My family and I moved to Sherman in July 2013, which means that this is our fifth holiday season here. And I want to tell you that this congregation has given me a new way of identifying the official start of the holidays. For me these days, the holidays officially begin eight days before Thanksgiving. Which is, as I’m sure you know if you’ve been here for a while, the day of our All-Church Thanksgiving feast.
And I’ll be even more specific than that. For me these days, the holidays officially start when I walk down the halls of our church the Wednesday morning of All-Church Thanksgiving. Because I can smell dinner cooking, and it smells like Thanksgiving.
You may know that we’re incredibly blessed as a congregation to have a trio of gourmet chefs who make the turkey and dressing for us. Chris Waddell, Kevin Harden, and Melinda Loyd spend all day preparing the feature dishes for Thanksgiving dinner. Which means that all through the work day, I get to pass through the kitchen at random intervals, checking on progress and enjoying the first smells of the season. This past Wednesday, it got me in such a great mood that I went to my office, closed the door, and turned on the “Classic Christmas station on Spotify.”
That evening at 6pm, 200 of us gathered over in the Christ Community Life Center, in our perfectly air conditioned and wonderfully comfortable gym, to hear our children’s choirs sing, to pray together, and to enjoy each other’s company over the first holiday meal of the season. Friends, it’s good to be the Church. It’s even better to be this congregation. And for me these days, the holiday season officially begins with our All-Church Thanksgiving. (Incidentally, I got to enjoy my second Thanksgiving meal two days later, when our School for Little People Preschool hosted another 175 people for their Thanksgiving lunch!)
I’m guessing we all know at least the basics of the story of the first Thanksgiving. How in 1621, pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony shared a celebratory meal with the local Wampanoag Indians, who had helped them survive their first harrowing year in the New World. Actually, it was not just a meal. In honor of their first successful harvest, the pilgrims hosted a three-day Thanksgiving festival.
The menu was very different than what we’ll all eat on Thursday. Lobster, seal, swan, and deer were on that first menu in 1621. Believe it or not, turkey was not served. And because they had no ovens and their sugar supply was almost gone, neither pumpkin pie nor any other baked good was on that first menu. Nor were potatoes, which hadn’t yet been introduced in New England.
The pilgrims actually did not intend to make Thanksgiving an annual event, and it was not celebrated in 1622. For more than a century and a half, Thanksgiving celebrations around harvest time were locally decided, and happened on a variety days in the fall, if they were held at all. In 1789, President George Washington declared the first National Thanksgiving holiday. But it was not until 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day would be observed each November. And it was not until 1941 that President Franklin Roosevelt signed a law declaring the fourth Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving. (If you’re wondering, it was not until 1989 that the first presidential pardon of a turkey was issued, by President George H. W. Bush, in what has become an annual tradition.)
Now, if you’ve known me for even a little while, you know that Christmas Eve is my very favorite day of the entire year. (Just five weeks from today if you’re counting!) But this week — Thanksgiving week — has always had a special place in my heart. In fact, if I’m ranking the 52 weeks of the year, Thanksgiving week has always been my favorite week.
It’s about family. And food. And football. And holiday traditions. And decorating for Christmas. The Friday after Thanksgiving has always felt like a bonus day of the year. No work. No school. No schedules to attend to. Just recovering from all that football and food and family.
And as I’ve gotten older. As I’ve spent more time thinking about this holiday theologically. As I’ve experienced a fair number of Thanksgivings now as a pastor. I’ve come to realize that there’s another reason to love this holiday.
Thanksgiving focuses our attention on the right things. It’s right there in the name. As we gather with friends and family (some of whom are now with us only in spirit), in the comfort of our churches and homes, around a table with what we could rightly describe as an embarrassment of riches, before we launch into glorious craziness of Christmas. We are offered a chance to stop and give thanks to the One to whom we owe everything. We all need reminders from time to time to be grateful for all that God has given us. And I, for one, am grateful for a holiday that intentionally reminds me to be grateful.
I’m also grateful for the many passages of Scripture that remind me to be grateful, including our Scripture this morning. Psalm 136 is sometimes called “The Great Praise.” It was originally intended to be chanted as a “call and response” between the congregation and either a soloist or a special choir. It’s a litany of thanksgiving for what God has done for us. The soloist or special choir would name the thing for which God should be thanked. Then the congregation would respond with an acknowledgement of God’s enduring and dependable love.
The first nine verses, which we’ve already read, are in praise of God for creation. The refrain, translated in our New Revised Standard Version as “for his steadfast love endures forever,” begins with a Hebrew word that originally meant “yes!” or “indeed!” For example, the first verse could read, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; yes indeed, his steadfast love endures forever!”
We’ll continue to read now, verses 10-22. But this time, I’d like to read it as it was originally intended, as a call and response. I’ll read the first part of each verse, and I invite you to respond with the refrain, “…for his steadfast love endures forever…”
[Read Psalm 136:10-22, as call and response]
The first nine verses of Psalm 136 — The Great Praise — give thanks for God’s role in creating the universe and our world. Verses 10-22 then turn to God’s specific role in our salvation history. More specifically, they give thanks to God for our deliverance, from Egypt and to the Promised Land.
This notion of remembering God’s acts in history is an important feature of our Thanksgiving celebrations, of course. The whole point of teaching our kids about pilgrims and Native Americans and that first celebration of Thanksgiving is that our history is an important component of our identity. Our history helps shape who we are today, helps shape our traditions and our values. And for people of faith, it grounds us and gives us hope for the future, that God will continue to act on our behalf in the future just as God has acted on our behalf in the past. By recounting the past deeds of God on behalf of God’s people, Psalm 136 assures us that “yes, indeed — God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
And of course, as Christians we believe that God’s work on behalf of God’s people is realized most fully in Christ. Next week, we’ll celebrate Christ the King Sunday, which marks the end of the Christian year. And we’ll celebrate our annual “Hanging of the Greens” service as we look forward to the season of Advent. For the next five weeks, we’ll be preparing for the birth of Christ, anticipating what he meant and what he means to the world and to us.
But for today, we’re focused on gratitude. Which, as it turns out, is just as important for our bodies as it is for our souls. I’ve become fascinated recently by research that consistently shows that grateful people are healthier people. According to Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, gratitude “…can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep.” A recent study from the UC San Diego School of Medicine found that more grateful people had less inflammation of the heart and healthier heart rhythms. According the study’s author, grateful people “…showed a better well-being, a less depressed mood, less fatigue and they slept better.” And researchers at the universities of Utah and Kentucky conclude that gratitude can boost our immune systems.
A couple of months ago, in the final sermon of our series on The Book of Joy, I mentioned a practice from that book that can help us cultivate gratitude. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama recommend keeping a gratitude journal, writing down three things each day for which we’re grateful, trying to identify unique things each time. I took their advice, and I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal ever since.
And I was delighted to read this week that, based on the research showing a connection between gratitude and physical well-being, scientists recommend keeping a gratitude journal, too! The science agrees with the spirituality, that having a daily gratitude practice reduces stress hormones like cortisol by almost 25%. And it could actually reduce the effect of aging on the brain. A simple thing like keeping a gratitude list each day has incredibly beneficial effects on our mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.
Of course, the psalmist did not know that gratitude was such a powerful contributor to physical health. But the psalmist did know that thanksgiving is an important foundation of our faith, and of our relationship with God. And the psalmist is not alone. Because there are 138 passages of Scripture that deal directly with the subject of gratitude, including 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
It seems to me that of all those passages of Scripture dealing with gratitude, there’s no better gratitude list to be found than in Psalm 136…
[Read Psalm 136:23-26]
Psalm 136 is called “The Great Praise” for good reason. A gratitude list of our faith ancestors, it recalls what God has done for God’s people from the beginning — creating, sustaining, delivering, and redeeming us in times of great joy and times of great difficultly. Ever reminding us that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing we can do to earn it. Nothing we can do to lose it.
And because of that great truth of our faith, our lives can be lived with confidence, hope, and assurance. Just as importantly, that great truth of our faith helps us remember that all the blessings in our lives flow from the God who loves us. The great American poet Maya Angelou gives us a beautiful image about this most important virtue: “Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer.”
He was a Lutheran pastor in a little town called Eilenberg, Saxony. He began his ministry at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, the deadliest religious war in Europe’s history, one that would ultimately claim 8 million lives. The Swedish army was terrorizing Germany, and hundreds of refugees sought sanctuary in the little walled city of Eilenberg. The Swedes besieged the town, and inside the city walls, plague and famine decimated the population.
The pastors in Eilenberg spent their days preaching the gospel, tending to the sick, and burying the dead. Near the end of the siege, Martin Rinkart was the last surviving pastor. At the height of the plague, he conducted a staggering 4,000 funerals in one year, including for his wife. In his role as the town’s pastor, it was Rinkart who ultimately negotiated an end to the siege.
It was also Martin Rinkart, in the midst of this almost unimaginable heartbreak, who composed a hymn for the survivors of Eilenberg. Today, it’s as beloved among German Christians as the Doxology is among American Christians. And it is one of the few songs in our hymnal that was written for the exclusive purpose of giving thanks to God. It’s become one of a handful of songs that we sing at Thanksgiving each year.
“Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms, hath blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”
Friends, if you’ve not yet started a gratitude journal, this is a wonderful time of year to write your own gratitude list. It’ll be good for your mind, body, and soul as we move into what can be a stressful time of year. Scripture guides us. Our faith informs us.
But ultimately, the thanksgiving we give to God is about our relationship with Christ, and about our proper understanding of the source of the blessings in our lives. As we kick off the holiday season, may we give thanks to God, for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Thanksgiving Fun Facts found at http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving. Accessed 17 November 2017.
 Research cited available at https://www.today.com/health/be-thankful-science-says-gratitude-good-your-health-t58256. Accessed 17 November 2017.