Scripture: Psalm 30
If I were to ask you what the most religious holiday we celebrate each year is, what would your answer be?
Would you say it’s Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, which we celebrate with new dresses, colored eggs, Easter baskets, candy, and perhaps a trip to church even if we don’t go there on most other Sundays? Or would you say Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth—which the vast majority of our culture celebrates even if they aren’t Christian—with gifts, trees and lights, carols (mostly blasted over the loudspeakers at shopping centers beginning the day after Hallowe’en), parties, and a “jolly old elf” in a red suit?
If you said either of these, you’d actually be wrong.
Notice that I didn’t ask what is the most Christian of our holidays (and there have been arguments about many of the elements of our Easter and Christmas celebrations, whether they’re really Christian or are pagan symbols that have been brought in from various sources over the years). No, the question was what is the most religious of our holidays—a holiday that has us focus on our relationship with our God, regardless of our particular faith commitments.
I believe—and I’m not the only one, although I can’t for the life of me remember where it was that I first heard this articulated —a good case can be made that our most religious holiday is Thanksgiving. No matter to what tradition we belong, most people of faith are called, throughout the year as well as on special holy days, to take the time to consider all that our God has done for us, and give God thanks and praise.
Thanksgiving is not technically a religious holiday, since it does not belong to any particular faith tradition and was instituted not by any faith’s commandments but by order of President Lincoln (who was actually making official something that had been going on more or less annually in this country for many years). But it is religious in the sense that it gives all of us a day set aside for feasting, celebrating, and giving thanks to God, however we might understand God. I know many folks who celebrate Thanksgiving aren’t religious at all, but even a non-religious person can find things to be grateful for, and can find people to which they can express their thanks. (And those of us who are thanking God are no doubt aware that there are people who are also deserving of our gratitude for something.)
I don’t know about you, but I tend to find it harder to remember to praise and thank God when things are going well for me than I do when life is more of a struggle. When we’re going through a rough patch, as the Psalmist in our reading for today—who seems to be thanking God for bringing them through some kind of serious illness—has been through, we don’t forget to ask God for help, and I hope we also don’t forget to give thanks when that help has come.
When life is good, free of drama, with just the right balance of work and leisure, I’m getting along with everyone fairly well and am not having any trouble making ends meet, it seems like I just attribute it to my own abilities. I’m doing my job well, I might say; I’m working hard and getting stuff done, so I can take my days off like I should. It doesn’t occur to me that God could be the one making it possible for me to do my job well and to get time away from work to rest and recharge.
We’re managing our money well, so we’re doing fine keeping the bills paid and still being able to put some aside in savings—and even finding that we can afford to do some fun things like going out to eat, buying shoes, and downloading audiobooks into the Kindle every few days. It doesn’t occur to me that it’s God who is providing for us, making it possible for us to work and earn that money, giving us the sense to handle it well, sometimes even stretching it when we didn’t think we were going to be able to get the ends to meet at a given time.
So it’s a very good thing for me to have a time set aside, a day in the fourth week of November, to reflect on how God has blessed us and to give thanks, because I just don’t remember to do it at other times, when it seems like we’re doing just fine on our own.
But this is August, not November, and most of us (myself included) will have long since forgotten this sermon by the time Thanksgiving Day rolls around three months from now. Perhaps, though, the lesson of Thanksgiving can be taken to heart throughout the year. Even psychologists who have no particular attachment to religious faith recognize that taking time to give thanks—whether to God or to another person—has a positive effect on our mental health.
For one thing, stopping to consider the things for which we have reason to be grateful helps counteract a lot of the tendency to be dissatisfied that is pounded into us by the culture around us. When we are continually exposed to advertisements that tell us we’re not good enough, our life is not successful enough, if we don’t have the latest technology, the newest car, the most fashionable clothing, and so on, we get to where all we focus on is what we feel like we’re lacking. (Advertisers want us to focus on that, so that we will spend money buying the things they’ve convinced us we’re lacking.)
When we take the time on a regular basis (and I would argue we should do this much more often than once a year on the fourth Thursday in November) to look for blessings, to notice things for which we have reason to be grateful, and to praise God and thank God for those things, it shifts our focus from what we lack to what we have. And we realize that we have been abundantly blessed, that God has provided for us beyond our wildest imaginings. If we make a habit of doing this, even when times are good, what we also discover is that it doesn’t really all depend on us—a lesson which will serve us well when (not if) we find ourselves in more difficult circumstances.
So here’s a challenge for all of us—and especially those of us who are having pretty good times right now. Let’s set aside a time, at least once a week (but preferably more often than that), and notice the ways that God has blessed us. Let’s notice the good things that are in our lives, and remember that God gives us everything, including the abilities to take care of ourselves, to work, and to manage our lives effectively. And then let’s thank God for these things—give God praise for taking care of us and giving us the gifts and abilities that make us who we are. (And if God has chosen to bless us through other people, let’s be sure we take a moment to thank them, too.)
Imagine if we were to make this a habit from now until that fourth Thursday in November. How would it affect how we celebrate that Thanksgiving feast?
 Seems like it was a column in a magazine from several years ago, maybe Newsweek; but an internet search yielded no useful results.
 There is, apparently, some argument among Orthodox Jewish rabbis about whether Thanksgiving ought to be celebrated by Orthodox Jews, but other branches of Judaism have seen no problem with the holiday celebration.
 See, for instance, the article on this subject at the website of Touchstone Health Partners, a mental-health agency located in Colorado: http://touchstonehealthpartners.org/2012/11/how-giving-thanks-improves-mental-health/.