“Thanksgiving Meditation”

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Greater Putnam Interfaith Council Thanksgiving Service

Temple B’nai Shalom

November 21, 2017 — 7:00 pm

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer


One hundred fifty-four years ago, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving.  There had been other days of thanksgiving before, but this was the one that established an annual pattern at this time of year.  As you know, 1863 was not an easy year for this nation, coming as it did in the midst of the Civil War.  Battlefields were littered with the bodies of the dead; cemeteries were filled with newly-cut gravestones; family dinner tables everywhere had empty chairs for the ones who had gone away to fight and had not made it home.

The social fabric of the nation was strained and torn by conflict over issues of race, economics, culture, gender, class, the military, and, of course, political persuasion.  And into that tense and tenuous time, President Lincoln called on the people to give thanks for the blessings that continued nevertheless:  agricultural productivity, industrial innovation, the rule of law, peace with other nations.

In 1863 and in 2017, this was and is true:  the act of giving thanks is an act of resistance.  It is a faithful witness that bad news does not have the last word.  It is an insistent hope that devastation will not prevail.  It is a beacon of light that holds at bay the fear that lurks in the shadows.

It is not new today.  It was not new in the time of the Civil War.  It goes back at least as far as some of the oldest texts in the Hebrew scriptures, shared today by Jews and Christians.  For example, this excerpt from Psalm 42:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. …

My tears have been my food
day and night. …

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise the Lord,
my help and my God.

Or this excerpt from the not-so-often quoted prophet Habbakuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
God makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

The prophet’s prayer ends with a note—recorded in scripture to this day—a note to the leader that it is to be sung with accompaniment by stringed instruments.  I love that detail.  Even in times of personal or national distress, our ancestors attended to the small but oh-so-important details of beauty, of music, of worship, of art, of poetry, of love.

And isn’t that, in some way, what we’re about here tonight?  Isn’t that why we’ve come together to sing and to pray, to light candles and to lift up our hopes, to break bread and to remind one another of the sweetness of this life, in spite of all the bitterness in this world?


In a time of addiction and suicide and domestic violence and overdose… a time of car accidents and house fires and so many other dangers…

People of goodwill gather to proclaim that we will take care of each other, that we will do our darndest to keep each other safe, and that when tragedy strikes, we will be there to pick up the pieces.


In a time when threats of nuclear war loom…

In a time when mass shootings occur at a rate of more than one per day, so common that they almost aren’t even news any more…

People of goodwill gather to proclaim that peace will prevail.


In a time when hate crimes have reached a five-year high…

In a time when each day brings new revelations of how pervasively misogyny and racism and homophobia and transphobia have infected our society…

People of goodwill gather to proclaim that every human being is made in God’s image, beloved and blessed and beautiful.


In a time when health care is getting more and more out of reach…

In a time when many of our sister species and the planet itself are suffering due to our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels…

People of goodwill gather to proclaim that the welfare of every human being and every inhabitant of this earth is our concern.


In a time when fear threatens to overtake us…

People of goodwill gather to proclaim our faith in the goodness of God, in the goodness of humanity, in the goodness of this earth, in the goodness of all living beings, in the goodness of life itself.  People of goodwill gather to lift our hearts in thanksgiving.


It is an act of resistance.  Proclaiming goodness, giving thanks, is an act of resistant, persistent, insistent faithfulness.  And it is also an act of transformation.

Because when we when come together to proclaim goodness, to give thanks, we become part of the tide of goodness that is even now flowing into this world from God’s own heart.

When we pick up our stringed instruments to sing the prophet’s prayer, our voices and our very lives become part of the melody that is even now echoing from every mountainside, from sea to shining sea.

When we light our little candles to illuminate the shadows in our corner of the world, we become part of the radiant glow that is even now driving all gloom away.


In the Christian New Testament, the first letter to the Thessalonians urges its recipients to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  Not, I think, because everything that happens to us is always worthy of thanks, but because there is always something that is worthy of thanks, and when we pay attention to the things for which we are grateful, we discover the tools we hold in our hands, the very tools that will transform this world.

So let us indeed give thanks—resistant, persistent, insistent thanks—and then let us join together to use the gifts we have received to spread goodness, and mercy, and loving-kindness, and peace, and light throughout our communities and throughout our world.


Would you join me in a spirit of prayer as I lift up these words from the Iona Community in Scotland:

God of the seed-time and the harvest,

the making and the baking

the breaking and the sharing

may food, friendship and thankfulness

nourish our compassion

and give energy to our protest

so that time will come

when all share in the feasting

and the fun.



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