Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thankful Beyond the Feast

November 23, 2016 – Thanksgiving Eve, Year C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Do you remember Hook, the 1991 movie starring Robin Williams as Peter Panning, a middle-aged, high-power executive who had forgotten that he was the original Peter Pan, the mischievous boy who flew around, fought pirates, and never grew up? It’s a clever take on the familiar children’s tale. In the movie, Captain Hook, who is played by Dustin Hoffman, is looking for some sport with his old nemesis, so he kidnaps Peter’s kids and takes them off to Neverland. Eventually, Tinkerbell, played by Julia Roberts, comes and drags Peter back to his old stomping ground to once again do battle with the pirate and rescue those children. The only problem is that Peter had forgotten everything.

He couldn’t fly. He couldn’t fight. He was useless. As it is with most of us, reality had crept in and pushed out the playfulness of childhood. In the thirty-plus years that he had lived in the real world, Peter had gotten married and had kids of his own. He had landed a stressful job, which consumed his life. His fanciful past had been fueled by imagination, but the realism of everyday life had choked that memory from him. Now, back in Neverland, Peter was unrecognizable. The Lost Boys, who hadn’t seen him in decades, looked at the overweight, gray-haired, stuffed shirt standing before them and dismissed him out of hand. They mocked him and the thought that this quivering mass of aging flesh was in any way connected with the great Peter Pan.

But then, sitting around a banquet table, everything changed. With ravenous eyes, the Lost Boys sat down and passed one oversized covered dish down the table after another. After a brief word of grace, they lift the lids to reveal steaming dishes filled with…nothing. But the boys don’t seem to mind. They reach across the table to grab handfuls of thin air and dunk their bowls into vats of nothing. One eats what is clearly supposed to be corn on the cob even though his hands are empty. Peter, of course, is flummoxed by the whole episode. The Lost Boys call it “Neverfood,” but, in his eyes, it’s only an exercise in imagination. “Even Ghandi ate more than this,” he mutters under his breath. And then a skirmish erupts.

Rufio, the leader of the Lost Boys in Pan’s absence, picks a fight with the “old man.” They begin to trade insults. At first, Peter’s are rough around the edges—the kind of out-of-place name-calling that a grandparent might use. But, as the exchange heats up, Peter throws out some impressive slurs that score points with the other kids. Rufio is caught off guard, and then Peter finishes him off. In a moment of gloating, Peter realistically dips a spoon into an empty bowl in front of him and looks at Rufio and says, “Why don’t you go suck on a dead dog’s nose?” and flings the vacant spoon at his rival. And, out of nowhere, a big pile of pink and blue frosting flies across the table and lands right on Rufio’s face. And then, all of the sudden, Peter can see the feast in front of him. His imagination begins to take hold. That which could not be seen comes to light. And the rest of the movie is about Peter reclaiming the identity which he had lost—one that was always there but that had been hidden beneath the surface.

Tomorrow, when we sit down at our respective Thanksgiving tables, I doubt that there will be any imaginary dishes. We won’t pass empty bowls and plates around the table, scooping out piles of make-believe potatoes and heaps of pretend dressing. Instead, the feast will be right in front of us—easy to behold, easy to smell, easy to taste. But that’s also the problem with our Thanksgiving feast. As our gospel lesson reminds us, our tendency is to focus on the food that fills the belly instead of the food that fills the soul. The feast that we celebrate is supposed to push us beyond the spread in front of us and point us to an appreciation for even greater blessings, but the fuller our bellies get the harder it is for us to see and recognize the real blessing that that food is supposed to convey.

In today’s gospel lesson, the crowd goes searching for Jesus. Earlier in John 6, he had miraculously fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, but, then, when they started to come and make him their king, he snuck away. At nightfall, he sent his disciples across the Sea of Galilee in a boat, choosing to walk out across the water to them. When the sun rose and the crowd realized that Jesus and his disciples had gone across the water, they, too, got in boats to track him down. When they found him, Jesus said, “You’re only following me because I filled up your stomachs. Don’t search for the food that perishes. Instead, look for the food that endures for eternal life.” That is Jesus’ command: look for it; search for it; yearn not merely for enough food to last for today but for the nourishment that lasts forever. But how is the crowd supposed to see beyond the miracle of the loaves and fishes? And what will it take for us to recognize what Jesus is really offering?
Tomorrow, when you sit down at your table, stop long enough to think about where that bounty came from. And I don’t just mean the people who cooked it. Who tilled the soil? Who planted the carrots and the wheat and the corn? Who fed the turkey? Who harvested it all? Who worked to find and extract and refine and deliver the oil so that the farm equipment could do all that work and the trucks and trains could deliver it all? Who drove the truck that brought that produce to the processing plant? Who sorted it and cleaned it and packaged it? Who drove it to your supermarket? Who put on the shelf? Who checked you out? And what about all the secondary people who contributed by developing the supply chain and running the marketing campaign and cleaning the floors and processing the payroll and on and on? Can you see beyond the meal in front of you and recognize all the work that went in to make it happen?

Well, Jesus is asking us to see even beyond that. Where did the seeds come from? How did they know how to grow? Who made the water and the sunlight and the minerals that nourished those plants? Who gave you the abilities to get a job and do the work you did to earn the money to pay for those things? Who made it possible for you to sit at a table under a roof surrounded by sturdy, insulating walls complete with family and friends and the freedom of knowing that no one will come and break down your door and haul you off for questioning because you don’t have the right papers, because you don’t speak the right language, or because don’t worship the right god? Where do those blessings come from? Aren’t we called to give thanks for more than a meal that’s too big for us to finish? Hasn’t God blessed us far beyond anything we place on the table in front of us?
God has given us all things—each day, each minute, each breath, each heartbeat. All of it is gift. God is the one whose love and blessing sustains us throughout this life and even into the next. Jesus is God’s pledge and promise that that love never ceases—that not even the end of this life separates us from the one who made us. That is what Thanksgiving means. That’s what the turkey and dressing and potatoes and Brussels sprouts and pecan pie are really about. They are just a sign—a symbol of a bounty far greater than any earthly feast. Our ancestors made it through a harsh winter. Our spiritual ancestors made it through a wilderness journey. We, too, will make it through whatever struggle lies ahead—not because of our own accomplishments but always because of God’s love. That love cannot be defeated. That love is why we give thanks.

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