truest thanksgiving

thinkinga personal reflection on an American holiday from a Christian perspective for Christian folk, based on John 6.25-35, on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fish, feeding and filling 5000 famished bellies. The people, amazed by this miracle, perceive Jesus as a great prophet, like Moses, who they will compel to lead them in throwing off the shackles of their Roman oppressors. However, Jesus’ empire is not of the world, but of the Spirit, its methodology, not overpowering force, but unconditional love, its market, not self-interest, but justice, its manner, not avarice, but service. Jesus, recognizing the people’s misunderstanding and refusing their misdirected acclaim, withdraws in solitude and silence to the other side of the lake.[1] The people, still hungry for signs and wonders, pursue Jesus. Knowing they mistakenly have made physical sustenance the greatest good, Jesus challenges them to labor for “the food that endures for eternal life”. The people, barely comprehending that Jesus points to something spiritual (thus, beyond the material, yet, paradoxically, no less real), ask: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” In other words, how do we get this spiritual food? Jesus answers, “Believe in me.”

Belief. Not mere assent to an intellectual proposition that Jesus is Messiah or prophet or wise teacher or Lord or Savior (whatever any of these titles might mean), but rather an attitude arising from a relationship of trust, calling us to follow him…

verna-josephine-dozier-2-c-1995

One of my finest mentors, Verna Josephine Dozier wrote: “Jesus did not call us to worship him, but to follow him. Worship is setting Jesus on a pedestal…enshrining him in liturgies, stained glass…biblical translations…pilgrimages to places where he walked…Following him is doing what he did.”[2]

Thanksgiving Day. Historically, an annual occasion to express gratitude to God for helping the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony persevere during the harsh winter of 1621. Later, for the harvest. Later still, for all the blessings of this life.

Today, looking through the lens of doing what Jesus did – loving unconditionally, acting justly, being of service – I see Thanksgiving Day as a yearly reminder that Christianity is an incarnational religion; at its heart, the ongoing, never-ending story of the Spirit of God’s love and justice taking flesh, yes, in Jesus and in his followers, and through his followers that Spirit being alive and active in this world.

I oft have said that Jesus would have a good reputation if not for the church. Through two millennia, the community of his disciples frequently wielding instruments of force, wedded to self-interest, and well-versed in materialism have strayed from his path.

In truest thanksgiving, I pledge anew, paraphrasing the song, to “follow Jesus more nearly, day by day.”[3] Again quoting my beloved sister, Verna: “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do we believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that we believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what we believe?”[4]

For me to answer humbly, honestly, “Yes!” is my thanks giving for bountiful blessings and, even more, my prayer that I, in my living, will be a thanksgiving, a blessing for the world.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See John 6.1-24.

[2] From The Dream of God, page 98 (my emphases), by Verna Josephine Dozier (1918-2006), retired District of Columbia public school teacher and administrator; theologian, biblical scholar, workshop leader, church consultant, and lay preacher; an advocate for the authority and ministry of the laity in religious communities; and, at the time of her death, a 50+ year member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector (1998-2015).

[3] Words by Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

[4] The Dream of God, page 105 (my emphases)

a (happy?) thanksgiving story

Thanksgiving Day. A national day of gratitude for the harvest and for the blessings of the preceding year.

The story of its origins is simple, for many details are unknown.

This simple story also is complex, involving people, their impulses, instincts, and interactions.

This simple and complex story is sacred, pointing to the honoring of the eternal bond between Creator and creature, creature and creature; a bond of justice and compassion.

This simple and complex sacred story also is profane, for it speaks of the breaking of that same bond.

Members of the English Separatist Church, a Puritan sect, escaping religious persecution, set sail aboard the Mayflower, landing at the promised land of Plymouth Rock, in what is now Massachusetts, in December 1620. That first winter was harsh. Many died. However, the harvest of 1621 was bountiful. The remaining colonists celebrated with a feast, inviting the Wampanoags, a coast-dwelling Native American people, who had helped the settlers survive their first year. This banquet, like a traditional English harvest festival, lasted three days! (Such a commemoration wasn’t strange to the Wampanoags who, in thanksgiving for their fellowship with the Creator and creation, annually observed six festivals!) This gathering of two very different peoples, expressing a friendship forged in suffering’s fire, had a sacred, sacramental element, being, to paraphrase The Catechism in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, an outward, visible sign of inward, spiritual grace.

It would be the happiest of all endings if, nearly 400 years later, we could read a story of lasting friendship. Sorrowfully, we cannot.

“A pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1.8). This Egyptian leader, without firsthand knowledge of the history of service of the Hebrews, thus without desire to address and assuage his mistrust and fear, enslaved the people. As elements of the human story often repeat, so it was that many new English colonists knew not the service of the Wampanoags. Fear grew. Intolerance spread. Friendship weakened. Within a generation or two, the children of those who feasted in thanksgiving in 1621 were killing one another in what came to be known as King Philip’s War. One result of that conflict was the enslavement and virtual destruction of a number of the tribes of native peoples and the opening of southern New England to unrestrained colonial expansion.

This simple and complex, sacred and profane thanksgiving story speaks of a friendship between diverse peoples that took root and flowered from the ground of shared experience. It also tells how fear and mistrust can break the bonds of the deepest fellowship.

In remembering this story, I pledge anew to strive daily to fulfill that eternal bond between Creator and creation, creature and creature; that bond of justice and compassion.