A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Suggs
On Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sarah Prods Abe into a Poetic Proclamation

As you might suppose, the theme for today is Thanksgiving.  George Washington actually was the first President to declare a day of Thanksgiving.  It was not Abraham Lincoln.  It was Washington on October 3, 1789.  The problem for Washington’s declaration was that he didn’t make it a national day.  He just said to all the states, observe it, and they all did, more or less, in their own way.  And that was not a unified day of Thanksgiving.

But in that same year, 1789, a baby was born.  Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale, and when she was approximately sixty years old, she had the idea that all of the states should observe Thanksgiving together on one special day.  So she began writing letters to the President annually, suggesting and encouraging him to declare one day of Thanksgiving.  Then when she was 74 –she had been doing these letters for fifteen years – when Lincoln received the letter in October 1863, he decided that in the coming November, the fourth Thursday would be the right day.  Thus he is the one who made it a national holiday, not Washington

I’d like to read you the proclamation written by Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  This took place in 1863.  The Civil War would last through 1863 and into 1864 and 1865.  The country was in the middle of the conflict, but the proclamation was and still is beautiful.  You probably have never read the full proclamation unless you read it in school.  Here it is:

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the s*ource from which they come, others have been added, which are so extraordinary in nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart, which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of almighty God.

“In the midst of the Civil War, of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.  While that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union, needful diversions of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship.

“The ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines of iron and coal and of precious metals have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.  Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield.  And the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to experience continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

“No human council hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the most-high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.  It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as the day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father, who dwelleth in the heavens.

“And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverance and blessing, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

A Soldier Declines Disability, Lives with Thankfulness

A portion of this proclamation was read by me last Tuesday, when I was invited to offer the opening prayer and closing benediction for the Greater Broome County Chamber of Commerce annual Thanksgiving dinner.  The keynote speaker was Sergeant Richard Yarosh.  You may have heard of him.  He was in the paper a couple months ago on the front page.

Yarosh was a soldier in Iraq and was riding in an armored vehicle when it drove over an explosive device in the road.  It exploded upward through the bottom of the vehicle, going through the gas tank and into the turret, where he and his best friend were.  Covered in gas and aflame, the sergeant managed to get out and jump off the vehicle, breaking a leg in the process.

He wasn’t able to see because the flames pretty much covered his entire body.  He did the stop, drop, and roll trick, which he said didn’t work, so he kept rolling downhill into a ditch, where water in it  put out the flames.  However, the water contributed to cholera, which he later contracted.  A helicopter arrived about thirty minutes later and flew him away.  Eventually Yarosh wound up in a hospital in Texas.

When you look at the sergeant’s visage it’s striking, reminding me a little of the Phantom of the Opera.  It’s the kind of thing that sets one aback a bit.  His ears were burnt off and so there are only holes in either side of the head.  Same thing with his nose; he doesn’t have a nose at all, just the holes that go in above the mouth, which was relatively unaffected.  But all over his head, you can see where grafts were made of skin from other parts of his body.  This portion has this kind of hair, that portion has no hair, another portion has another kind of hair.  It’s a patchwork of different kinds of skin on his head.

So you look at him, and then you listen to his story.  He made a comment that struck me:  “On the day in which I almost lost my life, my life actually really began.”  He had been asked early in his recovery if he would wish that the incident hadn’t happened.  It’s one of those things that naturally comes up in conversation.  The sergeant  thought about it and realized that no, he wouldn’t wish for that.  He’s glad it happened because the person that he is now would not have occurred without the drastic burn that nearly killed him.

He lost the use of both hands, which are now basically in the form of a fist.  When you shake hands with him, you sort of grab his fist because he can’t open it.  Asked whether he would like to have the use of his hands back, his answer actually was no because of all of the things he’s learned by not being able to use his hands.  That struck me.  Yarosh is thankful.  He’s so thankful for what happened because of who he is now.

A Scientist Is Rejected, Earns Nobel in Physics

Let me change the subject for a moment.  I know you would be disappointed if you didn’t get a science illustration every week.  There’s not an Einstein quote in this mix, but I want to tell you about a rejection letter.  As many of you are aware, the physics you learn in high school and the beginning of college is basically Newtonian, based on the work of Sir Issac Newton (1642-1727).  Then in 1905, the world changed with Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) contributions.

In 1998 the confirmation of a new theory that is actually bigger than Einstein’s began to spread throughout the world.  The person who came up with this new theory was Peter Higgs.  I’ll spare you the details, but it was fascinating in that he wrote an academic paper proposing his idea of the existence of a particle that would become Higgs’ boson and the existence of a field that would eventually be named the Higgs Field.

He sent this paper off to the leading physics journal.  A rejection letter came back announcing that the existence of this particle and this field “had no obvious relevance to physics.”  This letter is now framed and hanging on Higgs’ wall.  He went on to earn the Nobel prize in physics, even though at an early stage the leading physics journal could not see the obvious relevance to physics!

A Balance of Humility Plus Awareness Equals Gratitude

I would like to plant this relatively deep thought in your mind.  Gratitude may have no obvious relevance to your spiritual life.  Maybe the scriptures do.  Maybe God does.  Maybe meditation does.  But gratitude?  The thought I’d like to share with you is this:  That the reason gratitude is important is that it emerges out of a balance between humility and awareness.

Think about humility for a moment.  You don’t want too much or too little.  If you don’t have any humility at all, you’re basically a jerk.  You are arrogant and dictatorial.  People probably don’t like you.  And if you have too much humility, you’re a doormat.  You’re a worthless worm, and you can’t be relied upon for anything.  You’re not much help.  Once again, people probably don’t like you or don’t want you around.

You need a nice balance in humility.  Not too little, not too much.

Now connect a balanced humility to awareness:  Awareness of our place in the community.  Awareness of our place in the family, for we are children of God, of royal nature, but as individuals we’re one of many.  Awareness of our place in society.  Our place in the universe.  Our place in relationship with our creator, our God.  Awareness of our place combined with a balanced sense of humility.  Not too little, not too much.  Out of that emerges gratitude, which is of tremendous value in our spiritual life.

What are we grateful for?  As we approach this Thanksgiving Day, I would ask each of you to answer that question.  Perhaps at prayer before the meal, a turkey sitting on the table if you’re a traditionalist and you have a prayer before the meal.  What are you going to say?  What are you thankful for?  Your answer, your very intimate personal answer, will emerge out of your sense of humility, linked to your awareness of your place in the universe.

Where I Stand – Four Seeds of Thankfulness

I’m going to list four things I’m thankful for – four out of many – just to sow some seeds for your thinking this coming Thanksgiving Day.

1.  I’m thankful for this sanctuary.  I didn’t pay for it.  It was paid for by previous generations.  I have not had to spend one nickel of my money to create this sanctuary that I enjoy every Sunday.  I love walnut.  It is a premium hardwood.  And this pulpit, these pews, the ceiling, the chandeliers, the stained glass, the whole of it.  The organ.  I didn’t pay for it.  It was given to me by a previous generation, and I’d like to say thanks.

2.  Our country.  I’m pretty mad at our country right now.  I’m hopping mad.  I don’t want to talk politics from the pulpit right now.  I won’t do that.  But I’m mad at Congress.  I’m mad at a lot of different folks.  Yet I’m free to say so from the pulpit.  But despite my politics, which are personal, despite my feelings, I still need to say thanks to a lot of people who have created this country and preserved the freedoms that I tend to take for granted.

3.  And I want to say thank you for something that’s much more subtle.  A thousand different pieces of evidence, but combine them, and I feel that there is a blossoming of spiritual awareness in our land.  Once again, I didn’t start it.  I’m trying to help, but I didn’t create it.  And so I want to say thanks.

4.  Finally, family, friends, and church.  They’re really three different names for one thing – relationships.  Put all of us in a circle, and then start threading back and forth across the circle.  You’ve seen artwork done this way.  It’s beautiful.  But all the relationships, all the connections are there.  And then begin to expand the pattern outward because every person here is friends with and related to others.  It creates a tapestry, a work of art.  And it’s beautiful.

So let me seed your thoughts with those four things:  sanctuary, our country, the blossoming in spiritual awareness, and our relationships.

Happy Thanksgiving.