Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving Day: Errand into the Wilderness

The feeding of the five thousand is arguably the most famous meal in western history. A meal of bread and dried fish was probably typical for first century Palestine. But even though the fare was spartan, the crowds who dined on the miraculously multiplied picnic couldn’t get enough. They even followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The crowds did what crowds always do; they followed someone who gave them “bread and circuses”. And Jesus rebuked them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." (John 6.26-27)

The crowds that followed Jesus into the wilderness following the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes made two mistakes. First, they were seeking “the food that perishes” rather than “the food that endures for eternal life”. Secondly, they assumed that what Jesus was offering came with a price tag attached: "What must we do to perform the works of God?"

This dialogue between Jesus and the crowd in the aftermath of the feeding of the five thousand seems an odd gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day. No doubt about it -- Thanksgiving is about “the food that perishes”. Say “Thanksgiving” and my mind turns immediately to turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin and pecan pie. But Thanksgiving should also remind us of the pilgrims and puritans who came to the northeastern shores of North America in the seventeenth century, seeking to found a godly church in a godly commonwealth. Perry Miller, one of the greatest scholars of American puritanism, entitled one of his books Errand into the Wilderness. That’s a good way of describing what the pilgrims and Puritans were up to. It’s also not a bad way of describing the scene in today’s gospel reading. Jesus was on an errand into the wilderness and so were the crowds who followed him. But Jesus was in the wilderness to offer “the food that endures for eternal life” and the crowds were seeking the “food that perishes”.

Thanksgiving also seems to be about working hard and enjoying the rewards of our labor. The question the crowd asked Jesus, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" has an American ring to it. Sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin observed that the command to refrain from work on the Sabbath means that we should work hard the other six days! But we live in the age of “24/7”; even the 24 hours of the Sabbath seem stressful. Bill Gates famously remarked that an hour spent in church seemed to be an inefficient use of time.

Human life is mostly about seeking the “food that perishes”. It has to be. Someone once observed that we do not live by bread alone, but we don’t live very long without it, either. Like Jesus and the crowds and like the pilgrims and puritans, we, too, are on an “errand into the wilderness”. Human life is a journey through uncharted, difficult, and often dangerous territory. The constant temptation is to make it nothing but a quest for “food that perishes”. But the paradox is that if we seek only to fill our bellies, we will die of malnourishment.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a colleague who said to a member of his congregation, “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. Tell me, where are you running all the time?” The man answered, “I’m running after success, I’m running after fulfillment, I’m running after the reward for all my hard work.” And Kushner’s colleague replied, “That’s a good answer if you assume that all those blessings are somewhere ahead of you, trying to elude you and if you run fast enough, you may catch up with them. But isn’t it possible that those blessings are behind you, that they are looking for you, and the more you run, the harder you make it for them to find you?” Kushner observed that God may have all kinds of blessing in store for us – “good food and beautiful sunsets and flowers budding in the spring and leaves turning in the fall – but we in our pursuit of happiness are so constantly on the go that God can’t find us at home to deliver them”! (Lawrence Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough (New York, 1986), pp. 146-147)

Perhaps the feeding of the five thousand isn’t such a bad reading for Thanksgiving Day after all. It reminds us that life and the food that sustains life are not our accomplishment; they are God’s gift. At the end of the great Danish film Babette’s Feast, a distinguished general rises to propose a toast and says, "Man, my friends is frail and foolish. We have all been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness we imagine God's grace to be limited...But we are wrong; grace is infinite. Grace demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”

So, this Thanksgiving I encourage you to pause and remember a feast two thousand years ago in Palestine, when Jesus took and blessed and broke and gave the loaves and fishes to five thousand. The cuisine would hardly have impressed Julia Child, but it was a potent reminder that a little is enough when it is given and received with love and gratitude. Enjoy the turkey and cranberry sauce and all the other “food that perishes”, but save some room for the “food that endures for eternal life” because that’s what we really need to sustain us on our “errand into the wilderness”.