I’d like to paraphrase a recent conversation between my mother and I. “So we’ll have a ham.” “You mean we’re not going to have turkey?” “Well, I wasn’t planning on preparing one. Your uncle usually does that but this is just going to be our immediate family.” “You mean we’re not going to have turkey?” “I mean, if you want to prepare it, I will pick one up.” “For the love of all things holy mom, pick up a turkey. I’ll gladly prepare it.” I mean, after all, it is Thanksgiving. And what is Thanksgiving without the turkey or the stuffing or the green beans or the mashed potatoes or the mac-and-cheese or the pecan pie or the pumpkin pie or any of the other excessive dishes that we stuff around our tables to stuff our selves with all around a holiday we call Thanksgiving…yeish. Don’t get me wrong. I love to overeat as much as the next guy, but something seems amiss if this is what we refer to as Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is a worship term after all. In the Hebrew scriptures we first hear about Thanksgiving as a means of returning thanks to YHWH for that which He had blessed Israel with. And blessing, original blessing even, in the Hebrew scriptures was always predicated upon blessing received, blessing bestowed. Israel would be blessed as long as Israel became a blessing to others. This goes all the way back to the inception of the people of Israel in Genesis 12 when God says to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” I think sometimes we get stuck on the cursing part and forget to read the rest of the text, “…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” All peoples; everybody will be blessed because of this promise of God’s presence in the life of Abram and his descendants. Think about that for a minute. God established His presence, His blessing in the lives of a particular people so that the entirety of the planet would know that same blessing.
And yet here we are today. In a time of fear and supposed scarcity for resources or jobs or things or whatever it might be. In a recent essay entitled, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity, Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann had this to say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if liberal and conservative church people, who love to quarrel with each other, came to a common realization that the real issue confronting us is whether the news of God’s abundance can be trusted in the face of the story of scarcity? What we know in the secret recesses of our hearts is that the story of scarcity is a tale of death. And the people of God counter this tale by witnessing to the manna. There is a more excellent bread than crass materialism. It is the bread of life and you don’t have to bake it.” You don’t have to bake it…but you do have to trust in it, lean into and and become more generous and giving as a result of it. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” So maybe this season we think a little differently about Thanksgiving. Maybe instead of just being thankful for the things we have, maybe we learn to be thankful for the things we can give.
It amazes me sometimes how quickly a year passes. At one moment you find yourself in sweltering summer heat then you turn around and it’s the middle of November. November is special in its own right as it is a month, at least in America, that we set aside to be thankful. There is even a holiday we call Thanksgiving that is typified by overeating, football watching and the navigation of familial conflicts that have laid dormant for most of the year. Come to think of it, it’s kind of odd that we call this day Thanksgiving. Others sometimes take the opportunity afforded by this month of Thanksgiving to offer up things they are thankful for throughout the month. While this can be a good practice, and also one that yours truly is participating in, sometimes it tends to lean towards lip-service and I begin to wonder if it is a true expression of Thanksgiving at all.
Let me explain a bit further. According to Miriam Websters, thanksgiving is the act of giving thanks, a prayer expressing gratitude, or a public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness.I think the first part of that definition is a violation of all that I was taught in school, but the latter two pieces are a bit more important. Thanksgiving is a prayer or a public acknowledgement/celebration of Divine goodness. In other words Thanksgiving is a response. There is a parable Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke that I think might help to clarify this. He is addressing some of the piety he sees around him and he shares the story of two individuals praying in public. The first goes like this, “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’.” The latter was just slightly different, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ – Luke 18:11-13
I find it funny that the Pharisee “thanks” God that he is better off than those around him. But then again I wonder how often my “thanksgiving” is similar. I do appreciate the blessings in my life, but does that truly call out a response of thankfulness from me? Or am I simply thanking God that I am well off compared to others around me? The tax collector maybe understood what he truly needed to thank God for; mercy. Grace is that which we ultimately should be thankful for. It is grace that is the primacy of our thankfulness and brings about the only real response of thanksgiving we can make. We show our thankfulness by extending that grace, mercy and love to others. We don’t thank God that we are not in there position, but rather we show our thanks to God by extending compassion to those who aren’t as well off as us. This is thanksgiving. This is giving out of our spirit of thankfulness. And this is what it means to be truly thankful.
The Arp family has a little tradition around the dinner table that we borrowed from some friends of ours. Every time we gather around the dinner table we find time to say what we are thankful for that day. Now this can be very varied depending on the day and the kids moods, but most of the time it is a reflection on the blessings that we feel we have received. And why not? Most of the time, at least in Western culture I think it is important to be thankful for the insane privilege and blessings that we enjoy. I’m not saying this as a bad thing, it’s just that we enjoy an amazing amount of privilege and wealth compared to many in the rest of the world. Which got me thinking; is being thankful enough?
The word that we use for this time of year and for the upcoming holiday is Thanksgiving. Which finds it’s roots in scripture strangely enough. And I think it’s always a good thing to find scriptural roots of modern concepts; if they exist. Who am I kidding? I find scriptural relevance in almost everything. But in this instance, the Hebrew word we translate as thanksgiving is towdah and can be better translated as thanks offering. Now I am not the greatest Hebrew scholar, but I feel like when the word offering is involved there is a bit more sacrificial giving involved than the passing of wind over the vocal chords in some word of thanks. There is an implication of action. Of doing. Of sacrificing.
Now for me, there is this always this one verse in scripture that I come back to with some sense of conviction when I think about thankfulness and blessings. Luke 12:48 says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” And we are a very materially blessed people. Even those of you reading this who are struggling financially are in the top 5% of the world’s wealthiest.* But I think the implication behind the text above is that being thankful isn’t really enough in and of itself. Being thankful and giving of what you have i.e. thanksgiving is more of the proper response. Time and time again we are reminded of our responsibility to give and to care for those around us. And maybe that’s what this season can really be for us. A reminder not to count our material blessings and fill our bellies, but rather a reminder to see how we might be able to bless those around us and fill the bellies of those who can’t fill their own. Maybe then we will fulfill the law of love and give with thankful hearts out of what we have been given.
*http://www.globalrichlist.com/ Stat based on an annual income of $18,000 annual salary which is below the US Poverty line