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Thanksgiving Day | Thursday, November 24, 2016
Thanksgiving in a Time of National Nervousness
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Kent M. Organ
Interim Pastor, Presbytery of Chicago
2 Corinthians 9:6–15
Providence means that there is a saving possibility . . . which cannot be destroyed by any event.
Earlier this morning there was a reading of a model Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. It came to us not from some anonymous ghostwriter in the White House but from the mind and mouth of Moses, as reported in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses is speaking to the Israelites, whose years of wandering in the wilderness have come to an end and who are preparing to cross the Jordan River into the land to which they have been heading for what seemed an eternity. It will be “a good land,” Moses assures them, a land of abundance “where you will lack nothing.” Once you are there, Moses tells the people, “you shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.”
We hear these ancient words of encouragement and exhortation as we observe the peculiar American observance called Thanksgiving. “Eat your fill and bless the Lord your God.” No doubt most of us will manage the first part: eat your fill. The festive board awaits in Anderson Hall. Or you may have other plans. Wherever we spend this feast day, most of us will eat our fill, and then some. And it’s OK to do it. No matter what the cardiologist says, we have the permission of none other than Moses!
But let’s not overlook the second half of Moses’ guidance: to bless God. Hopefully we won’t become so absorbed in family, football, and the feast itself that we fail also to bless the Lord our God. It is always good to give thanks, to join in the praise of God, but especially so, given present circumstances.
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It is not easy to know how to describe the mood of our nation two weeks after the election. We as a country are as divided as we have ever been. Some of it is ugly. There have been hate crimes, bullying, and swastikas. In response, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly wrote a pastoral letter cautioning that incivility must not become the norm. A former denominational leader commented to us that she cannot remember anything like this letter in the past.
The long, rancorous presidential campaign is over. There is a pause. Perhaps some of our bruises can heal. The nation waits; we are waiting—and wondering, warily: What is ahead? No one knows. Uncertainty reigns. What is ahead for immigrants? Muslims? People of color? What is ahead for energy and the environment? Trade? U.S. alliances? For Iran? Russia? Europe? The Middle East? Nobody seems to know. This is a time of national nervousness.
Which is true also closer to home. By now we’ve probably all been part of a conversation about whether or not to go ahead with the usual November–December family gatherings. The holidays have become uncomfortable. People are calling off Thanksgiving with brothers and sisters, canceling going home for Christmas. And for those who will get together, the question is, Will we address the elephant in the room, or is it the donkey? Tuesday’s Tribune had an editorial cartoon with the hostess for Thanksgiving dinner pointing to place settings, and saying, “Just for fun I’m seating them Trump, Clinton, Trump, Clinton, Trump, Clinton . . .”
Colin Woodard, in his history of U.S. cultural divides, titled American Nations, says, “We are seeing a profound disagreement about what kind of America we should be creating.” And into this awkward, wary, difficult time comes the day of Thanks-giving.
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This is a peculiarly North American holiday. Other countries have harvest festivals. But we don’t know of a nation besides the United States and Canada that sets aside one day for giving thanks to God for the totality of God’s mercies.
I wonder if you were struck, as we were, by that verse in the 146th Psalm that admonished us, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs,” said the psalmist,” they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” That psalm does what so often happens in the Bible: it reminds us that all our little securities—things like money, fame, success, and, yes, political power and prominence—are just that: little securities, and very fleeting. The 146th Psalm goes on to do what the Bible as a whole does, which is to tell us of the only true and lasting security there can ever be, “Happy are those . . . whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
We are thinking about the very best thing we can do for ourselves and for our nation in this time of national nervousness. It is to be reminded of, and to look to, our divine ruler, who neither needs nor depends upon our votes to stay in office.
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Let’s think some more about the second part of Moses’ exhortation, to bless the Lord our God. Moses is well aware of the human habit of forgetfulness. He warns his people, and warns us, about forgetfulness: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and lived in them, and when . . . your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God.” Moses goes on: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me [all] this.’”
Is this possibly a word not only for the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land but also God’s Word for us in the United States of America? Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain thought that something like this is very much a word for us and our time. The notion that we belong to and are accountable to God has, she wrote, become “foreign to the vast majority of . . . Americans” today. “We no longer think of ourselves as belonging to anyone or anything. We do not belong—we own; we possess.” She agreed with Albert Camus’ assessment of a society that has lost the sense of “any kind of transcendence.” When “the sky is empty,” said Camus, “the earth [is] delivered into the hands of power without principle.”
It is the act of giving thanks that undercuts all such human pretension. When we give thanks, we are reminded that we are not self-sufficient. To give thanks is to enter a world created, sustained, and redeemed by God. To give thanks is to acknowledge that we did not get here on our own and that we are not now nor will we ever be on our own. We do well to remember this.
The act of thanksgiving turns us away from that lurking presumption that everything is up to us. Giving thanks turns us instead toward the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And you know what else? By reminding us of God’s generosity, the act of giving thanks can also move us to be generous in sharing what we have received.
Later on in Deuteronomy, in chapter 15, this is precisely what Moses encourages. He says, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. . . . Instead, open your hand. . . . Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” And Moses concludes, “Since there will never cease to be some in need . . . I therefore command you ‘open your hands to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” This is neither resurgent political populism nor liberal social engineering. This is simply the Bible reminding us that we are members of one another across every dividing line. This is Holy Scripture telling us what to do once we recognize how much we have been on the receiving end of God’s goodness and generosity.
The Old Testament is not alone in this. The Apostle Paul made a similar point in the ninth chapter of 2 Corinthians. He says it is when we realize how much we have received that we are apt to notice neighbors in need and share what we have with them. What this does, Paul says, is create a circle of thanksgiving. All too often lately, we have seen and heard “vicious circles” in which rudeness begets rudeness, attack begets attack, injury begets injury. But Paul puts forth a circle of a different kind, a “virtuous circle” of gratitude and generosity in which those who know themselves to have been blessed by God not only give thanks but extend the blessing to others.
In Chicago, for sixteen years a group of Muslims have given away thousands of turkeys before Thanksgiving to families whose children attend public schools on the South Side. The organizer of the drive, Dr. Sofia Shakir, said this effort is like homecoming for her. When she was a student at the University of Chicago, she used to tutor some of those children. She said, “We are all part of the same. We’re not helping others. We’re helping our own.” This is a way for her to give back. In the “virtuous circle,” thanksgiving leads to giving, which in turn prompts a new round of thanksgiving to God. As Paul tells the Corinthians and us, your generosity not only supplies the needs of others “but overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”
Even in this time of uncertainty and apprehension, consider this second beneficial outcome of Thanksgiving, in which we not only eat our fill but remember also to bless the Lord our God for the good land that has been given to us—remembering that this land to which God has brought us is a gift to all of us, not just to some of us; remembering that blessings are intended for sharing. Despite the political divides so evident among us, despite the scars we may carry as a consequence of what we as a nation and community have been through, it is crucial that what we say over and over we believe to be the case: We are one nation under God. And we remain responsible for one another, responsible to bear one another’s burdens. We are dependent not only upon God’s steadfast love, but also upon the fabric of our common life and being neighborly to one another.
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This is an anxious time. Uncertainty and apprehension reign. Now, people of faith have been in such circumstances before. What could we learn from faithful predecessors about times like this? The two of us remember a message we saw nearly twenty years ago when we were part of a delegation visiting the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba. As you can imagine, Cuban Presbyterians have lots of experience with national nervousness. What we’re remembering was a small, hand-painted placard posted at CANIP, the church’s conference center. It was in Spanish, of course. Translated, the sign said, “This may not be the best of times, but this is our time.” This is our time.
One final thing: It is especially for those in whose heads the scenarios are dire. In 1789, the speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives was a certain Colonel Davenport. One day that year, while the House was in session, the sky over Hartford darkened, and religious people were afraid that the end of the world was at hand. There was a clamor among the legislators for immediate adjournment. But Colonel Davenport, also a devout Christian, stood up and said this, “The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, let candles be brought.”
The biblical antidote to national nervousness is a call to remember the God who has been our help in ages past, who remains our hope for all the years to come. The biblical antidote to the divisiveness that threatens is a reminder that we are members one of another. Whatever else may be going on, let us give thanks for that. Amen.
With thanks to Eugene Bay, Cathleen Decker, J. Herbert Nelson, Dana Summers, and Sabrina Tavernise.