On Monday I spoke at the annual Thanksgiving Breakfast sponsored by the West Allis Community Improvement Foundation. It's an event that raises money for food pantries in the area and the theme is "Thanks and Giving." Here is the gist of what I said.
Think back on the first words that a child learns. Usually it's "Ma-Ma" or "Ma," "Da" or "Da-Da." They are words that show the recognition of a loving care-giver, protector, and provider. Jesus taught us to recognize God in the same way, calling upon God as "our Father" or "Abba."
What are the next words that a child learns? Most kids, thinking only of themselves, grab for things. Parents ask them, "What do you say?" And they respond, "Please." Jesus also taught us to ask for what we need as God's humble and trusting children. God knows what we need, but we ask because in asking we show our love and our trust. We say "Please" to God.
And the next important word that a child learns? It often happens that after the child receives that for which he or she politely asked, the parents again ask, "What do you say?" And the child responds, "Thank you."
Thus we come together today to say "Thank You" to God our Father.
While the legend of the beginning of Thanksgiving Day takes us back to the 1600's and the Pilgrims of Massachusetts, the first officially proclaimed Thanksgiving Day was in 1777, in the middle of our nation's War of Independence. General George Washington and the Colonial Army had won the Battle of Saratoga and the Continental Congress proclaimed a day on which to give thanks. Here is part of that proclamation:
"FOR AS MUCH as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, ... It is therefore recommended to the, legislative and executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts...."
Later, in 1889, President George Washington proclaimed another Thanksgiving Day with these words:
"Now therefore do I recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us."
However, it wasn't until 1863, in the middle of perhaps the greatest crisis the United States has faced--its Civil War of state against state, citizen against citizen--that President Abraham Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving Day that has been celebrated annually ever since. It's amazing to think that in the midst of such difficult times, Lincoln would focus on gratitude. He wrote in part:
"The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God."
Then, after acknowledging as well the "civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity," Lincoln continued to enumerate the many blessings the nation had received, including the fact that other nations had not used the Civil War as an excuse to exploit our weakness and attack us. He went on:
"No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God.... It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
After proclaiming this Day of Thanksgiving, Lincoln went on to acknowledge the sins of the nation that led to the Civil War, to ask that his fellow citizens look after those in need, and to pray for peace:
"And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."
After learning "Please" and "Thank you," a child must often learn another word. The child's tendency, having received something, is to hold on to it and say "Mine!" Parents step in at this point to say "Now share some with your brothers and sisters."
Jesus taught the same. He taught that our one, Heavenly Father's sun shines on the just and the unjust and His rain showers upon all His children. We come together not only to give thanks but to give, to share of the bounty we have. This is the community spirit that makes a great city.
Our world tends toward a selfish and greedy individualism, insisting "Mine!" Jesus shows us that true happiness is found in giving. Ultimately all that we have and all that we are--all our talents that have enabled us to achieve and acquire anything--is a gift. Without having first received the gift of life from God through our parents, we would be nothing, we would have nothing. Thus, recognizing that all is a gift, we share all, we return all to God.
General George Washington and the Continental Congress in 1777 said this as well. After declaring the first Thanksgiving Day they said:
"That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor...."
"Consecrate." The word means to dedicate or to set aside for a holy purpose. This is what the Apostleship of Prayer recommends that people do every day by making an offering of their day to God. After acknowledging that every day with all its minutes and hours is a gift from God, we say "Thank You" and share the gift by consecrating or offering our day to God. We share our day with God and the people God places in our lives each day. This is the meaning of St. Paul's words in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 12, verse 1: "Offer your bodies, [your selves], as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God your spiritual worship."
This is what our nation was founded upon. This is what we need to keep alive. This is what you are doing. Thank you!