It’s every year. Every year. Every year the big family get togethers. Every year the kids come home from university or community college, and banks and stores and businesses for the most part take the day off. Every year there are favourite foods and second helpings and third helpings that you have to loosen your belt and lay down and take a nap. Every year. Except this year.
We celebrate Thanksgiving every year and in Canada we have been celebrating since 1921by an Act of Parliament. If you have a perpetual calendar and enough patience you could figure out the exact date when Thanksgiving would be celebrated for the next hundred years.
So here we are,celebrating a national holiday,a day of overeating and television watching and hikes and drives to take in the fall colours and catching up with the relatives. Here we are celebrating a national holiday, despite Covid-19, even in church. You have to wonder why.
It’s not in the Bible. Jesus and his disciples didn’t sit around a long table and eat turkey and cranberry sauce every fall. It’s not part of the ancient tradition of the church, either.
Thanksgiving is not a religious celebration. It’s a national holiday. You don’t see people going to church on July 1or Remembrance Day unless it falls on a Sunday. So why do we celebrate Thanksgiving in church?
We are in church on Thanksgiving, in person or online, because a day set aside for giving thanks raises an inescapable question. To who, exactly, are we giving thanks? You give thanks to someone. We teach our children to be polite and respectful. We teach them to say “Please”, when they ask for something, and to say “Thank you” when they get it. Yet you can get a gift and use that gift and love that gift without ever saying, “Thank you.” Giving thanks isn’t about the gift. Giving thanks is about the giver. You say “Thank you” to someone. Saying “Thank you” acknowledges that there is another person involved. Giving thanks establishes a relationship. If we as a nation are giving thanks over this weekend, Covid or not, then somewhere wrapped up in all of it is the question of whom we are thanking.
Now we Canadians don’t always acknowledge this but the first well known Thanksgiving celebration took place in Massachusetts among the Pilgrims in 1621,and there was no question whatsoever as to whom they were thanking. They were thanking God. It was a day and a feast set aside for the express purpose of thanking God. The colony was new and survival was anything but certain. Colonial settlements had collapsed or given up or just plain vanished. The colonists had learned to adapt to the climate of their new home. They were in good shape, with enough shelter and enough food to survive the harsh New England winter. The colonists were Puritans, a conservative group of Christian believers. God had clearly blessed them and they knew it. They had been taken care of and given gifts, so they gave thanks.
But that was 1621. What about 1622? What is somewhat less well known is that there was no Thanksgiving celebration in 1622. The harvest was not so good the next year and so the colonists were going into the winter with more fear and much less security. The Puritans had concluded that God had not chosen to bless them that year and so a feast of Thanksgiving would not have been in order. To the Puritans, Thanksgiving was not an automatic celebration that happened every year in and year out no matter what. They gave thanks in times of plenty. They repented in times of want.
But we are not the Puritans! Unlike the Puritans, we celebrate Thanksgiving annually. That in itself, raises another question. If we are thankful every year, right on schedule, then what is it we are giving thanks for? Not every year is a good year. Given Covid how would you rate 2020? Sometimes things are going great for ourselves, our loved ones, our country. Sometimes there is health and happiness everywhere you look. Sometimes there is peace and plenty. Sometimes, but not always.
There are other times when serious matters like climate change, and racial injustice, and political strife, and most especially a pandemic called Covid-19 dominates our thoughts and our days and our headlines. These days are filled with worry and sickness for some, dysfunction and anxiety for others. Yet here we are in October and Thanksgiving still comes.
So what is it that we are giving thanks for this year? Do we give thanks for our material blessings? Absolutely we should and absolutely we do, although good fortune comes and goes. Do we give thanks for the people that we love and that love us? Of course, we do, knowing well that families and friendships have good times and bad, that people come into our lives and people move out of our lives. Tragedy and heartache can come upon us at any time. We don’t know what will happen. Whoever foresaw this pandemic last October?
And what makes us so certain that there will be something to give thanks for next October? Why do calendars come already printed in the confidence that there will be reason for gratitude next year? There is, in fact, a rather simple answer to that question. We schedule Thanksgiving every year because there is no doubt that there will be something to be thankful for every year.
Dear friends in Christ, even in the midst of catastrophe, even in the midst of a pandemic, there are blessings. Is this just optimism? Is this nothing more than a perky, Pollyanna attitude? A happy can-do attitude? No! We can say with certainty that we will always have blessings to count because we know what those blessings are. God loves us no matter what and God loves us most perfectly in Jesus Christ and that God cares for each of us to the core of our being. That was true last year and it’ll be true next year. All of us are God’s children. All of us. Always there is mercy. Always there is life. God gives us purpose. God gives us a future. We are never alone. God gives us each other. God opens our eyes and opens our hearts and gives us the strength and the will to care for each other.
Whether we have much or whether we have little these things don’t change. When our hearts are joyful and when our hearts are breaking, God always loves us. God never forsakes or forgets us. We are never abandoned. We are never alone.
So, my friends, let us give thanks. Let us give thanks with our words or in the silence of our hearts. Let us give thanks with our time. Let us give thanks with our thoughts and our emotions and our love for our neighbour. Always,every year and every day and every minute,we have reason to give thanks.
In the name of the God who loves us all. Amen.
Rev. Douglas Reble
Assistant to the Bishop