I grew up in the South, where being a person of faith meant you were either a Baptist or a United Methodist. It was not until well after college that I began to meet and really get to know a few individuals of other faiths – learning about both their cultural and religious experiences. I even had an interfaith clergy support group back in Delaware – during which much of our time was spent discussing differences and similarities in polity and worship.
So I was thrilled when I heard there was an interfaith group here when we moved from Delaware to Plainview two years ago. I was looking forward to who would be in the room, and finding an instant support group of fellow persons of faith. So you can imagine my surprise when I, southerner that I was, went to my first meeting and realized that as a Christian, I was a minority in the room. I do not think I have ever been in a room of clergy when I felt like there were significant portions of the conversation that I just did not understand – whether it was a particular holiday, a way of doing business, a language barrier, or knowing what to order at Ben’s. I had always thought that interfaith differences were not that significance – if we are all persons of faith, surely that identity creates enough common ground for us to work together. But the truth is that among the clergy, and perhaps among you as persons of faith, we are so steeped in our religious identity and culture, that we forget how particular that experience is to us – and how foreign that experience is to others.
That is why I love this service so much. We have found a holiday that we as Americans can all recognize and celebrate – regardless of our faith background. And yet, we as a community of faithful people gathered here tonight claim this day not as just a secular day to eat copious amounts and gather with family and friends, or even a day we can all commonly agree upon because we are Americans. We claim this day as a sacred day – because we know that true thankfulness belongs to God – the source of sustenance and life itself. In the Episcopal Church, we have a special liturgy set aside for Thanksgiving Day. I never knew that until I became a priest. In fact, at my first cure, I remember learning about the service and being totally annoyed, thinking, “What, I have to work on Thanksgiving too?!?” But after my first Thanksgiving service, I knew why the Episcopal Church had set aside time for worship: because the world around us tries fill this day with “stuff” other than true thanksgiving. We slave over food, we fret about misbehaving family members, we jostle for position around the TV for the Macy’s parade or the football game, and some of us even go out shopping, especially as the stores try to lure us out of our homes to spend money.
But the community of faith makes another way for us. The community of faith says that if we are going to dedicate an entire day to thanksgiving, let’s talk about what giving thanks is really about – to whom we really need to give thanks. Tonight, we turn to scripture. The palmist says, “It is good to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High.”[i] We say together, “Praise God! Bless God’s name! For God is good; God’s steadfast love, [God’s hesed] is eternal; God’s faithfulness is for all generations.”[ii]
To be honest, praise and thanksgiving is not necessarily something that we are always good at doing. We are really good at complaining to God, or asking God for things, or worrying to God. But we often forget to truly praise God, to thank God for God’s abundant love and faithfulness. I am not sure if our prayers to God tend toward being self-centered or we just are simply a culture who tends to complain or want something from God. And I am not saying those kind of prayers do not have a time and place. Our God can take all of that from us and more. But when we turn our prayers to prayers of thanksgiving, we may be amazed at how we, and all that we are worried about, are transformed. Centering ourselves in gratitude and thanksgiving puts even the direst of situations in perspective. We remember not only that God is with us, but we also see those around us differently. Our hearts grow in love and compassion simply by praising and thanking God.
Of course, there are practical implications to giving thanks to God. Somehow that annoying uncle or nagging mother seems a lot more lovable when our hearts are rooted in this kind of thanksgiving. Somehow that fallen soufflé or that dry turkey seems much less important than the fact that we have food at all – let alone shelter, warmth, and electricity. That is the power of thanksgiving for us as a community of faith. When we turn to God, from whom all blessings flow, we turn our hearts toward generosity as well. We find ourselves buying extra food to feed our neighbor. We find ourselves making time to serve others – whether making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with our interfaith brothers and sisters, or in some other way. We find ourselves focusing less on ourselves, and more on the wonderful creation God has given to us – and in turn we find ourselves much more well-taken care of than when we were wrapped up in ourselves.
And so tonight, we set the tone for this national holiday. We proclaim a true day of Thanksgiving – for the abundance of food, for the privilege of rest, for the blessing of life – but mostly for the God that gives us such life, who cares for us more than we deserve, and who loves us more than we can imagine. We give thanks for a God beyond our full comprehension or knowing, and we give thanks for the interfaith community who, despite all our differences, collectively reminds us to whom we belong. May your Thanksgiving holiday be a sacred time with the God who created you, sustains you, and loves you. Amen.