A Hunger for Thanksgiving
Text: Colossians 1:11-20
“Come, ye thankful people come,” wrote Henry Alford in 1844, “Raise the song of harvest home; all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin; God, our Maker, doth provide, for our wants to be supplied; come to God’s own temple come, raise the song of harvest home.”
I love Thanksgiving hymns. I love the way they celebrate the goodness of God, the bounty of land and sea, the richness of life itself. When I sing Thanksgiving hymns, I feel the warmth of sitting before a roaring fire during a winter snow storm, safe, secure, and serene, with not a care in the world. The poet Robert Browning captures the spirit of Thanksgiving hymns with his words, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.”
When I sing Thanksgiving hymns and listen to Browning’s verse I recall childhood Thanksgiving Day feasts with family crammed around a table overflowing with a variety of pies, Granny’s homemade yeast rolls, delicious dressing, cranberry sauce, Smithfield ham, and of course, a huge turkey. We ate and talked, laughed and ate again until we could eat no more.
So far, the Thanksgiving picture I have painted resembles the art of Norman Rockwell or one of the seasonal sappy movies from Hallmark. Yet, there are other Thanksgiving paintings to view on this Sunday before the feast of Thanksgiving.
In the spring of 1621, Pilgrims near Plymouth Rock planted three crops: English peas, barley, and Indian corn. An eyewitness of the day commented, “Our peas were not worth gathering, for we feared they were too late sown.” No peas were harvested. The barley crop did not do much better.
The twenty acres of Indian corn, maize, did the best. Mind you, this was not the delicious sugar and butter corn that grows golden yellow and ten inches long. Their corn grew two to three inches, with different colored kernels, stuff that would not be harvested in the South or harvested only to feed the hogs.
Of the 102 passengers who landed at Cade Cod, 51 died that first year. When the Pilgrims sat around a common table to eat a Thanksgiving meal, they must have been keenly aware of all the empty places left by those who had survived.
“When I looked at fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Tilly, with both her parents dead,” John Wilson writes, “when I looked at the seven hovels in which we would have to face the next New England winter, when I looked at the sea and thought of the 3,000 empty miles that separated us from our homeland and our friends – what words of thanksgiving would have welled up in my heart and sincerely crossed my lips?”
“Twenty acres of scrubby corn,” writes Wilson, “such was the ‘bountiful’ harvest for which the Pilgrims gathered to give thanks. And yet, give thanks they did.” The Pilgrims gave thanks not for a bountiful harvest and tables overflowing with food and drink. They gave thanks not because “all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.” Out of a hunger for thanksgiving, they gave thanks despite their poverty, despite their grief, despite the sobering reality of what lay ahead.
I love Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel, Cold Mountain. In it, we meet Ruby, an uneducated, wise woman who has never traveled fifteen miles beyond the mountains of western North Carolina. At one point, Ruby is asked her opinion of the war. Frazier writes: “Ruby . . . said the war held little interest for her. She had heard stories of the northern country and had come to understand that it was a godless land, or rather a land of only one god, and that was money . . . They had . . . invented a holiday called Thanksgiving, which Ruby had only recently got news of, but from what she gathered its features to be, she found it to contain the mark of a tainted culture. To be thankful on just the one day” (p. 141).
The great thanksgiving hymn that opens the Colossians letter calls not for an annual day to be thankful but for a life of thanksgiving that flows from a hunger for thanksgiving. It sings of a Christ who saves not only women and men, but who saves all the world. “All things hold together in him,” claims Colossians. Christ is the glue that holds creation together, the magnet that pulls the world out of its chaos.
That is quite a claim, that God is concerned with more than our individual souls, that thanksgiving is more a posture we strike daily than an annual day to celebrate our blessings. According to this early thanksgiving hymn from Colossians, God is intimately concerned not just with you and me, but with the planet on which we reside.
Colossians sings this song of thanksgiving: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, . . . all things have been created through him and for him.” And yet, as a former professor of mine warns, “We human beings have ravished the world with our bug sprays, poisons . . . with our bulldozers, concrete and earth movers. And now the day seems not distant when God . . . will listen and hear from the good earth nothing but a deafening silence” (Elizabeth Achtemeier).
As we approach another annual Thanksgiving feast on Thursday, the words of Jesus come to mind, “Blessed are the hungry, those who hunger for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” If God in Christ is Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and earth, then our hunger needs to expand to all our neighbors, those who swim in the seas and those who soar in the sky. You and I practice a stewardship of all creation not to be politically correct or to save our collective endangered hides, but because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.”
Lest we turn the Gospel on its head on Thursday, God sees no hidden blessing in human hunger. Human hunger is no secret spiritual plan of God whereby some people scrape to get by while others bask in abundance. “What puzzles me,” writes Charlie Summers, “is that our current national prosperity is coupled with such a meanness of spirit . . . This current climate might be called an era of Grab.
“If gratitude leads to compassion, then grab leads to resentment. Grab asks, ‘Why don’t I have more? Why does that person have a bigger car, a larger house, a better pair of shoes?’ Grab, in its resentment, looks for someone to blame. ‘I would have more if those poor people weren’t mooching off the system’.” Or, in the most current form of Grab, “I will never have more if we let those poor people cross our border.”
Colossians invites us to get hungry, hungry for thanksgiving, and when we do we start to notice the chemicals being dumped into our waters, the particulates polluting our air, the fires consuming our forests, the development destroying our wetlands; we notice those walking our streets unsheltered, those who will not sit down to a grand meal on Thursday or any day this week, this month, this year. We notice native Americans whose land we invaded in New England and Virginia and called it our own. Colossians invites us to move from the toxic land of grab into the holy land of gratitude because grateful people always know that they stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them, so they reach out to those who need a lift today.
How we celebrate Thanksgiving Day is a deeply religious concern, but even more so is whether a hunger for thanksgiving guides how you and I live. It matters not just on Thursday how much we eat, what we discard, how we use limited natural resources, who is invited to and who is kept away from the table; it matters every day.
Despite all my impassioned rhetoric, I expect our family’s table will be full to overflowing on Thursday and I will again eat too much. I will say a grand and flowing prayer on behalf of all those less fortunate than we. Another year’s celebration will pass and I will be too full to know a hunger for thanksgiving.
So, my Thanksgiving Prayer this year is: “O God, give me a hunger for thanksgiving.” In those all too rare moments when I let that hunger sink in, I see the earth and my neighbors differently. I see myself differently. I even see God differently. In my hunger for thanksgiving, I see each of you as a cherished, beloved, treasured child of God and I see Cove as more than an historic church that will celebrate its 250th anniversary next year, but a thankful community of living, lively, generous, and gracious women and men.
So, maybe on Thursday and every day that follows, you might want to join me in offering the shortest of Thanksgiving prayers: “O God, give me a hunger for thanksgiving.”
It is only that kind of hunger that will fill us to overflowing.