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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
An American Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving     Deuteronomy 26:1-11

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.  Nobody missed.  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 Denmark.

Knowing that 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.

But 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 world.

But ours is not only land of bounty, but ours is a land of beauty, of incredible beauty.    For 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 unseen.”

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 denominations.

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 explain.  Let’s 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 everything else.

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.”  Amen.

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