“Giving Thanks with Joy” Colchester Federated Church, November 20, 2022, (Colossians 1:10-20) Thanksgiving Sunday

On the fourth Thursday in November Americans celebrate the national holiday of Thanksgiving.  The Plimoth and Patuxet Museums share great information about the history of the day we will celebrate later this week.  The truth is that Thanksgiving is unique to the United States of America, but simultaneously not that unique.  Because people the world over from various civilizations have been celebrating festivals where they gave thanks for bountiful harvests (among other events worth celebrating) for thousands of years.  In our own country (and long before English colonists came to these shores), Native People celebrated days of thanksgiving—including a Strawberry Thanksgiving and a Green Corn Thanksgiving.  The English also had traditions of thanksgiving.  For instance, they would declare specific days of prayer to give thanks to God when something good happened (like in the summer of 1623 when a gentle rain fell in England and ended a long drought). 

All of this to say that when the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for a bountiful harvest in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 (sometime between September 21 and November 9) and after a year of sickness and death, scarcity and starvation—this was hardly a one-off event.  In fact, it was a traditional celebration both from the Native American and English perspectives to gather people together in gratitude for a good harvest.  Though this 1621 event is what we often call the “First Thanksgiving” in our country.  It’s an event that has captured our national imagination as a day centered on home and food, on loved ones and gratitude.[1]

There’s only one written record of the event we call the First Thanksgiving that has survived the passage of time.  The eyewitness account is from a letter that a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in England.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”[2]

The truth is that the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans did not go on as peacefully.  Though it seems that there was compassion and understanding during that 1621 celebration, there was a coming together across differences.  That instance of peace and compassion is noteworthy. 

On this Thanksgiving Sunday in the Christian Church, we contemplate the goodness of God.  We give thanks to God for the gift of companionship, for the people beside us on our journeys.  We hear and reflect upon words attributed to the apostle Paul in one of our lectionary readings from the New Testament.  Words about giving thanks, about prayer, and even an early hymn about Christ’s work from the beginning of creation.  The author of Colossians wrote, “We’re praying this so that you can live lives that are worthy of the Lord and pleasing to [God] in every way: by producing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God; by being strengthened through [God’s] glorious might so that you endure everything and have patience; and by giving thanks with joy to [God].”[3] 

Giving thanks with joy to God even while enduring everything, having patience throughout the journey of life, yet still giving thanks to God with joy—these are lofty words and goals.  Some days we might even wonder if it’s possible.  Some days these words might make us pause or even stumble.  Giving God thanks with joy despite it all, even on the hard days, even while acknowledging life’s uncertainties?  It is not difficult to imagine that gratitude may not have been the first feeling among the Pilgrims after the year that not all of them survived.  Yet when that bountiful harvest came to fruition, it was worth celebrating.  How could they not rejoice together and thank God?

It was the German mystic Meister Eckhart who famously said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  I have often found that nothing grounds me more than gratitude.  Here’s a challenge to undertake, especially when going through a rough patch and feeling a bit adrift—for one day focus on gratitude from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed in the evening.  Thank God throughout the day.  Don’t ask for anything from God.  Don’t complain.  Be slow to anger.  Just focus on saying thank you to God all day long.  (Probably thanking God in your mind and heart lest people give you strange looks).  The truth is that spending a day thanking God for all the gifts of life makes us notice all the gifts that are already present!

Thank you, God, for this cup of coffee.  What would I do without coffee?  Thank you, God, for my family.  (Oh good Lord, did I just thank God for coffee before I thanked God for my family?!?)  The order doesn’t matter.  The point is thanking God for just about everything throughout the day.  Thank you, God, for food in my refrigerator to make breakfast.  Thank you, God, for a job to work that supports me and my family.  Thank you, God, for a roof over my head.  Thank you, God, for the clothes on my back and the shoes on my feet.  Thank you, God, for this good earth we call our home.  Thank you, God, for water and oxygen.  Thank you, God, for animal companions.  Thank you, God, for my church family.  Thank you, God, for good books and entertaining TV shows and music that moves us.  Thank you, God, that I woke up this morning at all and got to experience one more day on this earth with those I love.  Thank you, God. 

Thank God for everything, seriously, for just one day.  Even if it feels a little strange to thank God that traffic was light on your way to work or you got an A on that test, the point is that focusing on gratitude makes us pay attention to our lives.  We may just discover that Meister Eckhart was onto something—that if the only prayer that we ever say in our entire lives is thank you, it’s enough.  Because gratitude has this way of opening our hearts to God and one another in astonishing ways that helps love to flourish.  No matter what the rest of the week looks like for you—whether you are traveling to be with loved ones or staying right here in Colchester—whether the table will be full to overflowing or maybe this year there is an empty chair at the table—remember that God is with you and you are not alone.  Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] “Thanksgiving” from the Plimoth and Patuxet Museums, Plimoth Patuxet Museums | Thanksgiving
[2]  “Thanksgiving” from the Plimoth and Patuxet Museums, Plimoth Patuxet Museums | Thanksgiving
[3] Colossians 1:10-12, CEB.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash