Since this is Thanksgiving Week, I am spending some time each day writing about thanksgiving—not just the holiday but the practice, the mindset, and, as one person put it yesterday, the “state of being” that is gratitude. What does it mean to be grateful? What does it mean to be thankful? I am forcing myself to ask those questions because, as the fourth Thursday in November approaches, confusing the spiritual practice with the holiday has become a little too easy.
The gospel lesson appointed for this year’s Thanksgiving Day is John 6:25-35—the passage that concludes with Jesus declaring, “I am the bread of life.” Those words seem to pop up fairly regularly throughout the church’s three-year lectionary cycle, but I suspect that they sound a little different on the one day out of the year when Americans eat more food than on any other. On Thursday, as we pass the rolls and dressing and potatoes and corn pudding and all the other starchy foods that none of us really needs, what does it mean, as Jesus says in John 6, to work not for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life? How do we distinguish between our daily bread and the bread of life?
As we read through John’s gospel account, we discover that one important theme is the difference between those who were fascinated with Jesus’ miracles and those who recognized them as “signs” of something bigger. Some in the crowds were drawn to Jesus only because of his impressive powers, while others were drawn to what those powers represent. John 6 opens with one of the most compelling miracles in the gospel—the feeding of the 5,000—but the reading for Thanksgiving Day reveals what happened next. Perhaps overwhelmed by the demands of ministry, Jesus escaped by boat to the other side of the sea, but the crowd pursued him. When they found him and engaged the miracle-worker in conversation, Jesus revealed their true intention: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
Over and over during his earthly ministry, Jesus tried to connect people with his heavenly father. The “signs” that he performed were supposed to point the crowds to the fact that God had sent him into the world for its salvation. The few who made that connection were those who sought not a full stomach but a satisfied soul. They were the disciples, the faithful women, and the other followers who discovered what it meant to partake of the bread of life. Many others enjoyed the miraculously multiplied loaves and experienced the countless other feats of wonder that Jesus performed, but, at the end of the day, they went home impressed but not transformed. With them, something important was missing.
This year, as you prepare to sit down at your Thanksgiving table, ask yourself for what you are really thankful. When you hold hands and say the blessing, what will you include in your list of thanksgivings? As the aroma of our favorite foods wafts over from the buffet, we are almost certain to remember to be thankful for the bounty we wait to devour. As we look around the table and see members of our family gathered from far and wide, surely we will remember to thank God for those we love. But we will remember to thank God for sustaining us every day? And will we remember to thank God for including us in his own family? In other words, does the holiday of Thanksgiving actually obscure our appreciation for the blessings God bestows upon us on the other 364 days a year?
Let this Thanksgiving be an opportunity to look beyond the holiday table. Do not let the turkey and trimmings be the reason you forget to thank God for everything else he has given you. Remember what it means to hunger for the food that endures to eternal life. Yes, Thanksgiving leftovers will probably last a week or more, but Jesus calls us to look far beyond that. We are loved by a God who has created us, who sustains us, and who promises to care for us always. This year, celebrate more than a day of thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day give thanks for a lifetime of God’s blessings.