An American Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is one
of those grand holidays in America when everyone is trying to get
home for the holidays. This is the busiest holiday of the year for the airlines, the
railroads, the highways, and buses.
Everyone is trying to get home for the Thanksgiving holiday,
to be with family, if at all possible.
And that was also
true when I was a little boy. When
I was a boy growing up, our family traveled eight miles to Alpha,
Minnesota, a little village of 233 people for Thanksgiving.
And there in the Alpha Community Hall, we had our family
gatherings. My mother
was the oldest of twelve children, and each of the twelve had an
average of four children, so at least seventy-five relatives were
there. Everybody came to Thanksgiving.
Most relatives lived within thirty miles except for one
family who drove from Chicago.
So much pie. So
many turkeys. What a
party it was, with basketball in the crummy little gym, the men
playing poker, the women talking, the kids being pulled behind cars
on skis when the country ditches were filled with snow. Aunt Emma
would act crazy on the stage in front of the old red satin curtains,
and we, as a family, were so very happy.
My kids have never experienced a Thanksgiving like those in
the old days, with all my cousins in rural Minnesota.
The day of
Thanksgiving has a long history to it.
Thanksgiving, in the Jewish religion, started some 4500 years
ago, in about 2500 BC. Yes,
four thousand, five hundred years ago. The Israelites had a festival of ingathering, very similar to
our festival of Thanksgiving. In
the book of Leviticus, it says, “When you have gathered in the
fruit of the land in the fall, you shall have a feast unto the Lord,
and you should rejoice and be happy for seven days.”
I could handle that, a seven-day party with the family at the
Alpha Community Hall. And
Moses, in the book of Deuteronomy, writes:
“After you gathered in from the threshing floor and the
winepress, you should rejoice in the Lord and the Lord will bless
you for your increase and your daily work, and you shall be
altogether happy.” Yes, that is
the way it was at Thanksgiving at the Alpha Community Hall:
we were altogether happy, this new immigrant family from
Thanksgiving is found in the Jewish religion some 4500 years ago,
and knowing that other world religions also have a thanksgiving, it
must be emphasized that Thanksgiving,
as we know it, is a
distinctively American custom.
Today is an American
holiday, and there is nothing quite like it in the rest of the
world. That is, if you
go to Calcutta, Baghdad or Paris today, you will not
find Thanksgiving being celebrated.
Or if you visit Denmark, Norway, Sweden or Canada, you will not find Thanksgiving today. Today,
is a distinctively American day, and so today we are going to
talk about an American Thanksgiving.
As you may recall,
it all began back there in 1621.
The pilgrims came over in 1620 and the winter of 1621 was a
very terrible winter. That
year, of the 101 people who had arrived, 55 of them died, and every
family was touched by death and sickness.
It was a sad, sad winter.
That winter, they weren’t wondering what to do with the
leftover turkey and dressing. That
winter, they weren’t the affluent society preparing for a spending
bash on the day after Thanksgiving.
That winter, they weren’t worrying about whether or not
there would be snow in the mountains for skiing.
No, it was a very tough winter, and only 46 people survived.
And so that spring, the 46 sad survivors planted their crops
and prayed, how they prayed that spring.
And God blessed them and they had an abundant harvest.
Governor Bradford, in thanksgiving to God, declared a
three-day holiday, and the Indians were invited.
Governor Bradford wrote a letter to England that said:
“It is by the goodness of God that we are far from want and
we are so far from want. We
want you to be partakers of our plenty.”
And thus began the first American thanksgiving.
did not catch on immediately. There
was no Thanksgiving in 1622, 1623 and 1624, nor even one hundred
years later. Thanksgiving didn’t catch on until a 170 years later,
when our first president, George Washington, revived the day and
captured the spirit of thanksgiving in his presidential proclamation
of 1789. Nowadays, some
Americans need to depreciate or minimize President Washington’s
deep faith in God, but when you hear Washington’s presidential
Thanksgiving proclamation, it is clear that he was a man of genuine
spiritual piety: “It
is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty
God, to obey his will, to be grateful to God for his benefits and to
implore his protection and favor.
May we unite in thanksgiving this year for God’s care and
protection, for the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, for
tranquility and peace, for civil and religious liberty, and for all
God’s great and various favors.” Obviously, from those words, we clearly understand President
Washington as being a man of deep faith.
And thus began the official American Thanksgiving, in 1789,
210 years ago, a distinctly American custom.
Knowing that our
Thanksgiving in this nation is a distinctly American festival, in
the remainder of the sermon for today, I would like to talk about,
and have you sing about, the
greatness of our nation.
Our nation is a
nation that has been materially and abundantly blessed.
I grew up in the Corn Belt of the United States, in
southwestern Minnesota, and if you grew up in the Corn Belt as I
did, and saw mile after mile of cornfields, you would know that the
land is abundantly fertile and productive. The soil is rich, black, thick and moist!
My cousins now live on the family farm, and they can testify
that our farmland in America makes us the breadbasket of the world.
No nation on earth produces the volume and quality of food
for export that we do. In our two hundred plus years of history, our nation has
never experienced a famine where people starved.
We have exported literally billions upon billions of tons of
grain to the rest of the world.
More than any other nation, we are the breadbasket of the
But ours is not
only land of bounty, but ours is a land of beauty, of incredible
those of us who live here in the Pacific Northwest and enjoy Mount
Rainier, Puget Sound, Mount Baker and all the evergreens, we know
the beauty of this part of our land.
If you have seen
the video of “Over Washington,” you have seen the breathtaking
beauty of our state by air, as you fly over the ocean shoreline, the
coastal mountain range, the Cascade Mountains, the Palo use plains,
and you experience the diversity of beauty in our own state.
If you have been to
Disneyland and been in the pavilion with the 360-degree screen, they
then take you on a visual wonderland of crossing the whole United
States from a balloon. And
as you look at the wonder of the American landscape, surrounded by
360 degrees beauty and sound, it is truly overwhelming.
Would you please
turn to bulletin, and we will sing the first stanza of the hymn,
“O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”
You may remain seated, as we sing the first stanza together.
Ours is not only a
land of beauty and bounty, but ours is a land in which the important
things of life are always invisible such as love.
You cannot see love; it is invisible and only revealed
through the actions of people.
Back in 1906, there
was a pastor by the name of William Merrill.
He was the pastor of Sixth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1906, there was a deacon who prayed
this beautiful prayer for the day, about the unseen spiritual
blessings of America. Inspired
by the deacon’s prayer, the pastor went home after church and
composed the following words which have become the words of one of
our greatest patriotic hymns:
“Not alone for
mighty empire, stretching far ov’r land and sea;
Not alone for bounteous harvests, do we praise you gratefully.
Standing in the living present, memory and hope between,
Lord, we would with deep thanksgiving, praise you most for things
And what are some
of those great, unseen qualities found in our nation?
There are several we could mention, but the one I most want
to highlight is the unseen quality of the complexity of colors of
the many races within our nation.
Our nation has become the melting pot of the world, a merging
and blending of nationalities which have despised each other such as
the French and Germans, the English and Irish, the Laotians and
Vietnamese; warring nationalities who become friendly neighbors who
have to mow their lawns side by side.
But ours is not is
not only a melting pot of nations but of the races.
Into our country come blacks and whites and yellows and
browns and every other color under heaven.
We all eventually intermarry and there has become such a
diversity of racial characteristics within our one land.
I love what
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy said.
You complete the sentence:
“Make the world safe for.....”
No, he did not say democracy; he said, “diversity.”
Make the world safe for diversity, and there is such
diversity within our land; of short hairs and long hairs, with
political conservatives and political liberals, and with such
pluralism of religions and denominations, nearly three hundred
Yes, it is truly
for these unseen qualities for which we are truly grateful.
Would you please turn to hymn #437 and we will sing all four
verses of this great hymn which was composed on Thanksgiving Day in
1906. Please focus on
the words of the first two stanzas.
You may remain seated. ......
And so on this
distinctively American day of thanksgiving, we are grateful for the
beauty and the bounty of our land, for this melting pot of
diversity, and on this American Thanksgiving Day, we are also
grateful for our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
At the heart of our political system is the freedom of
speech. If that freedom
of speech is removed, all the other freedoms will be lost as well.
We love our freedom, especially to criticize political
leaders such as the President, our senators, our legislators, our
mayors. It is part of
the American way, an American pastime.
We also enjoy
freedom of speech within our churches, that we have the freedom to
express contrary points of view within congregations.
I will never forget the congregational meeting at the church
I served in Eugene, Oregon, in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam
war conflict. A
congregational meeting was called for that Sunday night, to air our
differences, and Lyle, the farmer in his bib overalls, showed up
carrying a baseball bat. And
David C., the young student radical, the young kid who had been such
a nuisance and climbed up on the church roof years ago, showed up
with his flaming liberal rhetoric. And as a young pastor, I didn’t know that Christians could
act and talk like this, to express their feelings with such
intensity. Well, the
years and decades have gone by and that is still the best
congregational meeting I ever attended....because of the freedom of
speech and thought within the church.
And so we express
our differing ideas and interpretations about sexual orientation,
abortion and euthanasia (mercy killing) of the dying elderly.
The other night on television, I saw a debate between the
king of pornography, Larry Flint, owner of Hustler magazine, and
Rev. Jerry Farwell, the outspoken leader of the evangelical wing of
the church. It was
great public, debate, America at its finest.
Yes, in America, we
love the freedom that is ours, especially the freedom of speech.
Would you please turn to hymn #566, and sing this great hymn to
freedom, noting especially the first and last stanza.
You may remain seated. .....
And so ours is a
country of beauty and bounty, a melting pot of diversity, a land of
liberty and freedom. But
like anything else that is great and wonderful, there is the
temptation to worship the nation instead of God. A great danger is for our nation to act like a favored child
in the family. Let me
imagine that there was this family that happened to have one
unusually gifted child, more so than the others.
This child was enormously gifted and pretty soon this child
came to think that he or she was more important than the rest of the
children, more valuable, more deserving,. Needless to say, the rest of the family didn’t appreciate
the gifted child’s attitude, especially when the child thought
that he or she deserved a greater portion of food, water, wealth and
And so it is with
our nation. We are but one of many children who belong to God’s family
of nations. Only one
child among many. And
as the good book says, “to whom much is given, much is
required.” Much is required of our nation as we live as equal
participants in God’s family of nations.
Thanksgiving is an
American holiday today. For
210 years, we have been traveling home for the holidays.
I’ll never forget those Thanksgiving journeys to the Alpha
Community Hall, and it seemed that our immigrant family was
altogether happy on that day. And our hearts were filled with Thanksgiving to God for
everything that God had given us.
Would you please stand and let us sing hymn number #534,
“Now Thank We All Our God.”