Thanksgiving Day

The Rev. Dr. Daniel Prechtel - November 26, 2015

Joel 2:21-27; Matthew 6:25-33

“For all that has been—Thanks!
To all that shall be—Yes!”

The year was 1953 and Dag Hammarskjold was soon to be elected as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. Hammarskjold had kept a journal which he called Vagmarken in his native Swedish, or Markings, since he was in his twenties until his untimely death in a suspicious airplane crash on September 18, 1961 while on route to ceasefire negotiations between the United Nations’ forces and Katanga’s troops of Moise Tshombe. But in 1953, while serving as Chairman of the Swedish Delegation in the General Assembly shortly before being elected Secretary-General, he wrote these words in his journal—words that have been embedded in my mind since first reading them over thirty years ago:
“For all that has been—Thanks!
To all that shall be—Yes!”

I submit to you that this entry in his diary, whether intended as a prayer or as a reflective statement, is worthy of our attention. How, many will ask—and I have asked as well—can someone say “For all that has been—Thanks!” when we consider the many horrendous events in human history—some by natural calamity but so often wrought by human minds and hands? How can someone say “To all that shall be—Yes!” when the signs of the future are so marked with strife and the real threat of global catastrophe? Surely we might think such a person either naïve or living in a fantasy of denial! And yet, someone of the background and position of Dag Hammarskjold had to be a realist and certainly not naïve.

Hammarskjold had much to contend with as his life unfolded as Secretary-General of the United Nations. It undoubtedly put that prayer statement to the test many times as his duties required his service as a peacemaker in conflicts between Israel and the Arab states, leading interventions in the Suez Crisis and in the Congo, along with a being a calm presence in a world increasingly in the grip of Cold War tensions. He died in that plane crash while serving on a peacekeeping mission.

Maybe he wasn’t thinking about the Big Picture of the scope of human history and its destiny at the time he penned that prayer statement. Perhaps he was writing from the point of view of his personal life’s past and his future? And yet even then we might critically argue that surely not everything in the past is worthy of an enthusiastic “Thanks!” And anyone beyond a certain age will look to the future with at least some concerns, knowing the truth that death awaits us all, so why say an unqualified “Yes!” to such a future?

If we grant that Hammarskjold was not naïve nor indulging in some fantasy and denial, then there must be some deep perspective that he was drawing upon in order to make that statement of “Thanks” and “Yes.” That perspective gave him the capacity to be very practical and realistic and also in touch with a spiritual power that is actively redeeming the past and providing hope and creativity to the future.

I believe that those us gathered here today have, or are seeking, our own portion of that deep spiritual perspective. That perspective helps us embrace the all that has been and the all that shall be, trusting in a power—a presence—that is vastly greater than ourselves subtly at work in human and cosmic history. We have that way of seeing things echoed in our scripture readings today.

In Joel’s prophetic oracle the Lord God speaks to the soil and animals to not be afraid, and to the human audience to rejoice and be glad in the relationship that they have with the Lord who brings natural cycles for growth and abundance. At the same time there is a reminder that this same Lord has in the past brought destroying pestilences as an army to bear on those that are disrespectful. Can nature be a messenger that speaks of God’s desires and warnings? Does humanity’s behavior with the earth become a measure of how well we respect the divine power and presence that manifests itself in and through the earth? If so, the global ecological crisis we face in our time is a deeply physical and practical challenge and also a profoundly spiritual challenge. In four days a world gathering in Paris on climate change will bring an urgent opportunity to find ways of significantly altering our production of greenhouse gasses. This comes in the wake of Pope Francis’ important encyclical “Laudato Si” on the care of our common home. As a people of faith we can embrace the past that included a deep and close connection with the earth, as well as admit to an uncaring domination over it, with “Thanks!” if that brings us to resolve to make the needed changes in our personal and collective behavior now; and turn to a future—with a “Yes!”—that will demonstrate a deeper respect for all of God’s creation and our interdependence as a species. As a people of faith we can face up to such a great challenge, not with naivety or denial or a crushing sense of hopelessness, but with a willingness to face our real situation with repentance, imagination, practicality, and hope in God’s capacity to work with us and through us.

Jesus in Matthew’s gospel also points to that way of seeing the past and future without an anxiety that cripples us and makes our lives fearful. To be sure, we do have serious concerns and anxious moments to contend with both in our personal and collective lives—but Jesus talks to his followers about a God he likens to a parent that is aware of their needs so don’t be overcome with worry and anxious striving. There is more to life than that! Shift your way of seeing things, he says to his followers—look instead to what God wants for us all and how we can live into that way, and we will receive what we need.

Jesus’ teaching is so very important to us in this age where anxiety and fear so permeates the personal, social, economic, and political arenas of our lives. The terrorist violence in Beirut and Paris and the police hunts in Brussels are just the latest events that generate a sense of vulnerability and anxiety both abroad and in our own country. There are those in our nation that will capitalize on that fear and anxiety in order to gain more power and influence. Some now use foreigners, immigrants, and Muslim citizens as scapegoats. As people of faith we need to listen carefully and resist those who generate and feed on fear. We follow a different teacher and Lord.

We are gathered on this Thanksgiving Day national holiday to give our thanks to the one we proclaim as the true source and sustainer of Life. The very word we use for this celebration, Holy Eucharist, is from the Greek meaning “thanksgiving.” In the Eucharistic Prayer we will remember God’s actions of creation, forgiveness, and redemption of the past through Jesus Christ with our “Thanks!,” and say “Yes!” to the future in our concluding “Amen.” As we are fed and empowered with Christ’s presence and Spirit, let us once again be a people bearing this Thanks and this Yes to our world.

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Joel 2:21-27
Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield. O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

1 Timothy 2:1-7
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Matthew 6:25-33
Jesus said, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What will we eat?’ or `What will we drink?’ or `What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”