Thanksgiving Sunday, Year C
9 October 2022
I remembered this week an episode from a childhood Christmas. Gifts were given, retrieved from under the tree, and opened. The bicycle I had much hoped for was nowhere to be found. When everything had been unwrapped I asked if there wasn’t something else, and my father said that this was it. I was deeply disappointed and hid behind the living room curtains from where I only emerged when it was announced that there was in fact something else.
My parents separated in 1985, after thirty years of a bad marriage. This story became one of the pieces of evidence in my mother’s attempts to convince me that my father was not as good a man as I seemed to think. I did not like her using the story because it was really more my story than it was hers, besides, it had been many years since. But I thought of it this week. And what I realized, I think, was that I was not so much upset that there was no bicycle (though I would have been disappointed), but at the glaring inequity of the gifts. I was old enough to see that what my older brother had received was much more than what I had received. The visible inequality diminished a relationship. Was I valued, may be the question I asked.
It is a long time ago and I only thought of its relevance for Thanksgiving because my memory told me something of the importance of relationship. It’s not the stuff or the stuffing, and not the bike, it’s the relationship that matters. And those who have no one to thank are very lonely people.
And because that is so, even a secular culture like ours can celebrate Thanksgiving and it is the reason that we cannot celebrate Thanksgiving alone, or at least not very well. For who would we have to thank?
Because all of the things we are grateful for were somehow mediated by others, by the farmer who grows our food, the dairy that makes our cheese, the delivery driver who brings our goods to the store, the clerk who rings us in, the teacher who teaches our children, the doctor who sees me, the cleaner who cleans our church, and the people who love us.
There is just nothing in our life that could support the idea that what I have I all earned myself and I do not owe anything to anyone, even though it’s the underlying mythology of our time, which is one reason we try to reduce social spending. But on this one day of the year we somehow know and acknowledge that we are all connected.
Our reading from John follows John’s telling of the feeding of the 5000 who had followed Jesus into the wilderness where amazingly all are not only hungry but all are fed. After the feeding Jesus and the disciples leave that place because the crowd is about to make Jesus king, but not the kind of king he was. Jesus escapes to the other side of the lake but the crowd follows.
Later we learn that the crowd does not stay with Jesus, that they are offended by the food he offers. But let us stay here. The crowd had come this far. They ask Jesus questions, and they obviously seek some kind of relationship.
Yet what they ask Jesus has not changed. They want signs and bread, and they want it for themselves so that their lives would become easier. It is akin to what the woman at the well had asked Jesus, namely to give her living water so she would no longer have to go to the well. (chapter 4)
This is understandable but the people look to Jesus as nothing more than someone with the potential to be a benevolent dictator. And if we put their request into our own context of Thanksgiving, we may see that often our thanks too seem primarily grounded in material blessings. We like material blessings because they are tangible and easy to identify.
And yet there is a fundamental problem in this simple identification. When our children were in elementary school they always came home with turkey crafts and there was all kinds of talk about turkeys at school. Not only is this the American story of the pilgrim’s first winter which has long been discredited,1 but what exactly do turkeys have to do with giving thanks?
The identification of blessings with material things does not know where to draw the line between blessing and curse, it does not know when material blessings are no longer a blessing because not only do we have what others need but they make us blind to what really matters. This identification assumes that our relative affluence is a sign of God’s love.
But the sign of God’s love is not our affluence but the cross. And so we are not here primarily to thank God that we are doing OK, that we have food to eat and a roof over our head, a bicycle, or a few luxuries we may enjoy, though we can give thanks to God for those. But we are here to thank God for being God, for loving the world, for giving everything for the world in Jesus.
In our reading Jesus is asked for more signs, as if the crowd had not already received a sign in the feeding. But Jesus does not offer more bread. Instead, he offers himself. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
And so Thanksgiving proves to be an opportunity to enter anew into that relationship with the God who is all in all, with Jesus from whom and through whom and to whom are all things (Romans 11:36), and to have God re-order our relationship with things.
When the church gathers on Thanksgiving and on any day, we remember that the things we give thanks for do not give our lives meaning, yet giving them away does. We remember that there is life in no other but Jesus who is our life and salvation.