Learning to Give Thanks
As we prepare for Thanksgiving in the age of Covid, there is a line from Matthew’s Gospel that has been much in my mind. It occurs in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is taking pains to point out how much we live our life for what has past or for what doesn’t yet exist, neither of which we have any real control over. We are so busy, he tells us, futilely running around trying to make sure that tomorrow is safe and secure that we take no time to be thankful for the ways in which God is taking care for us today. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,” Jesus says. This is the logic of feasting. No one terrified about tomorrow has the audacity to feast.
For many years my wife and I were foster parents. One of the heartbreaking realities of fostering is that some children will hoard food. They’ll sneak off portions of their meals or snatch items out of the refrigerator or the pantry when no one is looking and hide them away in their room. It’s a defense mechanism, the product of a loss of trust that tomorrow is provided for. Now it’s true that you and I may not be slipping buttered rolls from the table into our pockets or purses out of fear that tomorrow’s meal will never materialize, we just as often hide away parts of ourselves from those around us for fear that love and acceptance will not be on tomorrow’s menu.
One of my favorite movies is called Babette’s Feast. It’s the story of a small Christian community in a little fishing village in Denmark. The pastor is a stern but caring figure leading a lively flock. His two daughters revere him and his work so much that they pass over other opportunities for happiness in life. When their father dies, these two sisters continue to care for the aging members of the group. Day after day, the two women go from house to house with tasteless dried fish and bread porridge. As the flavor has gone from their food so joy seems to have disappeared from their lives.
Then, one day, a young woman named Babette arrives from France to stay with the two sisters. Her past is mysterious and carries the whiff of some scandal. She offers to work for free as their housekeeper and quickly begins taking over the responsibility of feeding the faithful. And thus things continue for fourteen years.
Suddenly, news arrives: Babette has won the lottery! The sisters and their community are concerned that she will leave them. Babette tells the sisters that she wants to cook a real Parisian meal for the whole community and soon a flood of exotic ingredients begin to arrive in the village. The community members, committed to their abstemious way of life, decide that for Babette’s sake they’ll eat the dinner but they resolve not to taste it or enjoy it in any way. The feast is marvelous, though, and they are quickly enraptured. I like the way one reviewer describes it: “Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.”
The sisters, of course, assume that Babette will now leave them, but they are shocked to learn that she has no more money. She was once the head chef at the Café Anglais in Paris, she tells them, and has spent every bit of her newfound wealth lavishing on her friends the same kind of feast she once prepared for the rich and powerful. It’s a beautiful story and the parallels to the Gospel are rich. At God’s Thanksgiving table Jesus has, like Babette, given entirely of himself to lavish a feast of love on us.
Maybe this Thanksgiving you’ll be like Babette, running around making dinner for everyone. Or maybe you’ll be trying very hard to stay out of the way. Maybe you’ll be dodging your crazy conservative Uncle Harry or your wildly liberal Aunt Sally, neither of whom know how to change their minds or change the subject. Maybe Grandma will be there asking you when you’re going to get married, and if you’ve finally gotten married when are you going to start a family?
Maybe you’re one who has to work tomorrow and your Thanksgiving meal is a microwave dinner in the break room. Maybe you’re one who will be alone at the table, or one who wishes that they were because you’ve lost someone you love and these holidays don’t feel right. Perhaps the specter of Covid is keeping you apart from family and friends.
Whether it is food or drink you need, God knows. Whether it is compassion and patience you long for, God knows. If it is acceptance and forgiveness, comfort in grief and companionship in loneliness, God knows. Tomorrow is provided for. We will never be starved for God’s love.
I wonder what our lives would look like if we took with us an abiding confidence that we are loved and cared for and don’t need to guarantee our own tomorrows. What would we take with us today to all of those tables around which we will gather? Would we take joy? Would we take peace? Would we take love? For these are the hallmarks of the kingdom of God.