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, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house. (Deuteronomy 6:1-11)
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:25-35)
I will be honest. It took me a long time in life to appreciate Thanksgiving as a spiritual holiday.
As a child, I couldn’t understand why we gathered for worship on Thanksgiving. I wondered why the church needed to get together and celebrate a holiday that didn’t have anything specifically to do with Jesus, and I certainly couldn’t figure out why we’d get together as a church to celebrate the Pilgrims and the Mayflower.
For me, the shift happened one Thanksgiving eve early in my seminary career. My home church runs a ministry called “Hands and Feet,” which provides all of the non-food items that people were unable to find on a regular basis at food pantries – shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, and even socks and shoes. Each year, the congregation is asked to bring items for “Hands and Feet” as their special Thanksgiving offering.
That night, I sat there in the front row, watching people as they brought up shopping bag after shopping bag filled with items to help people in need. The parade of stuff took an embarrassingly long time, and quickly the area around the foot of the table filled up. People began placing bags on the step surrounding the table, and then on the floor surrounding the step. As I watched this overflowing generosity, I realized that tears were running down my face.
And this is when it hit me – grace, generosity, and gratitude are not peripheral to the life of faith. They are at its center. And so of course we worship together at Thanksgiving, because faith itself is a gift, and the Christian life is itself a life of thanksgiving.
Our reading from Deuteronomy tells of how a people blessed with a land flowing with milk and honey celebrate God’s gracious bounty by giving back to God the first-fruits of their labors. Their physical needs provided for, they offer back their hearts and souls to God.
The crowds in today’s gospel are also recipients of God’s bounty. They have just been on the receiving end of a miraculous feast, where five loaves and two fish fed a crowd of more than 5000 people. Amazed by what they had experienced, the crowds followed Jesus all the way to the other side of the sea, where he urges them to look past the miraculous meal to the hand of God who gives to them and to us the food that endures for eternal life, the bread that comes down from heaven to give life to the world.
On a day such as Thanksgiving, we take much pride in crafting elaborate feasts. We seek out the newest turkey techniques and hunt down new sweet potato recipes. We dig out well-worn cookbooks and recipe cards to bake the pumpkin pies of our childhood and to recall grandma’s tips and tricks for making perfect gravy. And we sit down with family and friends around abundant tables in remembrance of that first bountiful harvest and the hands who labored over it. And we, like the crowds who witnessed the miracle of loaves and fishes, feast on the abundance that God has given to us.
But like the crowds in the gospel, and like our friends in Deuteronomy, we cannot stop there, basking in the satisfaction of full bellies and warm homes and good company. “Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Faith pushes us to make the leap from receiving God’s blessings to living every day as grace-filled, grateful people.
There was one weekend earlier this fall when, grace and gratitude smacked me over the head. On Saturday morning, a seller at the farmer’s market gave me an extra carton of raspberries for free, on Sunday afternoon the woman at the gate of the Arboretum let a carload of us in for free, and on Sunday evening, the kid scooping my ice cream at Coldstone gave me an extra Heath Bar in my sundae, just to be nice. By the time I sat down to eat my ice cream, I was overwhelmed, both by the generosity I had been shown and by the gratitude that I felt welling up within me.
It was strange to me, though, and humbling, that I was so easily surprised and elated by receiving some extra raspberries or an extra piece of Heath Bar in my ice cream…but that I am routinely casual about God’s grace. I wonder why we let God’s gift of life and hope and salvation become so commonplace. Perhaps it is easy to take God’s grace for granted because we expect God to be gracious, and we don’t often expect teenagers at Coldstone to be gracious.
But the truth is that God throws around grace with reckless abandon, and sometimes it takes a day like Thanksgiving to pause and ponder what that really means. There is nothing in my power or your power or even our collective power that could have created the world, nor is there anything that we do to sustain it. There’s nothing we can do to make ourselves perfect or whole, nor is there anything that we can do to make the infinite God pay attention to us, tiny blips on the radar screen of creation as we are. And yet…God is gracious to us. That’s a big deal.
Grace is powerful and even subversive, if you really think about it. It shakes up the balance of power. It shakes up your sense of pride or self-determination. It pulls control away from you, and you are left feeling surprised, helpless, undeserving...and completely thankful.
We set aside this day of Thanksgiving that it might remind us to make gratitude a daily spiritual practice. This is why we worship together, and why Thanksgiving is a truly spiritual holiday. Thanksgiving connects us to the deepest core of our faith, where we recognize God’s grace and blessing in every moment and movement of every day.
Tomorrow, we will set our tables with linens and dishes that we reserve for special occasions. We will gather to eat with friends and family, and we will pray over our meals. We will take the time to remember God’s gifts, and to remember loved ones who are no longer with us in body, but who still remain with us in spirit.
In this beautiful drama of a Thanksgiving meal, we find echoes of the beautiful drama of approaching the Lord’s table in worship.
For it too is a table set with fine cloth and with the good dishes that are only pulled out when there is company. It is a celebration made merrier the bigger the crowd, and it is a feast shared among a family – crazy uncles, favorite cousins, estranged siblings, ex-wives, cherished grandparents, and all. At Christ’s table, we join together in prayer before we eat, a special prayer that is aptly named the Great Thanksgiving, where we remember God’s faithfulness to his people throughout history, and thank God for his faithfulness extended to us through Christ. We eat a feast of sturdy and nourishing food, and joyful and festive drink, even as we remember all the saints who have gone before us and with whom we will feast again in glory.
Every time we approach God’s table, we are reenacting a holy thanksgiving feast our empty hands receive the body and blood of Christ – the food that endures for eternal life. We come to this table of grace with grateful hearts, and in the sharing of this meal, we go forth to live gracious and generous lives. We come to this table hungry for food and we go from it filled and nourished with all good things. And Christ himself invites each of us to this feast, saying to us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.