Thanksgiving dinner for the Church—and that is what we share today, the Eucharist, Greek for “Thanksgiving”—the Lord’s Thanksgiving dinner sees a motley crew sitting down together at the table. Old men. Childless women. The youngest sons. Cowards. Former prostitutes. Stutterers. Daydreamers. Shepherds. Murderers. Slaves. And before you ask, “Who are you talking about?” you shall remember that when we eat at this Thanksgiving table, the dinner guests are far more in number than the eye can see. For the saints of heaven are at the table with us!
After the Israelites left the harsh life of the desert, they settled down in the more stable environment of Canaan. There they faced new and more subtle dangers. As the ragged band of slaves had fled the tyranny of Pharaoh, God Himself had fought for them because they could not fight for themselves. But as they settled in the land they had less and less need for God to fight battles for them.
They had wandered homeless in the desert for 40 years and God had taken care of all their needs. But after settling in the land they could build their own houses and raise their own food. The people who had earlier depended on God’s cloud and pillar of fire for guidance and God’s manna for daily survival now had military overlords, fortresses, and storage cities. The people had once looked to the Lord God, Yahweh, the God of their Fathers, the God of the Mountain, the God of the Desert, the great warrior God for help and deliverance. But once settled comfortably in the land, they would sacrifice to Baal, the Canaanite god of rain and fertility, and to Ashtoroth, the earth goddess, so the crops would grow and the livestock would produce.
You see, the further in time and distance that the people got from the harsh realities of Egyptian tyranny, and the rigors of the wilderness, the less they thought they needed God. The more self sufficient they became, the more they forgot about the hand of God in the creation of their nation. They believed that it was their great army that had defeated Pharaoh. They had conquered the walls of Jericho. They had earned a right to the land and could handle their own destiny. It was to this kind of dangerous self-sufficiency that Moses warns in his farewell address called the Book of Deuteronomy.
The Book begins with a quick survey of how God had worked in the past. That was a primary way the Old testament community dealt with problems: by looking at the traditions of the past to learn the lessons of history. One feature that stood out in those traditions was that God’s presence could be seen in the most powerful and dynamic ways working through the most unlikely people in the most adverse circumstances in the face of the most overwhelming odds. In fact, the Israelites’ very existence as a people had depended on God working through the most unlikely persons to effect deliverance for His people.
Who would have given Abraham two cents for his promise of being the father of a great nation when he was 99 years old and his wife could no longer have children? We would have bought stock in Ishmael’s company. But Sarah bore the child of laughter according to the promise of God.
What odds would we have given Joseph that his dream of leadership would come to pass as he was sold into slavery in Egypt, and spent years forgotten in prison? But God used Joseph to save Israel’s sons from starvation.
Who would have foreseen that a group of slaves in Egypt could be led from bondage to freedom by a man so ungifted in leadership, speaking ability, diplomacy, and plain common sense, as Moses? And who would have given that scraggly bunch of slaves much of a chance of even making it to the Red Sea, let alone getting across?
Such remembering would not stop when the Israelites settled in the land. Who would have thought that a young widow from an enemy people in a foreign country would be a factor in the royal lineage of Israel’s greatest kings? Yet Ruth the Moabite appears in the line leading to David…to David’s greater Son, Jesus.
And who would have chosen David to be king? Anyone with a little common sense would know that a shepherd kid, the youngest of the family, who daydreams while playing music and singing to a bunch of sheep would not make a good national leader. But God chose him!
Jeremiah should never have been accepted into prophet school. Prophets are supposed to be rugged men like Elijah, who can call down fire from heaven at the drop of a hat. Jeremiah was practically a basket case of emotions. But God used him!
And we could go on through the entire Bible. What emerges here, if we listen carefully to the biblical texts, is an understanding of how God works with humanity. Moses looked back at the traditions and the path that Israel had traveled and he applied those lessons to the vast horizon of possibilities before them at the Jordan River.
What he saw, and what he called Israel to remember as they stood on the threshold of promise, was that Israel owed her existence, not to her power or skill or righteousness (or to Moses himself), but solely to the grace and power of God working in the lives of the least likely people. Moses understands, and he prays the people will also understand, that the difficulties, the trials, the problems, the total unlikeliness of it all, demonstrates that it could only be from God!
In other words, as we eat our meal of thanksgiving today, God says to us as He did through Moses, “You shall remember and never forget.” He calls us to remember that it is not by our power and our strength that we exist as children of God, but by His grace extended to the least among us.
How else could we believe that a Man who was born to a poor, not yet married Jewish peasant girl in a backwoods province of a mighty empire, a Man who was executed by a civil court for sedition against the emperor, that such a Man was the Son of God?! And who can even fathom what God has accomplished by the unlikeliness of a grisly crucifixion?
Remembering such things, St. Paul writes famously to the Philippians: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance…I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Now as we gather for our own Thanksgiving feasts in this year of our Lord 2013, perhaps like Israel of old we are tempted to keep our horizons very narrow, maybe focus only on dessert after dinner; maybe think about eating that dessert first because life is uncertain. After all, this year, with all the recent reminders of how Camelot died 50 years ago in Dallas, Texas, we don’t expect a land of promise as far as the eye can see.
World politics heat up—China, Iran, and other perpetual hotspots. The tedious healthcare debate has rolled over to the Supreme Court for a while. January is coming and after the federal shutdown last fall, who knows what fine mess our leaders will get us into. The animosities, the political, economic, social, racial, religious animosities in our nation simply do not want to resolve themselves!
And yet…what Moses says to ancient Israel is still very true. Remember! Remember how the Lord your God has stepped into the darkness of the past and brought light and new life. Remember how the Lord your God has carried you through the troubles of the past and to see His promises unfold. Remember…that His promises remain for you.
Then, as Moses says, “You shall eat your feast and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for all the good…He has given you.” For all the good that He will yet bring your way…as far as the eye can see!