“Thanksgiving in Prosperity and Adversity”
November 18, 2012
While we get most of our food at the supermarket and find strawberries, lettuce, and even kiwi fruit in abundance all year long, Thanksgiving in the United States is linked to our agrarian past and to a celebration of the harvest. Our choir exhorts us to “Sing to the Lord of the harvest.” With hearts and hands and voices, we “raise the song of harvest home” and give thanks that “all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.”
And yet this year, we know that things are different. We live surrounded by farmland. The corn fields across the street from my house told a small version of the story that we have experienced over the past six months. The US Department of Agriculture reports that the severe drought has had major impacts on the production of many field crops, particularly corn, soybeans, sorghum, and hay. What started out as a promising year for U.S. crop production, with high total acreage planted and favorable early-season planting conditions, turned into one of the most serious adverse weather situations in decades. About 80 percent of agricultural land experienced drought, which makes this year’s drought more extensive than any drought since the 1950s. As of September 12, over 2,000 U.S. counties had been designated as disaster areas by USDA, mainly due to drought.[i]
The results are not only local or nationwide. The United Nations tells us that global food prices are expected to stay high over the next six months because drought not only in the United States but also in Russia has cut grain supplies. The one bit of good news is that the UN does not anticipate a food crisis at this stage because crude-oil costs are lower than in 2008 and rice supplies are abundant.
The words of the prophet suggest the situation of many. “The fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no heard in the stalls.”
While the well-being of most of us is not tied directly to the harvest, I’m aware that those words of Habakkuk speak to the lives of many in our congregation this year. Some have lost loved ones and face their first Thanksgiving with an empty seat at the table and ache in their hearts. Others have faced work crises and know how hard it is to be without enough money in a town where sufficiency is assumed. Still others find their own health or the health of someone close to them in jeopardy. And then there are family relationships—fragile structures all year round—that are brought to the breaking point by the holiday season.
Adversity endangers our thanksgiving, doesn’t it?
The temptation is to descend into despair, to succumb to bitterness, to let a materialistic view of life lead to anger or hopelessness.
When life is difficult, is there any other choice?
When we listen to all that the ancient prophet Habakkuk says, the answer is, “Yes, there is another way.”
“Thought the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”
In the midst of failure, in the midst of destitution, comes a cry of hope and confidence. As Peter Gomes once said in reflecting on those words of Habakkuk, “Thanksgiving begins not with our success and not even with ourselves. It begins with God.”[ii]
At Thanksgiving we do have the memory of those Pilgrims in Plymouth—and as Congregationalists we especially hold that memory close and dear. In 1621 the Pilgrims at Plymouth planted their crops: English peas, barley, and Indian corn. No peas were harvested. The barley crop was described in one word: “indifferent.”
The twenty acres of corn did best because the Indians in the area taught the Pilgrims how to fertilize the ground. But remember—this corn was only two or three inches long and of varying quality.
Twenty acres of scrubby corn was it. Twenty acres of corn were the first fruits offered to God with thanksgiving. Before the second winter was over, those who celebrated that first Thanksgiving had their rations greatly reduced.
As much as we remember them, we do not give thanks for the Pilgrims—or for their success or failure. We give thanks for the God whom they worshipped, the God who is our strength and salvation in good times and bad.
We give thanks because God is God, not because of what we have. The prophet rejoices because God is his salvation and God is our salvation—our wholeness, our health.
Thanksgiving may seem difficult during times of adversity. In faith, however, thanksgiving is a genuine possibility, a choice we can make. Through tears of grief, with financial woes, with worries about health and concern for the future, we can choose to give thanks to the God who is our strength, who is even now opening new possibilities for life.
If adversity makes Thanksgiving a problem, we must confess that the greater danger for many, really, is not our adversity but our prosperity.
It is not because having “things” is bad in and of itself. Remember that the Promised Land was described to the Israelites as “a good land, a land with flowing streams, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.”
The Bible encourages us to receive the good things that God provides, to enjoy the fruits of our labor, and to be prosperous people.
All too quickly, however, we can move from the position of faith in God that says “all I have, I have received from God” to the faith in ourselves that claims: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”
And that’s a pretty appealing affirmation, isn’t it? After all, most people here work hard and work long hours. We expect great things from ourselves and for ourselves. We save. We make good investments. So it seems to be just a little healthy self-esteem that announces: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”
This, then, is the great danger of Thanksgiving in prosperity. It easily lapses into idolatry.
And so it may be that the real threat we confront at Thanksgiving is a poverty of the spirit, and even we who feel secure because we have no fear of hunger and destitution may fail to see this. Indeed, our very plentiful supplies of food and clothing may lead to a complacency that encourages the thought that “God is not longer necessary for my life”[iii]
I find some help in the words of Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, at a time when people in this country knew death and destruction and fear first hand. Lincoln issued, not a declaration of Thanksgiving, but a call to fasting. In words that seem to describe our own situation, he told the people:
“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.
“But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”
Now, I’m from Illinois and so it comes almost as naturally as breathing to regard anything Lincoln said as next to scripture in terms of importance. Time has not eroded the power of those words.
The danger of forgetfulness always lurks amidst prosperity.
The solution is memory: “Remember the Lord your God, for it is God who give you power to get wealth.”
And so the ancient Hebrew people, dusty and hungry and worn out from years in the desert are told by Moses, “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied...”
Wait a minute. Is Moses talking to us? Again ancient words seem to describe the situation of many.
Do not forget God. Do not become proud.
But in your prosperity, look around. Begin by giving thanks, not for what you have, but for the God who gave you the ability to get the wealth you enjoy. Remember that it is a gift. It is, all of it, a gift.
And remember your responsibility as a steward to use all those gifts wisely.
Remember—and give thanks even in your prosperity.
This Thursday, in our prosperity or in the face of great hardship, let us give thanks to God who is our strength, who gives us the power to get wealth. And let us all pray as Thomas á Kempis once did: “Write Thy blessed name, O Lord, upon my heart, there to remain so indelibly engraved, that no prosperity, no adversity shall ever move me from Thy love.”
[iii] NIB—Deuteronomy, pg. 357