I’ve just finished my grocery shopping for Thanksgiving Day; my counters are covered with the ingredients for the special feast while the turkey is thawing in the refrigerator. Kim, Julie and Al packed and helped distribute -how many boxes? – of food items for the Community Food Bank this past week, so that local residents without the financial resources to purchase these special items can also celebrate the traditional feast day.
Thanksgiving has been a national feast day since 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill observing national holidays into law, although subsequent presidents have modified details about the national observance. Our Thanksgiving celebration finds its roots in the earliest harvest feasts celebrated by settlers on the continent, commemorating the colonist’s survival and the first harvest of crops in the New World.
As a harvest feast, however, our Thanksgiving is hardly the first of its kind. Cultures all over the world for millennia, have celebrated their fall harvest. While much is said in our current culture about food insufficiency among third world countries and even in poverty-stricken communities around our country, food scarcity has always been an ever-present threat for generations, due to drought and pestilence, as well as other factors. In agrarian societies dependent on the elements of nature, there was much to celebrate when the harvest, which would sustain them through the dormant winter season, was brought in.
The Jewish people were among those who lived within the cycles of the seasons, planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall, dependent on the elements of nature to help bring forth crops. Grain, olives, grapes and figs were among the foods that nourished and sustained the people, with livestock and fishing supplementing their tables as available. These festivals not only celebrated the food gathered in; sometimes abundant, sometimes scant; but always acknowledged the God who had made them a people; who watched over them through times of plenty and times of want. Every harvest was celebrated with thanksgiving to the God who had provided for them and sustained them throughout their history.
Therefore, given the Hebrew Bible’s merging of liturgical and social circles into a single infinite circle, it is not surprising that we find most occurrences of the language of thanksgiving in the Old Testament in the context of worship. Thanksgiving is offered primarily, and above all, to Yahweh, and is offered for Yahweh’s benefits toward Israel as a people. Thanksgiving was, for the Hebrew people, a communal act of covenant remembrance; as forward-looking as it is backward-looking. The Psalms recount God’s benefits to Israel, and express hope that in the future he will continue his faithful care of his people.
We tend to think about our Thanksgiving as “giving thanks” for the heavily laden table in November despite the inevitable extra pounds we’ll gain. Yet, at the same time, we know that hunger is still a dilemma of crisis proportions in many places; not just in November, but every day of the year. So, while we prepare to give thanks on Thursday, as many of us do daily, I’d like to propose that we consider this season what I call “thanks and giving”. That is, in recognizing our thankfulness, we are moved to give. That we look at thanksgiving, not just as a time to thank God for our abundance, but think how we might give out of that abundance with which we have been blessed.
Let me explain by sharing a couple stories with you:
It was gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket. Many years before, in October, 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life.
Somewhere over the South Pacific the Flying Fortress became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched their plane in the ocean...For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine by five. The biggest shark...ten feet long.
But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie's own words, "Cherry," that was the B- 17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, "read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off."
Now this is still Captain Rickenbacker talking..."Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don't know how I knew; I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull. The gull meant food...if I could catch it."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Its intestines were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice. You know that Captain Eddie made it.
And now you also know...that he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset...on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast...you could see an old man walking...white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls...to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle...like manna in the wilderness.
Another story: In his book, Gratitude, an Intellectual History, Peter J Leithart wrote a chapter entitled The Gift That Inspired a Lifetime of Giving.
Tracy Autler’s life changed in a very unexpected way on Thanksgiving Day, 1993. Tracy was a single mother, living in an apartment in a rough neighborhood. She was doing her best to raise a three-year old while preparing for the birth of her second child, at that point, 8 months pregnant. Living off of welfare and food stamps, her Thanksgiving dinner would not be the sumptuous feast many Americans at that time were preparing. Hers was primarily comprised of canned food. Or at least, that is how she expected to “enjoy” her Thanksgiving dinner.
Staring at the canned food on her shelf, Tracy heard a knock at the door. “Who could that be?” she wondered. She wasn’t expecting any company. No friends, no family would be joining her and her three-year old. At the door was a man from a local restaurant, holding what would be a full Thanksgiving meal, given to her by an anonymous donor. Tracy was so surprised; she spent the rest of the day crying. But more than anything she wanted to know who had given such a thoughtful gift.
Years went by and Tracy still hadn’t figured out who had provided this mysterious Thanksgiving meal. After a period of time, Tracy was able to move out of the apartment, and at the same time began working as a nurse at a nearby hospital.
Seven years later, working at the hospital, Tracy Autler was to discover who had provided that amazing Thanksgiving meal. That day, an elderly woman named Margo appeared at the hospital. It was clear Margo did not have long to live. Margo had lived in the same apartment building as Tracy all those years back, and three days before the end of her life, she took Tracy’s hands, and whispered, “Happy Thanksgiving.”
As author Brad Forsma describes:
In that moment Tracy knew who had given her that Thanksgiving dinner. She would never have guessed that Margot—the unassuming neighbor with multiple sclerosis—was behind that generous gift.
…That one gift had a massive impact on Tracy’s life. Moved by the anonymous donor’s generosity, Tracy purposed in her heart to do generous things for other people too. The very day she got off assistance, she took a basket of gifts down to the welfare office for anyone to take. The welfare officer was stunned. Can you imagine the look on his face? Who does something like that? And that was just the beginning.
Since then, Tracy and her husband have become foster parents and adopted a son. She regularly looks for opportunities to give. The last time I heard from her, she was getting ready to volunteer her Saturday afternoon at the local Humane Society. One of her latest ideas is to leave five-dollar Starbucks gift cards with little notes for her coworkers to find, just to make their day better.
This year Tracy and her family made a New Year’s resolution to find one hundred opportunities to give to other people. What I appreciate most about Tracy is that she doesn’t do her giving to be noticed by others. Since that Thanksgiving Day in 1993, she has discovered the joy that comes from giving. Now she’s hooked. She doesn’t give to make herself look good—she gives because she likes giving.1
I am inspired by these individuals who gave because they had been given; who not only spoke words of thanks, but acted in response to their thanks. They were moved to return their thanks in tangible ways. It was perhaps what we know as “paying it forward” in response to what we have received.
So, here’s my challenge to you. As you come to God in Thanksgiving this week, consider how God has provided for you. You may not have been near starvation or living on welfare, but God has truly provided for you. Consider how you might be able to return you thanks to God for all you have received. You could be the answer to someone’s prayer; you could be the means for providing relief to someone in need. I pray this week, as you pause to offer your thanks to God, that you consider how you might give to others, in the name of and to the glory of God. Amen.