A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 22, 2015
Psalm 95:1-7 ESV
With all that has gone on in the world in recent weeks, for some the giving thanks may not come so easily. You probably know what I am talking about. Natural disasters—wildfires in the West, massive flooding in different parts of the country, and devastating tornadoes in many of our United States—have left many Americans homeless. How can a family get themselves into a thankful frame of mind when they no longer have a kitchen or dining room where they can have a meal together as a family, or even a roof over their heads to call home?
There are also those who have lost their jobs and are living on the edge of survival. And others who have lost loved ones by death in recent weeks; some under tragic circumstances. How can those in such situations find it within themselves to muster up a spirit of thanksgiving?
All of us have been intimidated by acts of violence by sick gunmen who have taken innocent lives at movie theaters and other such public places.
Finally, the entire world is living under the constant threat of terrorism and mass violence at the hands of deranged radicals who are spreading throughout the world like a silent, undetected cancer and may show up at anytime and anywhere, taking dozens or even a hundred of more innocent lives at one time. The recent, orchestrated attacks in Paris have served as a sobering reminder that the ISIS threat is not contained like we may have let ourselves believe it had been. Rather, we are all the more uneasy at the prospects of mass violence, perhaps, than ever before. All of the violence may be making us afraid to attend concerts, large sporting events, the movie theater, or even the shopping mall. So with all of this going on, how in the world can anyone in their right mind be able to shift into a joyful spirit of Thanksgiving? some may be thinking.
We tend to find timeless inspiration at this season of the year in the story of the Pilgrims; that little group of religious separatists who made their way from Holland to America aboard a small ship called the Mayflower. The Pilgrims certainly knew what it was to face trouble, adversity and an uncertain future. As related by Plymouth Governor William Bradford in his account, they suffered one ordeal after another prior in their attempts to migrate to America. First of all, some of them were imprisoned because of their faith and quest for religious freedom. Then families were separated, as some of them prepared to set sail for America while others had to stay behind, some of them hoping to join them later; while others knew they would probably never see one another again. Then one of the sea captains they hired to bring them to America tricked them and ran off with their money. Another ship on which they loaded all their personal belongings began to sink and they had to return to port, unload, and wait for another vessel. This necessitated leaving Europe much later in the year than they had planned, causing them to arrive at the coast of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the cold of winter. Many of their number died of cold and exposure that first winter on American soil.
Yet, the following November, the few Pilgrims who survived held a thanksgiving harvest festival. How could they possibly have been in the spirit to give thanks, we wonder, after all the adversities they had suffered and when many of their loved ones—children, wives, husbands, or parents—had been laid to rest in the cold earth? Yet, the Pilgrims found themselves to be full of gratitude and needing to express thanksgiving for the blessings of life as they saw them.
But why was it that the Pilgrims chose November for their thanksgiving harvest festival? Was the time of their thanksgiving festival coincidental? Or a random choice? I think not. I believe there were many good reasons that the Pilgrims chose the time of the year that they did for celebrating their big thanksgiving festival.
For one, they were so grateful for surviving that first, harsh winter. It had been rough; my, had it been rough! They arrived too late in the year to adequately construct shelter before the cold winds and snows of winter set in. How cold they must have been! I have tried to imagine what their experience must have been like. I am one who cannot stand to be cold. As a teenager, I worked several months after school and on Saturday for an uncle in new home construction. I have stood and shivered many a cold, winter’s day in an open structure, trying to hammer a nail or cut a piece of galvanized pipe when my hands were almost too cold to move. But at least I had a nice, warm home to go to at day’s end. But how could those Pilgrims survive an entire winter in the cold without adequate shelter to keep them warm at night? Nevertheless, the ones who survived were of a thankful spirit the following autumn.
The Pilgrims were also thankful for the food they had been able to grow and had just harvested—the corn (or maze), pumpkins, beans, and other vegetables the Native Americans had helped them to grow—and for the natural fruits and nuts of the earth, the wildlife around them, and the game their Native American neighbors shared with them.
And, no doubt, they were grateful for the warm days of autumn and the beauties of the fall season they had just experienced (and there is nothing quite like a New England fall).
So all of these blessings—most of them tied to that peculiar season of the year—evoked a spirit of thanksgiving as a natural expression of what they were feeling inside. It was only natural that the Pilgrims observe their harvest thanksgiving celebration when they felt their lives to be blessed, when the blessings of harvest, wildlife and game shared by their Native American neighbors, the beauties and bounty of the fall season, and the warm days of autumn converged to elicit a thankful response from within.
I think this current season of the year, more than any other time of the year, tends to evoke within the human soul a spirit of awe, wonder, gratitude, and thanksgiving. Looking out across the landscape and seeing the vibrant fall colors; going to a pumpkin patch with your children or grandchildren; shopping at the produce market for all those fresh fruits and vegetables of the fall harvest; gathering around the table with family and friends to enjoy seasonal feasts; all of these things tend to speak to the human spirit and move us to want to express gratitude and thanksgiving. It is a natural spiritual or religious response to all those blessings peculiar to this time of the year. We might even say we have an inner need to render thanks or gratitude. This time of the year is that one, unique time of the year that prompts us, as the Psalmist expressed it, to sing, make a joyful noise, and come together in a spirit of thanksgiving as we consider the beauties and bounty of the earth that bless both body and soul.
And so, as we think about those Pilgrims who held that first American thanksgiving harvest festival, in one sense of the term we might say, “How could they have done otherwise?” When the beauties and bounty of the earth had blessed the Pilgrims’ lives, how could they have not held that thanksgiving harvest festival? It was the natural thing for them to do.
And today and this week, when we, likewise, consider the beauties, bounty, and blessings bestowed upon us at this peculiar time of year, expressing gratitude and thanksgiving just seem to come naturally to us as well. How could we do otherwise? Amen.