Thanksgiving became an annual federal holiday in the United States of America in 1863, during the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it so.
The roots of our Thanksgiving holiday, of course, go back much further.
We have records of early presidents who wanted to observe the occasion, and others who did not. We have accounts of European colonists and their expressions of gratitude for survival, placed alongside what we may or may not know about the experiences of the Patuxet and Wampanoag residents of the land.
Like all narratives, from recent to ancient, the stories pertaining to Thanksgiving can provoke questions.
Whose version of the story is this? Is this the whole story? If we told it from another point of view, what would the story sound like, and what details might it contain?
What is the purpose of the story? How did it come to be? Why do we keep telling it?
Families, too, have stories associated with Thanksgiving: the reason Uncle Jerry won’t travel on this day; the year there was a big fight over the Scrabble game outcome; the time grandma put the turkey in to roast but forgot to turn the oven on; the trip to the farm when dad picked up the cat and realized it was giving birth.
Of these stories we might also ask questions. What is their function? Do they include or exclude? Connect or alienate? What do we learn about ourselves as we hear and react to what is being told?
The stories Christian churches tell when we focus on Thanksgiving come from the Bible. We might read from a psalm expressing relief that a period of suffering has ended, and better times are at hand, and the poet declares, “The Lord has done great things for us.”
Our corresponding question could be, “What enables faith to endure through difficulty and hardship?”
We might listen to a letter from the Apostle Paul counseling that we who follow Jesus should pray and give thanks for everyone in our society, including those in “high position,” with the desired outcome being that we are able to “live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”
This guidance could cause us to wonder about our capacities for prayer, patience and hope. Giving thanks for good leaders is easy. What happens when those in high position are a disappointment or frustration to us?
Often, at Thanksgiving time, we recall a story from Luke’s gospel about ten people with leprosy who approached Jesus as he traveled through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
The story tells how Jesus came into a village and the ten ostracized sufferers called out to Jesus from a distance. They knew they were contagious and were expected to keep away from everyone except others who were sick like they were.
“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” they cried out. Jesus stopped and looked at them. (What, exactly, did he see?)
“Go present yourselves to the priests,” Jesus instructed the group. The priests in those days had the power to declare someone sick and unclean or whole and well. By the time the group presented themselves for inspection, their disease had disappeared.
Upon making the discovery of restored health, one of the ten who were healed ran back to Jesus shouting praises to God with a loud voice.
When he found Jesus again, he fell at Jesus’ feet and proclaimed his gratitude. The thankful man, by the way, was a Samaritan. His people and Jesus’ people were not exactly on friendly terms. “What happened to the other nine?”
Jesus wondered aloud. “How is it that someone who is basically an outsider when it comes to my people’s understanding of religion is the only one who thought to come back and give praise to God?”
The story ends with Jesus giving a blessing to the Samaritan: “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”
The story may have concluded, but the questions are meant to live on.
Is it ever helpful to make assumptions about who other people are or what they will do with the gifts given to them?
Have I ever neglected to express thanks for the gifts of life and health and family and community that I enjoy?
Is it the permanent nature of God to give generously to all, without imposing conditions ahead of time on what the response will be? Does it make God sad when God’s gifts go unrecognized or unappreciated? What is the role and power of faith in human life?
Questions can sometimes be experienced as annoying or anxiety-producing.
Yet they can also be received as excellent opportunities for reflection and discovery. In this current season, we could choose to give thanks for questions that invite deeper understanding of self, God, family, nation and neighbor.
April Herron is the Associate Pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church. She leads Bible Study classes and spiritual growth groups which are open to the public. Information is available at rhumc.org.