By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this historic year of Lincoln remembrances—the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer is writing a series of columns about the legacy of our 16th president. Read more about Duncan at the end of this column. TODAY, Duncan provides a sample sermon about Abraham Lincoln, which we welcome you to share, use, discuss and even republish.)
Suggested Bible readings
“This poor word”—that’s how Evelyn Underhill refers to “Thanksgiving” in her classic book Worship.
It’s true, isn’t it? A poor word.
What do we mean by “Thanksgiving”? Is it now just the meaningless name of a holiday for food, football and frenzied shopping? Just another annual trigger for stress and guilt? Who are we supposed to thank, anyway? And, for what?
And, the biggest question: Is the most frequently forgotten guest at our dinner tables—God?
I used to teach Family Medicine residents what they called “Behavioral Science.” One lesson was this: It is better not to tell patients, “Try to relax.” Trying to relax is a contradictory effort. “Just let yourself relax” might work better.
“Try to be thankful” suffers from the same kind of disappearing act: The harder we try, the less thankful we feel.
When Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 we got off on the wrong foot with the word “thanksgiving.” While I praise Lincoln for being a secular-religious prophet, one of the problems in translating religious sentiment into civil society is the language that is used. Thanksgiving in a synagogue, church or mosque means something that is hard to translate into society, even if it’s a great idea.
The word “thanksgiving” is a better verb than noun, but it really isn’t either. The word refers to an act: We give thanks. At my childhood dinners, oddly I thought, people were asked to “return thanks.” I wondered: Who took it? And, where were they hiding it? Was “thanks” the stolen goods needing to be returned before anyone is allowed to eat?
A new custom for our secular-religious time might be to ask people to bring an object to the Thanksgiving dinner table and to symbolically offer it up, to place it before us all, or even to give it away. Not exactly a sacrificial lamb or a first-born son, this would be a giving of thanks that fits the verb form of thanksgiving.
On the other hand, as is our custom, for a person to say words as a blessing may not mean what it could. We don’t often believe that someone has the power to bless us, to give us or a meal a blessing. I remember once being asked at a Thanksgiving table to “say the blessing” while Robert Penn Warren, our nation’s Poet Laureate, was sitting right across from me. I didn’t feel, as a young seminary student, that I could bless him, or anything near him, by giving my words. I feared, also, that I was the sacrificial offering.
Evelyn Underhill describes this poor word “thanksgiving” as an act in a holy place. It is a ritual act acknowledging the glory, the power and goodness, of the Creator. We are off on the wrong foot, it seems, if thanksgiving is about us. Ideally, this is a ritual act performed before the glory of God. It is, at least, about a higher power or a mystery that invites awe. A temple, a church, a mosque—a sacred place bigger than a house and home table—seems required.
SHARING OUR VALUES;
FORGING A COMMON BOND
At the core of thanksgiving is gratitude. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the heart of prayer. Our own value and worth is revealed in our feelings of being grateful. At a Thanksgiving meal or gathering, consider asking people to go around the circle and share what each is grateful for.
As these different stories of gratitude are voiced, a common feeling of gratitude forms. We are hearing inner stories that we treasure because they also represent our value and our worth—given as offerings as the stories are told. This practice encourages stories that are quite different from the typical heralding of our own powers and successes, for which we pretend to be thankful. Rather, we encourage stories that we humbly and honestly lay out side by side, building a common bond.
The King James translation of Psalm 90 invites such a practice: “Lord, thou has been our dwelling place in all generations. … We spend our years as a tale that is told. … So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
As the Psalmist indicates, our individual tales weave into a story of common destiny—moving from a shared origin to a shared journey for generations. Together, we move from individual thanksgiving toward a far larger story that makes the future, and our humility, possible.
To give thanks then is the opposite of pride in one’s self. It is a form of self-humbling that comes out of a full heart of gratitude. Somehow, filling up with gratitude empties us out of ourselves. Empty of ourselves, we seem held in one large … well, one large Something Else. You can name that mystery what you will.
GRATITUDE FOR A LIFE WITH LINCOLN
This leads me to a story about the passage from Philippians and my relationship to Abraham Lincoln. This Thanksgiving I am filling up with gratitude for my life with Lincoln. It is making me thankful for, even to, Lincoln. Lincoln becomes an object of glory, of thanksgiving, for me. I’m not sure what to give—except more and more of my interest, attention, and the creativity of my responses.
I suppose I need to give thanks to God for giving me—for giving all of us—Lincoln. I start with my gratitude, which leads me to express thanks for the glory, the goodness, the greatness, of this one man. It is not that I see him as God or even as a god. But I do see the better angels of our nature so abundant in him that I am overwhelmed. The truth is, most of the people I know who read and write about him have this inner story and feeling, too.
Philippians 2:1-7 is a New Testament letter that is user friendly with Buddhism and with the mystic traditions that I know. It is about being of one mind, participation in the Spirit, and acting from humility, emptying yourself of yourself, as Jesus did. The word often used here is a Greek word, kenosis. Self-emptying.
Among Lincoln’s many values, it is his natural way of emptying himself that is the most astounding. He shows how such a spiritual quality has both personal and political power. You can be president and still be humble! Kenosis is pragmatic, for all its spirituality. As a boy, then later at the height of his power, and even as a soon-to-be-martyred president, Lincoln shed his ego self, that self we all have so much trouble letting go.
I love the story of big, strong, 13-year-old Abe Lincoln catching some of his friends—boys he grew up with—secretly making off with melons from his family’s melon patch. He easily could have beaten the boys and left them to nurse their bruises. Instead, he never stopped seeing these boys as his friends. He did startle them, but then he sat down among them—and helped them eat the stolen fruit!
At a moment when he could have vented his self-righteous power, he chose to share with mutual joy a common meal. The story is true to his nature and probably true to history. It could be seen as his first Thanksgiving meal. We see that same magnanimous nature brought to bear on the South at the end of the mighty war to restore the huge region of the Union that Southerners had tried to make off with. Lincoln never stopped seeing Southerns as fellow Americans and friends. Despite the war, they were not enemies, he insisted.
The biography of Lincoln is full of astonishing stories in which he moved beyond looking out for his own self interest—to look out for the interests of others, as Philippians describes: He emptied himself, seemingly every day in the final years of his life, and took on the form of a servant. His efforts changed the world: freeing slaves and establishing human equality as the theme of our national story. I am thankful that Lincoln remembered what America should be, re-imagined what America could become and then acted decisively to renew America.
Looking for a reason to feel awe at Thanksgiving? Try remembering how much we are all sons and daughters of his greatness to this day. I give thanks for Lincoln by reading and writing about him. Lincoln is my work, these days. I am full of gratitude that I get to feel close to his value and worth, his fulfilling humanity.
And, I am grateful for ReadTheSpirit and its readers who share with me in this expansion of self, this shared inner story, and the common destiny—one new story—made possible. I believe it is opening up a better future for all of us.
MORE ON LINCOLN and DUNCAN NEWCOMER
In 1999 Duncan earned a Doctor in Ministry in Preaching from the ACTS DMin program through the Chicago Theological Seminary. He has prepared various community resources, discussion starters and historical columns, which you can find in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page.
You are free to use, discuss, share and even republish this “sample sermon,” as long as you credit Duncan Newcomer and readthespirit.com online magazine.