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Reflections on a Thanksgiving Like No Other (Psalm 136)



With the cadence of the psalm, and the image of the cornucopia and its abundance, and the ecumenical harmonies of the choir anthem, and the poetry of Maureen’s reading -- Reflecting on the eve of this Thanksgiving, I’ve just got two things to say. Two reflections.

The first is this: This is a Thanksgiving like no other. We might as well say that up front – and be honest – and honor our experience of this year. This year, we come to Thanksgiving in a season of pandemic. We’ve been travelling through all this together – and, this year, we’ve adapted much of life so that we can continue to live – faithfully and safely – lives that make meaning in this world, and that try to keep each other healthy and whole.


And this Thanksgiving is no exception. For many, Thanksgiving is traditionally a time of large gatherings, with a shared meal, in close proximity, with family or friends we don’t see often enough. And we know that there’s so much of that that we shouldn’t do in these days. And we’ll miss that. And it’s OK to say that – even on Thanksgiving – it’s not ungrateful. In fact, I think we have to name it, if we’re to find an authentic way to gratitude.


Now that’s not to say that we’ve given up on the things that are important. As with everything else this year, we are adapting and creating. I’ve listened to folks in this community talk about our revised Thanksgiving plans – and I’ve been reading what people are doing across the country. There are as many variations as there are individuals and families and friends – all of us doing the best we can – but a common thread is that folks seem to be focusing on what matters the most – and then scaling down or innovating our traditions to claim the heart of the experience.


So instead of large family gatherings – or gatherings across households and friends – people are having smaller household meals – and then connecting those households for a shared time through something like Zoom. Some are calling it a shared Happy Hour. Some of us will spend more of the day outside, giving thanks in the broad expanse of creation. Some of us are decorating more – leaning into traditions of celebrating the welcome of our living spaces. Some families and groups are figuring out different delivery systems for our shared meal – we can’t all gather around one table. Folks who embrace the joy of feeding those who are unhoused at Thanksgiving are busy making boxed meals right now. And some of us will center down on the practice of gratitude – of saying and giving thanks – as the essential experience of Thanksgiving – pandemic or no.


This Thanksgiving, there are ways of being together that we will miss – and there are new ways of being together that we will discover. And we should name all that, and say it out loud, and honor our experience – this is a Thanksgiving like no other. That’s the first thing.


And the second thing is this: This is a Thanksgiving like every other.


That second thing is just as true as the first. The Psalm we read together reminds us of that, with the steady pulse that drives it forward: God’s steadfast love endures forever. This Psalm is a song that’s been sung over time – first by the Hebrew people – telling their story and their experience of what they call – the “wonders” of God – in Hebrew, the niphlot of God – what one translator calls the “abiding astonishment” of God. They tell of the wonders of creation – the earth, the stars, the sea, the shore – God’s steadfast love endures forever. And they tell of the “abiding astonishment” they’ve experienced in God’s faithful presence through the whole of life – in their journey from bondage into wilderness and then freedom; in times of plenty, and times of want; in hard times, all the time – God’s steadfast love endures forever.


And their refrain is repeated down over the ages – by people living through hard times and good – giving thanks – God’s steadfast love endures forever – or, one might say, God’s grace abounds – all the way down to us. And so we gather, from time to time, in the rhythm of our life – as they did in the rhythm of theirs – to give thanks.

Thanksgiving is one of those times – as in so many other cultures – a harvest festival to give thanks. Jewish traditions honor Sukkot -- a harvest festival when people built booths or tents – to remember and give thanks for the time when God accompanied them in the wilderness – a sign of God’s faithfulness there and then, and here and now.


Other cultures have different harvest traditions – at the Seminary, we were invited to share in the Korean Chuseok festival – which comes mid-Fall, harvest-time, a time to think about the generations who have come before, give thanks, share gifts and a meal, and look toward the future. There’s a harvest festival tradition from England that takes the grain of the harvest and incorporates that grain into the making of communion bread.


These harvest festivals come – year in and year out – across time and across cultures – as an embodied, connected occasion to give thanks. They don’t depend on the size of the crop or the challenges of the year. They are a people gathering together as they can, experiencing whatever abundance the harvest brings, sharing what they have, and giving thanks – for Jewish and Christian and other religious traditions, giving thanks to God.


Even in 2020, I imagine that the things for which we give thanks this evening and tomorrow – will echo gratitude we have spoken before – gratitude voiced across the generations:


We will give thanks for family, and friends;

for love, and for life, and for work to do;

for the beauty of this Earth;

for the sun that rises every morning;

for the dimming of the day at dusk;

for the starlit sky of a crisp, clear autumn night;

for planting and for harvest;

for the friends who have accompanied us in sorrow;

for those with whom we have created new things;

for a glimpse of progress;

for music;

for kindred spirits who share our vision of a better world;

for connection in community;

for moments like this, that refresh and renew our weary spirits.


We will give thanks for the abiding astonishment of our lives. In good times and bad.

In the living of our day, we stand with those who have gone before – gathering as we can, sharing what we have, creating something new, and giving thanks. And we find ourselves joining our voices with theirs, in words of thanksgiving true for them, and for us, and forever:


Give thanks to God, for God is good.

God’s steadfast love endures forever.



© 2020 Scott Clark

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