Thanksgiving

A SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV. NILS CHITTENDEN

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2016 AT ST. NERSESS' SEMINARY, ARMONK

I have a very old, and very large, prayer book from England dating from the first half of the 19th century. It is, in fact, a copy of the state-sanctioned Book of Common Prayer, which was created in 1662 by the British government as the prayer book that all people in England would use. In fact, it is still the authorized, state-sanctioned prayer book used by the Church of England to this day.

It has undergone a number of revisions, where some of what were later deemed rather egregious liturgies were removed. One of those was the Liturgy for Thanksgiving for Deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot. 

If your British history is a little rusty, then a quick reminder. The Gunpowder Plot was a scheme in 1605 by those we would now call religious extremists – even who we might label terrorists – to overthrow the entire ruling class of England and Scotland by detonating a huge explosion which would have obliterated the Houses of Parliament in London. Fortunately, the plot was discovered, and stopped, and bloodshed was averted. 

 The statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament (the Palace of Westminster) in London

The statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament (the Palace of Westminster) in London

What was not averted, of course, was religious intolerance, which ramped up considerably after 1605. This point in English history was not a good time to have Catholic sympathies. But things would change. The monarch at that point, James I, was replaced by Charles I, who was much more sympathetic. He had some other issues, too, and he eventually lost his head, quite literally. And so England became, for a few years, a republic. Technically, it became a Commonwealth, run by Puritans like Oliver Cromwell. 

Cromwell was not a big fan of fun, and was very suspicious of the old medieval calendar of religious high holy days, with their feasting and drinking and carousing and dancing. And so, for a brief while at least, Christmas and Easter, as public observances, were banned and, instead, more days of Thanksgiving were instituted. These were days on which fasting was to be observed, rather than feasting.

When the British monarchy was restored in the year 1660, all of that Puritan stuff went out of the window and one can only imagine what Christmas that year was like. So, for the Puritans and other non-conformists in England and Scotland, getting out of the place was quite high on their list of New Year resolutions at the start of 1661.

Brits (and other Europeans) had, of course, been getting out of Europe for some years before 1661. The Church of England had not been fussy about its discrimination against others that did not toe the line, and that applied both to Catholics and to Protestants who did not conform to the Church of England. 

And so it was that many Brits ended up on these shores in search of religious liberty. And by the 1660s, in this country, observances of Thanksgivings as community events had really begun to take hold. 

To have thanksgivings like the ones they’d dreamed of, rather than the epic Bacchanalian blowouts of medieval Christmas or other Christian feasts, was very much part of the Puritan psyche. 

Specifically, I think, it was a marking, as much as anything else, of the link between ‘what one puts in’ and ‘what one gets out’. Strongly embedded in the Puritan psyche was the notion that thankfulness was tied to hard work and striving endeavor and not a party just for the sake of having a party one had not sweated to earn.

So, one can imagine that there was a certain satisfaction for the Puritans that they had not only escaped the medieval world of Europe, and had escaped the terrors of the persecutions against them, but that they were able to construct a world around them – up and down this eastern seaboard – that embodied their world view.

So it was, then that the earliest manifestation of the holiday we will be celebrating this week was to mark the successful gathering in of the results of hard work: the in-gathering of the harvest. It was said to have been held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, sometime between 21st September and 11th November. Most likely it was held around the end of September, since that would have logically tied in with the point of the year at which the crops would have been safely harvested and in-gathered, and it would have been in the tradition, which I mentioned earlier, of this idea of, from time to time, calling for a day to be set aside in gratitude for God’s providence. 

The First Thanksgiving, 1621 by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Thus, these customs of calling for days of gratitude to God for his providence in providing a successful harvest became ingrained in the lives of the new communities being set up in America and, as we know, once we have done something more than twice, it becomes a tradition.

So it was natural that when the British oppressor was overthrown in 1776, there was much to be thankful for here in the former colonies, and a special day of thanksgiving for God’s providence in this regard or, as the congressional proclamation of 1782 put it, a day for consideration of the ‘many instances of Divine goodness’ and ‘the present happy and promising state of public affairs’. 

Of course, the Revolutionary War had left this nation not only ravaged and exhausted but divided as well. The observance of Thanksgivings did not pretend that everything was perfect, but that, even in the midst of difficulties, tribulations and hardships, there was still much to be thankful for.

When Abraham Lincoln was faced with a similar situation in late 1863, as his country was riven by unprecedented and devastating internal conflict one might not have thought this the best time to dwell on a spirit of gratitude, yet it was at this point that the modern observance of Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday in November, was instituted. 

Whilst Lincoln’s motivations were of course complex, I would suggest that he truly believed that there was always, no matter what the circumstances, so very much to be thankful for. 

 Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner (November 1869), by Thomas Nast

Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner (November 1869), by Thomas Nast

Lincoln also dreamed, as did the Revolutionary War leaders, that for a nation to pause at the same time, together, to be grateful for blessings in the midst of turmoil, was not only cathartic but essential for the health and well-being of the nation.

There have always, sadly, been many deep divisions in this country, and it remains ever thus. I would ask us this week – and beyond – to be thankful that despite everything, there is always so much more that unites us than divides us. Isn’t that something to be thankful for? And I would ask us this week – and beyond – to remember that every single person on this earth – with no exceptions whatsoever – is made in the very image and likeness of God and is deeply cherished by God and infinitely precious to God. Isn’t that something to be thankful for?

Last night I went to the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville for the screening of a very remarkable documentary called ‘Disturbing the Peace’. If you have the opportunity to see it – I urge you to do so. The film, made over a four-year period, interposes archival footage of the modern history of the Holy Land with the personal stories of eight men and women who were at one time armed combatants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and who now are committed peace activists. Each of them had spent years entrenched in their own community and its cause, driven by deep anger at the injustice of their respective situations to a point where they no longer saw the humanity of their opponents, but simply saw them as evil agents of the opposing forces. So, even though they were then asked to do unspeakably inhumane things by their respective communities and causes, they were able to do so because they had, as it were, been inoculated against having any empathy or feeling for those they opposed. One by one in the film each of these armed combatants has an epiphany – a vision of clarity – that changed their lives forever. 

The stories that each of them told were visceral and sometimes gruesome at the start, and then profoundly hopeful and inspiring by the end. At the end of the screening, the film-maker, Stephen Apkon, came down to the front to speak, and then told us that in fact two of the eight people whose stories he’d told were in the theatre with us, and they, too, came down to the front. One man - Sulaiman Khatib, had joined ‘Fatah’ when he was 12 years old, and then, at age 13 had spent 10 years in an Israeli jail. The other was Avner Wishnitzer, raised in a kibbutz and for four years a member of the elite Sayaret Matkal unit of the Israeli army. Both in the film, and in person, they spoke of the hatred that they had previously had for each other’s communities and causes, and how at one time they would have been not the slightest bit moved by the death of someone from the other side. But slowly they allowed themselves to be changed, to the point where they are now devoted friends. Have they solved the crisis of the Holy Land? No. Have they come up with a solution that will allow all of the people of Israel and the Palestinian Territories to live in peaceful, prosperous lives? No. Do they agree on everything now? No. Not at all. But do they now see each other’s humanity? Yes. Very much so. And this Thanksgiving, I will be thankful for them, and that they are taking enormous risks in order to recognize common humanity.

I left the movie theater feeling a profound sense of hope – almost elation – that despite all of the challenges that face us in both our own lives, and those of our neighborhood and our world, evil would never have the last word. And I was reminded of the end of the poem, ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann, 

“You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. 
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
 
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.”

And for that, we have much to be thankful.

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