Tonight I’m wearing my great-grandfather’s cufflinks. I think I inherited them by default. My aunt said I was the only one of the male cousins who would ever wear a shirt that would use cufflinks. His name was Parelius, and came from Norway by way of Philadelphia, and lived in South Dakota before settling and farming the prairies of western Minnesota. He died in the 1940s, when my mom was just a small girl. I don’t know much about him, but I have his cufflinks. A wandering Norwegian was my ancestor.
That’s on my mom’s side. On my dad’s side, we’ve traced the genealogy back to Colonel Morgan Morgan (creative name, right?) He came from Wales and is thought to be the first white settler in what is now West Virginia. A wandering Welshman was my ancestor. When curious about family history in high school, I looked him up in the big ol’ encyclopedia in the basement, and it said that is cabin had special slots in the walls, convenient for shooting at Indians.
We all have stories—our personal stories, family stories, national stories, church stories. Some parts of our story we want to remember and cling to, like my cufflinks. Others we might be embarrassed or ashamed of, and would rather forget, like my ancestor’s marksmanship skills. For better or worse, they are a part of who we are.
The ancient Israelites remembered. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”
They remember Abraham packing up and heading to a new land.
They remembered their ancestors being led out of slavery in Egypt traveling in the wilderness, going into unknown territory, trusting God.
They respond to God’s goodness with offering—first fruits.
They gave as offering not next-day leftovers, but the best of what they had.
They recognized that their possessions did not belong to them, but to God.
Today we also remember another group of people traveling in the wilderness, going into unknown territory, trusting God. Our American Thanksgiving Day is framed through the perspective of a certain 17th-century religious sect. The Pilgrims were Separatists who disagreed with the Church of England and traveled across the ocean to a place they called Plymouth. 1621, they celebrated what came to be known as Thanksgiving, to which they invited the Wampanoags, a Native American tribe, who had helped them settle and plant new crops in the new land.
When doing a small group Bible study this year on the book of Judges, I have started to realize that the nation-forming narrative of the people of Israel entering into the land of Canaan seems very similar to the nation-forming narrative of European settlement into the United States.
Both groups fervently believed that God had led them into a new land.
Both created rites, rituals, ceremonies, and traditions to commemorate their entry.
Both discovered that there were already people there: distinct and unique groups with their own vibrant cultures.
Israelites met Canaanites, Amorites, Philistines.
Europeans met Wampanoags, Iroquois, and Mohawk.
This week, I came across an article by Rev. Robert Two Bulls, an Episcopal priest in California who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He writes: “Every year when Thanksgiving Day approaches, I feel without fail a growing consternation inside me. I attribute this feeling to the inevitable emergence of the whitewashed historical record of this day and to the sudden attention that America directs toward the Native American Indians. It is an awareness that wakes up every year after Halloween and then will go back to sleep when the last scrap of turkey is devoured.”
Like with most narratives, there are parts of the Thanksgiving story that I wish weren’t there:
The Wampanoag town had been wiped out by smallpox.
Squanto, the man who helped the Pilgrims, only knew English because he had been previously captured and sold into slavery in England.
On the other hand, there are parts of the Thanksgiving story I really like and want to lift up:
The Pilgrims trusted in God throughout a time of difficulty and hardship.
They gathered together in fellowship around food and community.
If we really believe that God is Lord of the Universe, Sovereign, and Eternal, like we just proclaimed on Christ the King Sunday, then we realize that God is with us, in the midst of our human suffering, as well as our human joys.
Just as God hears the shouts of Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims, so too does God hear the cries of lament from the Wampanoags.
Just as God hears the thankful prayers of the Israelites, so too does God hears the sorrowful songs of the Canaanites.
I believe that often our times of feeling the most thankful are those times where we’ve experienced the deepest tragedy.
Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. His town had many refugees entering the gates. The Swedish army surrounded the city, and famine and plague were rampant. Eight hundred homes were destroyed, and the people began to perish. Eventually Rinkart was the only pastor left—doing 50 funerals a day. Rinkart left the safety of the walls to plead with the Swedes for mercy. The Swedish commander, impressed by his faith and courage, lowered his demands. Soon afterward, the Thirty Years’ War ended, and Rinkart wrote the hymn we’ll sing later tonight. One funeral is hard enough. I can’t imagine fifty.
After seeing all the terror of war, he was still able to pray:
Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices.
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices.
I acknowledge that on holidays like Thanksgiving, it can be difficult to have ever-joyous hearts when there are people who aren’t at the table. The Thanksgiving after my dad died, my mom decided not to cook a turkey. My sister was back overseas, so it was just Mom and me. Instead we went with “Dorothy,” a woman from my mom’s circle from church. Her husband had died decades before, and her kids were far away. Mom didn’t want her to be alone. The three of us went to Buffet King and had Chinese food.
Thanksgiving really isn’t about the food. My memories of turkey and stuffing also include memories of kung-pao shrimp and Mongolian beef. It’s not about having the perfect sweet potato pie or cranberry soufflé, but about togetherness, memory, and the presence of God.
Tonight our Thanksgiving meal is not mashed potatoes or crab Rangoons, but bread and wine.
We celebrate Thanksgiving not because we want to glorify and romanticize the Pilgrims, but because this national holiday gives us an opportunity to do once more what we as Christians do week after week—give thanks to God. We eat. We pray. We remember.
I realize that our American Thanksgiving Day is not traditionally a Church holiday, though giving thanks is certainly part of what we do as Christians.
Christians have many names for this meal of Christ’s Body and Blood (Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Divine Office, Mass, and Eucharist)
The word Eucharist literally means Thanksgiving. When we receive Christ’s body and blood, we take and eat with a spirit of thanksgiving for all that God has done for us.
Every time we take Communion, it is a Thanksgiving Dinner. Thank you, God.
Every time we take Communion, it is a act of memory.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
I have a story. You have a story. Each of us has a story. Some parts we want to cling to, others we long to forget. But tonight we remember. We remember that our story is not just our story. God is a part of it.