November 24, 2019
Joanna Harader, Peace Mennonite Church
According to the tradition of the Wampanoag tribe, the event credited with being the original Thanksgiving was the result of the Wampanoags honoring a mutual defense pact. The native peoples showed up at the Pilgrims’ feast not out of anyone’s desire to have an up-lifiting multi-cultural experience; but because the Pilgrim event involved a lot of celebratory gunfire that the Wampanoags took to be a hostile force attacking.
It’s hard to know exactly what went down that first Thanksgiving, how Native Americans and Pilgrim settlers ended up eating a meal together and what that shared meal really meant for the two groups. I suppose we can’t know for sure. But somehow the Wampanoag tradition surrounding the event rings more true than the white settler tradition of a friendly neighborhood potluck.
And whatever happened on that first Thanksgiving, we recognize the violence that came before and after the revered meal. My friend, and pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster, PA, Susan Gascho-Cooke, has preached about the way gratitude is used in our Thanksgiving myth—and in other areas of our society: how we “attach a thin veneer of gratitude to a situation of inequity and, voila! Injustice disappears. Gratitude makes our injustice fall off,” she writes. “Whatever we have that is ‘too much’ becomes simply ‘blessing,’ and suddenly sharing from our ‘blessing’ makes us the righteous ones. Not the ones usurping power and access to resources.”
Susan also notes that this passage we heard from Deuteronomy reads uncomfortably like our country’s Thanksgiving narrative. People who have taken over the land of others celebrating and “sharing” their bounty.
Maybe you were uncomfortable with some of the same language in this passage from Deuteronomy that makes me uncomfortable:
“When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it . . .”
“God brought us into this place and gave us this land”
There is a question here about whether what the people are giving thanks for is rightfully theirs to begin with.
Gratitude, it turns out, can be problematic. Remember the passage Chuck preached on a couple of weeks ago? Jesus told a story about a Pharisee who was grateful—who gave thanks to God that he was not like that terrible, sinful, tax collector over in the corner.
When gratitude is used as justification for taking and having an inequitable amount of resources; when it is merely a pretty package in which to wrap up our pride, when it is a way to acknowledge other people without actually honoring them . . . in these cases, gratitude is not a true virtue, but merely a means by which we try to make some of our worst qualities appear virtuous.
And yet. “Rejoice in the Lord always. . . . In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4: 4,6)
There is something holy and life-giving about expressing gratitude. While certain aspects of this Deuteronomy passage are problematic, there is also a lot we can gather here about how and why to give thanks to God.
In the passage Patrice read, Moses is talking to the Hebrew people who are preparing to end their desert wandering and enter the promised land. Among the many instructions he gives them, we read these instructions about celebrating the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot. It is one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals and celebrates the wheat harvest in their new promised land—along with commemorating the day God gave the Torah. It is important to note, though, that these instructions are given while the people are still wandering in the desert, without homes or land on which to plant crops.
The context of this call to gratitude suggests that gratitude is not primarily an individual act, but a communal act.
Having Michela, our exchange student from Italy, with us this year has made me more aware than usual that Thanksgiving is a particularly U.S. holiday. Christmas she knows about, but Thanksgiving is new. And even with all the historically problematic aspects of the holiday, I’m appreciating the presence of Thanksgiving. Those of us who attend worship regularly have opportunities to give thanks as a community throughout the year, but in the secular world, Thanksgiving is fairly unique as a time to come together and share in gratitude with others.
Communal gratitude can address some of the potential pitfalls of giving thanks; it can help us distinguish between what is truly good and helpful in this world and what merely makes us feel better. Praying, “Thank you God that I won that game,” may seem like a lovely prayer of gratitude—until the opposing team’s players join you for prayer. Thanking God for a big house and multiple cars may feel uplifting as you sit and sip coffee at your kitchen table in the morning. And it might feel like a different kind of prayer indeed if you are praying with people at the homeless shelter or in the midst of a discussion on climate change.
This is not to say that individual gratitude is bad—that we shouldn’t thank God for the individual comforts and joys in our lives. Of course, we should be grateful for what we have. But that gratitude should also push us to consider what we have vs. what we need, and what we have vs. what others have. And these considerations are not as likely to come up in acts of individual gratitude as they are when we offer our thanks to God together in community with others.
So one thing we can learn from Moses’ instructions is that gratitude should be a community activity. This passage from Deuteronomy also suggests that gratitude is not only about what God has done for us lately¸ but about the faithful work of God in the world throughout history–and the good we anticipate God doing in our communal life in the future. This means that we can be grateful even when things, at the moment, aren’t going particularly well. “Rejoice in the Lord always. . . . In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving . . .”
Moses’ words here also suggest that gratitude is an important aspect of living out God’s justice. Those who are giving the offering of gratitude recount the ways that God freed them from oppression and abuse when they were slaves in Egypt and brought them into abundance. To a large extent, what the people are giving thanks for is the justice God has enacted in their lives.
And, there is a command here to now use their own abundance for the sake of those who are in need, who are suffering oppression. Everyone is to enjoy the bountiful harvest, not just those who own the land. The abundance will be shared with the priests and the “aliens.” One verse beyond what we heard this morning also mentions the orphan and the widow.
Gratitude flows out of justice and justice flows out of gratitude.
And finally, this passage insists that gratitude is accompanied by action. Because the people are grateful for being freed from slavery and being brought into the promised land and having a good harvest, they are told to take some of their first fruits to the priests and then to celebrate with the whole community.
Gratitude here is not a passing thought of thanks or a momentary warm feeling or even a note jotted in a journal. Gratitude is connected to sacrifice—to giving up some of the very things we are grateful for, and to giving of our time as well.
Celebration is also an action that flows from gratitude—which is one thing, culturally, we get right about the Thanksgiving holiday. We had some friends over last night, and one of them was talking about making their “practice turkey” last week. We were all a bit baffled, but apparently this family always practices making their holiday dishes so that when the time comes they can prepare their best to share at the table. Another friend clearly thought this was ridiculous. But it strikes me as a lovely way to honor the celebration.
Our abundance is something to share and something to celebrate. Our blessings are something to humbly acknowledge and to enjoy. Together. In ways that honor God and each other.
Some radio stations are already playing Christmas music. Christmas decorations have been out in stores for weeks. We’re even putting up our church decorations today after worship—because next week is the first Sunday of Advent. Among the U.S. holidays, Thanksgiving tends to get short shrift. It is more of an entry into the holiday season than a meaningful event of its own.
I hope we can all pay more attention to Thanksgiving this year. That we will appreciate the opportunity this week to give thanks with and for other people; that we will consider how our gratitude is connected to our history and to our hope; that we will experience gratitude as an inspiration and an energy toward God’s justice and peace; that we will share of our possessions and our time as we truly celebrate the abundance God provides.