November 22, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay | Rabbi Brett Krichiver
One night when our girls were little, we were saying prayers before bedtime and naming what we were thankful for that day. You could tell that two of three had a very good day. One said she was thankful for a special lunch they had at school and the field trip she got to take. Another was thankful that her teacher was feeling better and that her spelling test went well. The third remained quiet for a while and then she finally said, “I’m thankful today is over!”
Ever prayed a thanksgiving prayer like that? Sometimes we come at Thanksgiving through the back door. Our thanksgiving is not always about feeling abundantly blessed or full. Sometimes it comes out of hardship or challenge. Interestingly that latter condition has motivated people to give thanks more than any other.
In the first hundred years of our nation’s history Thanksgiving as a national holiday and recognition gradually lost emphasis. Until the Civil War happened. Then President Lincoln in the midst of incredible division and suffering in our country issued this proclamation:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity… I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving. 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.
In the midst of war and fear, the nation turned to Thanksgiving. Or go back to the colony of Jamestown in 1621 where disease and hunger reduced the population of the pilgrim colony from 490 to 60. Native Americans rescued them by teaching them how to plant food that spring. After the first harvest a Thanksgiving feast was held with native Americans. Governor Bradford of Jamestown Plymouth, called issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation:
“Inasmuch as God has spared us from pestilence and disease I do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims gather on Thursday, November 29, to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all God’s blessings.”
Of course, this was about the same time as the first slave ships from Africa arrived in Jamestown. Not a thankful experience for anyone. But they brought a thanksgiving tradition with them called the Homowo Festival that started from drought and deprivation. In the return of rain and ability to grow crops they celebrate with a Thanksgiving tradition called Homowo that means “to jeer at hunger.”
From the very beginning, Thanksgiving in our nation’s history has always been most important when life is most challenging.
But let’s go back further than that, to the people who left behind a tradition that influenced the homowo festival. I want us to return to the very first Thanksgiving celebration we know in human history. We heard about it a moment ago in the scripture reading from Leviticus. The first Thanksgiving was marked by Jewish pilgrims making their way to the Promised Land. When they finally arrived at this land of prosperity, having survived the harsh conditions of the desert, God commanded them to remember their experience every year in a festival called Sukkot.
In a minute I will invite us to think about some of the lessons we can take away from this biblical tradition, but first, I want us to learn more about Sukkot and its traditions, so I have invited Rabbi Brett Kirchiver, senior rabbi from Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, to be with us this morning and teach us a little about this festival that marks the end of Jewish High Holy Days…
Rabbi Brett shares…
Something that stands out to me about this tradition is the reminder that Thanksgiving is too important to leave at an emotional experience. Neuroscientists report that gratitude impacts our well-being, moral judgment and social bonding. (https://research.com/education/scientific-benefits-of-gratitude)
So it’s important to have practices that deepen Thanksgiving, Having a grateful heart is something you develop. And the Festival of Booths was an annual time to be intentional about developing a thankful spirit. So I want us to consider some lessons from the first Thanksgiving.
LESSON #1: Remember Where You Come From.
“All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths…” These booths reminded all future generations where they came from. There’s nothing like going back to the place you came from to appreciate what you have now.
Edgerrin James story…
Curtis and April Rector story…
The Hebrews one week a year would leave their homes and go into a field to live in a booth—to remember where they came from. It kept them grateful.
Erma Bombeck once wrote “Every time I forget to feel grateful to be among (breast cancer survivors), I hear the voice of an eight-year old girl named Christina, who had cancer of the nervous system. When asked what she wanted for her birthday, she thought long and hard and finally said, “I don’t know. I have two sticker books and a Cabbage Patch doll. I have everything!”
As a way of practicing gratitude you might try this exercise as part of your Thanksgiving ritual Thursday. Make your own little “sukkot,” a booth you put in the center of your table. If you have children, this could be a fun craft or exercise. In your personal or family sukkot, have everyone write down on little pieces of paper some of the simple, ordinary things you are thankful for, and before you eat, take them out and read them.
Lesson #2: Life Is a Journey.
The reason people lived in booths was because these were meant to be temporary dwellings. They were not in the Promised Land yet. Sometimes they would have to leave quickly, so these structures were easily assembled and disassembled.
So God warned them that when they get to the Promised Land and build more lasting homes, not to fall into the trap of believing that those places are permanent. Don’t be tempted to accept that your ultimate security in life is something you can build and make. You are still a pilgrim. Your permanent home is not here. Life is a journey and everything in this world is temporary. You ultimate destination one day is to be with God.
So the people would go live in huts for one week a year to be reminded that all the things we have in this life is just temporary stuff. Our ultimate destination is beyond this world. Life is a journey. That belief has a couple important implications. For one, it says that any one point in life is not permanent. It is just a stopping place not a staying place…
I think every year they re-made these booths, it was a good reminder that even though they may now live in beautiful homes, on large estates, they were still in temporary dwellings. There is still a final destination God has in mind for them. What we have now, and what we enjoy, is not all God has in mind for us.
When you think about it, everything we have is just a rental. Our homes, our cars, perhaps even our clothes—somebody else will have them one day. We are just renting them. Before we get too attached to hanging on to this stuff, we need to remember there is a far greater home God wants us to inhabit one day. There is a greater destiny for us.
And here’s another important implication. When we believe that life is a journey, it redefines our priorities. Think of it this way. Imagine going out of town for a meeting or event. You need to stay in a hotel for a couple nights, but when you get to the room, you realize that the pictures on the wall aren’t all that special. And the TV is kind of an old model, and the bed covers are modest quality. So you go to a few stores. You buy some expensive, beautiful paintings to replace the pictures. You get a new flat screen high definition television to put on the wall. And you buy high quality linen sheets and a nice comforter for the bed. You spend thousands of dollars in order to have a few nice nights.
Now who would do that? That would be ridiculous wouldn’t it? You don’t invest that much in a temporary place.
Lesson #3: Remember Who Is Responsible for What You Have.
“All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I…brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”(23:42-43).
By taking a week a year to live in booths kept the Israelites humble. It reminded them that were it not for God they would still be slaves. They would focus on the One who is the source of all their blessings.
Let me read another part of Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving declaration that came in the middle of the Civil War. “We have forgotten the gracious hand which multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in all the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.”
But why did the president say it then? Because nothing builds hope like desperation. If you go through life smug, believing that your blessings are the result of your hard work or superior wisdom, then its easy to get discouraged when something happens to those blessings. If you don’t see how you can make those blessing return, its easy to give up. But if you believe that those blessings came in the first place at the hand of a benevolent, loving God, then you have hope, because that can still bless.
So let me offer one final activity for your table top sukkot. Find something that reminds you of what God has done for you, maybe something symbolic, and put that in your sukkot. Even after the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they kept some bread in a jar? Why? Because when they lived in the wilderness in these huts, everyday God provided manna, bread from heaven to eat. It wasn’t much, but it got them through. They kept some of that manna in a jar to remind them God will get them through whatever they face. What is something that symbolizes how God has helped you or taken care of you?
I close with this story from Robinson Crusoe. The first thing he did when he found himself on a deserted island was to make a list. On one side he wrote down all of his problems. All of the things that made him despair. On the other side he wrote down his blessings. On one side he wrote: I have no clothes. On the other side he wrote: But it’s warm and I really don’t need any. On one side he wrote: All of the provisions were lost. One the other side: But there’s plenty of fresh fruit and water on the island. On and on the list went until he concluded that for every negative aspect was an equal blessing.
Is this a hard season for you? Does Thanksgiving feel a little different this year? Then maybe it is time to rejoice. Rejoice that for anything that has been erased in your life God is able to keep writing! To Him be all thanksgiving, glory and honor! Amen