Ere the Winter Storms Begin

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, at the Thanksgiving Day Eucharist, 2018.

When I was growing up in upstate New York out toward Buffalo, it used to puzzle me that we would get to Thanksgiving Day and sing that hymn we sang to open the service: “Come, ye thankful people come . . All is safely gathered in / Ere the winter storms begin . . .” Where I lived as a child it had already been snowing since September. There’s a picture in an old family album of the street in front of our house covered with a foot of snow on Thanksgiving Day. It was already way too late to be bringing in the harvest and the winter storms had begun long before.

This year I find myself living in a whole ’nother world where the harvest keeps coming in year round

and nobody worries about snow storms – but fire storms are destroying whole communities. We find ourselves this year celebrating thanksgiving in spite of the fact that the air is full of smoke and tens of thousands of people are newly homeless and hundreds are missing and dozens are dead.

But that opening hymn segues pretty quickly from “all is safely gathered in” to talk about “wheat and tares together sown / unto joy or sorrow grown” and then moves on again to ponder a God who will “give his angels charge at last / In the fire the tares to cast.” That’s a pretty solemn thought this year especially.

This year especially, it seems to me that Thanksgiving Day has to be more than just a question of pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce and stuffing ourselves more than the turkey. I might even go further and ask whether the idea of an annual Thanksgiving Day at a certain time is a good idea after all. I remember that Americans never celebrated Thanksgiving on a regular basis until Abraham Lincoln called on the nation to do it in the midst of the bloodiest war this country has ever fought. The battle fields of Gettysburg where 50,000 were killed or injured and perhaps 10,000 died still lay in the future when Lincoln called for a Thanksgiving celebration. But Lincoln also suggested that along with the Thanksgivings there should be: “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” and that those celebrating also “commend to (God’s) 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, tranquillity and Union.”

So, that’s as relevant now was it ever was. Celebrate, yes; I still think my grandparents made the right choice in coming here. I’d rather be here than in England or France or Australia. Yes, we have problems, but we also have the means to fix them. Yes, we have problems and, yes, traumatic times are likely around the corner – but we have our Constitution and Bill of Rights and the resources to deal with the problems we face. That’s a lot to be thankful for.

Lincoln was roundly condemned by many for suggesting a Thanksgiving Day in the midst of war, but Lincoln was probably the best theologian who ever sat in the White House and maybe he knew something we also need to remember: Does Thanksgiving after all depend on a bountiful harvest, and peace and prosperity? Is God to be given praise only in those few countries and rare moments of history when there has been no war, no shortage, no threat to our common life? Is Thanksgiving entirely a matter of material goods and comfort and happiness? I don’t think so.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist, in his book “The Cancer Ward,” wrote: “One should never direct people toward happiness, because happiness too is an idol of the marketplace … When we have enough loaves of white bread to crush them under our heels, when we have enough milk to choke us, We still won’t be in the least happy. But if we share things we don’t have enough of we can be happy today. If we care only about happiness and about reproducing our species, we shall merely crowd the earth senselessly and create a terrifying society . . .”

But that surely is not news to Christians. If our Thanksgiving is focused on our abundance in a world of scarcity then, yes, it’s no wonder we have troops on the border. The contrast between our abundance and the world of need around us should make us very uncomfortable at the Thanksgiving table. I think there’s a more useful contrast to bear in mind between self-seeking on the one hand and sharing on the other: the contrast between love and selfishness. And what does the gospel tell us except that love is to be found and made known in giving and self-sacrifice, that it is more blessed to give than to receive?

So Thanksgiving Day seems to me to provide a chance to practice what we preach. We have a chance to make an honest assessment of ourselves and to make a distinction between our failures and God’s goodness. But God has been good enough to us this year to send us the opportunity to open our eyes and see the sort of field in which we’re growing and to give us a chance to do some weeding and pruning in our own lives now, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to God’s service and perhaps to give God thanks not so much for material things which we can easily live without as for the knowledge of God who is our only true life and our only lasting source of thankfulness.

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