I hope that all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving Day and thought long and hard about what we are thankful for this year, but while hopefully this year’s celebration was wonderful, I’m sure that all of us have some story about Thanksgiving not going quite right. But whatever stories we might have, I think that Mary Clingman can beat us. For you see, Mary has been a receiving calls on the Butterball Turkey hotline for more than 30 years. She recounts the time that a woman called and asked what she needed to do differently to cook the turkey at high altitudes, when asked how high she was, the caller said, the 32nd floor. Or there was the woman who called to say that her kitchen was on fire and wanted to know what to do, she was told to hang up and dial 911. Then there was the person who called and asked if the yellow netting and wrapping should be removed before cooking. The answer is yes. But I have to say my favorite was the man who called to ask if their frozen turkey was still good. When asked how long they had had it, he said it was at least five years, but they couldn’t really remember. Had it always been kept frozen, she asked, no, he said, they had moved once and then there was the time that the freezer stopped working, so it had probably at least partially defrosted a couple of times, after being told him that the turkey probably was not good and should be discarded. The man said that’s what he had figured, so he was glad he had given it to a charity. Or maybe Thanksgiving is more like a post from Ann, who lives in Miami, Ohio; she said “Thanksgiving horror stories? I have none. I find the key to family holiday success is buying as much wine as you think you need, and then doubling it.”
Thanksgiving is the time in which we gather together to be reminded of the things we are truly thankful for and appreciative of, which certainly includes our families and friends, we eat too much watch a little football and simply try and just enjoy the day. It’s really one of the truly few days in our culture in which there is not a push to be out working more or working harder; we are actually encouraged to take some time off to enjoy the important things in life.
Of course one of the great ironies of Thanksgiving Day, although I also think it’s also quite appropriate for our culture, is that on the very day in which we pause in order to give thanks for the things we have in our lives, on the day in which we say that we are happy and content, or at the very least on the day in which we are supposed to say that we appreciate the things that really matter, which is not our stuff, is the very day in which we now go out to buy all the things we just said we were happy without.
It is estimated that approximately 140 million Americans will go shopping this weekend, that’s a little less than half the population, and the American Retail Federation estimates that we will spend 617 billion dollars in November and December this year, up about 4% from last year. The CEO of Macy’s said that while their marketing studies show that people say they don’t want stores to be open on Thanksgiving Day, that our actions don’t match that, and sure enough there were an estimated 15,000 people waiting to get into the Macy’s in New York City when they opened, Walmart reports 22 million shoppers on Thursday, and Target said they were selling 1800 televisions a minute on Thanksgiving. And then of course there are the fights and other events that take place during the Black Friday rush. One of my favorite lines from Black Friday was following a shooting in California several years ago in which one parent wouldn’t let go of the Tickle-Me-Elmo doll, of whatever was the hot seller that year, in which the newscasters said after reporting it, and I could not make this up, “but don’t worry, shopping was not interrupted.”
Now some of you may be thinking or wondering why it is that I am talking about Thanksgiving when we are now two days past it and quickly making our way towards Christmas, and the reason is because what we do on Thanksgiving and its aftermath says a lot for us about Christmas and what we truly consider important, and it was really summed up by an article that appeared in the London Telegraph which began “If you thought Hallowe’en, Father’s Day and Starbucks were terrible American commercial confections, invading our high streets and calendars, then prepare yourself for another US takeover: Black Friday.” Apparently although Black Friday has been taking place in America since before world war II, it’s a very new phenomenon in England, having been first introduced by a store owned by Walmart last year, but taking off this year, with many of the same thoughts and regrets that we have, and coming to this conclusion: “The arrival of Black Friday from the US… confirms how Christmas, once a Christian festival – and largely a German one at that – has taken on an irretrievably Stateside materialistic sheen.” (Harry Wallop) And just to show you were it’s going, Visa estimates that they will be doing sales of £360,000 per minute, although I have no idea how much that actually is, a 22% increase from last year. So we’re even corrupting the uptight British, and apparently they aren’t happy about it, although some are thrilled with all the deals they are getting.
Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians, as he does most of his letters, with a salutation that includes a thanksgiving. But notice something very important about what Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus.” That is he is thanking them for their faithfulness in some ways, but who Paul is actually thanking is God. He is giving thanks to God for them, and thanking God for what God has given to them, including God’s grace, but also for the spiritual gifts that they have received. And Paul does not say if you have every spiritual gift, and a flat screen TV, or that $99 Xbox, then you will be truly happy and truly blessed. Instead Paul says that they have already received everything they need, they have already been enriched in God and that God will strengthen them to the end, a phrase that should sound sort of familiar after what we have been talking about for the past few weeks. But notice also that what they receive, what we receive, is a gift. Can we earn a gift? No, it’s given freely, and thus when we hear in advertising that we will get a free gift, that’s a redundancy, because if you have to pay for it, it’s not a gift. But a gift is freely given without cost, and it is what we receive from God, and we know that why? Because God is faithful.
So we are called not merely to give thanks, to pause and appreciate what is going on, but we are called, following Paul’s example, of giving thanks to God where everything begins and ends, because God is the alpha and the omega. The problem is that most of us are not really good at giving thanks. That is that we might say things we are thankful for, but they’re sort of superficial, or the things that we know we’re supposed to be thankful for, and we don’t really pay attention to the other things that happen to us or are around us every single day, that we overlook or totally take for granted. Our preschool program had posted the things that the kids in the classes were thankful for. And what I always like about listening to kids is that there is the total unexpectedness of being appreciative for the things we never even think of. So one child said they were thankful for Spiderman. A fine answer. Another said that they were thankful for cows. Not one I would think of, but a good answer. But the one I loved the best was the child who said they were thankful for balloons. How wonderful is that? And balloons are really wonderful things, but how many of us would really every think to give thanks for balloons? Those are the things we overlook. What if we didn’t approach life that way? What if we really appreciated the small things in life? What if we approached every single day as a miracle and noticed and celebrated all the things that happened? What if we were in fact more like Ickey Woods?
In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, a survivor of the holocaust, wrote about one afternoon when the men had all walked back to their barracks after their day’s labor. They were lying in their beds, exhausted and sick after having spent the day in a cold rain. Suddenly, he says, one of the men ran into the barracks and shouted for the others to come outside. Reluctant to leave their beds, but hearing the urgency in the man’s voice, they staggered outside. They found that the rain had stopped, and although dark heavy clouds still hung in the sky, the sun had broken through and was reflecting on the puddles of water on the floor of the courtyard. “We stood there,” Frankl said, “marveling at the goodness of the creation. We were tired and cold and sick, we were starving to death, we had lost our loved ones and never expected to see them again, yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and formidable as the world itself.” There were obviously lots of things that Frankl and his other prisoners could be worried about and focused on, and they were, until someone brought them out of it and they stood in awe at the beauty of creation.
In an experiment at the University of Michigan, researchers found that students who kept a “gratitude journal,” a weekly record of things they feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began. In another study researchers found that people who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others, and either to God or to creation in general, tended to have higher vitality and more optimism, suffer less stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population as a whole. This result held even when researchers factored out such things as age, health, and income – equalizing for the fact that the young, the well-to-do, or the hale and hearty may have more to be grateful for. In other words, expressing gratitude can not only make you happier but can make you healthier, and the reverse is also true, that worrying can literally make you sick. No wonder Jesus tells us not to worry and to be like the birds and lilies of the field.
Some of you may have heard about the appreciation challenge, in which you list the things you are thankful for for a certain number of days. Well I am going to challenge us to do that for the next 25 days, to list out the things we thankful for so we can realize that Christmas is not our birthday, that it’s not about the presents we will receive or even that we may give, but instead about what we have already been given and to give thanks to God. And so in your bulletin you will find a sheet to help you do that, and I invite you to share it on our Facebook page or on Twitter, or in other places. I’m also going to warn you that the first few days will probably be easy, and we’ll list the things we know we’re supposed to be thankful for, but then it will get harder because we have to concentrate on appreciate other things like our ability to get cold cuts or for balloons. And let us always remember that we are not giving thanks for things, because that places the emphasis on the object, whatever it is, but instead we are giving thanks to God who provides for us, so that when we come to Christmas we can truly once again appreciate the greatest gift that the world has ever received, because God so loved the world that he gave us his only son that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life. I pray it will be so my brothers and sisters.