The following sermon was preached on Thanksgiving Day (November 24, 2016) at CSMSG. It is a substantially revised and further developed version of similar points I made first in a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day in 2012, at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver.
Collect: Almighty and gracious Father, we give thee thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labor 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:
Today is Thanksgiving Day. The parade is over, football hasn’t quite started yet, the turkey is in the oven, and you brave souls who have come to church in the interim are now my captives! I’ll just offer a few brief reflections on Thanksgiving and Gratefulness, and then liberate us all for the work of our liturgy this morning.
First, I think Thanksgiving is really one of the best things we do as a society. I know the single most dreaded question at the Thanksgiving table (or, as is our custom, at a vestry meeting of St. Michael and St. George), is “What are you thankful for?” But really, the opportunity this question gives us to take stock of our own gratitude is immensely valuable. Things mentioned around tables all across the country are things like, family, friends, community, joy in creation, a new home, freedom from fear, healing from some ailment. Taking stock of our gratitude is valuable because it helps us to put names and faces to goodness and truth and beauty; and it reminds us that these ideals cannot exist in the mind only but must be based in real actions and real people.
The second thing is that gratitude is always directed to a person. When we give thanks, we do not toss our gratitude into the ether like leaves scattering in the wind. In the English language we are very specific about gratitude: we say, Thank You. Thank You. And even when we just say, “Thanks,” it is always short for “my thanks to you.” We are always grateful to a person, whether that person is a friend or a family member, a group of people like nurses and doctors, or God. We cannot be thankful in isolation from a person to whom our thankfulness is directed. CS Lewis once famously remarked, the worst moment for a committed atheist is when they are filled with gratitude but have no one to thank. Going around the table saying what we are thankful for helps us identify not just for what, but also to whom we are thankful. It builds relationship on top of the real, concrete goods and truths and beauties for which we are grateful.
Third, on the word “thanks” itself. As I was preparing for this sermon, I was curious where the word actually comes from, and what its roots mean. Apparently, “thanks” and “thoughts” actually come from the same root, by a rather long and twisted track through Latin and German and Anglo-Saxon. It signifies a sort of combination of thoughts, good will, and even grace. “My thanks to you” is the original, long-form construction of the phrase, and “Thank you” and “Thanks” are both short forms of that.
My thanks to you: my thoughts, my good will, my grace, to you. What a wonderful phrase, to have written into the fabric of the language! It suggests that gratitude, paradoxically, has some dimension of gift as part of its definition. And think then of our response: “You’re welcome.” You’re welcome to what? You are welcome to me. Our words of gratitude establish a beautiful relationship of mutual self-gift between two people, the free exchange of good will and even grace. Being grateful is not just a passive, polite response to someone else’s action. It is an active giving of the self in response to another person’s gift, in which a relationship of love is established and affirmed and edified.
My last point this morning is that to live in Thanksgiving is to live in constant imitation of Christ: Christ who gave himself to be born a human, Christ who gave himself to death for our sakes, Christ who lives eternally begotten of the Father, who offers himself upon the cross, and forever, back to his Father, out of whose love proceeds the Holy Spirit. To live in Thanksgiving is to live in the same pattern of fellowship as the Holy Trinity, the ground of all that exists. To live in Thanksgiving is to follow our Lord’s footsteps, constantly bearing the fruit of love.
Soon we will come to the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving. At the altar we will rehearse all the things for which we as Christian people are most thankful. We will direct our thanks, and our praise, to God, whose gifts they are. We will join the unending song of all the angels and saints, and be brought near to the presence of God. We will receive the sacrament of Christ himself, and be established and edified in the communion that is both nourishment for our souls and the great final promise of our faith.
The truth is, this Thanksgiving morning, you are not my captives at all! We are all of us the people of God, and we are gathered here today to do the work of rendering our thanks — indeed our very selves — to God. Giving thanks, to God especially, is not a matter merely of being polite. Rather it is to be swept off your feet into a new world, into the free exchange of love at the heart of God himself, becoming free ourselves, and, once free, immediately bound up together in his life and in one another’s.
Today, on Thanksgiving Day, let us give thanks for every gift of goodness and beauty which we have received, to all those persons known and unknown who have given them. Let us also commit to giving thanks every day, with all that giving thanks entails, in order that we and all the created order may be knit ever more closely together in the grace and love of our eternal, Triune God.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.