We are a nation of immigrants. We all came from somewhere else. Some like the pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean on ships seeking freedom and new life. Some came across the Pacific Ocean seeking opportunity farther east in the American West. Some were taken captive and brought over against their will on slave ships.
My people began to move here from Tonga fifty years ago. I assume some branches of your family go back to the Revolution and had immigrated from France and Britain. Some came more recently. A friend told me his family came from Scotland in the early 1900’s.
As a nation of immigrants, Thanksgiving is truly our unique American holiday. It recalls our immigrant roots. It retells the story of a group of immigrants in a new and strange land fighting to survive. It observes their struggle for freedom and represents our ongoing struggles for a future of liberty with hope. It also recognizes God as the source of help in the midst of a difficult changing world.
Thanksgiving is uniquely American, but setting aside a day for giving thanks is not as unique as one might think. Israel had a very similar Thanksgiving Day. Israel was a nation of immigrants like us. For 400 years, they had been slaves in Egypt before they immigrated for 40 years to the Promised Land seeking freedom. Like American immigrants, they found a land flowing with milk and honey.
Before Israel entered the Promised Land, God told them to set aside a day to give thanks. It was a festival of the first fruits. It would have been earlier in the year than our Thanksgiving, but the idea was the same. God told them to bring the first fruits and offer them to God in thanksgiving for the blessings God had given them.
And as part of this, they were told to give a specific response. It starts, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” It then goes on to recall the exodus and the gift of the Promised Land. It all ends with a feast! They might not have had turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, but like the pilgrims, and us they feasted.
That is true of us today. As we all gather at the Thanksgiving table Thursday let us all give thanks to God. We have traveled a long way to get where we are. It has been a migration through a wilderness of dangers and pitfalls. All for the shining hope of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and a future with hope.
Americans have fought for centuries to realize freedom. The pilgrims fought disease and the elements to find religious freedom. As a nation, we fought for our independence and the right to govern ourselves. In the 1860’s, we fought so that the statement “All men are created equal” could be applied to men of color.
Then we struggled so that the working class would have rights and so that “All men are created equal” could apply to women. We fought two world wars to free the world of violence and oppression. We fought a cold war to remain free from communism. And, now we are fighting to be free from terrorism and mass murder.
Our ancestors were wanderers in the world seeking the promised land of freedom. We didn’t arrive at this place on our own. Generations of others took risks, even gave their lives, so that we could live in this promised land of the United States.
Whether your ancestors arrived on ocean liners, slave ships, land bridges, or more recently jet planes; we all owe a debt to the sacrifices of the past. And, we owe thanks to God for allowing us to live here in this time.
But we are uncertain! We have gone from economic growth to the edge of recession. We have gone from a sense of national security to being victims of terrorism. We have gone from a state of peace to a state of war. We have gone from not knowing who would be the president to having a president-elect with a future with hope.
But, despite the troubles, we have much to be thankful for. Fortunes, jobs, our sense of security and even lives have been lost in the past year. But God was with us through it all just as God was with our ancestors through their trials, just as God was with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. God is with us all the time.
We usually forget to give thanks. We need at least one day to remind ourselves to give thanks to God. So, as you gather around the Family Table with your turkey - remember to say thank you. But the day after that as you try to decide how to fix the leftovers, and the day after that – please remember that voice saying, “Now, say thank you.” And remember to give thanks. Shalom and Amen.