As we come upon the holiday season, and it seems too often that it comes on just like big blur of commercials to buy things, we should always take time to remember the actual purpose of the season. Not just to get some days off of work, and sit back and eat and relax and watch movies and sports. That is nice don’t get me wrong. I will be sitting on a beach in Florida over Thanksgiving if things go according to plan. And I am grateful for that. But in fact, the formalization of the holiday as a National Holiday makes our commercialization of it somewhat ironic. It is true George Washington made a proclamation to celebrate Thanksgiving
"as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
Sadly not the safety and happiness of everyone, most certainly not the Slaves. Over the subsequent years many states enacted laws making it a legal holiday. In some states it was celebrated in October, in others it was celebrated in January. It was one woman, Sarah J. Hale who for 17years advocated obsessively to make it a National Holiday.
As a side note, Hale is best known for writing the poem “Mary had a little lamb” Hale said.
“it would be better to have the day so fixed by the expression of public sentiment that no discord would be possible, but, from Maine to Mexico, from Plymouth Rock to Sunset Sea, the hymn of thanksgiving should be simultaneously raised, as the pledge of friendship in the enjoyment of God’s blessings during the year.“
She was inexhaustible, writing op-eds, editorials in her magazines, speaking to politicians, using every political connection she had to encourage five Presidents, before her dream became a reality. So first I want to say, it goes to show what one person with perseverance and persistence can accomplish. Secondly, I wonder what else she could have accomplished with all that energy. President Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War in 1863 issued the Proclamation making Thanksgiving a National Holiday stating
“rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, ….care for all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
Now this was during the civil war and I imagine Lincoln was trying to find something to bring people together. In our current context of the holiday I was surprised that by his call for Thanksgiving to be a time of justice, to care for the widows orphans mourners and sufferers. This holiday was a call for a healing and a binding the wounded not being stampeded waiting outside WalMart and wrapping of the presents. That is what we needed then as a country. We were torn apart. In 1941Franklin Roosevelt changed it from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday with the intentional hope that it would help the economy. Perhaps that is what we needed then in our country, coming out of a long economic depression and entering WWII. So that was then, this is now. Let us consciously think about what it is we need as a country. There are times I feel we are still torn apart as a country. We have reached a tipping point where the arc of justice is tipping towards justice and the last vestiges of a time of segregation and discrimination and polarization are pulling as hard as they can to drag us back to a time when power was less distributed and a time when people felt powerless. The truth is that is what Sarah Hale shows us. The most committed wins. Nothing is a given.
On this day when some among you have committed to become members of this Congregation I think it is important to speak of commitment. (First I say that all who are here today with the weather the way it is, are truly committed!!) What are we committed to. In the new member class I ask prospective members as I do all members to be committed to regular attendance, to serve the congregation, to serve the larger community, to develop their religious life, to generosity, and to be in right relationship with other members. Of course everyone comes to this Congregation with different reasons and in different contexts. I know different people are on different parts of the path of their life journey and their religious journey. But no matter where we are on our journey, let us not be complacent. Let us not be complacent in the world at large or in our religious lives. I think about what I just said, “The most committed wins” and I think wins what? Is life a game to be won, a puzzle to be solved, or as Einstein would say, a mystery to be explored. Whatever your answer, whatever your path, wherever you are on the path, I encourage you to do everything you do with a sense of as Lincoln said, that will lead to peace harmony tranquility and Union.
And as we come upon this Thanksgiving holiday, I ask you to look within yourself and ask yourself are you doing all you can with sense of Thanksgiving and praise. That’s not always an easy thing to do. It is easy to get discouraged in the world today, amidst political attack ads and challenges to our world that at times can seem overwhelming. In the face of all this, we must act in ways that tilt the scale toward justice. It is easy to succumb to the onslaught of bad news, but we mustn’t forget that there is much good going on in the world as well. So we must be sure to put the good in front of us as well, so that the good can become and remain a part of our being.
I see the good being lived out in this Congregation all the time. It is why we must replenish our souls, it is why we come back here week after week, it is why our principles call us to build up our religious and spiritual lives. We do this so that we can learn, no, remember our best true selves. And we can do this with the practice of living our lives with a concept of disciplined gratitude in all that we do and making gratitude a part of our very being. I think that is what this holiday calls us to do. On Facebook recently I have seen a number of friends participating in a Gratitude Practice. They are asked each day to post what they are grateful for. I encourage you to try this.
If you are on facebook, I have set up an event on our Congregational Facebook page for you to join and to post what you are grateful for. Its easy to do, but I also ask, even if you aren’t on Facebook or choose not to share to do this for yourself. After the first couple of days of listing easy ones, such as I am alive, or I have food to eat or for my partner who cooks me an apple pie on my birthday. On those days, especially on those days when you are struggling, struggling with someone, or something, whether it be a relationship or your health, or the heater breaking down, on those days, I ask you to look at the things you are struggling with and see what you can find to be grateful for.
Now I am not asking you to live in what I would call comparative gratitude. By this I mean understanding our relative position to others in the world. I was thinking about this when I watched a recent sixty minutes episode of the Lost Boys of Sudan. These boys some as young as 7 years old after their villages were destroyed walked from Sudan to Ethiopia where they were expelled from only to walk to Kenya where then some 2,000 made their way to America. These children came here and hadn’t known what electricity was, what a fork and knife let alone tv was. And they are jubilant to be here, and now after 12 or 13 years, many are succeeding greatly, others struggling to adapt. I was moved when one of the boys said he felt they were kept alive to be witness to what had happened in their homeland. So it is easy to look at them and become very grateful for what we have. But comparative gratefulness tends to only lead us to feelings of guilt as opposed to gratefulness. It is too easy to shut ourselves off from the world around us and become insular and by so doing we lose our perspective. We must be engaged in the world to maintain gratefulness. And comparative gratefulness can come from looking at ourselves, and seeing how we have changed and even improved. I see this in our country in the area of race relations. We have improved since slavery and Jim Crow, but being grateful for such a comparison can lead us to become complacent and lessen our commitment for how far we still have to go. Yes it is better, we have even elected an African American President, but we are have not gone far enough. I am not grateful for the state of our race relations when a young person of color can still be gunned down while surrendering to police. I am grateful that we can have a dialogue about it, I am grateful that we can be witness to it, I am grateful that we will not rest until justice prevails and the pendulum has passed the tipping point. So how do we live in a constant state of gratefulness?
For if we should not be grateful in comparison to others, or in comparison to our past, we must be grateful for what we have in the here and now. University of Houston research professor Brené Brown , "I don't have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness -- it's right in front of me if I'm paying attention and practicing gratitude." There have actually been scientific studies that show that .” Robert A. Emmons, a PhD and professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis studies have shown that Gratitude magnifies positive emotions and can block negative toxic emotions.
His studies also show that people who practice gratitude are more stress resistant and have a higher sense of self worth. But I want to point out what I think we often confuse when thinking about gratitude. We often think only about us, about how we feel. That is being grateful.
What I also speak to you about today is not just being grateful, but how do we show gratitude. How do we act with gratefulness in the world when sometimes we feel the world does not deserve it. How do we in the face of our own challenges reach out to help the orphan, the widow, the mourners. To live with gratefulness in our heart and live our life with gratefulness in our actions is truly to understand as our opening hymn says that all life is a gift. For all that is our life, the joy, the sorrow, the work, the resting, let us come together, and build the common good. That is how we show gratitude. Have an intentionally happy and grateful Thanksgiving. May it be so.