Among the Protestants, there are members of seven different denominations or communions. We belong to several different races; we are both male and female. We are a mixed multitude indeed, and the question is therefore if we really have anything in common to give thanks about. What are we doing here, all coming together for a thanksgiving service? Can we really be thankful together, or are we only kidding ourselves? Do we, in fact, have a mutual reason for giving thanks?
Obviously we are all Americans, and of course that is the immediate reason we are here today. The President has issued the annual Thanksgiving Proclamation, the post office and banks and most businesses are closed, and we have the chance of participating in a national holiday. We share a common national heritage, going back to the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, or maybe as good Virginians we should say it goes back to Berkeley Plantation.
At any rate, we are here first of all because it is a national habit, because a very, very secular government has through the years managed to take on an aura of piety long enough to admonish us that this is a day to give thanks.
But if that is the only reason we are here together, then we had better rethink the whole practice, because if you are going to say thank you, you have to say it to somebody. There is a story about the nineteenth-century English writer, Harriet Martineau, who was something of an atheist. Reveling one day in the glories of an autumn morning, she burst out, “Oh, I’m so grateful!” — to which her believing companion replied, “Grateful to whom, my dear?”
If we are going to say “thank you,” then the presupposition is that we have to say it to somebody. And unless you think your life and talents and fortunes are the products simply of natural law or good fortune or an accidental combination of molecules, then the presupposition is that in order to give thanks, you have to give it to God.
This may be a holiday decreed by a secular government, but in order to be properly celebrated it has to be religious. And so first we must ask ourselves — as the mixed multitude that we are — do we have anything in common for which we together can give thanks to God?
I hope that you will not answer that question glibly or tritely. Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that Thanksgiving in the U.S. has become “increasingly the business of congratulating the Almighty upon his most excellent co-workers, ourselves.” There is a lot of truth in that. We bombard the ears of God with thanks for our prosperity and comforts and way of life, but we secretly harbor the conviction that we have worked ourselves to a frazzle to get what we’ve got; our thanks, therefore, usually take on the ring of a lot of phony piety. We thank God for our standard of living, but way deep down we are sure it is the product of mostly our own hard work.
Worst of all, our thanksgiving in America becomes too often a callous indifference toward our neighbors. We give thanks over the turkey on our laden tables, when a few blocks away an elderly widow is dying of malnutrition. We rejoice in the bounty of our enormous harvests while two-thirds of the world will go to bed hungry tonight. And our prayers must sound to God like the prayer of that self-righteous Pharisee in Jesus’ parable: “O God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are …” — hungry, ill-clad, wretched, homeless. It is scarcely a proper Christian prayer.
So the question remains, for what can you and I together give thanks to God? I do not think when we answer that that we should try to blur the distinctions between us, either. You really do not unite people by pretending they are all alike, when, in fact, they are really very different. And all of us are very different from one another indeed.
I have often been advised when speaking in a Jewish setting to preach only from the Old Testament, but that is phony, too, is it not, because that is not the nature of my religion. Our Jewish brethren know their God primarily through the marvelous gift of the Torah. We Christians find Him and can give thanks to Him only through Jesus of Nazareth. So it is no good pretending that those are not the facts of the matter when we come together to give thanks. And the question remains, for what can we all together here today give thanks to Almighty God? Just what exactly do all of us have in common?
Could it be that we are one here today because all of us suffer — because in one way or another every one of us has some private or not so private hurt? In the last month, I have visited a friend recovering from surgery for cancer, and commiserated with a young mother who has just been divorced, and worried over some everyday problems with my own family, and lost a dear friend to death. But that is nothing unusual. You have all suffered those things, either in your own lives or in the lives of loved ones, if not in the past month then in some other; if not all at one time then over a span of time.
We all hurt. We all grieve and we all worry; we all know pain and anguish. We all suffer the loss that death brings and the wounds that life inflicts upon us. As a German cook, who was trying to get a job during World War II, put it to a dubious employer, “We weep the same tears, Madam.” We weep the same tears. The biography of us could read, “They were born. They suffered. They died.”
We are bound together here today by our common suffering, and while that may seem a gloomy statement to make on a Thanksgiving Day, it is simply a recognition of the way human life really is. Of course we all have our moments of joy and times of triumph and gladness, but we sometimes rejoice over very different things, do we not? It is our suffering that binds us all together in the bundle of life.
There is another matter we all have in common, however: Our God has stooped down to ease the burden of suffering of us all. “I have seen the affliction of my people … and I have come down to deliver them,” He told Moses. “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant … and God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition.”
God remembers: “He remembers that we are dust.” What a fantastic revelation that is to hear that God remembers us. You and I forget the names of people we have met several times over. A year’s separation and someone, even a dearest friend, is out of sight, out of mind. Time passes and ties of friendship are loosed. Memories fade, and our greatest heroes become nothing but nameless statues on the street corner.
We human beings forget, but God remembers us. Lost though we be in some far country, God never forgets we are there. He remembers that He has bound Himself to us in a promise of love and faithfulness — in a covenant. He has us graven on the palms of His hands, says Isaiah — our names there before Him. Even your mother and father may forget, but I will not forget you, He promises. You and I share the grace that we have a God who remembers.
God sees our affliction also. A group of tourists visited a monastery one day, and a woman among them noted that one of the monks had painted an eye on the ceiling of his cell, symbolizing the watchful eye of God. Looking at the painting, the woman shuddered, “It gives me the willies.” God sees us. “If I say, let only darkness cover me,” prays the Psalmist, “even the darkness is not dark to thee; the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.”
We are never hidden from God. He always sees us, hidden though we be in some dark valley of the shadow, or even in a cell of our own making. And why should that cause us to shudder? The look is one of undimmed mercy, the gaze of a loving Father toward His child. God sees that you hurt, and He sees all your suffering.
But ours is not a Father who is a cool, detached observer of His children. You all know fathers who, when they get home from work, do not want to be bothered with their children — just leave such fathers in peace with the evening paper, or before the television set. Let someone else in the family be bothered with the hassle, the discipline, the crying in the family room. But our heavenly Father is the one, above all human fathers, who is willing to be bothered. He is a God who refuses to shed His burden of troubled care. He is a God who hears our cry, and who comes down, who stoops, to find out our condition.
In fact, so troubled is He by our pain, our suffering, our inner and outer anguish that He takes it all upon Himself and makes it a part of His own burden — God knows our condition for Himself; he is the Father who suffers what His child suffers, the parent who hurts when we hurt. Have you read it there in the prophetic writings?
O that my head were waters,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
for the slain of the daughter of my people.
How can I give you up, O Ephriam?
How surrender you, O Israel?
Are you not my dear Son,
My darling child?
Hearken to me, all you who have been borne by me
from your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am He,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and I will save.
We get ourselves into very serious trouble, do we not, so that our anguish becomes enormous and our situation desperate. We fall into slavery to the drive for success, or to some easy immorality of our society; we imprison ourselves in our own selfishness, or in resentful grudges and smoldering hatred. And there is God on the spot, as He was at the first there in Egypt, meddling in the politics of liberation: redeeming us, paying the ransom note, buying us back out of trouble, and giving us the freedom to make yet one more new beginning.
We wander down some tempting path, just nibbling our way lost, like poor dumb sheep, until we are hopeless, bereft in some dark valley of the soul. And there comes the Good Shepherd searching us out and guiding us back to the fold, gathering up those lambs in His bosom who are too weak to make it on their own.
We find ourselves overwhelmed by powers and forces and violence which we just cannot control, until it seems that the world has gone mad, that Evil is on its awful throne, and that death is creeping into our windows, as Jeremiah saw in his apocalyptic vision. And there stands our God victorious, sovereign over the grave, His royal scepter still in one hand, and His world firmly held in the other. Our Father and Shepherd, we discover, is also a King, who rules and cannot be defeated.
That is what we have in common, dear mixed multitude of God — a Lord who remembers us and sees and hears and knows, and stoops to our condition, a God who has come down to deliver us out of all our affliction.
And because that is true, you and I here today have something to be thankful about together. Of course we are grateful for this great country, but it is not finally the American way of life that we are gathered her to celebrate — for many that way has become nothing but a continual exercise in quiet desperation. It is not really the abundance of our goods or the growth of the Gross National Product that can give a man or a woman here the warmth of a grateful heart. Our things can enslave us as easily as they can bring us joy, and they finally may be the cause of our condemnation when we have to give that last accounting of what we have done with our lives.
That is not the statement of a man who is worried over the economic health and security of the Roman empire, or even of his own pocketbook. It is not the statement of one who is free from affliction and trouble — Paul suffered, right along with the rest of us. It is the confession of a man who has learned that nothing can separate him from the love of God who cares daily for him.
And so Paul can wish for the Philippians that which he has already found himself — “the peace of God which passes understanding.” And he can urge upon them that mood of life which belongs only to those children of God who know the mercy of their heavenly Father: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.”
God has remembered us. He has seen and heard and known our suffering. He has stooped down to deliver us out of all our affliction. Therefore, give thanks to Him this day. Bless His name. Rejoice! And again I say, Rejoice!