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Thanksgiving Eve Sermon 2013

FIRST LESSON: Deuteronomy 26:1–11

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

PSALM: Psalm 100

Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands; serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song. 2Know this: The LORD himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. 3Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his name. 4For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

SECOND LESSON: Philippians 4:4–9

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

GOSPEL: John 6:25–35

25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.


As always, it’s a real pleasure to get together with you as family and friends on this eve of a truly wonderful celebration and as we gather as God’s children, to observe a time-honored American tradition. What’s more we’ve gathered for worship and to thank God for the many blessing we’ve enjoyed this past year and to give thanks for God’s continued blessings in the coming year. And as our Communion liturgy reminds us, it is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give God our thanks and praise. Not just one day a year, but each and every day. Tomorrow might be a uniquely American holiday, but as Christians, we have a lot to be grateful for. However, this evening I plan to do something that might surprise you a bit, since I plan to begin this sermon by telling you a story that could be labeled as downright un-American and blatantly non-Christian.
But what’s more interesting is, it’s possible, that if I hadn’t said anything, you might have listened to this story and may not have noticed anything unusual. In fact, even though I’ve brought this to your attention, it may still be difficult for you to detect what it is that’s so un-American and non-Christian about this story. With that said, I encourage you to listen closely and see if you can figure it out.
It was that time of year again. It was thanksgiving time. The harvest was now complete and businesses and schools had closed for the break. Not all, but most people had taken time off from work. After all, it was a national holiday. And in keeping with tradition, there would be a special worship service, just like there was every year. In addition to the traveling and making special preparations, people would once again have the opportunity to worship. This story looks at three very religious people who lived in a rural community.
More specifically, it’s a story about three people who chose to attend the annual thanksgiving worship service. Now, to protect the innocent as they say, we’ll call these three by the names of Liz, Sam and Joe. All three live in the country and each of them is involved in farming. However, what differs about these individuals is that each of them has their own view of what it means to be “thankful” for the harvest that’s now out of the field and in the barns. Liz doesn’t actually do farm work herself; she’s married to a farmer. Her husband farms a very large plot of land and this past year they did very well. You could even say that they enjoyed a bumper crop this season. As faithful worshippers, they plan to honor God and tithe a full ten percent of everything that they received from the harvest. And considering the size of this year’s crop, giving away ten percent means giving away a lot, but they don’t mind. Even after giving so much in their offering, they still feel blessed as they still have the remaining nine-tenths. And as far as they’re concerned, it’s more than enough to make them quite wealthy and, for that, they’re very thankful. Sam too, is a farmer.
He farms a much smaller area than Liz’s husband does. But for whatever reason, Sam’s crop wasn’t as good this year. Sam’s barn is pretty small to begin with, but, even so, his harvest didn’t come close to filling it. Nonetheless, Sam is also faithful in giving his tithe every year. Discouraged as he is by how little he received from the land, he too plans to attend the special worship service. He too will offer his tithe and give thanks for what crops he does have. Finally, there’s Joe.
Joe is a very young farmer. Some of his friends tease him about being more of a “nature lover” than a farmer. He sometimes goes out to his field and just looks at the earth. He stands in awe as he watches the miracle of planted seeds sprouting from the ground. As Joe brings his tithe to the special worship service, he does so conscious of the magical wonder that is bound up in the process of planting and harvesting. Each of these three approaches the worship service with a little different view of thankfulness. We could say that Liz is “happy thankful”; Sam is “discouraged thankful” and Joe is “awe-struck thankful.” Yet, even though their viewpoints vary somewhat from each other, they each attend the thanksgiving worship service with the same thing in mind.
Each goes to worship expecting it to be a time to offer God their thanks and their tithe. However, when they actually get to the worship, they discover, that this year, there’s more going on — much more. The worship turns out not only to be a time for them to give their offering and speak a prayer of thanks, but this year’s worship now includes, “the creed” — and that changes everything. Attending this thanksgiving worship, Liz, Sam and Joe each discover that there’s far more going on than they had realized. The end. So what did you think?
Was it as bad as I led you to expect, or did it actually seem like a fairly nice story? My guess is, that for many people it probably sounded simply like a story about some pretty nice, fairly generous, “church-going” people. And if you’re having a hard time figuring out what was so non-Christian and so un-American about it, allow me to fill in the blanks. First, the “creed” that was said in the worship service wasn’t the Apostles’ Creed. Nor was it the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed or any other Christian creed for that matter. In fact, Liz, Sam and Joe weren’t attending a Christian worship service at all. And here’s the second clue, yes they were attending a harvest time, thanksgiving worship service all right, but it had nothing to do with our American Thanksgiving. The three worshippers in the story aren’t even Americans. None of them lived anywhere near America. Nor did they worship in a time that was anywhere close to the 20th century.
Although it may have sounded like it was a story about an American Thanksgiving worship service, it was actually a story about three Hebrew people attending the “feast of the first fruits” in Jerusalem, centuries before the birth of Christ. Therefore, such an event couldn’t possibly be Christian and it certainly wasn’t an American tradition. The 26th chapter of Deuteronomy, the chapter which prescribes the worship for this ancient Hebrew festival, is the appointed Old Testament lesson which was read a few moments ago as we began our Thanksgiving eve worship service. So what, we might ask is, could this text possibly have to say to our situation? The “feast of first fruits,” described by our Deuteronomy text, is also called by other names in scripture. It’s sometimes called “the feast of harvest,” and sometimes “the feast of weeks.”
The date of the festival was set by counting seven weeks from the time the sickle was put to the standing grain (Deuteronomy 16:9). Since it was celebrated on the 50th day after the beginning of the harvest, it was later given the name “Pentecost,” since the Greek word pentacosta means 50. And yes, it’s the same harvest festival that was taking place when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples and others in the second chapter of Acts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The story of the three farmers is a story about people attending this “feast of the first fruits.” Liz, Sam and Joe are just pseudonyms I gave them, it’s more likely they would have been called by their much longer Hebrew names of Elizabeth, Samuel and Joseph. The particular characters, along with their scenarios, are just something made up for the story, but the worship service I described them attending was not fictitious. After the ancient Hebrews finished the harvest each year, they took off work and traveled to Jerusalem to give a tithe of their crops.
The Bible says the thanksgiving ceremony consisted of putting the first fruits of one’s harvest in a basket and going to the central sanctuary to offer it before Yahweh. Once that was done, this ancient agricultural ceremony of first fruits was ended. Or, we should probably say, that’s how it worked each year until the writer of Deuteronomy announced to the people, that now there was to be something more involved in the ceremony. The “something more” was a creed that the people were to memorize and repeat in the priest’s hearing when the first fruits were offered.
This creed, this statement of belief, consisted of a brief history of what God had done for them. What’s happening in our text is that the writer of Deuteronomy is taking a perfectly fine ceremony of thanksgiving, and is saying to the people: “There’s more!” The message to the people is that now the harvest festival is not only about giving thanks for material things, it’s also to be a time for remembering who God is. And that’s not all. It’s also to be a time to discover who they, themselves, are as a people in relationship with this God. It turns out that the writer of Deuteronomy intends for the whole thing to be quite a bit more than just an expression of thankfulness for material blessings. In our text we read how the writer of Deuteronomy tells the people to recite one of the most ancient of all creeds. It’s a brief, but dramatic, history of what God has done for the people.
It tells how God delivered the people from bondage in Egypt and how God later gave them the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 26:5-9). When we read this creed carefully, we discover that the word choices used in the creed are very significant. The creed begins, “A wandering Aramean, that is Jacob, was my ancestor.” It starts by the speaker looking back into the past from their vantage point in the present. But as the creed continues, the speaker chooses words that eliminate the distance between the past and the present. When talking about their ancestors’ time of bondage, the worshipper doesn’t say, “When the Egyptians treated them harshly and afflicted them …” Instead, the worshipper says, “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us …” (Deuteronomy 26:6). The creed moves from being simply a record of history about someone else to becoming the worshipper’s own story.
It’s so much their own story, that they speak as if they were actually present when it all happened. “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deuteronomy 26:8). It becomes more than just a creed. It becomes a personal creed, a statement of personal belief born out of a first-hand experience. The instruction to include this recitation of the history of God’s mighty acts for the worshipper, makes the first fruits ceremony quite a bit more than just an expression of thankfulness for material blessings. And now, this ancient text, this set of instructions given to people living thousands of years ago, this set of instructions telling them how to properly observe the “feast of first fruits” in the Jerusalem temple, is the text for our contemporary American Thanksgiving service. It’s rather amazing when you think about it.
Yet, as strange as it might seem at first, it’s actually a wonderful text for American Christians to be reading on this Thanksgiving eve. It’s a good text for this occasion, because it takes a perfectly fine holiday and says: There’s more. Let me first be very clear by saying that I believe that Thanksgiving Day in the USA is indeed a perfectly good holiday. It’s good for us as a country to reflect on our national history. It’s good to teach our children about the pilgrims thanking God in a meal celebrating the harvest. It’s good that people throughout the land are remembering and giving thanks for all God’s blessings to them. Some, like Liz in the story, have received much and it’s good for them to offer God their word of thanks. Others, like Sam, may be discouraged that they have less than their neighbor, but their words of thanks to God, for what they do have, are no less important. Even the smallest blessing is a gift which merits our thanks. This day can also serve as an occasion for us to pause, like Joe, and reflect on the wonder and miraculous glory that is a part of every gift that we experience in and through God’s creation. Thanksgiving Day is a perfectly good holiday for our country, just as the “feast of first fruits” was a perfectly good holiday for the children of Israel.
Because of that, our Old Testament reading for this evening is an excellent text, because it does, for us, exactly what it did for the Hebrew people centuries ago. It takes a perfectly fine holiday and says, there’s more! It may be non-American and pre-Christian, but this text, concerning a thanksgiving festival, can remind us as American Christians, that today is not only a time to remember all God’s material gifts to us, it’s also a time to remember who God is and who we are as a people who have been brought into a relationship with that God. If this text does that for us, that’s definitely more than a simple nod of the head while saying grace before devouring a turkey dinner.
When Deuteronomy included the creed in the first fruits celebration, it was including a powerful piece of history. In addition to giving thanks to God for the gift of material blessings, it also enabled the people to perceive the much wider wealth of God’s goodness toward them. But most importantly, it focused on the fact that it’s a loving God that provided the miracle of growth and harvest so the people could eat and live. But the purpose of the creed was to do even more.
The intent of the creed was to remind the people that this same God that blessed them materially had also delivered them from bondage in Egypt and had given them the freedom and prosperity of the Promised Land. The creeds of God’s church, in our time, enable us also to perceive the wide wealth of God’s goodness. That we’ve been delivered from the bondage of sin and we’ve been given the peace and joy that comes to us in Christ. The writer of Deuteronomy calls us to use our Thanksgiving eve worship as a time to acknowledge far more than merely our thankfulness for God’s material blessings, it’s also a call to reflect on the full story of God’s action in history. From our vantage point in time, we know even more of the wonderful story of what God is up to in the world.
The creeds of the Christian era, speak of even more of God’s saving action than the ancient creed recorded in our text. The creeds, of God’s church today, acknowledge the glorious history of the Creator who brought us and all things into being; they acknowledge Jesus Christ who recreated us with the gift of new life and the forgiveness of our sins; and they acknowledge the Spirit, the “giver of life,” who renews and sustains us through our baptism. Even though the American story of the pilgrims’ thankfulness to God for their first harvest is an important part of our Thanksgiving Day tradition, there’s definitely more. The story of the first Thanksgiving is a fine and good story in our nation’s history, but “the best” Thanksgiving story is the story of what God has done in the history of humankind. And the best part, of “the best” story, is that it’s our story.
It’s a story that tells us “who” we are by telling us “whose” we are. As American Christians and citizens of this country, it’s good for us to recall the history of the first Thanksgiving Day observed by early American settlers and it’s good to speak our own thankfulness to God for all the blessings we enjoy in this land. It’s good for us to give thanks whether we feel we’ve been given a lot or a little. But there’s more. As citizens of God’s kingdom we also recall the history of God’s deliverance to the people of the past and to us.
It’s in the record of God’s loving acts as Creator, Christ and Spirit that we experience the much wider wealth of God’s goodness. In the marvelous history of God’s loving action, which is recorded in the church’s creeds of today, we remember the culminating act of God’s love for us in the story of Jesus Christ. “His story is the climax of all “history.” As recipients of God’s endless goodness and mercy, it is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to God, because “His story” is indeed the best story, not only for Americans, but for everyone. Thanks be to God!

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