Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. It contains within it charming customs, optimism, the gathering of family, the offering of thanks. Like most national holidays, it is based on some facts and a lot of myths. But it remains attractive for the most part. Thankfulness is an very human, healthy expression. It would be terrible to have no one to be thankful to. A poem which left an indelible memory when I read it in my youth says it powerfully. The poet Dorothy Ducas in the "Atheist's Wail" talks about seeing a loved one being buried and about experiencing the agonies of illness, and continues...
I have dared to profess unbelief once again.
But with mild west wind sweeping across wooded hills,
with the springlike earth's odor so sweet and so dank.
With the hand of my loved one entwined in my own,
how awful it is to have no one to thank!
How awful indeed it would be not to acknowledge the source of all goodness and light and beauty in our lives.
For some of us, thankfulness is a very easy and natural state of being. For others, it is very easy to slip into the temptation to think that we deserve what we have. Temptation and the Fall lie in thinking that our own intelligence, hard work, physical attractiveness, and luck are to be praised for our prosperity and health. That is what the writer of Deuteronomy is warning against. Don't forget the God who brought you to this good land, he tells them. "Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God." Those last words are the critical ones: do not exalt yourself forgetting the Lord your God.
I think the conviction that God is the source of all that is good, a loving and caring God, was at the root of the words of Jesus regarding worry and anxiety. He lived his short life in that kind of total trust. And his followers did the same, with mixed results, during those three years of walking all over the land of Palestine. So he was speaking from experience. Total trust brings a perfect balance in a life. We know who the source of life is; we focus on the source; we do not get distracted; and the other concerns of life fall into place.
Jesus, who paid attention to nature, must have been walking in the field that day. Was it anemones, poppies, lilacs, all kinds of windflowers that he was seeing? I can see him smiling as he picks up one of them, sees the dusty condition of his own garment and remembers the great vanity and opulence of his ancestor Solomon. And he sees the crowd following him, looking at him for miracles, for ways to make their lives easier, and he longs for them to have the same kind of faith he has: that God is good and that all will be well, because their creator loves them.
It is shocking for us to hear him tell us that we must not worry about tomorrow because there in nothing we can do about adding to our life. It is troubling to hear that God will feed us, since He feeds and clothes the birds who, after all, are not as important as human beings. But I think it is shocking because of who we are. We see everything from the viewpoint of our limited, fearful humanity from the security we feel when we have money in the bank, food in the refrigerator and plenty of clothes hanging in the closet. He saw all things with the eyes of one who knew the ultimate reality. (And yet, knowing what was the heart of Light and Truth, he still wept to see death and touched those who were sick to make them whole.) With his understanding of what really matters to God, it made sense for him to call us to the heart of this reality. And all the passage, I think, makes sense because of the last verses. "But strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
The question remains on this Thanksgiving Day: Why are "these things" added to some of us and not to all of us? Why is it that people whose faith in God puts us comfortable Americans to shame have so little, and many of them not enough for a life of dignity and health? And to that question I have no answer. Only the conviction that we have failed God's commandments and have not done what is required of us. There is enough on God's good earth for all of God's people, but greed keeps too much for some and too little for many.
And at this point we turn to James and his clear admonitions. After telling us to be doers of the word, (what a wonderful expression!); after telling it straight as he sees it, that those who deceive their hearts have a worthless religion, he gets to the core of the matter:
"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans, and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."
And this finally is what we must remember this Thanksgiving season in order to find a balance it: To strive for the righteousness of God by caring for the orphans, the widows, and all those who are not clothed like flowers nor fed like birds. We can help lift the anxiety and the worry from their shoulders by doing what God commanded us to do.
Thanks be to God! Amen.