Jeremiah 30: 18, 19; Ephesians 1: 15, 16; Colossians 1:11-13.
Thanksgiving in uncertain times
In this month’s The Atlantic Sarah Boxer has an article about women artists and she makes the point that what can make an artist great is uncertainty. This is what she writes: “In many of the pieces in the exhibition, the artists’ worries and doubts about what they were trying to do are there for anyone to
For a lot of the great artists a painting was an attempt. Boxer goes on the say:”…we can once again see the greatness in anxiety (The Atlantic, p. 49).”
Friends, uncertainty and anxiety are a good way to describe the mood of the nation and the world at this moment in time. But in a time of election turmoil that highlighted a deeply divided nation came several days late this time around the calendar takes us right up to thanksgiving which comes rather early this year. Even though it is not part of the church year, Thanksgiving is a Biblical discipline. It also happens to be the Nation’s most modestly celebrated major holiday. This holiday has made this a more positive and optimistic nation.
However, thanksgiving is more complicated theologically than we might think. It has often led to smugness. Thanksgiving was a way of reinforcing for ourselves that we were on the right path, a way of acknowledging that God has blessed us as a nation. To be fair, there was a basis for this. It has been, at least until now, one of the freest countries in the world for religious expression.
But what do you do with thanksgiving in an anxious time? You can’t be smug. You can’t say:”Wow, haven’t we done well” when we you are thinking: ”My God what’s going to happen?“ It just isn’t the mood of the moment. But I think that is where we are wrong perhaps. Because in the smug idea of Thanksgiving God is just blessing something that is just fine, just peachy. “Good job, people,” we hear God say. “You’ve done great,” we hear Jesus echo. Psalm 100, a psalm of Thanksgiving, reminds us that is “God Who has made us, not we ourselves.” God doesn’t just give us the seal of approval for what we do. God is engaged. German theologian Dorothea Solle rebels against the idea of the “sanitized” Jesus or the “individualized” Jesus: Jesus as an older brother who gives you a pat on the back. She says that that kind of thinking severs Jesus from the Old Testament prophets who spoke against the injustice of the nation.
In Jeremiah the prophet tells us that there will be great thanksgiving voiced by the people, but it is not because they did so well, but because God has chosen to forgive and reengage with them. Ephesians ties thanksgiving to the steadfast faith of the people and in Colossians Paul connects thanksgiving to endurance and patience. These Biblical understandings of gratitude are very different from the smug idea of thanksgiving. So we learn that thanksgiving is about people hanging in there, acknowledging God’s work and people being patient and enduring.
Friends, I have told you before about the awkwardness of celebrating Thanksgiving on the Indian reservation where I was working, so I am not going to bother you with that again. But as I said I have learned from different peoples about thanksgiving in uncertain times. I have learned about how African Americans see it: they do not glue their economic wellbeing or even the justice of the society they live in up against the work of God, making it a nice package. They see the world order and the order of the society they live in as something totally different from God. About ten years ago I taught a class for St. Mary’s college in Moraga in their extension program. I think I did three or four semesters of that class on religious autobiography. We discussed a book by an author representing different religions. The Islamic perspective was represented by Malcom X. He had a speech in which he proclaimed about the Pilgrims:”I did not land of Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on me.” In other words he said that like the Native Americans that Pilgrim story was not about him or his people. They were at the receiving end of that story. What African American Christians tend to be grateful for is that God has helped them keep faith and be patient and endure for the long journey with ups and especially downs. The actor George Takei wrote recently about the Japanese concept of Gaman, which means to endure in spite of suffering. It is an enormously important idea for Japanese Americans also. Looking at the text Colossians, that looks like a Biblical concept now. Thanksgiving is about enduring and keeping faith and our thanksgiving is not for the great things that we have created, but that God is at work to transform our unjust world, and to a certain extent ‘nation,’ into something good and just, mostly against the current and against the odds. That new world is a long way off, but while God works we must work. May God help and guide us.