Thanksgiving Reflections

By Rev. Timothy Swenson, Chaplain

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!

(1 Chronicles 16:34) The Day of Thanksgiving has come upon us. Politicians have established it. Preachers exhort it. God commands it. Families enjoy it. Merchants take advantage of it. Pundits reflect on it. Most of us love in some fashion the nostalgia of it all: home, hearth, and heart. For me, born in that decade following the end of World War II, my Thanksgiving Day nostalgia includes all those sentiments. Multiple families of multiple generations would gather. Prior to the call to table, lively conversation would ensue as cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and grandchildren all caught up on one another’s lives. When the call to table came, that conversation transitioned into exclamations of appreciation for the beauty of the feast to both sight and taste. Conversation dwindled, replaced by the sound of fork on plate and knife cutting meat or buttering bread. After pie, the afternoon settled into games of checkers, gin rummy, old maid, or a nap on the couch. On occasion, my aunt would take up the piano, her grandfather fiddled, my grandmother played lap harp, and my mother would lead the singing with her clear soprano voice. We’d run through the songs and hymns of a tradition as broad as the land and as deep as the people’s love for it. Turkey sandwiches and leftovers preceded the good-byes and goodnights. Home-bound celebrants departed; another Thanksgiving Day put in memory’s bin, the expectations of home, hearth, and heart fulfilled once again. Where, you might ask, were the thanksgivings… the prayers… the scripture readings… those things we have urged upon us today for the establishment of ritual and tradition? They were there… there, embodied in the people themselves. These people were the people of God sent out Sunday after Sunday from worship into the world to live their lives and fulfill their vocations. These people were the brothers and sisters of Christ who had had their ears filled with his gospel—the forgiveness of sins. These people, families and friends of families, were the body of Christ who had received his peace—not as their work but as his gift to them. These people, certainly imperfect in both their sin and in their practice of faith, had been disciplined by the dying and rising of repentance; if not daily, then surely in their weekly worship. Such disciplined folk were the result of ritual and the embodiment of tradition. They could not help themselves; they had no choice. Thanksgiving and the day established for it had been forged into them by those successive humiliations of regular and repeated repentance. Now, home, hearth, and heart with all their accompanying sentiments can no longer be assumed. Fewer and fewer of us worship. The successive humiliations worked by the discipline of regular repentance beneath word and sacrament forge thanksgiving into dwindling numbers of humanity. Thanksgiving is no longer a given to us but an attitude and experience to be worked for with its particular human rituals and traditions urged upon us. So, I urge you: worship not the Day of Thanksgiving and its human accoutrements, but you go to worship this Sunday, receive the discipline of the repentance worked by dying and rising through the Word and the Sacraments, and have thanksgiving forged into you by the rituals of a tradition as broad as a promised land and as deep as the love God’s people has for it.

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