I don’t know what that first winter was like. Hailing from GA, I don’t even know what real cold feels like. I’ve never had to watch people dying of starvation, exposure, and disease. The worst I’ve had to endure was an ice storm that knocked out the power for 48 hours. And because of a decent roof, a fireplace, a propane stove, our most noticeable losses were hot water and the TV.
I can’t imagine enduring a deadly winter, make good on a harvest, then prepare for yet another harsh winter by turning my heart outward to give thanks to God.
Instead of feasting, I would have said, “No! Don’t eat all that! We have to preserve everything we can, or we’ll be eating tree bark!”
While the stories of the first Thanksgiving have been romanticized and exaggerated, they do proclaim a deep truth about gratitude. The earth’s plenty is not our doing or deserving. As creatures who belong to the earth, and not vice versa, we receive, celebrate, and share an abundance we did not create. And we’re called to steward the planet, passing its gifts from generation to generation like a family around a table passing plates of turkey, bowls of green beans, and baskets of warm, buttered bread. We take what we need while leaving plenty for others.
For many, the Thanksgiving holiday devolves into the sin of gluttony. So, perhaps it’s up to people of faith to set a visible example of Thanksgiving as a tithe of gratitude rather than a feast of entitlement. A time for extravagant praise rather than excessive consumption.
Recent weeks, months, and even years have been, for many in our nation, a kind of bitter winter. Yes, meteorological and cultural climates are warming. Fires are burning. Seas are rising. Sabers are rattling. And in synagogues, mosques, churches, schools, homes, and night clubs, guns are thundering. It seems to me that all of that heat is connected to a deep, interior coldness. Fear, prejudice, and greed are a heavy, killing frost on the human heart and, therefore, on our ability to live faithfully and gratefully. Without faith and gratitude, neither neighbor nor future really matter. Without faith and gratitude, we rely on our own broken selves, on money, might, and meanness. And humankind seems to gather and spend these things in wanton excess.
The psalmist writes: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (Ps. 126:5-6 NRSV)
We are people of faith – not all the same faith traditions, but people of faith, nonetheless. And I think that God is calling us to recognize – together– the weeping around us, the violent ice storms of greed and poverty, and what often appears to be the permafrost of fear.
I think God is calling us to till the soil of our hearts and shout thanksgiving to God, because in times of challenge and insecurity, extravagant praise can be medicine for weary and heavy hearts.
So, no, the first Thanksgiving probably did not look like the images we show our children, and those first immigrants to America sowed many bitter tears on the icy ground of uncertainty and grief. Yet the community survived. And for both better and worse, others came. A new nation began to take shape. As current citizens of that nation, our work includes celebrating and stewarding this place we call home. We are a diverse bunch, and if we can find the humility and the grace to do so, we can speak a unified, prophetic voice. A voice that proclaims a new hope, a new community. My tradition calls that the kingdom of God.
To use an image from one of Jesus’ parables: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” (Mark 4:26-27) The sower doesn’t understand how it all works, but the seeds grow and become something to be reaped, something to be harvested in gratitude and shared in generosity.
This Thanksgiving, may we all avoid gluttonous and entitled consumption. Instead, may we stop to remember where and how God has sown goodness around us and blessed us with enough – enough food, community, and love to see us through any winter.
May we harvest joyfully the bountiful goodness of a giving God. And may we express our thanks not by getting and having, but by receiving what we need and passing the plates around.
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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