A Thanksgiving Sermon: The Feast We Choose


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34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” - Matthew 25:34-40

23 November 2008

I have a bit of a hard time with Thanksgiving.

As a vegetarian, it’s difficult to look forward to a holiday whose central icon is cooked fowl. The carnivorous carnival has at times left me feeling like a second-class citizen. More accurately, perhaps, it has left me feeling like the overlooked side dishes I’ve been expected to be sated with. (Tofurkey helps.)

Further, as a pacifist committed to social justice, I’ve been disturbed by the excessive romanticization of the “Pilgrims and Indians” who populate Thanksgiving myths. History is never so tidy as the stories we tell about it, especially about our nation’s colonial origins. Peeking backstage from the classic Thanksgiving drama, we see how, throughout European conquest in this land, indigenous people were treated as actual second-class citizens, at best. Remember that I did just move from Berkeley, California, where the legal holiday on October 12 each year is not Columbus Day but Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It’s official. It’s on the parking meters and everything. And it’s also just. The least we can do is remember the violence and loss that was the price good people paid to purchase the new country that others enjoyed.

As a spiritual descendant of the Dunkards, I am also wary of the national religion that has come to underlie this day. Recall that in the late 1700s and into the 1800s, the Brethren Annual Meeting banned its members from taking part in Independence Day celebrations, disdaining the glorification of a nation birthed in war.

But there’s something different about Thanksgiving that has allowed me to come to terms with it, to love it even, not with unquestioning naivete but with a desire for informed responsibility for what I – what we – can make it.

And what’s special about it isn’t all that secret: it’s that there’s communion inside it. Thanksgiving is North America’s moment of Eucharist. Literally: the word Eucharist translates as “thanks-giving,” giving thanks.

Part of what I love most about the communion that’s embedded in the Thanksgiving holiday is the way it just sort of bubbled up over the years as everyday people celebrated their harvest festivals and recognized the blessing of their dependence on G*d’s creation that instilled in them deep gratitude. Because it’s not what’s unique to Thanksgiving that makes it so noteworthy, it’s what is so common. Eating together as a way of nourishing the wider, social body, as well as individual, physical bodies, is not a new idea to anyone by now. It’s a widespread, very human reality. That’s what makes it so true. That’s what makes Christian practices of communion so true, too.

We see this reality revealed in today’s Scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus’ upside-down Kin-dom bestows greatest honor on those who serve, and has a king, a leader, who lives in positions of second-class status, or even outright misery. In this Kin-dom, how people treat those deemed “least” really matters. Here, the side dishes really are put at the center of the table.

Now, too, this is not a new idea, and that’s why it’s such a good idea. Jesus is picking up on Jewish traditions of his day,1 and applying them to his own situation. Matthew’s Jesus had clearly read Isaiah 58, from which I will quote extensively:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to G*d?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; Then you shall call, and {G*d} will say, ‘Here I am.’”[2]

Isaiah was encouraging folks to choose the truer faith revealed in acts of loving-kindness.[3] For Isaiah, and for Jesus, the heart of devotion to G*d is in right, loving relationships, not in right ritual, right rites, right fasts or right feasts. And as in Isaiah’s day, there can be a wrong way to do a feast as much as there can be a wrong way to do a fast.

We can see this in the dangerous potential of Thanksgiving holiday celebrations:

  • bloodthirsty, racist triumphalism (that delights in European imperial conquest at the expense of all others);
  • hollow materialism (that tolerates time spent with family and friends only with the carrot of shopping on “Black Friday”);
  • un-thankful gluttony (that eats without concern for the animals, plants, land, and laborers who sacrifice for human convenience and taste).

Those are feasts we could choose.

But we can also choose another feast. The food and drink that we share can be a feast Isaiah would be proud of, when the dishes are flavored with love and the table is set with justice. It is the feast rooted in the “elements” of Thanksgiving that carry communion into homes and shelters and campuses across the country.

The first element is the food. Food is at the center of this holiday, perhaps more than any other. And it’s not just any food, it’s local food, foods with American origins that allowed immigrant Europeans to survive on the East Coast without their native staples. Corn, squash, turkey, venison, lobsters, mussels, grapes, herbs.[4] How many holidays remind us to pay attention to where our food comes from?[5]

On a more basic level, Thanksgiving and communion both start from the recognition that bodies need food.[6] Human bodies need food. These are recipes for starting to see the people who hunger and thirst. The righteous ask Jesus, “when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” The first step in that act of loving kindness was the seeing itself. The second element is the hospitality. This holiday celebrates different peoples coming together. Now, the factual legacy of the holiday cannot be ignored, but its legend can be embraced by Christian Americans. The myths of this day honor the important fact that the Pilgrim settlers were immigrants to this land, and that the indigenous Americans responded to their arrival with hospitality, despite the threats these immigrants might pose. It’s the rare holiday of the national calendar that actually admits – even celebrates – the European colonizers’ weakness and dependence on the land and their hosts, not their strength or invulnerability.[7] Communion, too, honors a Christ of an upside-down Kin-dom where the ‘least’ matter the most and a Christ who wears the mantle of weakness when he stoops to wash his friends’ feet and when he opens his table to Judas as much as Peter or John. The faces of hosts and guests may have changed, but we still need the hospitality. The third element of the Thanksgiving feast is memory: remembering our ancestors, our forebears by genetics or by adoption. In America’s Thanksgiving, this means also remembering the painful parts of our heritage - remembering all the bodies broken along the Way, so that no more must ever be broken. We eat not only for our bodies’ sustenance but also in remembrance of those gone before us.

The final element I’ll lift up today is the giving of thanks - for all we have to be thankful, and to all who contribute to our lives. Said Meister Eckhart, “If your only prayer is ‘Thank you,’ that is enough.” THANK YOU. That is a prayer all Americans can speak together. Our Eucharist, our Christian thanks-giving, is a statement of gratitude specifically to G*d, who sustains our lives through the efforts of countless beings.

In these ways, the Thanksgiving holiday that is upon us is but one day we can choose the feast Christ has spread for us: by eating knowingly and intentionally, by acts of radical hospitality, by remembering our roots, and by giving deep thanks.

Chances for communion surround us every day, in every moment where justice is made by sharing food and drink, if we but choose to see it… because the truth of Christ’s communion is more powerful than our religious institutions. It breaks out of church buildings or worship services to welcome us and feed us wherever and whoever we are.

Alleluia! Let the feast continue. __ Audrey deCoursey is Associate Pastor of the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, Elgin, Illinois, and a Spectrum Blog reader.

Notes: [1] Just as Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist quotes heavily from Passover, another celebration of thanks for deliverance. [2] Selections from verses 3-8. [3] Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, Ronald Allen and Clark Williams (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) . [4] Elizabeth Armstrong, “The First Thanksgiving,” Christian Science Monitor, 27 November 2002. [5] Of course, this can become problematic, too, as the holiday spreads out across the continent to places where the ‘traditional’ feast elements are not native… [6] Do we really think that yams or pumpkin pie or turkey or Tofurkey come from G*d any less than the juice and the bread we share in this sanctuary? [7] This recognition of weakness and the nonsectarian nature of the holiday in general provide an opening point for immigrants today to weave their own stories into the nation’s narrative.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1242