Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Sermon for Thanksgiving Day

A Somewhat Unconventional One

I have to confess that when I began preparation for this sermon I had somewhat hazy ideas about the evolution of the American national holiday of Thanksgiving, but I could never have ended a piece on the history of Thanksgiving that I found on a Web site with the resounding words: “Thanks to the Pilgrims, we have greater freedom in religion & government today”. As so often happens, a persecuted minority became persecutors almost as soon as they established authority over others, and the idea that the Puritans promoted “freedom of religion” is, to say the least, ludicrous.

Outside the Covenant
Innumerable ironies emerge as one considers the idealized version of that first Thanksgiving. That it was the harvest festival of the old England transplanted to New England and lasted three days seems historically accurate. The first irony is that it was made possible by the Indians whose land the new settlers had (to put it delicately) acquired. It was the Indians who taught these largely middles class, extremely narrow-minded academics how to farm in the new world. My historian wife gave me some details I didn’t know: the Separatists would not have made it through the first winter without substantial aid from the Indians; they would not have managed as farmers without significant help, for example, the practice of planting maize (corn) with a few small fish to act as fertilizer; they relied on help, too, to identify native plants that were edible and not dangerous. In spite of all this, it was not long before the majority asserted the very kind of theology that had made them such a pain in England. Indians were heathen, not part of the covenant and certainly not be included among the Saints who had come to found a “city set on the hill”, the New Jerusalem.

Still With Us
And a second irony is that while this early exclusivism did not by any means become the dominant element of the new nation, it has repeatedly re-appeared in our national life. The attempts of the Evangelical Christian Right have many echoes of the Pilgrim Fathers’ attitudes: rigid control of private and familial behavior; devaluation of other faiths; interpreting misfortune and sickness as divine judgment are but a few of the traits that indicate the parentage of the contemporary Religious right. However, the myth of the brave founders marched on: George Washington declared a national thanksgiving in 1789, though many opposed to it, thinking hardships of a few pilgrims did not warrant a national thanksgiving, and, of course, Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea. Still, finally, in 1863, Lincoln proclaimed the final Thursday in November to be kept as a national holiday.
This quick over-view of the early history of the Thanksgiving celebration leaves us with a rather bleak view, and suggests that the focus of our thanksgivings should be not so much on the institutionalized celebration of Thanksgiving Day, which, in any case, has lost much of its God-centered emphasis, overwhelmed by a fair amount of jingoism, the kind of “my country right or wrong” attitude, as on the elements in our contemporary life for which we can be ‘truly thankful’.

The (much maligned) Enlightenment
The modern historical method that presents for us this somewhat deflating picture also has a much more positive side: it does more than expose beloved myths as romantic fabrications. The way we now study history is part of a much wider movement that has, since the beginnings of modern science in the seventeenth century, revealed to us amazing new insights into the physical world. The move from knowledge based on assumptions (philosophers call it an a priori approach), to that based on observation and rigorous checking methods (an a posteriori approach) produced, firstly a new understanding of the universe in which we live, and, secondly, a whole new way of understanding the past which included the ability to read the bible with new eyes: we can hear the teaching of Jesus as it has been translated for us anew by the patient work of critical scholars in the last two centuries. They have revealed for us a man who was the very opposite of exclusive and whose teaching was often aimed at people who held precisely the views of the Pilgrim father and their successors.

As I look more closely at the two areas of science and history, I find more than enough to provide an out-pouring of thanks: for the Christian that giving of thanks is not merely the very human response to good fortune, a kind of psychological mechanism that reacts to good gifts in the face of the fragility of humanity. It is, rather an outpouring of thanks to God who we believe under-pins our whole universe and our individual lives and in whom we trust.

The Gifts of Science
For me personally, these two movements of the last centuries are central to my thanksgivings today, joining, perhaps, supreme thanks we all give for family and friendship at this time.

It is hard to know where to start in giving thanks for the work of the great army of patient, and often persecuted scientists: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Darwin, Lister, Pasteur, Heisenberg. Some of these scientists have enabled us to look out into far space or into the microscopic structures of nature; others have applied scientific results to medicine and the understanding of our environment. They have removed, at least for more fortunate parts of the world the absolute dread that was connected with the word “hospital” right up until the middle of the 19th century. Missing out innumerable others we might end with Watson and Crick who made possible the whole contemporary knowledge of genetics with its promise of alleviating much human suffering.

The Insights of Historical Biblical Study
Although there are elements in the scientific developments of the last two centuries that the contemporary religious conservatives reject, - notoriously, on the theoretical level Darwin’s conclusions, and on the practical, genetic research, - on the whole they embrace modernity. They expect painless dentistry, and organize vast TV networks that use the most up-to-date electronic technology.
It is in the other area where I want most to give thanks that the successors of the Pilgrim Fathers can find no reason so to do. I give thanks for the patient and, often, laborious work of scholars who have enabled us to see Jesus more clearly. If you have ever seen a great painting after careful and expert restoration, you will get the idea. In one area above all others, our understanding has been enlightened: we now know that Jesus was not an excluder, that he did not say that only Christians were acceptable to God: on the contrary, he welcomed above all others the outcast and despised of society.
So much more could be said, but I will give just one more illustration of how we have been enabled to see new perspectives in the scriptures, perspectives given us given by careful historical research, and it is one that is most appropriate for Thanksgiving Day. Bible scholar Virginia Ramey Mollenkott found many kinds of families in the Bible. In each instance, she wrote, “the Biblically based family value is to value family”. Where there is love, commitment, and the will to be a family, there is family. And there, in the midst, is God, to whom we all give thanks for our families.

Our Father
The excellent paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Zealand Prayer Book seems to me to sum up many of the insights of which I have spoken: it is inclusive, it recognizes the mystery of the Godhead and it speaks of a commonwealth very different from the Township of Plimouth of 1621. It suggests a move from the attitude that the “dogma is the datum” to an attempt to hear anew the things that Jesus is saying to us in the power of the Spirit.

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

[Let] The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
[Let] The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. AMEN.

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