John 6:25-35, Romans 8:31-39
In the church liturgical year, today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next week Advent begins. Now, it generally happens that Christ the King Sunday falls on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Every once in a while there is an extra Sunday between Thanksgiving and Advent. But, usually, pastors who preach the lectionary are left with the dilemma of whether or not to preach on the assigned scripture lessons for the day and observe the church calendar emphasis or join the world in looking at Thanksgiving – a National Holiday –albeit one with religious overtones.
When our national holiday is presented to us in movies or talk shows or TV programs, people speak of that for which they are thankful – family, job, food, housing, safety, citizenship, freedom. (You can make your own list!) We are thankful for that which can be seen, for that which can be known in our lives.
Yet, we come to this particular Thanksgiving Holiday with many, many people struggling with the climate in our nation – a climate of hostility and fear that threatens those very things that we proclaim are a part of our National Thanksgiving. Some fear that their rights are threatened. Others are experiencing direct threats and hostility. A friend had to remove a bumper sticker from his car because of the hate and threats directed towards him by another driver. Children in our schools have been taunted by other students and even by teachers. Yesterday’s paper had a story about all those immigrants who are fearful that deportation may be imminent.
This is a national holiday. But its traditional roots are in the story of long ago immigrants who came seeking religious freedom—and found hospitality extended to them by the strangers that inhabited this land. We are told of an autumn festival that celebrated survival. President Lincoln decided that Thanksgiving should become an official national observance.
It strikes me that in many ways the Thanksgiving Holiday has encouraged escapism. We numb ourselves with food and parades and football games and hope, for a time, to let the harsh realities retreat from our awareness. Our search for bread is a search for safety. We’ve sort of sanitized the tradition. Many Native Americans complain about the “stories” of the First Thanksgiving. They note the conflicts of the earliest days when the settlers came into this country and started taking land. Those conflicts have continued through the centuries – even to this day, as we hear about the fight over the pipeline across sacred lands. Some Native Americans have renamed Thanksgiving, calling it “The Day of Mourning.” President Lincoln set Thanksgiving Day when the Civil War was raging. He called for it to be a day to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” Where is the thanksgiving?
Today’s gospel lesson was one suggested for the theme of Thanksgiving. It follows John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. People had flocked to hear Jesus’ words – words that pointed to God’s promised realm. When physical hunger became an issue, he fed them – from five barley loaves and two fish. Then he retreated. His disciples left by boat to go to Capernaum, encountered a storm – and Jesus. The crowd eventually found Jesus with the disciples in Capernaum.
“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
They were thankful --for full stomachs, for a miracle. Perhaps they were thankful for a meal that provided an escape from the ills of their world. But Jesus invited them to seek a different bread—one that was, ultimately, more fulfilling.
If we look back to the autumn celebrations of the early settlers, or even to the celebration of Thanksgiving during the Civil War, we have to be challenged in our understanding of what it means to be a thankful people. Thanksgiving for those who sought a new land was based not on external circumstances, but on a fundamental trust that God was with them. Jesus went on to tell the crowd that had sought him that he, himself, was the bread that they needed. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a prayer not about having our physical needs met, but about being sustained by Christ’s very presence in our midst.
This Thanksgiving it seems to me that we, in the church, should be focusing on that connection with the life-giving presence of Christ. Our thanksgiving is not based on personal safety, or on goods or on success. Such a basis for thanksgiving too often ignores those whose worlds are fragile. And that is many in our own nation today. There is palpable anxiety among many who fear what the future may bring.
One of my favorite passages is the selection from Romans. It is, in many ways, a song of thanksgiving. It, too, came from difficult times. And Paul declared, powerfully, the foundation of his life.
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?.... Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? ….No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul’s thanks was rooted in God’s presence. That assurance gave him the courage, not to retreat, not to seek personal safety, not to seek his own gratification, but to work and witness to the values of God’s realm. As we celebrate our national holiday of Thanksgiving, it cannot be a time of retreat. For the very things that we, as a nation, often proclaim as the foundation for our thanks are always tenuous – and never equally available to all.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King borrowed a quote from Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It comes from a sermon the Rev. Parker wrote as the Civil War was looming.
We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice. Justice will not fail, though wickedness appears strong, and has on its side the armies and thrones of power, the riches and the glory of the world, and though poor men crouch down in despair. Justice will not fail and perish out from the world of men, nor will what is really wrong and contrary to God’s real law of justice continually endure.
The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice – justice that is God given, God driven, and a sign of God’s presence. Christian thanksgiving is rooted in the faith that God’s justice will never fully fail or perish. Christian thanksgiving is rooted in the faith that wrong will not have the final word. Christian thanksgiving is rooted in God’s call to us to be involved in God’s work toward and for justice. And, Christian thanksgiving is rooted in the faith that as we testify and work toward and for God’s justice, God is present with us. “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
To come back to the gospel lesson, Jesus recognized our need for physical nourishment. He gifted the crowd with the bread that they needed. We need the opportunity to rest, to be nourished, to connect with one another around tables and the good gift of food. He had not denied the hungry crowd. He invited them to look beyond the physical nourishment and be nourished by his presence and his message. I pray your Thanksgiving may be a time of physical nourishment and a time of reflection on the promise of God’s presence with us in a world that still falls short of God’s good intent.