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November 19, 2017

Thanksliving

Psalm 95:1-7a, Rev. 4:9-11

 

As a certain family sat down for their Thanksgiving dinner, the youngest child at the table, a five-year-old boy, was asked to say the prayer. After everyone had closed their eyes and bowed their heads, the boy began his prayer, thanking God for all his friends, naming them one by one. Then he thanked God for his mommy and daddy, his brother, his sister, his grandma, his grandpa, his aunts and uncles. After that, he began to thank God for the food. He gave thanks for the turkey, the dressing, the sweet potatoes, the cranberry sauce, the pies, even the Cool Whip. But then there was a pause, and everyone waited and waited. After a long silence, the little boy looked at his mother and asked, "If I thank God for the Brussel Sprouts won't God know that I'm lying?" By the way, I love Brussel Sprouts and think they’ve gotten a bad rap.

 

Thanksgiving is upon us next Thursday. I admit it is one of my favorite holidays. First, there’s Thanksgiving dinner-I have some fond memories of these big meals over the years. As a child, Thanksgiving was a time when we traveled to Vallejo and had our family gathering at my grandparents’ home. The table was surrounded by relatives, and I remember seeing more silverware than usual-at least three, maybe four forks sitting there, an imposing force at my place setting. We had crab cocktail for an appetizer(although I admit to opting out for Mandarin oranges instead as a child), and the traditional turkey dinner. We also had creamed onions, something my immediate family just does not understand. I remember after the big meal occasionally watching a football game, which normally involved the Detroit Lions, who were just as lousy a football team then as they are now.

 

 I remember in elementary school when I was in third grade around the holiday of Thanksgiving making a stove-pipe wide-brimmed hat out of brown construction paper, and drawing my version of a pilgrim for the first time-big hat, shoes and belt with big buckles. I also remember drawing lots of turkeys- tracing my hand and coloring, just as both of my children have done.

 

I remember hearing about pilgrims coming across the ocean to America, something about religious freedom, and learning, of all songs, “My Country Tis of Thee” in class.(Although most of us sang the song, “My country, tisofthee,” as if tisofthee was the name of some nation in the world.) I also recall wondering a bit about the Mayflower- and I think I tried to draw my own version of it, but it ended up looking more like a pirate ship than anything else.

 

 

Yet the holiday we will celebrate next week is about more than family gatherings, football, images of pilgrims and hand drawn turkeys. The roots of this holiday begin during the time of reformation, in the 1500's. Unfortunately, the reforming of the church did not happen at a rapid pace in England, and the origins of reformation are a bit sordid. King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his current wife, but the pope would not allow it. So Henry, being a resourceful leader, declared himself head of the church in England, and therefore granted himself a divorce- not the most honored reason to move church reform forward. When Elizabeth became queen, additional protestant reforms came, but the church still very much resembled Catholicism- there were bishops and arch bishops, with Elizabeth as its head. The church followed a rigid outline for worship that needed to be adhered to. There were no deviations allowed from the Book of Common Prayer- for one could only have access to God through this book. Free expression of worship was not allowed. There were those who saw the rigid hierarchy with the queen and her bishops, and who saw people being thrown into prison, tortured and burned at the stake for deviations from the Church of England. Because of these things, they sought additional changes.  They were not Puritans, who came after the Mayflower- They were Separatists, who based much of their separation from the church of England on 2nd Corinthians 6:17- “Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean.” Separatists wanted a more direct religious experience, with no intermediaries between them and God as revealed in the Bible. They believed bishops, arch bishops and the queen were just as corrupt as those who had been part of the Catholic Church, and they wanted to replace them with a democratic structure, where the church would be led by lay and clerical elders and teachers of their own choosing. They did not like ritual- no vestments for priests, no sign of the cross- which, by the way is the main reason we American Protestants do not use the sign of the cross.

They even regarded the exchange of wedding rings as a profane practice. They believed that everyone, not just priests, had a right to interpret the Bible, that parishioners should have an active part in the worship service, and that the Book of Common Prayer was not needed in order to have direct access to God. Because of their beliefs, they had to worship in secret in the homes of other believers.

 

When James the VI ascended the throne in 1603, he felt quite threatened by this separatist movement. “I shall make them conform”, James proclaimed, “or I will hurry them out of the land or do worse.” James introduced 141 rigid laws into the church in 1604 to flush out the separatists. It worked. A failed attempt at immigrating to Amsterdam was followed up with a second attempt. Only a few made it to this free thinking city in the Netherlands, where they were allowed to worship as they chose, free from the constraints of the church of England. The separatists were then befriended by another group of English separatists called “The Ancient Brethren.” After less than 1 year in Amsterdam, however, William Brewster and his congregation of about 100 found themselves embroiled in theological differences. They left the Brethren movement, and came to the city of Leiden. On Sundays, They gathered together in a meeting room, and had two four hour services. (See? It could be worse!) Men sat on one side of the church, and the women sat on the other.

 

They began to take jobs in the city, and some of them began printing solicitous material against the Church of England, and smuggling it back to their homeland.  This printing company would eventually be called “Pilgrim Press.” These materials inflamed King James, and in time brought tension between the governments of the Netherlands and England. For this reason, William Brewster and his small congregation set sail for the New World on September 6th, 1620.  Church leader William Bradford wrote of that emotional moment, as they were ready to depart from Leyden to an unknown land:

 

 

“So being ready to depart, they had a day of solemn humiliation, their pastor taking his text from Ezra 8:21: ‘And there at the river, by Ahava, I proclaimed a fast, that we might humble ourselves before our God, and seek of him a right way for us, and for our children, and for all our substance.’ Upon which he spent a good part of the day very profitably and suitable to their present occasion; the rest of the time was spent in pouring out prayers to the Lord with great fervency, mixed with abundance of tears. And the time being come that they must depart, they were accompanied with most of their brethren out of the city, unto a town sundry miles off called Delftshaven, where the ship lay ready to receive them. So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”

 

After a two month voyage fraught with difficulty, the Mayflower landed in Cape Cod on November 9th, 1620. It would be another year before they celebrated their harvest festival, along with their Native neighbors, the Wampanoag. They gave thanks to God that day in 1621, that they were free to worship as they sought. They gave thanks they had survived a harsh winter, and for the crops they had learned to grow thanks to the Wampanoag.

 

These were the people who stepped on the shores of America and founded the colony at Plymouth. They came to be allowed to worship God freely, and because of them, you and I are allowed to worship in the way we do today. This is why we have gathered around tables with family and friends, giving God thanks. Thanksgiving is in reality a holiday all about religion- not football or food- It is about giving thanks to God, just as those separatists did so many centuries ago.

 

Today’s passage from Psalms illustrates so well this idea of giving thanks to God. It begins with a summons, to come and sing praises to God, the rock of our salvation. We are then given the proper attitude in which to praise God- with thanksgiving. Why? Because our God is a great God, the God of all gods, Lord of all lords.

 

This statement was made to worship only one God in a polytheistic, multi god society in which Israel existed. In the One God’s hand are all of creation- the depths of the earth, the snowy covered mountain tops all around us, the sea and ocean roar, and the dry land, all fashioned by the Creator of all things. There is no place upon the earth left for any other gods, and no need for we the created to worship any other God than our Creator. This statement written so many centuries ago applies to us here today, for we human beings are incurably polytheistic. We worship our possessions, our finances, our celebrities and our families, propping them up as gods to venerate. In this passage we are reminded to worship and give thanks for the One God alone, who is Lord of the universe.

 

 

Then the psalmist in gratitude and thankfulness kneels, bows down before God, our Maker. He follows with the understanding of the relationship between Creator and creation- we are sheep in God’s pasture, cared for by our loving Shepherd- our leader, provider and protector.  The image that comes to mind is of the psalmist, going out and waking amidst all of nature, overwhelmed with its beauty, coming to the realization of the psalmist’s own insignificance and of the Creator’s awesomeness, and as a result finding himself overwhelmed with gratitude.

 

We’ve all had those moments in the beauty of nature, when we understand how amazing our Creator is, and how thankful we are to be surrounded by creation. I have those moments when I go with my wife and our dog Angus on a hike on a mountain trail, or when I see the  Canadian geese fly by our window as we sit to eat breakfast, gathered together in a winged V, honking their way south. Sunsets, winter storms, Thunder and lightning can do that to us, or perhaps for us- bringing us to our knees and a place of thankfulness.

 

The second passage for today from Revelation 4:9-11 tells us that whenever we do pause and give thanks, scripture tells us that the 24 elders in heaven, likely representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles bow and worship the One who lives forever and ever. This suggests there is a direct relationship between heaven and earth when we give thanks.

Heaven itself is pleased and rejoices when we say thank you to God! For this reason and for so many others, we need to remember to give thanks to God more often than on the fourth Thursday of the month of November.

 

We as Christians believe that all things come to us from God- our family, our possessions, our finances, our very lives. You and I are gifted in abundance with so much, thanks to God’s grace, and thanks to God’s Son, who has redeemed and renewed us. Therefore we are called with sincerity to give thanks, every day, often.- even for the gift of family, even IF your family gathering was nothing LIKE the Norman Rockwell image of folks smiling and getting along, all gathered around a perfect turkey.

 

In fact, for the last 14 years my Thanksgiving experience has been anything but an ideal Norman Rockwell painting. At my last church we served those in need or who were alone on Thanksgiving Day. We fed an average of 500 people on that day-the aged, the homeless, the lonely-My Thanksgivings for the last decade and a half have involved a sea of humanity, cooking and carving dozens of turkeys, providing home deliveries to shut-ins, serving others and bussing tables, cleaning up and being utterly exhausted at the end of the day. Even then after a FULL day of service and ministry, I gave thanks to God.

 

We can always give thanks, even in the midst of a frenetic full day of serving others, a world at war, disagreements over politics, family fractures, and limited finances. We can give thanks for every breath that enters our lungs, and for each beat of our heart. We can give thanks for the incredible beauty of the creation that surrounds us-the mountains, the trees, sunsets, and clouds. We can give thanks for whatever might be in our wallets or purses right now. We can give thanks for our homes, whether rented or owned. We can give thanks that we live in a country where religious freedom is celebrated. And we can give thanks for a small struggling band of Christians from England, for their faith in God to take them so far from home and to this land.  We can give thanks that they sought an unencumbered relationship with their Creator and that you and I have that same gift of a free relationship with our God, thanks to them.

 

 If we give thanks with sincerity, if we rejoice, if we lift our prayers heavenward, we will know a peace that is even better than when the tryptophan kicks in from the turkey and we drift off to sleep. 17th century English minister Matthew Henry said, “Thanksgiving is good. But thanks-living is better.”  So, may we remember to live in “thanksliving”-to give thanks to God, not just on Thanksgiving Day, but each and every day.  Alleluia! Amen.

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