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by Gary Roth

based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

A beleaguered troupe of nomads finally finds refuge in a land of their own. A band of religious dissidents, after struggling through a hard winter, finally gets in its first crop. A president, looking toward the end of a war in which the nation was split and the population decimated, attempts to rescue that country from its ashes.

The first instance, of course, is the Israelites. After being delivered from their bondage in Egypt, they wandered for forty years in the wilderness, living on the brink of extinction. Finally, they came into the land and into the promise. And as they gazed over this land – this land flowing with milk and honey, they were told to remember throughout the generations whose land it was, and from whence it came. Each generation was to regard themselves as new to the land; each generation renewed the gift, “A wandering Aramean was my father …,” they were to say, as if each one was seeing the gift for the first time. As if they had just stood on the edge of the desert with Moses and Joshua, and received it from God’s hand – His precious gift to each of them.

The second group I mentioned is, of course, the pilgrims. During their first winter in Plimoth Colony many of them had died. No family was untouched by sickness, disease, malnutrition and death, and the biting cold of one of New England’s worst winters on record. Most of them were so sick, that they had to rely on the help of the Indians to get the crop planted the following spring. But by fall, they could finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. They took in their first harvest – enough corn meal for them to make it through the next spring. And so they shared their meager supplies with the Indians, who had helped them plant it, and who had showed them how to survive in this wilderness. Although they faced the possibility of another hard winter, they recognized God’s grace and love bearing them up and helping them to continue on.

The third instance is President Lincoln. The United States had just gone through a great war, in which more Americans died than in every war that we have ever fought, all put together. The South lay in ruins, and the North wasn’t in much better shape. America’s resources were drained, both spiritually and physically. The great European powers, looking at the ruins, licked their chops in anticipation of divvying up the remains of what had once been called, “that noble experiment.” In the face of this national tragedy, President Lincoln recognized a trust that had been maintained, even if at a monumental cost and, calling upon God’s faithfulness and grace, declared a national day of Thanksgiving – a day to thank God for the opportunity to strive toward the national goals of justice and liberation.

It is easy to take such things for granted – to regard as our birthright those things for which others fought hard and endured great hardship. It is easy, even, to think that these gifts are our right, that we have earned them, that we have no responsibility or duty to the past, that our only duty is to ourselves and to the opportunities the present moment affords us.

Today our nation lives in unprecedented prosperity. Yet there are rifts in our society that threaten to tear our nation apart. There are great political and moral questions that beg to be addressed, the sin of racism is still among us, the ecological survival of species and even of the planet is no longer simply a moral dilemma, but is now becoming a question of the survival of the human species, and the division between the rich and the poor has become a matter of ever-increasing concern. People line up on all sides of these questions.

There is only one road that we can travel, if we are not to become lost. One road toward healing for the wounds of our nation. One road toward survival as a species. One road that can deliver us to our hopes and toward our goals as a nation. That road begins in Thanksgiving. We need to stand at the summit, overlooking the landscape we are called to cross, with the ancient people of Israel, saying with them, “A wandering Aramean was my Father, and God delivered us, and He brought us into this good land – a land flowing with milk and honey.” We need to begin that road recognizing that this place, this time, as well as all of the gifts we have received here, come from another hand, a greater hand, bestowed upon us for safekeeping and for our use by a Father to whom it all still belongs. We need this sense of historical anemnesis, a different and larger perspective; we need to lay our historical perspective over top of the perspective of those who first saw this gift, and who realized the importance of the gifts we have received. We need to stand once more on the edge of the promised land, as if we had no inheritance, to understand just what a marvelous gift it is that God has placed in our hands.

Then we will see also more clearly God’s will and purpose for us. We will see why it was that our ancestors were willing to suffer and die for this gift. We will see the hope that guided them to this place. We will see the vision that they held, of a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey. We will see the alabaster cities gleam, unstained by human tears. Seeing with their clearer vision, we will come to better understand the task that lies yet before us, of becoming “one country, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Of becoming a place where the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free can find a beacon of light, and of hope, and of salvation in this dark world.

I ask you, this Thanksgiving, as you gather around your table, full of so many good things, to remember – to remember not only the good gifts that God has granted you throughout this year, but to remember as those before us were called to remember – to remember the God who has been with us through good times and bad, who has been constant in His faithfulness and mercy, who has given us the gift of this place, of this nation, and who has entrusted us with a holy cause – to make His kingdom present among us. Before you eat your turkey and cranberry sauce, take time to remember those who came before, who purchased your freedom at the cost of their own suffering and sometimes, at the cost of their own lives. And before you pass the pumpkin pie, stop for a moment and reflect on the pilgrims, and the people of Israel, and all those people of faith who have come to the edge of the wilderness, and there met the God who is the giver of every good and perfect gift. Remember from whose hand you receive such things. And give Him thanks.