Thursday at Volmoed – Sermon for Thanksgiving Day

Scripture Readings

For those who have somehow managed not to notice its approach, tomorrow is Black Friday. In South Africa, the day suddenly appeared out of nowhere, without context, a few years ago. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me, when I first became aware of it.

black friday

This year, I’ve been particularly aware of Black Friday, mostly because it has been all but impossible to escape it. Many shops have had special deals advertised for every Friday in November, while several have gone all out and had a sort of Black November, with specials advertised for every day during the month. Much of this has felt somehow desperate to me, and I’ve interpreted it as yet another sign that the economy is really struggling and many businesses are doing all they can to survive by attracting paying customers.

In the late 1980s, after a lengthy history of the term’s being used in various contexts, retailers in the US started trading on the idea of Black Friday as being the day after something called Thanksgiving Day, when America’s stores finally turned a profit. Since then, the sales extravaganza has extended into a long weekend which includes Cyber Monday.

This would make today Thanksgiving Day, if South Africa observed such a thing. It’s a big deal in the US, and at our Holy Cross Monastery in upstate New York there is a particularly fine meal provided to guests on the day.

Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed a national holiday in the US by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, after 36 years of campaigning by Sarah Josepha Hale. It was then scheduled for the final Thursday in November (and has since been assigned to the fourth Thursday of the month).

I like the idea of a Thanksgiving Day, rather more than I do Black Friday, though I understand how important it is for shops to be profitable. Hopefully, Black Friday also allows some people to buy some of the things they need but wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

thanksgiving day
A Modern Thanksgiving

I think the attitude and act of thanksgiving enlarges our souls and maintains our awareness that life is to be received as a gift from a God who created all things well, that it is about more than just ourselves and our own concerns, and that, in the midst of great difficulties and real discouragements, we acknowledge our dependence on God and on the contributions and support of so many. Gratitude does not depend on all being well in the world or in our lives. It is a turning to the light even when there is so much darkness. I find it interesting that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day at the height of the American Civil War, entreating all to ask God to commend to his tender care all sufferers in the lamentable strife and to heal the wounds of the nation.

The prescription for a thanksgiving ritual provided in the reading from Deuteronomy is addressed to a people who had experienced harsh treatment, affliction and oppression. They cried to the Lord and found that they were heard and seen by God, and eventually rescued and brought into a land of promise. They were instructed in advance to remember to give thanks for their improved situation with the first of the fruits from the ground of the new land. We can forget so soon the kindness we have received.

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians encourages rejoicing, yet it was written by a man in prison to a community that was experiencing persecution. Their awareness of the closeness of the Lord allowed their hearts and minds to be guarded by the peace of God, a peace which doesn’t always make complete sense under the circumstances, but which allowed them to live free from anxiety and so express the kindness of God to all around them. They were able to offer prayers and supplications for their concerns in the context of thanksgiving.

Paul urges his readers to think about things that are true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy, and Jesus might have said something similar to the crowd that came to him looking for more free food. What they need is food for their souls, not just food for their bodies, Jesus tells them. However, I think it is important to note that Jesus says this after he has fed their bodies to complete satisfaction.

If South Africa does not yet have a national day of thanksgiving, perhaps we can have one today here at Volmoed. In the midst of all that is wrong in the world and in our country, let us give joyful thanks for the goodness, the mercy and the faithfulness of God, made known to us in so many ways and through so many people, in and around this place with all of its beauty. As we prepare to enter the season of Advent on Sunday, let us begin with gratitude for the bread of God which comes down from heaven to restore life to the world, and let us be ready to share both the spiritual and the physical bread we have received with all who need it.

Image sources:

  • Photo by Max Fischer:
  • Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko:
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