Thanksgiving is a uniquely American experience celebrating the grace and hospitality of the Wampanoag nation to the ill-equipped Pilgrim settlers of Plymouth Colony in 1621. The Pilgrims response to that hospitality is a blot on American foreign policy and a mockery of Christian values.
So can a 21st century Christian American participate by celebration on this day? My answer is yes.
It is the hospitality that is worth celebrating. The grace of the Wampanoags in welcoming the stranger is a tenet of our faith. While the Puritans’ response was a sin against God and a cautionary tale about the danger of welcoming a stranger, the values of the Wampanoags is worth celebration. Welcome the stranger but exhibit caution lest you put yourself in danger. As the saying goes, “trust but verify.”
In fact, the Wampanoag contracted smallpox from the guests turned invaders. Had they maintained social distancing and not accepted blankets in return, who knows how America would have turned out!
And besides, even though Thanksgiving is overshadowed by the invaders’ genocidal deeds, Christianity is well-known for co-opting celebration days. So why not co-opt Thanksgiving? For instance, Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, is a re-purposing of the Festival of Saturnalia. Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, is a re-purposing of the Spring Equinox celebrating Ostara, goddess of spring. And All Souls Day, a day of remembrance of our dearly departed, re-purposes Halloween, which is a cultural variation of the Central American, Day of the Dead.
When I was pastor of the Venice United Methodist Church, in collaboration with several organizations that shared our campus, we turned the remembrance of D-Day into a day of Peace offering. The day’s celebrations centered around a shaman from the remnants of the local tribe coming and accepting our apology for the way the land we occupied was taken from his people. He then offered us a blessing to heal the land we occupied. It was our hope that by this small act we might begin the healing of the land and our own souls.
So then, why can’t we re-purpose Thanksgiving to celebrate the abundance of God’s grace and hospitality?
Of course we can. And we can still have turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce.
This year, however, will be necessarily different. In the midst of a pandemic, how do we do this celebrating? Hospitality, this year, takes on a whole new meaning.
First, I’d like to make note of a few things. The gospel of John reports Jesus having said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down (θῇ) one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15.13) This “laying down” has been assumed to mean “give up your life.” That’s not the meaning of the word back when it was used, though. A better translation in today’s vernacular would be “give,” as in give your life, not give up your life. Live in service to your friends, die for them if need be. But it’s better to give and live on than to die and be done. I hope I’m being clear here.
In the spirit of this phrase, I recommend that the way to live and celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to do so in a way that protects your friends and family. To be clear, this means to stay at home and encourage them to do the same.
The abundance of grace of God this year is that we have the means to celebrate in new ways. Zoom, for instance, has even extended their 40-minute online time for free users so we can use their format to reach out to others.
God will not save you from yourself. If you choose to endanger your friends and they collaborate with you in their own danger, all bets are off with God. You’re just DOOMED!
We have been given the hope of several vaccines, that will be ready for production by the new year. We have all kinds of health recommendations like masks and social distancing. We have free testing for the virus. We have help with income and payroll protection. People from all across the spectrum of influence have been inspired to help, except for a corrupt few. These are gifts from the holy spirit of God.
That verse of John’s goes on to say, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” It doesn’t matter to God if you have faith in God. God has offered faith in you. There is a story, you’ve probably heard:
A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.” The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.” So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.” To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.” So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.” To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.” So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you, but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
We don’t get to dictate to God how God helps us. God chooses. Our responsibility is to live up to the faith God has in us. It is not God’s responsibility to live up to whatever genuine or misguided faith we put in God. This is humanity’s great folly. To think we can control God by our beliefs.
In part, I blame Santa Clause. As a small child, I was taught to believe in Santa. He knew when I was sleeping. He knew when I was awake. He knew when I was bad or good so I should have been good for goodness’ sake.
Then one day, Santa was a fiction. I was encouraged to replace my faith in Santa with a new faith in God. But God is not Santa. That fantasy that was encouraged by all the adults around me was a lie. Was God then a fantasy I would one day outgrow? Was God a cultural fiction? Eventually, I would have to come to answer that question. This is a cautionary tale of supporting a fiction. I also blame this supported fiction as the opening mental corruption of half of our American population being unable to differentiate fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, and loyalty to a human being over loyalty to God. And too many of us believe in our entitlement without responsibility to our society and loyalty to our values and those who died to protect them.
But I diverge.
Just be responsible. Protect one another. Celebrate God’s gifts especially in the midst of this extremely dangerous time. Give up some freedom now so that we may live in greater freedom tomorrow. Be at peace. Thanks be to God.