Rev. Bro. Gordon Haynes
Thanksgiving. When I was asked to address you this evening about "thanksgiving," I did so with little concern. After all, we all have images about thanksgiving in our minds. The icons of thanksgiving are shared in our culture: family gatherings, turkey dinners, pumpkin pie.
And yet, when I started to write down what I wanted to say, I didn't know where to begin. So to help me start, I will begin where I am accustomed: in the pages of Scripture.
The instruction to give thanks is found time and time again in Scripture. For example, from the Letter to the Philippians in the New Testament, in chapter 4, verse 6, we read:
"Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."
But that injunction was not restricted to the early Christian church. In the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, chapter 7 in verses 12 to 15, we read these instructions on a thanksgiving sacrifice:
If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the thank offering unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of fine flour well mixed with oil. With the sacrifice of his peace offering for thanksgiving he shall bring his offering with cakes of leavened bread. And of such he shall offer one cake from each offering, as an offering to the LORD; it shall belong to the priest who throws the blood of the peace offerings. And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten on the day of his offering; he shall not leave any of it until the morning.
All through the books of the Bible, there are references to thanksgiving and thankfulness. This is an attitude that the early church, and (before them) the people of Israel shared with the people around them. Although we would seem to think that our celebration of Thanksgiving is culturally based, the idea of thanking a god for what one had seems to be almost universal.
So what we share in is part of a global rite. But what are we sharing? To be precise, what are we really thankful for?
In some ways, that question is almost silly. After all, there is so much in every day of our lives that is beyond our own independent control that if we started to give thanks for everything, we would never have time for anything else. From the time we get up in the morning to the moment we fall asleep at night-and beyond even that, we receive vital gifts from God. Life itself, and all the intricate and beautiful actions and reactions that go on around us that allow us to breathe, and think, and grow, and interact-all these things that we so often take for granted until we face losing them-are things we need to be thankful for. For all the people who have, for good or ill, affected the direction of our lives, we need to be thankful. For the necessities of life, from the harvests of the field to the air we breath, we need to be thankful. There is so much that we receive from God each and every day.
This is why the people of the Old and New Testaments were constantly giving thanks. They lived in a hostile and dangerous environment. They knew that life itself was a gift from God, and everything that sustained it, and enhanced it, was something for which to be thankful. If they were able to have a harvest, they knew that more that their labour went into it, because just as many times they had done as much work and hadn't had a bountiful crop. And so, they were thankful, and found ways to express that thankfulness.
This was true for centuries in Europe as well. It was Shakespeare who wrote,
God's goodness hath been great to thee — Let never day nor night unhallowed pass but still remember what the Lord hath done.
Today, we like to think that much more is under our own control, and so we sometimes feel less inclined to credit someone else-even God-for our good fortune. The result is that we often thank God for things that are of our excess rather than the basics of life. Like the Pharisee in one of Jesus' parable we really give thanks for not being like others less well off.
As Seneca once said,
We can be thankful to a friend for a few acres or a little money; and yet the freedom and command of the whole earth, and for the great benefits of our being, our life, health, and reason, we look upon ourselves as under no obligation.
And if the first thing we should remember at thanksgiving is that we have more for which to be thankful than we ever could admit, then the second thing to remember is that the things for which we are thankful are a reflection of the things we think are important.
Let me explain. As I said before, if we were to give thanks for everything that we should, we would take every bit of our waking hours doing so. And so, we forget a large number of the things we had been given by God, and concentrate on the things we are REALLY thankful for. Oh, we might occasionally give thanks for the air we breath and the water we drink, but we spend most of our time being thankful for those things that really are on our minds. We give thanks for our families, or lots of food on the table, or having a job in difficult times. When my daughter was born, I certainly remember what I was thankful for. And so, if you want to know what is important to an individual or a group, listen to their prayers of thanksgiving.
I remember the words of Helen Keller:
"If I had three days to see, this is what I would want to see. On the first day I would want to see the people whose kindness and companionship have made my life worth living. I would call in my friends and look for long time into their faces. I would also look into the face of a new baby. I would like to see the many books which have been read to me.
The next day I would get up early to see the dawn. I would visit a museum to learn of man's upward progress in the making of things. I would go to an art museum to probe the human souls by studying paintings and sculpture.
The third morning I would again greet the dawn, eager to discover new beauties in nature, I would spend this last day in the haunts of persons where they work. I would stand at a busy street corner, trying to understand something of the daily lives of persons looking into their faces and reading what is written there.
On the last evening I would go to a theatre and see a hilariously funny play, so as to appreciate the overtones of humour in the human spirit. Yes, by God's light in Christ, seeing what matters and beholding the extraordinary in the commonplace."
So what is important to us? Certainly some of the things I mentioned before can be important enough for us to remember to give thanks. Some of those things are intensely personal, and will be a prayer of thanksgiving between just you and God. Others are things we share.
We should be thankful for this creation. What God has given us stewardship over is a beautiful and intricate creation. It is hardier than we would of thought- after all, it has taken centuries of our abuse-but if we are to become responsible for preserving this gift of God, then we had best start being openly thankful for it.
We should be thankful for each and every harvest. In real terms for city folk, that means being thankful for each and every bite of food we have that we need, I'm not sure that I want to be thankful for the excess I have daily-that should really be a matter of confession rather than thankfulness-but certainly I need to see the importance of this gift from God.
We should be thankful for the relationship we have with others. I mentioned being thankful at the time of the birth of my daughter. Well, she often still makes it into my prayers of thanksgiving, as does my wife, and my friends, and the people of my church. I also give thanks for each of you occasionally. The point is not that you should have a long list of people you give thanks for, but that you see that relationships with others are important enough to you for thanks to be made.
We should be thankful for Canada. We have in this nation many freedoms that people in other parts of the world could only hope for, and we take them for granted. We live in a nation that has historically taken care of those who are less well off. Although there are problems associated with our country, we should see it as being important enough to be thankful for.
We should be thankful for our faith communities. I say it that way because, as a Christian, my faith in Jesus Christ is an important part of my life, as are the people with whom I share that faith; and I recognize that others may say the same about their particular faith. I believe that it is important to remember where all these gifts came from, and so I am thankful.
As Masons, we should be thankful for what we share together. I have been part of four lodges covering two-thirds of this country. In each I have felt accepted and comfortable. We share fellowship and values, and concern for each other. Without our Lodge we would be less than we are, so it is an important part of our lives, and therefore a part of our thanksgiving.
I hope that you see the connection I am making. We show what is important to us by what we are thankful for. You will notice that I didn't express thanks for any objects. If we are thankful for cars, and houses and vacations, then that is really what we think is important in our life. I suspect that in many corners of this land thanks is given for such things, and perhaps that says something about what ails our nation-that too often we think things are more important than people. One wise preacher once said that as Christians we are expected to love people and use things, and that we have greatly sinned when we end up loving things and using people.
And it goes the other way as well. If we think that something is important to us, then we should express our thankfulness. Many relationships break down because one or both partners can't express their love for the other. And I once heard a complaint about a minister that his greatest failing was his inability to say thanks graciously. Thanksgiving is more than just acknowledging that something is nice to have.
This brings me to my third, and final point. Thanksgiving is an action, not a thought. Thanksgiving is mentioned over two hundred time in Scripture, and almost every one of those in an ACT of thanksgiving. We are not intended to just think nice thoughts about what we are thankful for, but rather to act out our thankfulness, and extend it to others. One elderly lady in my congregation in Vancouver was a missionary for many years in Taiwan, and she taught my wife Linda and I a beautiful custom. Whenever she visited someone, she brought a small gift-to thank the people she was visiting for allowing her into their home. What a beautiful thanksgiving. What if we did that with what we thought important?
What if we expressed thankfulness for Creation by stopping the destruction of our environment? If we expressed thankfulness for the harvest by sharing it with others around the world. If we expressed thankfulness for friends and loved ones by sharing love with someone who is alone and hurting? If we expressed thankfulness for Canada by working to save it from its own weakness? If we expressed thankfulness for our faith communities (and to God) by dedicating ourselves to the will of God? If we expressed thankfulness for our Masonic life by working to make it more alive?
What if? I'll tell what if. If we see thankfulness as an activity rather than a response, then we will b back next year with more to be thankful for. And just as important, there will be others that are thankful as well.
I am reminded of the story of a man who was watching his eighty-year-old neighbour planting a small peach tree. He inquired of him as follows: "You don't expect to eat peaches from that tree, do you?" The old man rested on his spade. He said, "No, at my age I know I won't. But all my life I've enjoyed peaches- never from a tree I planted myself. I'm just trying to pay the other fellows who planted trees for me."
And so, to me, Thanksgiving is more than the cultural icons with which we started off. It is first a recognition that there is far more to be thankful for than we ever get around to acknowledging. Secondly, thanksgiving is a stating of what is important to us in our lives. It shows us-and other-our priorities. Third, thankfulness is more than just pious words.
As C. Simmons once said,
God has two dwellings: one in heaven, and the other in a meek and thankful heart.
Thankfulness only reaches its fullness when it becomes action. Thanksgiving is all this, and I give thanks I have had the opportunity to share these thoughts with you this evening.