So I may be speaking for myself, but Thanksgiving Day for my family, though celebrated with the best of intentions, can be a bit “tense!” Every year, despite our better judgment, we follow the tradition and bring the whole family together over a meal with a side-dish of non-judgmental, non-controversial, non-religious, non-political, and awkwardly “wholesome” conversation (that lasts awhile.) Yes, thank God for thanksgiving. The ordeal is slightly ridiculous really, after all there are reasons my family is spread across the continent; you see, we are a really loving family… just via telephone calls! There are reasons that we do not normally eat thanksgiving food as well… on a personal note, the thought of stuffing turns my stomach; my sister disdains cranberries, my brother in law won’t touch turkey, the whole family mocks the backed yams, and my aunt is allergies to just about everything most often leaves her itching with hives. Yes, God bless thanksgiving. At least as a guy I reserve the right to resort to beer and football.
This past week, leading up to thanksgiving, I was struck by the story of Noah an decided, no matter how interesting our family gatherings may beat least we aren’t stuffed into close and smelly quarters in the cabin of a boat!
Today’s passage from Genesis, depicting Noah’s first experiencing the post-flood world, might seem a strange selection for a thanksgiving service, but in reality it ties wonderfully into our thanksgiving tradition.
First of all, the obvious, what is the ark but a big, animal filled version of the Mayflower. Both went floated into unknown new worlds with faith that God will provide, and both found that God indeed always does (hence the need for the second coorelation, their giving thanksgiving.)
Yes, the means of giving thanks … a little known man by the name of George Washington made first official recognition of the holiday as we know it on Nov. 26th 1789, stating it was “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by our acknowledging with grateful hearts the many favors and rich harvest of our Almighty God.” The eternal favors of God… these are words that ring true in verse 22 of Genesis, “so long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” Both the pilgrims of old and Noah of much older, got off their boats and recognized that the harvest of God is always rich; that God will always provide; and fittingly they both cooked birds to signify this (Noah as an offering as America as a meal.)
How about we take a short discourse here to look at the irony of the thanksgiving meal. The traditional meal, as far as I could discern from my slightly pedestrian levitical examination, indeed appears to be “clean.” The eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red or black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat are all off limits but the turkey we may feast, and despite Kentuckiana’s weird obsession, Bacon is not a thanksgiving tradition… unless of course it slips into the green been casserole in the form of a “bacon bit” (but is that even real meat??) So instead of consuming pig, we worship its skin on tv while watching the Detroit lions lose another thanksgiving football game.
You know for as strange as the food laws of the Old Testament may seem, does anyone find it at all disturbing that we deem it clean to eat the manna we have been blessed with only after sticking it up the rear side of a bird? And we are worried about the Bird being a “clean” food… The priests and rabbi’s would have a field day dealing with that side dish!
The third thanksgiving relationship the our and Noah share lies in the irony of our means of showing thankfulness. Both Noah and the first settlers were acknowledging, in their thanksgiving, the surplus that they have been gifted in the harvest. Both were proclaiming thanksgiving to God for amply providing for all of their needs; but the means of celebration seems strangely unfitting to the message they/we sought to send. Noah had just disembarked from an ark on which he lived alongside God’s beloved animals that he was commissioned to save. So he turns to God in thanksgiving, and what does he do? He sacrifices God’s own creation, the animals of which he saved, back to their creator. But note, “the Lord was pleased.” Nowhere in the chapter did Noah seek God’s will in the sacramental thanksgiving, he simply followed the tradition of his time. It wasn’t the animals that were sacrificed that pleased the Lord, but Noah’s faith and recognition that the harvest is sufficient.
Jump ahead a couple thousand years to our meal next Thursday when we remember our Pilgrim and Indian ancestory. We gather around the table in thanksgiving that the harvest of our God is rich, and in faith that God will continue to provide, and what do we do? Let me put it out a metaphor for it. I have a dog, chewie. Chewie was found thrown in a dumpster a little over a year ago and at the time he was visibly starving and slightly dis-schefiled. It has been a year and every morning and every night Chewie has a bowl full of food (and not even the cheap stuff either!) Chewie, as thankful as he is, will devour his meal as well as my finger if I don’t move away quickly after setting the bowl down on the ground! He just doesn’t seem to realize that the harvest will not fail him so he gorges himself on anything even slightly edible. On thanksgiving, we recognize the fact that God has, does, and will provide for us, that we will not be left to starve, and do this by eating until we pass out on the couch in what has been popularly deemed a food coma.
Do you know that in this world the harvest is rich enough for every human being to consume 7 pounds of food per day, every-day. However, at the same time people are starving; how can that be? We drive past them on the way home from the grocery store and walk past them on the way to work. It is not because the harvest is inadequate, but because we fail to extend the table of God.
In an ancient fable, the queen bee, proud of her recent harvest of honey, makes an offering of it to Jupiter. Jupiter, pleased with the sweet honey, offers to grant the queen bee any wish that she desires. The Queen ponders for a moment, and then makes her request. “I would like a sting” she says, “so that all those who come to take my honey will feel my wrath.” Jupiter, displeased with the Queen’s request, but true to his word grants the queen her sting saying, “you shall have your request, but at your own peril, for if you use it, the sting will remain in the wound and you too shall perish.” The queen came to Jupiter in thanksgiving for the harvest, but with the desire to keep the harvest for her-self. Faith means that instead of our sting, we seek to share God’s surplus. You see, when-ever we let our sting, , stay in a wound because of our fear or lack of faith, we too die to life. The real question that I have from this fable is this… “when did we decide that the honey, the harvest, was our own?”
Several years ago, after my fist year of seminary, I moved out to the Grand Teton’s to be a national park chaplain. They offered up jobs to the program participants, but I decided that if I were going to be in such beautiful place for 3 months, I was going to wing it on my own and play! Well that was a horrible idea… first off I moved out there in mid-May with only my tent, bicycle, and a couple bags of trail mix to my name. When I woke up and climbed out of my tent that first morning to a foot of snow and a moose nosing around my campsite I realized that I might be in trouble. I had just read the day before in the Wyoming travel guide that, despite what one would come to understand from Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, a moose is actually a big, scary, and mean animal. I also read that May is still considered winter to most Teton travelers (hence the snow.)!
Anyway, I made it through a couple weeks camping before going completely broke and finding myself homeless and hungry. I was far too proud and stubborn to call home and didn’t want to let anyone know that I had failed to figure out a way to make things work. It was at that time that I made friends with a group of homeless men who taught me some key survival lessons, and one that stands out in particular. We would go to a grocery store and ask for the produce that is being thrown away (and there was a plethora of it,) but you cannot ask for yourself… You see, most stores won’t give to humans. Instead we would pretend to be farmers that were feeding our pigs. How sad it is that in this day and age, when we have such a harvest of food in our dumpsters, that a store will only give their trash to someone in need if it is for their imaginary pig.
I work a lot with Highland Community Ministries here in Louisville and it reigns true in our town as well, but even worse. In the Teton’s they would lock their dumpster so that the hungary couldn’t make meal of their trash; in the highlands, it is common place for stores to throw bleach on top of the waste so that it is toxic to those who are in need. Yep, next Thursday is Thanksgiving, the day that we eat until our pants don’t fit right, and to think that all those yams, breads and turkeys that don’t get sold, the surplus of the harvest, becomes bleached waste while individuals sit on street corners cold and hungry. Yes the question remains, when did we decide that the harvest was our own. We desired, like the bee, a sting, a bucket of bleach and locked dumpster to protect the harvest, because for some reason we think that the harvest is our own.
There is actually a lot of giving that goes on thanksgiving day and I don’t want to overlook that. Shelters are pretty full and donations are abundant. But do we share our love in a demonstration of equality or do we drop canned corn off out of the same moral obligation that makes us play nice with our families over a meal? What does it look like to invite the world to the table? The understanding that we are not inviting anyone to our table, but asking them to share with us as equals at God’s table.
It is at these times when we realize that maybe keeping the Old Testament Levitical laws at dinner may be easier than keeping the golden law of loving our neighbor. Even that first thanksgiving, when the pilgrims and Indians all ate together, seems somewhat fake in retrospect. It has to be more than a meal, but a lifestyle; equality has to be eternal. John Stewart, one of my favorite comedians, alluded to the situation of the first thanksgiving, and the years to follow well… “I think I am going to celebrate thanksgiving the old fashion way this year” he jests, “I am going to invite everyone in the neighborhood over to my house for an extravagant and enormous feast, and then kill them and take there land!”
Maybe we need to start by leaving our table and joining others at theirs. As a church, the PC(USA) has a beautiful open door policy… but how do we make others feel welcome? Maybe it isn’t by inviting them into our doors, to be guests of our communities, but spreading our church out the doors and into their communities, showing that we desire to be a part of their lives. The harvest is plentiful out there in the world, outside of the doors and stained glass windows of our chapels. Harvest can be either a noun or a verb, and in order to show our thanksgiving to God, we need to focus on the verb side of that spectrum… we need to make sure to harvest the harvest! We need to share the love of God, in all of its infinite supply, with others. Yes we need not to donate canned goods, but what we really need is to go to a shelter, sit down, and eat WITH our impoverished friends. We need to make ourselves equal to what Christ deemed “the least of these,” because those are the individuals of whom Christ is living inside. THE HARVEST THAT WE SHARE IS LOVE! FOOD IS SIMPLY A SMALL WAY OF SHOWING IT. We need to love ceaselessly… MATT 26 reads:
I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
When did we see you a stranger, or needing clothes? When did we see you sick or go to visit you?’
“The King will replies, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The “harvest,” God’s provisions, are plentiful enough for all, but only if we share them, with the understanding that its not ours to hoard. The “harvest,” those who need to know God’s love, is plentiful, but those willing to join the least of these at their table (because that is God’s table) are few. Thanksgiving is an uncomfortable holiday… physically for our pants, socially with our in-laws (but at least we aren’t stuck on an ark,) emotionally because we know of the empty plates and bleached garbage some of our brothers and sisters are facing, and spiritually because we know that our true thanksgiving can only be shown through our harvesting of the harvest. Share the plenty friends… and leave your table to join creation at God’s, where we all feast richly in on equality, fellowship, and graceful love. Amen.