there will be reason for gratitude come November? There is, in fact, a rather simple answer to this question. We schedule Thanksgiving every year because there is no doubt that there will be something to be thankful for every year.

Even in the midst of catastrophe, there are blessings. Is this just optimism? Is this nothing more than a perky attitude? A happy, can-do outlook? No. We can say with certainty that we will always have blessings to count because we know what those blessings are. Jesus was born for us. Jesus died for us. Jesus rose to give us life. Jesus loves us and Jesus forgives us. That was true last year and it’ll be true next year. In Jesus Christ, God claims us as his children. Always there is hope. Always there is mercy. Always there is life. God gives us purpose and God gives us the future. God gives us himself and God gives us each other. God opens our eyes and opens our hearts and gives us the strength and the will to care for each neighbor.

Whether we have much or little, we know we always have Jesus. When our hearts are joyful and when our hearts are breaking, we know God a­ways loves us.

So, today, let us give thanks with our words. Let us give thanks with our hymns and prayers. Let us give thanks with our hearts and our thoughts and our emotions. Always, every year and every day and every minute, we have reason to give thanks.

So, Happy Thanksgiving to you, as we give happy thanks to God, who gives so much to us.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.