During one of our nation’s darkest hours, in the height of the Civil War, our esteemed president Abraham Lincoln declared our national holiday we now celebrate as Thanksgiving. Father was fighting against son, brother against brother, and our country was embattled over abolishing slavery. This was the moment that Lincoln called us into God’s presence with Thanksgiving. He wrote, “But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”
Lincoln continues, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that God 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 in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father Who dwelleth in the heavens.” (A. Lincoln, October 3, 1863)
Now I like the story we all learned about the first “Thanksgiving” with the pilgrims and the Indians, but as we have all learned it was not quite the way it was depicted in the school play. I find this account of our coming back to God when in a dark place and seeking God’s presence with Thanksgiving to be extremely moving and powerful. We do not have an actual war going on, but families are divided by politics and fearful of speaking their mind while offering their thanks. I get that. This one meal, which we celebrated Thursday, is a time to place God above everything else, to enjoy family and friends and to celebrate the abundant blessings we all experience.
CNN reported this week that we have a bit more than most for which to be thankful. In an effort to see which city had the happiest people, the researchers set three metrics to study: “life satisfaction, or how you evaluate your life as a whole; positive affect, or your day-to-day, moment-to-moment happiness; and purpose, or whether you feel you have meaning in your life.”
The author, Dan Buettner an explorer, a National Geographic Fellow, calls these metrics pride, pleasure and purpose, and enduring happiness is when these three strands are braided together. Denmark, Singapore and Costa Rica are the happiest countries in the world, but get this, Santa Cruz came in second in the United States as the happiest city in which to live. We are right behind Boulder, Colorado. “In these places, people feel safe and secure, have a sense of purpose and have joy in their day-to-day lives.” (http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/22/health/happiest-cities-blue-zones/index.html)
We do live in a wonderful place, but the very idea of comparing which city is the happiest is an example of what I call Comparative Thankfulness. This means as long as I am better off than someone, or a group of people, than I can be thankful. This probably is most prevalent in High School, comparing ourselves to everyone else and coming up short. But I will go out on a limb and say I think our thankfulness can really be determined by how we compare to others.
One of my favorite Peanuts comic strips is the one that came out many years ago just a few days before Thanksgiving. Lucy’s feeling sorry for herself and she laments, “My life is a drag. I’m completely fed up. I’ve never felt so low in my life.”
Her little brother Linus tries to console her and he says, “Lucy, when you’re in a mood like this, you should try to think of things you have to be thankful for; in other words, count your blessings.”
To that, Lucy says, “Ha! That’s a good one! I could count my blessings on one finger! I’ve never had anything and I never will have anything. I don’t get half the breaks that other people do. Nothing ever goes right for me! And you talk about counting blessings! You talk about being thankful! What do I have to be thankful for?”
Linus says, “Well, for one thing, you have a little brother who loves you.”
With that, Lucy runs and hugs little brother Linus as she cries tears of joy, and while she’s hugging him tightly, Linus says, “Every now and then, I say the right thing.”
Lucy was living Comparative Thankfulness, she could not be happy because she felt cheated. But then Linus does something wonderful. He calls her to presence thankfulness. Standing before Lucy, he shares true thankfulness and true love that can only happen in someone’s presence. He honestly connects with his sister rather than comparing her with others.
In our gospel lesson Jesus talks about what we do for the least of these, the very people who we often compare ourselves with favorably. Of course this is a call to action and mission, to care for our fellow humans. But it is also a reminder that our salvation is not only by grace, or accepting the gospel, but how we treat others. Because if all we get when we look at the homeless, or the prisoner, is I am so grateful that is not me, then we are stuck in comparative thankfulness, or judging and we miss Jesus’ call to improve the situation, to help the least of these. We miss the thankfulness that comes from being in God’s presence.
God calls us to a different kind of thankfulness; one that comes when we are in the presence of God. We are not focused on how this compares with other’s experience. Only that God, the most awesome loving and creative being in the cosmos seeks for us to come into God’s presence with Thanksgiving!!! The Psalmist writes, “O Come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving!” God’s presence is where we find our very breath, where we know we belong to God, where our blessings are fully realized. David writes, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Standing in God’s presence our list of gratitude, our thankfulness abounds, because we are connected to the source of all our blessings. Of course as Christians we also know God’s presence in our relationship with Jesus.
At the Presbytery meeting last Saturday The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, the leader of our national denomination, PCUSA, preached about hope for our church. He told of being a boy and playing football and how he dislocated his shoulder. His family took him to the hospital. He was incredible pain and scared. Once he got to see the doctor, the doctor kept saying to him, “Look at me.” Herbert looked at his father, then at his mom. The doctor kept saying “Look at me, look at me!” He did not know what to expect and wanted some guidance from his parents. But the doctor said, “Look at me.” When he finally does, the doctor snaps his arm back in place and he is set to right. Herbert challenged us to “Look at Jesus!” to find our comfort and strength in the presence of God. We are to look at Jesus as we experience our thankfulness of presence, when we are connected to the divine. Looking at the one who died to save us our sins, who loves us beyond compare, and who wants us to look at him and thank him for everything. Let us thank God, and enter into the Presence of God with Thanksgiving! Amen!