Friday, November 23, 2007

How Episcopalians Made Thanksgiving- A Community Sermon

I’d like to welcome you to St. James’ again.  It’s a joy when brothers and sisters worship together, and I have enjoyed the love and friendship of so many brothers and sisters from the many churches in Hyde Park for many years now.  Truly something to give thanks for.

Yet, I think it’s also appropriate to celebrate Thanksgiving in an Episcopal Church because, as we all know, it was the Episcopalians who are are responsible for it.

Now, I bet you’re thinking it was those Pilgrims, aren’t you?  Or maybe you heard rumors about Abraham Lincoln creating the official holiday by proclamation in 1863.  Well, there’s a little bit of truth to it.  But the REAL creator of this annual event called Thanksgiving is that great Episcopalian and Hyde Parker -- FDR.

That’s right.  Up till 1941, Thanksgiving kind of came and went depending on the whim of the sitting President -- it was a tradition that the President proclaimed the holiday, but not all did.

Fine, you might say, but it was Lincoln who proclaimed the national feast first.  That’s true -- October 3, 1863, not long after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Lincoln called for the Nation to observe a national day of thanks and dedication to caring for the widows and orphans.  But it was a one-shot deal.

Besides, he wasn’t the first president to call for a national day.  Another prominent Episcopalian did it first.  George Washington.  After the Revolution, he called for a day of thanks -- the First Thursday in November.  Again, it was a one-shot deal, and not many presidents followed suit.  But in 1789, the Episcopal Church called upon its members to observe a day of thanks on every first Thursday of November.

Which they did until Lincoln.

Never mind that the Pilgrims really gave heart and soul to their feast after that horrid winter and a successful harvest.  Never mind that the Pilgrims were actually fleeing the oppressive Church of England (which would become the Episcopal Church in this country).  

And never mind that people were observing feasts of Thanksgiving long before there were Pilgrims or the Church of England or even Christians.  

The fact is, we have an inborn need to give thanks.  That’s why you can see similar festivals around the world and throughout time.  

Erntedankfest in Germany, Thesmosphoria in ancient Greece, Cerelia for the ancient Romans, Chusok in Korea, Pongal in South India, and Yam Festival in Ghana. 

We give thanks because sometimes it amazes us that we have enough to eat and a roof over our heads.  We look in awe that we have survived another day despite faminies, floods, wars, and just plain bad luck.  We look around and think, “Only God could have gotten me this far.”  So we give thanks.  (And eat ourselves silly and watch football).

But there’s a catch.  In Abraham Lincoln’s proclmation in 1863, he asked the nation to not only give thanks but to care for the widowed or orphaned.  He called us to not only give thanks but to give.  

Churches and individuals around our community have been doing that with their Thanksgiving baskets to help families eat better -- but also on a daily basis with our own Hyde Park Food Pantry which is staffed by volunteers -- many of whom are probably here tonight. 

Tonight, you’ll have an opportunity to help that food pantry during the offering.  It’s a miracle that we are so blessed as to be able to help.  Give thanks.

And yet, there’s another catch: all the food in the world is not what really feeds us.  

Jesus told the people who went looking for him in the Gospel: “You seek me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves...  Do not labor for food that perishes but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you...”

Which is to say, We love it when our bellies are full, and we have God to thank for it.  But even more, we have God to thank for feeding our souls.   We can go around like empty shells (okay, so very full shells after tomorrow) -- merely existing.  Or we can allow God’s love to fill us to overflowing.

From that love, Thanks just naturally flows.  So, while we Episcopalians can’t really claim to have started Thanksgiving, we can join with our brothers and sisters throughout the faith and time, and offer our humblest thanks.  Which is a blessing indeed.  Amen.