First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
November 18, 2018
Scripture: Jeremiah 20:7-9, Colossians 3:12/16
Thanksgiving, in its colonial sense is based, at best, on a poorly documented feast gathered together with the Pilgrims and the Native Americans after a good harvest. Celebrated here in the USA and in Canada, Canada celebrating in October and here in the US the 4th Thursday in November.
Abraham Lincoln was the one who was the first to proclaim “A Day” uniform among all the states in the midst of the Civil War to try to bring some semblance of unity between the north and south. Perhaps this year we can once again remind ourselves of our need for unity among the states and citizens as this coming Thursday approaches.
I remember, perhaps we all do, an image of Thanksgiving we grew up with: the long table, the pilgrims placing food on the table, the Native Americans gathering for a meal of thanks giving. It is a gentle and peaceful image… at least that is what we were told, many of us. It is what many have told in their homes. Although, homes particularly of Native peoples the story might be told a little differently, rightfully so. But this is the story I grew up with.
This is the story I was taught as an elementary student cutting out and pasting together construction paper turkeys and Pilgrim hats complete with buckles on the front. It was a romanticized telling of the story at best… a lie at worst. But we tend to do that with history and with story especially the ones who tend to come out on top of a story and are in control of telling. We sanitize it, clean it up, do not tell of the horrors and misdeeds of those came before us. Acts for which we continue to offer apologies for and yet no real repentance. But it makes for a good children’s story and way to teach our version of history.
I knew of our forefather’s treatment of the Native Peoples here in the New World but I confess I had never been exposed to some of the stories, and more gruesome of them, until I was an adult. I had started to college on the road to ordained ministry, I was 32 years old as I began that track. Reading the writings of Cotton Mather, a Puritan clergyman who wrote of the massacre of the Native Peoples of the land…
“In a little more than one hour, five or six hundreds of these barbarians were dismissed from a world that was burdened with them.” “It may be demanded… Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion? But sometimes the Scripture declares women and children must perish with their parents…. We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”
And then of the burning of the bodies of the dead from the Pequot massacre after Sassacus, the head Pequot chief, gathered his warriors together. Another chief, Uncas, helped the settlers with his band of Pequot (later called Mohegan). The colonists and their Indian allies attacked a Pequot village near West Mystic, Connecticut, at sunrise on June 5, 1637. They burned alive between 600 and 700 Natives Peoples. Cotton Mather, the Puritan scholar, wrote that the colonists thought this “a sweet sacrifice, and … gave the praise thereof to God.” These are the stories I was never told as a child, perhaps a good thing because of their graphic nature, but to have been an adult before reading of specifics I take responsibility and hold those who control what is taught responsible as well. Thanksgiving, the Holiday, the “story” holds a different meaning for me now.
In the grand scheme of the 21st Century Thanksgiving, the holiday is a blip on the proverbial holiday radar screen. The problem with the holiday Thanksgiving is our difficulty to be honest about its colonial origins and the things we tell ourselves. It is relatively difficult to market because the profit margin on food, turkey, potatoes, dressing, cranberries, etc. is not very high, comparatively speaking. I believe that is why, consumer-ly speaking of we, as a nation have moved from Halloween to Christmas with barely a blink toward Thanksgiving to a large degree Thanksgiving has become about the food. Now don’t get me wrong, food, gathering around the table with those we love is an important thing. Crucial, valuable, but to some degree I think we have lost that.
Think about it: even with its limited marketable value, those who have managed to still do it. When was the last time you heard Thanksgiving Day promoted as a time to gather with loved ones and give thanks? Don’t get me wrong, I think it happens and of late there has been some pushback against the consumerism invading Thanksgiving Day. I mean … seriously via media and comment? How is it promoted? Either as “The Beginning of the Holiday Season,” or “The Day before Black Friday!”
I think about our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah he is caught in a terrible time of violence, negativity, criticism. He finds himself weary with constantly trying to speak out against it. He wants to stop, but he is consumed by this burning in his bones and he cannot hold it in. We too, can find ourselves consumed by the negative, the hatred, the vitriol, consumed and weary… it is a difficult time…
I remember right after the last presidential election having conversations with those who were afraid of going home for Thanksgiving because of the political leanings of their family. They didn’t feel welcome, they didn’t feel heard, they didn’t feel safe… consumed with this burning in their bones and trying to hold it in and were unsure of their ability to do so.
Okay…now that I have successfully stomped on all of our toes, including mine, enough cynicism for one morning…
What is Thanksgiving for you?
It should be about community. It should be about remembering those we love, those who have loved us and do love us. Maybe even a time to remember those we are trying to love and who try/or not to love us. In the sense of Abraham Lincoln’s vision, maybe Thanksgiving should be a day to remember we are all in this together. As divided as we are on so many things, we still belong to each other… or at least we should try and act like it. I am really trying not to be cliché here, but every day should be Thanksgiving. I have watched and read on Social Media posts of people who have posted 30 days of Thanksgiving. People who take the time to give thanks for at least one thing per day through November… but why do we just do it then? It should be an everyday practice.
If we spent as much time finding ways to be grateful as we do finding things to complain about… life on this good green earth might be very different. Maybe a different kind of consuming… burning within our bones… consumed by gratitude!? Something like the words from our Second Testament reading today… “Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Be a grateful people.”
Or perhaps a thought from the Buddhist tradition, “the worthy person is grateful and mindful of benefits done for them. This gratitude, this mindfulness, is congenial to the best people.” Or Emerson – “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” And of course Meister Eckhart ~ “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” …
Diana Butler Bass in her book, Grateful, wrote, “Gratitude is not about stuff. Gratitude is the emotional response to the surprise of our very existence, to sensing that inner light and realizing the astonishing sacred, social, and scientific events that brought each one of us into being. We cry out like the psalmist, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” But it is not just emotional as in a feeling she says… “We tend to think of gratitude as a personal feeling that we can cultivate. But it’s also communal and social.”1
It is something we are as individuals. But it is also who we can become as a community, as a society and culture. It takes practice. Take some time this week, for what are you grateful? Something we can do every day… and not just “say” thank you… “BE” grateful. Do something for someone else… loved one, stranger… for which they/You can be grateful…
Yesterday at Hyvee a lady could not reach the kind of canned corn she wanted. I asked to help, retrieved it, and we exchanged smiles and a thank you and I went on my way. Take a few moments to introduce yourself to someone you do not know. Offer a handshake, a compliment, a hug, a smile… Be Grateful you are here and they are here, too. It makes a difference in someone’s life… in your life… in the world.
You know thankfulness doesn’t need to always be something grand and wondrous, awe inspiring and life changing, it can also be for the very simplest of things. Of course, if we would take the time to be mindful of the simplest of things… all of life, every breath, every step, every sight, every thought, every touch, every embrace, word, sound, might be grand and wondrous, awe inspiring and life changing … it is certainly a reason to be GRATEFUL.
May it be so. Amen.
1 Butler-Bass, Diana (2018). Grateful, The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. HarperCollins, New York