November 26, 2013: Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Remarks at St. Thomas Lutheran Church


Psalm 104 presents an idyllic image of nature in harmony with itself. “The springs gush water into ravines; they flow between the hills and give water to all the beasts of the field, the wild donkeys, and the birds nesting by the waters and singing among the branches.” But more than an image of nature in harmony with itself, Psalm 104 presents nature in harmony with humanity. In this picture, the lion is not a fierce and dangerous beast to be feared; he is merely one of God’s many creatures, including human beings, who “seek their food” from their divine Provider. It’s just that the lion seeks his food by night, then goes home as the sun comes up, yielding the daytime as the domain for people. It is now people’s turn to go out to work and labor for their own sustenance. In this picture, Leviathan is not the arch-symbol of chaos, evil and everything anathema to civilization and order, the way he is usually depicted throughout the Bible. Rather, he frolics in the seas right alongside the ships as they cross the surface to and fro. Here, all forces of Nature come together in balance. Human beings do not dominate. They do not even occupy center stage. “How many are the things You have made, O God! The earth is full of your creatures.” And we humans—we fit within the overall the picture, not ruling over our fellow creatures, but going about our business as they do and among them.

The significance of Thanksgiving as an opportunity to express gratitude for the bounties of the harvest is familiar. However, we forget the other theme of the celebration, which in many respects was much more fundamental to its original purpose. The Pilgrims established the first Thanksgiving to thank their Creator for having sustained them so far, to be sure, but they were much more concerned with how they were going to endure the harsh winter that lay ahead for them in an unfamiliar, threatening environment. For them, giving thanks was secondary to beseeching the Lord’s protection and throwing themselves upon His providence—because they knew deeply that their continued survival did not depend upon their own power. The Puritans conscientiously based Thanksgiving upon the ancient Jewish festival of Sukkot, which they called the “Feast of Tabernacles” (having encountered Jewish ritual practices both through their own intimate knowledge of the Old Testament as well as during their ten-year sojourn in Amsterdam, where they came into close contact with the thriving Dutch Jewish community prior to setting sail for the New World). Like Thanksgiving, Sukkot also emphasizes the twin themes of celebration and dependency. “Open Your hand, and [Your creatures] are satisfied with good. But hide Your face, and they are terrified.” The paramount preoccupation of Sukkot in ancient Israel was water (as it still remains in modern Israel to this day)—would the rains come in their proper season, ensuring sustenance for another year?

In the modern world, I fear that we have lost our humility with regard to the forces of Nature. We consider Nature’s bounty as an entitlement rather than as a gift. We think of the environment as our servant rather than as our helper. We seek to dominate and master our world, rather than live as one constituent part within the whole of it. Ironically, we are more dependent upon Nature than ever. The greater the human species’ influence on climate on a global scale, the more extreme the ferocity of Nature’s backlash in the form of super-hurricanes, super-typhoons and rising sea levels.

So today, let us evoke both aspects of the Thanksgiving celebration: gratitude for the richness and abundance of the Earth, as well as acknowledgement of our human limitations, lest we destroy the very blessings for which we give thanks. “It is absolutely necessary for us to get over the idea that man is God,” said an American spiritual leader several generations ago, and his warning has become all the more relevant in the 21st century. Let us hold fast to the psalmist’s vision of a humanity that plies the seas alongside all the other living things, small and large, of human beings going out by day to bring forth bread from the earth even as our fellow living beings go out for their own nourishment, of people living among all life forms of the Earth, rather than exploiting them. Then, indeed, the glory of God will endure forever, and we will live to chant praises to God.