This sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day at St. Michael & St. George.
Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we beseech thee, faithful stewards of thy great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
This year, more than in previous years, I’ve been struck by the irony of our Thanksgiving Day service here at St. Michael & St. George. What’s the irony? Well, we’re the Episcopal Church, we were founded as the American colonial branch of the Church of England. We all learned in school that the Pilgrims, in Plymouth that first Thanksgiving, came across the sea to start a new life with the freedom to practice their religion. What exactly did they want freedom from? The Church of England! So here we are, celebrating Thanksgiving Day, when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by people who were only too happy to have escaped our company. Yes, our forebears in the faith were actually the bad guys in the Pilgrims’ story. And here we are celebrating their holiday.
Of course in the meantime we’ve made it just as much our own as it was theirs, and it wasn’t until President Lincoln came along, two hundred and fifty years (or so) after the Pilgrims, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the first place. But this year I find myself reflecting on the irony all the same, especially that we were the bad guys in that story; we were the ones demanding so much uniformity in religion that the pilgrims found it intolerable in England, and escaped to the New World.
Of course there are two sides to every story, and the good guy/bad guy dynamic is never monolithic. Still it occurs to me, there may be some value, even some virtue, in hearing stories in which you and I are the bad guys.
Now that was three hundred, four hundred years ago; none of us were responsible for the scenarios in play at the time. But if we want to be heirs of our ancestors’ legacies, we also have to own their mistakes. If we want to be good, honorable beneficiaries of their successes, we also have to be humble enough to admit where they got away with things they shouldn’t have.
When I preach about the Communion of Saints, I often point out that Death is not the divide it once was; since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ the living and the dead are knit together in profound and abiding ways. That’s a great comfort to families mourning a loved one. But it’s also a double-edged sword, especially today as we rehearse stories like the Pilgrims and that first Thanksgiving. In the Communion of Saints, we Episcopalians are implicit in the Pilgrims having fled their homeland.
So what does that mean? Does it change the way we celebrate this holiday? Does it mean our own offerings of Thanksgiving are somehow less acceptable? Not in the least. What it does do, is to point out for us that we do not always have to be in the right; we do not always have to be the underdog; we do not always have to be the heroes in the story in order to give thanks. And in fact, it might help us give better thanks if we considered the alternative once in a while.
We have this attitude sometimes I think, that giving thanks is like any other transaction of goods for services. You give me something, and I thank you for it. And if what you’ve given me isn’t any good, then I’m under no obligation to say Thanks, let alone to be grateful. So, when we find ourselves not in a position of being the hero in the story, or of playing a different role than we thought, a different role than we’d intended, we have no idea what there is to be grateful for anymore. We may even start to feel in debt, and that is no position for thanks, only a position of weakness and vulnerability. Who gives thanks for liabilities, or bad credit, or criminal records?
Why on earth should Episcopalians give thanks on Thanksgiving Day, when our forebears are the ones who kicked out the Puritans, the ones who lost the English Civil War, who lost the American Revolution, and found themselves continually at odds with prevailing national currents? Even today there are plenty of people who are keen to paint us as the bad guys both of history and of current events. I’m not saying they’re right or wrong; only that these are stories people tell, and it’s hard to be full of thanks when they are not the stories we’d want to tell about ourselves.
But if we find it difficult to give thanks in these circumstances, I suggest we might have the wrong attitude about Thanksgiving in the first place. It is NOT a transaction of goods for services. It is NOT a reward for good behavior. It is NOT about feeling blessed by my own good fortune. It is NOT about being the hero, or even the teller of my own story. Rather, for Christians — Christians of any stripe, whether Episcopalian, Pilgrim, or otherwise — Thanksgiving is the humility to recognize where we fall short, the humility to see the holes in our favorite stories about ourselves, to take stock of our failures, moral and otherwise; and Thanksgiving is the decision not to stand on my own ego but only on the forgiveness and the providence of God. Thanksgiving, for the Christian, is the humility to recognize our shortcomings, and the decision to stand only on God’s forgiveness and providence.
Every farmer knows the mistakes that get made every season, and every farmer knows the miracle of harvest regardless. The act of Thanksgiving teaches every Christian not to rely on my own wisdom, my own accomplishment, but only on God’s forgiveness, and on God’s providence, to provide for those whom he loves regardless of their deserving. Because the critical piece is not my success, my deserving, or my good fortune; not my good reputation, my bank account, my clear record, or my party platform, but only the love of God. The critical piece is only the love of God, love both for me, and for the one who thinks I’m the bad guy.
So, this Thanksgiving, let’s you and I give thanks to God, that in his infinite sense of humor he puts Episcopalians and Pilgrims in the same country to figure it out, and muddle through together. And let’s give thanks, that despite the continuous ways we screw up, despite the stories we like and the stories we don’t, that God loves us still; that Christ offers himself for us still; and that in this way we are being brought beyond history, beyond its winners and losers, its story-tellers and its victims, to be remade in the image and glory of God, finally what we were meant to be: creatures of thanksgiving at all times, and in all places, for all persons, and in all love.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.