A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 23, 2014
Luke 9:12-17 GNT
Back in the 1960s, when I was an adolescent, one of the traditional Thanksgiving Day rituals was going hunting; most often rabbit or quail hunting. So on Thanksgiving morning, while the “women folk” worked to prepare the traditional Thanksgiving feast (I know, it ‘s sexist), all the “men folk” and boys who were old enough to carry a firearm took to the sage fields donned in our khaki-colored hunting coats and pants. If it happened to be a cold morning, we might wait until the afternoon, until after we had already stuffed ourselves, to take to the fields. Hunting on Thanksgiving Day does have historical roots, you know. A visit to the Plimouth Plantation website notes that a part of that first Pilgrim Thanksgiving was the order of the governor who “sent four men on fowling;” in other words, hunting.
Now, I never did really take pleasure in hunting of any sort. But I was always more than eager to go along on these excursions. As I have had the opportunity to reflect upon it in my later years, I think my interest in taking to the fields on Thanksgiving Day had much more to do with the joy and satisfaction I experienced in just being out in the world of Nature. Even from childhood, I have always experienced a sense of connectedness with the natural world, whether it was walking through sage grass fields on Thanksgiving Day, or walking through snow-covered woods on a winter’s day, or walking beside a mountain stream on a summer’s day. Yes, as I reflect on those Thanksgiving Day hunting excursions to the fields of my home community, I understand now that it was not any satisfaction I derived from hunting, but it was the sense of connectedness with Creation that drew me. It has only been within the past few years that I have come to realize and understand this.
So, as I have reflected on this these past few days, I have devised the theory that one of the primary elements of the Thanksgiving celebration is the sense of connectedness we experience with the natural world. The earliest Thanksgiving celebrations, you know, were in fact harvest festivals—a time in the fall of the year when the produce of the earth and gardens was abundant, and when people had a great feast and in gratitude celebrated and enjoyed all the fruits and vegetables from the earth. We all love to stuff ourselves with turkey, potatoes, yams, cranberries, green beans, corn, rolls, pumpkin pie, and such. Because it all tastes so good. And all of it is so good for us J.
But I submit that as we enjoy these gifts of the earth, there is an underlying sense of connection (most likely subconscious in orientation) with the natural world. Even as Jesus gave thanks for and blessed the loaves that he lifted up toward heaven before sharing them with the multitude, we—either formally or informally—bless the gifts of the earth that we enjoy on Thanksgiving Day.
The cornucopia, so beautifully illustrated by the one on our communion table, may be seen as a symbol of our sense of connectedness with the earth, more so at this time of year, perhaps, than at any other time. The pumpkins, squash, corn, and other fruits and vegetables that usually grace cornucopias become visual reminders of how we depend upon the earth for our sustenance. As I have noted before, we are indeed “earthlings,” made of the dust of the earth and dependent upon the earth for our very survival. Thanksgiving serves as a good time for us to express our gratitude—our giving of thanks—to the Source of all Being for this earth that is our home and the deep connection we have to it. As the authors so poetically put it in the book The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons:
“Earth invites us to gather the fruits of her womb. From soil and vine, from tree and bush she pours out food to humankind and to creatures of the land. Fields of grain send forth their blessing. Trees laden with fruit sing sweet songs of nourishment. Vines thick with pumpkins display their beautiful readiness. Grapes and tomatoes generously offer their gifts. . . In the midst of all this harvesting, how appropriate that we should pause from our labors to celebrate a festival of gratitude: Thanksgiving. Earth is our table. Gratitude turns over in our hearts during this fall season, like an old-fashioned plow turning the soil”.1
So our Thanksgiving Day rituals, which in reality evolved from ancient harvest festivals, are nothing less than a celebration of the vital connectedness that we have with the natural world.
But if I may, I will take this thought one step further. In addition to Thanksgiving being a celebration of our connection to the earth, it has also become a celebration of our connection with others. Thanksgiving has become the day that brings people together. It is considered the one, big family and friends day of the year. More Americans travel to be with family and friends for Thanksgiving than on any other American holiday. In fact, I heard on the news that more people travel on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend than any other one day of the year. If you have ever flown on the Sunday right after Thanksgiving or found yourself stranded on the interstate, trying to return home on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, you won’t doubt that fact.
But the point is, for most Americans, Thanksgiving has come to be looked upon as a day of connecting with family and friends. On that day, we celebrate the human connections that make our lives special. Parents and children, children and grandparents, siblings, cousins and in-laws—familial ties that may be given little thought the rest of the year are celebrated on Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving is primarily about coming together around the table, rather than the giving of gifts. We tend to linger around the table for hours, visiting and conversing with those who mean so much to our lives. As the Plimouth Plantation website also notes, “The need to connect with loved ones . . . is at the heart of all this feasting, prayerful thanks, recreation, and nostalgia for a simpler time.”
Of course, Thanksgiving as a celebration of connections has historical roots in the very first American harvest festival. On that day, the Pilgrims celebrated their connections—not only with the earth in the produce of the fields, and with the Creator who they felt had led them to this land and spared their lives through the hard winter, but also with the Native Americans who had helped them survive the preceding harsh winter by sharing their food and guidance about how to plant the food that sustained them. In that early Thanksgiving observance, connections that crossed racial boundaries were celebrated.
Today, some people take the celebration of connections beyond the family dinner table, as they volunteer to help feed the hungry and homeless at shelters and soup kitchens or community food pantries.
And another thing that makes the American Thanksgiving holiday special is that it is probably the one universal holiday that can be celebrated by people of any religion or culture. All people have the need to offer gratitude and feel a connection with others and the created order of which all are a part.
So this coming week, as we offer our thanks and express our gratitude, in whatever personal way we may choose to do so, may we also be more conscious of and celebrate more mindfully those vital connections in our lives, our connections with the Earth that make our lives possible and our connections with those special people in our lives that fill our days with love and joy. Thanksgiving—a celebration of connections. Amen.
1Joyce Rupp & Macrina Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2005, p. 166.