St Petersburg Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, November 24, 2013
The Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer

ta-iroquois-640px-641x360Let me begin by thanking the Planning Committee of SPIA for inviting me to speak tonight. I was asked for a title in advance, and not being enamoured much with titles, I gave the generic “Of Grace and Gratitude” for this talk. The two words come from the same root word. Grace is a favor and gratitude is how we accept the favor in the spirit in which it is given. Though I won’t use the terms grace and gratitude much more in what I’m saying now, I think you’ll see the connection come through clearly enough.

Here’s what I want to do in this time together. First I begin with the logic of Christian thanksgiving. Then I will show how it reflects the pattern of thanksgiving generally found across religions in most cultures. I’ll note how this pattern is baked into our humanity, and then conclude with the often forgotten wisdom that the religions continue to remind us of.

Thanksgiving Day is peculiar to the United States and Canada, though Canadians celebrate their day on what we call Columbus Day. The stories at the historical origin are of course different but the general idea from which they came remains the same. That idea comes from the Puritans. The Puritans were an oppressed religious sect in England and Holland who fled to the New World so that they could build society in their own way. They did not seek religious freedom as much as the right to their religious existence. One of the reasons they were oppressed arose from their demand to abolish all holidays in England, religious and otherwise, and to hold special days of prayer and thanksgiving when some great event merited it. Abolishing Christmas and Easter does not make one popular in most Christian countries, or for that matter with anyone who depends on Black Friday for their business to succeed; so you see their need to flee to another land. In this case the New World.

But this story about seeking safety for one’s own religion is not itself about the logic of Christian thanksgiving. That logic is something else and it is found not only in the Puritan’s faith but in Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and Pentecostal practices. Paul the Apostle tells his young companion Timothy, “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you.” (1Ti 6:20). The phrase, “the deposit of faith”, has come to mean a great deal in the centuries since the New Testament, and I’m not talking about all of that. That first deposit of faith was mostly in a set of practices to be exercised and handed on.

What were those practices? In a nutshell, they are encapsulated in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles 2:42ff: sharing bread, prayers, and possessions; witnessing healings, supplying the needs of the poor, visiting the temple. What brought about this new communal life of generosity? It was the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth being overcome by his resurrection, and the powerful experience of everyone who believed that event to be freed from the fear of death. The gift of life which Jesus received meant his disciples were freed to live life fully and communally. In the words of scripture, to establish Jubilee – economic wellbeing for all. The logic of thanksgiving in Christianity is celebrated in Communion, or the Eucharist. As Jesus gives up his life for the community to be made whole, the community can give its goods up for the poor among them. This is the core idea of the deposit of faith.

This then is the Logic of Christian thanksgiving. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus inspire his followers to no longer fear death and instead create a community of equity for the wellbeing of all. There is gratitude for the gift of life and the gift is honored by the practice of generosity for all.

This pattern of thanksgiving is universal. If you receive something good, then you are to show your true gratitude by sharing its goodness with others. Among religions, though not necessarily among nations, when the god or the transcendent shows some particular favor to certain people, that favor generates a community that shows gratitude and extends the benefit through generosity.

For the children of Israel, the gift of the Torah and freedom from slavery brings them into the Promised Land to establish a Jubilee society.

For Islam, the gift of the recitation of Mohammed generates the Umma, the community of believers who submit to the righteousness by which God creates and sustains all people. As we heard in the Quranic reading known as the Cattle, this righteousness is universal. And the challenge is to put it into practice, not just memorize the words. A critique of faith, by the way, found in all major religions.

In Hinduism a particular overarching narrative is not easily named. Its ancient stories have inspired a great variety of more well-known stories. Yet the pattern remains similar: with recognition of the gift of life comes gratitude demonstrated through building community and practicing generosity toward the unfortunate.

I expect the scientific study of thanksgiving would show that our hormonal systems are specifically programed in a way that produces the feeling of happiness within us when we show gratitude and dis-ease when we do not. In other words, being thankful makes you happy. Try this when you’re feeling particularly low: starting making a list of all the things for which you are thankful. Most people find their mood and attitude improved before they finish the list – if such a list could be finished. It is a powerful experience to count your blessings. Thanksgiving is one of the evolutionary drivers of the survival of the human species. Without going into all of the details, thanksgiving unites us in community, strengthens us under hardship, and triggers creativity among us – at least in our own religious communities. After all, how many ways are there to make sweet potatoes?

But what of our peculiar American Thanksgiving Day? Should it be something more than calorie-loading for running the Black Friday shopping marathon at the mall? For most of my adult life, the most important Thanksgiving question seems to have been “Will the Detroit Lions win this year?” rather than “Will those who pick our harvest get to feast with us, too?”

When we look at the gift for which we give thanks, it is not like the harsh winter which the Puritans came through nor is it some particular religious gift. Our thanksgiving is a meta-narrative, a super story, a narrative that bundles our various narratives together and a story that makes room for all of our stories. The American narrative is not about one people making it, but multiple narratives about many different kinds of people making it. Our history as a nation is one of multiple stories, some stories lining up together, some in conflict with one another, some oblivious to the others. We are a land of many stories and a nation built upon one story which is often forgotten. But if we are to truly give thanks so that we may be generous to all, we have to remember this one story. In brief, it is this:

Europeans came to the New World to seize it, conquer it, and possess it. Our ancestors came naming whatever people might be living here as savages by definition since they were not Christian, and thus not deserving of the land where they have lived for generations. This is called the Doctrine of Discovery and it lies deep in our history, our laws, and our imagination. Possession is 9/10ths of the law, we say. Our European forebears destroyed the indigenous culture and massacred the native population. In Florida alone, the Seminole Wars were fought for over 40 years. In short, Native Americans have given their life and lands for our prosperity. Injustices continue to be perpetrated toward them. To say the rest of us owe Native Americans apology and debts of gratitude is perhaps insufficient to right the wrongs, but it’s a start.

The wisdom from our many religious traditions, however, does acknowledge that the favors which evoke thanksgiving come at the sacrifice of someone else. Whether it’s Pharaoh in the Red Sea, Jesus on the cross, the tribalism in the desert, or the loss of our egos, blessings come at a cost.

Last year the United Methodists held their General Conference in Tampa. On a Friday evening they gathered for an Act of Repentance, and in worship told the story of how they had mistreated indigenous people in the name of religion and pledged their repentance. At dinner afterwards with the Native American speaker, as we began to eat, he took a small plate and added a small piece of each item from his dinner plate. This was his sacrifice for the meal, a ritual for remembering that something gave its life so that his life would be sustained. He gave thanks by remembering that this meal was not just about him getting his own. Every meal is about our connectedness with everything else. This is the great wisdom of religion which science is just now mapping. No one is an island alone; we are all profoundly interwined with each other and the whole creation. Our thanksgiving is to recall our interconnectedness with deep gratitude.

So let me conclude from the Prayer of Thanksgiving of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, otherwise known as the Confederacy of Six Nations, which some consider the oldest living democracy in human history.

GREETINGS TO THE NATURAL WORLD!

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People.

Now our minds are one.

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

We give thanks to all the Waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms – waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of water.

Now our minds are one.

We turn our minds to all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send our greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come.

Now our minds are one.

With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a greeting and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

And so it goes for each: The People, the Earth Mother, The Waters, The Fish, The Plants, The Food Plants, Medicine Herbs, Animals, Trees, Birds, Four Winds, the Thunderers, the Sun, Grandmother Moon, the Stars, the Enlightened Teachers, and then the Creator:

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

Now our minds are one.

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.

Now our minds are one.

Our happiness comes from a great reciprocity in which we gratefully receive the blessings of life and extend them generously to those in need around us. Our many various faiths all tell us this is true. So may we truly say in Thanksgiving: Now our minds are one.

“Greetings to the Natural World” is found across the internet. One site with images is http://danceforallpeople.com/haudenosaunee-thanksgiving-address/. The image in this article is taken from this site.

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