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accentSukkot and Thanks-Giving
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
And by the Rev. Ron Brugler
on whose sermon and service it is based

See the Rev. Ron Brugler's original service and sermon

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 22, 1998
Thanksgiving Sunday--Invite A Friend Service

Words of Welcome

Good morning everyone! Welcome to our Thanksgiving Invite A Friend service. It is wonderful to see all of you here today--both our faithful regulars and the newcomers and visitors who are with us today. I hope you will find today's service meaningful and enjoyable, and that you will join us again next week as we begin our series of special Advent services.

Today's service is special in many ways. It is special because a number of you are joining us for the first time, or rejoining us after being away for a while. It is special because in order to make this Invite A Friend Sunday possible, almost all of the churches in Bridgewater have joined together and worked with each other across denominational lines in a way that would not have happened ten or twenty years ago. It is special because the construction is almost complete on our new steeple. It is special because today's service was originally written by the Rev. Ron Brugler, President of the Swedenborgian Church of North America. And for those of you who don't usually go to church--and who almost didn't come today because you just knew you'd have to listen to a sermon--it is special because today there is no sermon! Instead, we'll have a series of brief talks spread throughout the service.

But most of all, today's service is special because we have gathered together to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has given to us, both material and spiritual. Whatever struggles and setbacks we may have faced in this life, we also have much to be thankful for. Today, as we celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday, we have an opportunity to step back and notice the good things in our lives, and give thanks to our Creator for them.

Thanksgiving has become a largely secular holiday--one centered around food and feasting. Grocery stores really like Thanksgiving! And many of us appreciate a day when we can fill our stomachs a little too much without feeling guilty about it. But Thanksgiving also has strong religious roots. From those roots, we will discover today how Thanksgiving can fill our souls as well as our stomachs.

Let's start with the Israelites--the people of the Old Testament who later became the Jews. The Israelites went on a long journey to reach their Promised Land. This morning we will commemorate a point at which they were instructed to observe the festival of Sukkot, which Jews throughout the world still observe today. We will learn about this early Thanksgiving observance as a way to gain a clearer understanding of what this day means spiritually.

On their journey, the Israelites received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. These were not a mere listing of acceptable behaviors. They were also a promise that the people could become what God intended, and that God would give them what they needed in order to do so. Today, in our first Bible Reading, we recall the time when Moses taught the people more about what this promise meant.

accentBible Reading: Deuteronomy 8:7-18

The Lord your God is bringing you into a fertile land--a land that has rivers and springs, and underground streams gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land that produces wheat and barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and honey. There, you will never go hungry or ever be in need. Its rocks have iron in them, and from its hills you can mine copper. You will have all you want to eat, and you will give thanks to the Lord your God for the fertile land that he has given you.

Make certain that you do not forget the Lord your God; do not fail to obey any of his laws that I am giving you today. When you have all you want to eat and have built good houses to live in and when your cattle and sheep, your silver and gold, and all your other possessions have increased, make sure that you do not become proud and forget the Lord your God who rescued you out of Egypt, where you were slaves. He led you through that vast and terrifying desert where there were poisonous snakes and scorpions. In that dry and waterless land he made water flow out of solid rock for you. It the desert he gave you manna to eat, food that your ancestors had never eaten. He sent hardships on you to test you, so that in the end he could bless you with good things. So then, you must never think that you have made yourselves wealthy by your own power and strength. Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to become rich. He does this because he is still faithful today to the covenant that he made with your ancestors.

accentHow the Israelites Remembered

The Israelites were taught to remember all that God had done for them. One way this was accomplished is explained in the Book of Leviticus, where Moses gave the people instructions concerning the five festivals that they were to observe. These festivals were in addition to the weekly observance of the Sabbath.

The first was the Passover festival, which commemorated the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The second was the Feast of Firstfruits, which took place in the spring when the wheat was harvested. The Feast of Trumpets, or New Moon, was celebrated at the dawn of the new year. The Day of Atonement was a time for national penitence and mourning. And last was the Festival of Sukkot, which commemorated the many ways God had been with the Israelites during their wilderness journey as they camped in simple shelters on their way toward the prosperity of the Promised Land.

Let's listen to what Moses taught the people about this festival:

accentBible Reading: Leviticus 23:33, 34, 39-43

The Festival of Shelters begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and continues for seven days. . . .

When you have harvested your fields, celebrate this festival for seven days, beginning on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The first day shall be a special day of rest. On that day take some of the best fruit from your trees, take palm branches and limbs from leafy trees, and begin a religious festival to honor the Lord your God. Celebrate it for seven days. This regulation is to be kept by your descendants for all time to come. All the people of Israel shall live in shelters for seven days, so that your descendants may know that the Lord made the people of Israel live in simple shelters when he led them out of Egypt. He is the Lord your God.

accentThey Remember Still

As the years passed, the Sukkot Festival came to be called by two other names: the Festival of Tabernacles and the Festival of Shelters. Many Jews traveled to Jerusalem to observe this festival. There, in the Temple courtyard, they would build simple huts (represented today by the shelter on our Ingathering table) made out of branches, leaves, and straw. They would live in these huts for seven days. For those who could not travel to Jerusalem, the huts would be erected in the fields, as the work of the harvest continued.

The shelters served as a reminder of two things: First, of the hardships their ancestors had faced while traveling in the wilderness, where for forty years they lived in tents and simple huts. Second, the shelters reminded them that they did not need to live that way any longer, since they had been given the Promised Land. The Festival of Shelters reminded them that God was with them in both the hard times and the good times of life--just as God is still with us today in both the hard times and the good times of our lives.

accentWhen Jesus Responded

In Jesus' time the religious authorities commanded that there be a strict observance of the Festival of Shelters. But this was not because of its spiritual meaning--there was another reason. The temple treasury relied heavily on the offerings the people were required to make during these seven days. And the priests did all that they could to make the people believe that their continued success depended upon their making these offerings.

Each morning of the seven day festival, a procession of barefoot priests clad in white linen robes descended the temple steps carrying golden pitchers. They went to a nearby spring, where they filled the pitchers as the people sang, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation." The people carried branches of myrtle and willow tied together in their right hands, and lemons in their left hands. These were symbols of the harvest.

Then the procession headed back to the temple, where the priests sang, "Save us, we beseech thee, O Lord. We beseech thee, give us success!" And to these words the water would be mixed with wine and poured on the altar fires as the offerings were brought forward.

Each night of the festival, the entire temple area was lit by huge candelabras. And by this light, the people would dance and sing, accompanied by the music of flutes. And as the sun rose in the east, all would turn westward and face the temple sanctuary, chanting, "Our fathers turned their faces toward the east, and they worshipped the sun toward the east, but as for us, our eyes are turned westward toward the Lord."

In the Gospel of John we learn of a time when Jesus himself traveled to Jerusalem to observe this festival. He used it as an opportunity to remind the people of its true meaning: that it was not a celebration of success, but a reminder of God's presence with all people. He criticized the modern observance of the festival, reminding the people that its purpose was to "make sure that you do not become proud and forget the Lord your God who rescued you from Egypt, . . . so that you may never think that you have made yourselves wealthy. . . . For God is the one who gives you that power" (Deuteronomy 8:14, 17, 18).

Just as today we all too often forget the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving, observing it only as a time to see our extended families and to fill our stomachs, Jesus condemned the religious authorities of his day for ignoring the true meaning of Sukkot and making the festival a time for profit instead. And he did the job that the priests were supposed to be doing by reminding the people that harvest was not merely a time of material plenty, but a time to count our spiritual blessings, and to share those blessings with others.

On the final day of the festival, as the people sang, "With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation," Jesus stood up and proclaimed, "Whoever is thirsty come to me, and let anyone who believes in me drink. As the scripture says, 'Out of the believer's heart will flow rivers of living water.'" Let's hear the story from the Gospel of John.

accentBible Reading: John 7:10-18, 37, 38

After his brothers had gone to the festival, Jesus also went; however, he did not go openly, but secretly. The Jewish authorities were looking for him at the festival. "Where is he?" they asked.

There was much whispering about him in the crowd. "He is a good man," some people said. "No," others said, "he fools the people." But no one talked about him openly, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

The festival was nearly half over when Jesus went to the Temple and began teaching. The Jewish authorities were greatly surprised and said, "How does this man know so much when he has never been to school?"

Jesus answered, "What I teach is not my own teaching; it comes from God, who sent me. Whoever is willing to do what God wants will know whether what I teach comes from God or whether I speak on my own authority. Those who speak on their own authority seek their own glory. But the person who seeks glory for the one who sent him is honest, and there is nothing false in him." . . .

On the last and most important day of the festival Jesus stood up and said in a loud voice, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let anyone who believes in me drink. As the scripture says, 'Out of the believer's heart will flow rivers of living water.'"

accentHow do We Respond?

Just as the Israelites journeyed to the Promised Land, we have also traveled on a special journey. God has led us. God has given us strength and direction. God has quenched our thirst and satisfied our hunger. In a very real way, the same command that came to the Israelites is coming to each of us: "When you have all you want to eat and have built good houses to live in, and when your cattle and sheep, your silver and gold, and all your other possessions have increased, make sure that you do not become proud and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you out of Egypt."

This morning, we take the time to remember that God is with us. And we remember by responding. We have responded today by bringing forward food offerings for those who are less fortunate than we are. And we will respond by offering some of our livelihood to the work of the church. As we make these offerings, let us be mindful of God's many blessings to us--blessings of food, shelter, families, friends, country. And let us commit ourselves to sharing these blessings with others.

As we gather here today, giving thanks for the good things God has given us, there are people in our communities who are living in shelters--whether they are cardboard boxes, underneath bridges, or in public accommodations such as homeless shelters. Today, let's remember that the word "Thanksgiving" is made up of two smaller words. We are not just to offer thanks. We are to give of our blessings.

As we make our food offerings, and our financial offerings to the work of the church, may we also renew our willingness to support the work of homeless shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens. There are several food programs right here in Bridgewater that are always looking for donations--such as the St. Vincent DePaul society at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. If we can remember to support those who are less fortunate during the rest of the year, we will be doing our part to help eliminate hunger in our communities.

In addition to these material ways of giving to others from the blessings God has given us, there are spiritual ways we can observe Thanksgiving. We have all had difficult times in our lives when we were strengthened and pulled through by the love and support of a friend or family member, or when we turned to God in prayer and felt God's love strengthening us from within. Thanksgiving is a time to appreciate the love, understanding, and support that we have received from other people and from the Lord.

Each of us here today also knows of people who are struggling with their life right now, and who need a helping hand. We can turn our thanks into giving by making the decision to be the helping hand that someone else needs so much. Or, if there is someone we are in conflict with--someone whom we know is feeling pain because of the conflict--we can make the decision to move beyond our own feelings of anger and pain, and extend to the other person a hand of forgiveness, renewed friendship, and love.

This Thanksgiving, as we give thanks for the many material and spiritual blessings God has given to us, let's remember to observe the other half of Thanks-Giving by giving to others the same blessings that God has given to us. Amen.


Music: Give Thanks

Point of Focus Graphics