This sermon was offered at the Community Thanksgiving Eve Service, held in cooperation by Zion, Hope UMC, and Community of Christ ELCA. The entire service may be viewed here, with the sermon beginning at approx. 20:20.)
Tomorrow, my husband and I will make the two-hour drive to my brother’s house for our family’s Thanksgiving gathering. On the way, we will observe one of our own Thanksgiving traditions: listening to a public radio special called “Giving Thanks.” From 9-11 on WGTE, we will enjoy two hours of beautiful music, interesting interviews, and heartwarming stories that connect us with all that we have to be grateful for.
One thing that remains the same each year in the program is the opening music. It’s the hymn we that just sang together, “We Gather Together,” performed by the Boston Pops. I understand from Pastor Marcus that this hymn isn’t in the Community of Christ hymnal, so I thank you for being good sports in singing an unfamiliar song tonight. In the United Methodist hymnal, it’s one of the hymns recommended for Thanksgiving Day.
But, if you go back and take a look at the lyrics, you may be surprised to find that they don’t include a single reference to harvest or even to gratitude. It doesn’t seem to be a Thanksgiving hymn at all. But, it has much to say about the things we remember and celebrate on our Thanksgiving holiday, especially in the times we’re living in now. It was written in the aftermath of a national tragedy, and it affirms God’s presence during times of trouble. It also looks forward to God’s continued presence in the future. And, it recognizes that we don’t offer our praise and thanks and trust alone, but as part of a community.
The events that inspired the hymn began in the 1500s, during the time of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, about 50 years after Martin Luther published his “95 These.” Charles’ empire included the Netherlands, where the Protestant movement was gaining strength. Charles and his son, King Philip II of Spain, considered it their duty to wipe it out.
In 1566, Dutch Protestants stormed Catholic churches to destroy what they believed were idolatrous statues. King Philip sent the Duke of Alba to restore order, which he did with terrible violence. Many Dutch Protestants were executed, along with tolerant Catholics who were friends and neighbors. This led to yet more rebellion and more executions, a pattern that continued for nearly 20 years. Finally, Spanish soldiers captured Antwerp, the center of the Dutch revolt. 8,000 citizens were murdered, 800 houses were burned to the ground, and thousands of Dutch Protestants were sent into exile. But, the punishment that was meant to destroy the community and its Protestant faith had an unexpected result. The exiles’ move to the northern provinces resulted in a period of peace and prosperity, which came to be known as Holland’s Golden Age.
As I reflected on the hymn and on our passage from Deuteronomy, it struck me that, even though the people who first spoke or sang these words were separated by time and geography, they have some important points of connection with each other. And, although we are even more distant from those original speakers and singers, there are points of connection with our lives, too.
First of all, these are words for people who have been through difficult times. The hymn writer was speaking for the Dutch Protestants, who had suffered decades of persecution. Moses spoke the words of Deuteronomy to the Hebrew people, as they were poised to enter the promised land. But they had endured their own decades of trials, first as slaves in Egypt and then as nomads in the wilderness. They had come face-to-face with the fragility of their existence, just as the Dutch had. These troubled times made them aware of their absolute dependence on God, not only for their physical survival but for the strength and courage they needed to continue in the face of uncertainty.
Secondly, the hymn and our passage acknowledge God’s active role in their lives and in the world. Moses instructed the people to recite how God had worked in their history—how it was God who heard their voices as they cried out against their oppressors, how it was God who rescued them and led them to a place of freedom and plenty. The hymn recalls the years of violent oppression endured by the Dutch people when God was at their side. In all of the experiences of both the Dutch and the Hebrew people, God was present, and they knew it.
Finally, and most importantly I think, both our hymn and our passage are written, not for individuals, but for a community. The Scripture passage begins with instructions for individuals as they make their offering of the first fruits they gather from their new land. But, it quickly moves to the recitation of a shared history—the story of a people who have laughed together, cried together, faced hardship together, and rejoiced together.
Then, there are instructions for celebrating all that God had given them, and they were to celebrate as a community. “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” The next verses expand the guest list. Along with the Levites and the aliens, Moses includes orphans and widows—symbols of all those who are voiceless and friendless in the world. The celebration of God’s bounty was to be shared, not just with those who were loved and known, but with all.
The hymn is an anthem and a prayer for a community. It spills over with words about “us.” “We gather together, beside us to guide us; our God with us joining…so from the beginning the fight we were winning, [the] Lord was at our side.” “We all do extol thee. We pray that thou our defender wilt be. Let thy congregation escape tribulation. O Lord, make us free.” You’ve heard that old saying, “There is no ‘I’ in team”? Well, there’s no “I” in this hymn, either. Thanks and praise are a shared task to affirm a shared story of God’s providence, and a shared prayer of hope for the future.
We, too, have been through a time of trial—in fact, we haven’t completely left it behind us. COVID, an uncertain economy, climate change, and division that erupts into hateful speech and even acts of violence have left us feeling much more uncertain about the future. Like the Hebrew people and the Dutch Protestants, we have learned just how little control we have over the world around us. We have been reminded of just how dependent we are—on other people and on God. And, hopefully, we can look back on this time and find the places where God was present, where God was working, where God was leading us through our difficult times. Like the Dutch and the Hebrew peoples, we have much to be thankful for.
When we sit down for our Thanksgiving feasts, it’s a tradition for many families to go around the table, with each person telling something they’re thankful for. What would it look like if, instead of focusing on individual blessings, we told a story that all share in—how our ancestors came to be in this country, how our family came through a difficult time together, how we are maintaining our relationships with each other and with God in a fast-changing and uncertain world? How might our table talk be different if we speak of our shared hopes for a future—a future infused with an awareness of God’s presence and a prayer for God’s leading into that future? How would our prayers be different if we were (literally or in spirit) sitting next to those who have been powerless and friendless for too long, and how would our conversation be different if we really listened to their stories, which are also part of our story?
As we gather together tonight to praise and thank our God, we do so as a community of Christians. We will also gather around a table—the table that Jesus shared with the community he was building: a community of people from diverse backgrounds, ages, genders, classes, and nationalities. He invited the poor and the rich, the Jew and the Gentile. He invited each of us. We will tell and hear our shared story—of how Jesus gave his life so that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Our offering will acknowledge that our community is larger than those of us gathered here tonight; it includes those we do not know but whom Jesus loves as he loves us.
Tomorrow, as Marc and I listen to our radio program, we’ll hear stories and music from different time periods, from different places in the world, in the voices of those whose lives may be very different from our own. But, across the human community, we’ll share our gratitude for abundance that God provides. We’ll acknowledge that God’s providence includes so much more than the food on our tables: assurance and strength in times of trouble, in the presence of our God who walks with us, leading us and guiding us. As we gather together, tonight and at our celebrations tomorrow, let us give thanks for all God’s blessings, and for the community in which we gather to offer our prayers of praise and thanksgiving. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young