The First Thanksgivings
Talk at First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles, Nov. 20, 2016


We usually think of Thanksgiving as a distinctly North American, even a Puritan New England holiday - turkey, harvests, pumpkins, football. The Puritans back in Olde England in the 16th Century actually wanted to get rid of the long list of Church calendar feast days and instead have specially called Days of Fasting, expressing repentance, and Days of Thanksgiving, expressing gratitude. In a way, those Olde England Puritans had a good idea.

Originally, Thanksgiving and Atonement went together like turkey and stuffing. Going back even further, to the 10th Century BC, there were two kinds of Jewish Temple sacrifices: the two sacrifice types were Thanksgiving and Atonement. The Thanksgiving offering was either a wave offering, a gift of grain or bread waved horizontally, representing thanks to God for the bounty of the earth, or the "heave" offering lifted vertically, elevated in awe and thanks to God for being God. The animal sacrifices burnt on the altar were an atonement for sin - whether sins we were aware of or unintentional sins. Thanksgiving and atonement, asking for forgiveness and being grateful usually go together. Atonement is freeing, and what can be better to give thanks for than for our freedom?

So, how do thanksgiving and atonement go together? The Bible is full of useful hints about living happily and free. Let's look at early Thanksgivings. Maybe the first Thanksgiving took place somewhere in the middle east in a lovely place called Eden, around 12,000 years ago. The year 10,000 BC was a great crop year in Eden - no wonder it was called a garden. Two farmers, brothers, celebrated their successful year tending the garden's fields by thanking the owner, the one who had planted this good garden. Without religious leaders to instruct them, they intuitively knew they should thank the boss by giving him gifts. There were no stores yet, no Walmart, Amazon, not even a Hallmark store. Their only assets were the harvest itself. So of course the gifts they brought were selected out of their harvest.

One of the brothers, Cain, specialized in growing food grains, Emmer wheat, rye, barley and the like. His younger brother Abel grazed and tended cattle - cows, sheep, goats. Genesis says, "In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. "

So, when Thanksgiving time came, Cain brought "some grain" as his gift. But Abel carefully selected his gifts. He chose from the first born, the largest of his flocks, and from among these he chose the plumpest, well-marbled cattle. These were cattle Abel prized; they were the best of his best. It was a sacrifice for him to slaughter these beautiful beasts, but he wanted the owner to know how joyful and thankful he was. To the point, he was eager to give the things he loved the most.

The owner was pleased with the sacrifice Abel made. With Cain, not so much. Cain was apparently less selective in the grain he brought. We get the sense Cain gave a little grudgingly - perhaps more out of obligation than out of joyful thanksgiving.

This  first Thanksgiving didn't go particularly well for either of the brothers. Cain? Cain was really upset. He suspected the owner wasn't particularly pleased with what he brought. This made Cain not just sad, but bitterly resentful. Particularly since he somehow knew the owner was really happy with the special gifts his little brother brought. Worse, being the older brother he thought it only right he should be the one the owner should be most pleased with; that he should "get the blessing." Cain felt bad. He felt so bad, he got angry. He lured his younger brother out into the fields and killed him. The first Thanksgiving didn't turn out that well for Abel either.

Cain's punishment for turning Thanksgiving into the first fatal sibling rivalry was to have to go to work. No more easy digging. Now Cain had to scratch out his living outside the garden in the land of Nod. In Hebrew "Nod" means "to wander," so Cain not only had to go to work every day, he had to commute - compounding the punishment. But, the owner put a sign on Cain to protect him from others doing to him what he did to Abel. This mark protected Cain, but it also reminded Cain of what he had done - and not done.

In truth, Thanksgiving and sacrifice actually started before the Old Testament. Nobody had to tell Cain or Abel to bring thanksgiving gifts to God. Primitive people used to sacrifice often to many, many gods. There is something primal baked into us to want to both express thanks and to propitiate, or "buy off" the anger of a powerful spirit.  The gift was usually in the form of a sacrifice of one sort or another.  In a sense a sacrifice was a substitute for yourself. "Here, Moloch, take my daughter, not me."

So, the Bible didn't start the practice of sacrifice. In fact, what the Bible did was actually limit sacrifice to specific items, specific times and specific places. This harnessed our primitive impulses and taught us there is just one God, and this One God wants us to draw near to him, not "buy him off." In the Old Testament sacrifices are often called "Korban." The meaning of the Hebrew root KRB is "to draw near." Thanksgiving in the Bible is meant to help us draw near to God - whether it's in gratitude for good stuff that's happened to us or apology and "make-good" for bad things we might have done. The important Biblical thing to remember, is that God doesn't need our sacrifices and offerings. It's us who need to make them.

It can be comfortable to think of scripture as a set of laws to regulate social and personal behavior, laying out punishments for infractions, and rewards for good behavior. Makes life simple. Straightforward instructions written in black and white - even better, carved in stone. But, the Bible is not just a Dick and Jane primer teaching spiritual ABC's. The Bible is also a post-graduate seminar in human psychology. One of the lessons is thanksgiving and atonement go together. Before we can be thankful for what's happened to us, it helps to take a clear-eyed look at where we have been and what could have happened to us. And, we probably need to "clear the deck" of what might be holding us back from feeling really grateful.

Abel gave whole-heartedly. God loves a cheerful giver. Abel expressed his thanksgiving by giving without reservation. He held nothing back. He gave sacrificially of his best and dearest. It cost him something, and he was pleased to give it. By comparison, Cain gave grudgingly. He gave "some" of his grain. Cain knew what he did compared to Abel, and perhaps he judged himself for holding back. But, rather than deal with his feelings and the cause of them, we get the impression Cain concealed his bitterness and regret from himself by perhaps projecting his feelings of guilt - and finally anger - onto his brother. If Cain had examined his feelings and confronted them, he might have dealt with his guilt in a healthier way. If Cain had confronted his bitterness and sadness, he might have apologized for his grudging giving, asked for and received forgiveness. And the first Thanksgiving story could have worked out better for both brothers.

But, Cain picked a really bad way to handle his guilt. It didn't even work. Sure enough, whatever measure you measure out will be dealt back to you. You can conceal your motives from yourself, but neither the guilt nor the consequences go away. You may "get away with it" from a social point of view, but the mark of Cain stays with you.

The Bible is full of both events and encouragement reminding us to constantly give thanks to God. Why? Because God's forgiveness, his mercy lasts forever - just as he promised Noah. The first thing Noah did when he hit dry land and came out of the ark was build an altar to God and sacrifice a portion of the animals and birds he had carefully gathered and cared for during the great flood. Noah was thankful his family was a saved remnant of humanity, and Noah expressed his thanks by returning a portion of the precious cargo to God. God drew a rainbow as a sign that Noah's sacrifice was acceptable on behalf of humanity, all was forgiven - no more world-wide flooding. Although, we'd probably be smart to stay out of coastal areas given the way we seem to be provoking God lately.

Centuries later Deuteronomy tells us Moses commanded the Israelites to celebrate a formal autumn harvest Thanksgiving. They called it Succoth. Succoth is the feast of Booths, or Feast of Tabernacles, where to this day, in autumn around the world, Orthodox Jews live for a week in little temporary booths, with the roof open to the sky. Items from the harvest are hung on the booth. These are reminders that all comes from God, we are open to and vulnerable to God, and everything on this earth is as temporary as these booths. Since Moses and the Prophets, the Bible has encouraged us to take actions that illustrate ideas. The Pilgrims were devoted to the Old Testament, and perhaps their first American Thanksgiving was modeled on this Succoth Harvest festival.

King David threw a wild Thanksgiving party when the ark was brought into Jerusalem. Michal, Saul's daughter, was shocked at her husband David leaping and dancing, flashing his Underoos as the ark was brought into the city. David was no saint, as we know, but the first thing David did on bringing the ark to the Temple mount was celebrate a thanksgiving by sacrificing burnt offerings and peace offerings and blessing the whole people.

Abraham was ready to give the ultimate sacrifice, his only son. God taught Abraham and us the substitutionary nature of sacrifice by literally providing a wild sheep as a substitute for his son. What a thanksgiving meal that roasted lamb must have been for both Abraham and Isaac. And it is a reminder that the Jewish Seder meal at Passover is a Thanksgiving celebration. The bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery to sin, and the hard-boiled egg and sweet dip symbolize the hope of forgiveness and release from that slavery. The lamb shank symbolizes the sacrifice. It is a holiday of both Hope and Thanksgiving.

And of course, this is a precursor of the sacrifice celebrated at the Mass altar and the Communion Table. Thanksgiving and atonement are the central elements in every Church service. All Christian services include both a confession of sin and an assurance of forgiveness. And, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Reform, we celebrate the Lamb of God, sacrificed in atonement for our sins. We call this celebration Eucharist. Eucharist, of course, means Thanksgiving.

One Bible Thanksgiving was just a pure thanksgiving; no atonement necessary. On the eighth day, Mary and Joseph brought their newborn child to the Temple. They presented a dedication sacrifice of two doves to God in gratitude for this great gift to them - and to us.

So, these were a few thoughts to help us get ready to party. As we wrap up, and before we get to hear each other's thoughts on Thanksgiving, I'd like to reprise one thought from the story of Cain and Abel. Thanksgiving and repentance go together. Before we sit down at the Thanksgiving table with family and friends, it can be useful to reflect on where each of us has been, what we might have done or thought, or failed to do. If we see we're carrying any excess baggage, Thanksgiving can be a good time to "clear the decks" by remembering the atonement side of Thanksgiving. Forgiving and being forgiven. Letting go of any resentment or bitterness lets us free ourselves to enjoy the full experience of giving thanks.

Then, we can really enjoy our turkey, family... and football.  A Happy Thanksgiving to all.  And, now your comments.