I know when Thanksgiving as we knew it ended. It was in 1993 when the last turkey day football game between the University of Texas and Texas A&M was played. Since 1901 the game between these two rivals was typically played on Thanksgiving Day. And now that A&M has joined the Southeastern Conference the 118 year rivalry has come to an end. However, there is a bill currently languishing in Texas’ General Assembly to require that the two teams meet each other annually, not that it would occur on Thanksgiving Day.
Now some are saying that Macy’s Department Store, famous for the nationally televised Thanksgiving Day Parade has decided to open its doors to shoppers at eight p.m. on Thanksgiving Day “It is the death of Thanksgiving.” Of course Walmart, Target, and Toys “R” Us launched special deals on Thanksgiving last year – But Macy’s!
The truth of the matter is that if no one wanted to shop on Thanksgiving, then no stores would be open. The true killers of Thanksgiving are those who leave the table to head to the mall. What is that telling us about thanksgiving, not just the day we call Thanksgiving but the very act of giving thanks itself in our society and in the church. Is gratitude is being replaced by good deals? Are shopping sprees winning out over family meals? As we take gifts of life and health for granted we concentrate on shiny and expensive material gifts. Having the power to buy in our pocket books has become a common place compensation for a sense of powerless in so much of the rest of our lives. We could call it “retail therapy.” So how is Thanksgiving faring ?
When Paul penned his letter to the Colossians, a group of Christians living along a main roadway in Asia Minor — what is now modern Turkey this question was evidently on his mind. The people of the meeting in Colossi were pulled between the values of their faith and the values of their culture. We kind of resemble that remark. Paul warned them, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
These words ring true today. We know the philosophy of trying to spend ourselves out of economic troubles. The empty deceit of a sales pitch. The human tradition of making the holidays an orgy of consumption. The elemental spirits of the universe that lure us away from Jesus Christ. Paul asked the Colossians, and us, “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (2:20). It’s a good question, one that we should ask ourselves on Thanksgiving Day, and every day.
But Paul isn’t trying to make us feel bad about ourselves. No, if anything, Paul is the apostle of gratitude, with the phrase “be thankful” as one of his recurring pleas (3:15). New Testament scholar David Pao points out that the New Testament has 62 mentions of thanksgiving, and Paul is responsible for more than three-quarters of them.
In Colossians Paul begins with an outpouring of thanks, He starts: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (1:3-4). After affirming the good work being done by the Colossians, he writes, “May you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (1:11-12).
As the human tradition of holiday shopping tries to crowd out Thanksgiving, we are able to “endure everything with patience” because our joy comes from the gifts of God instead of from conspicuous consumption. Notice how the letter to the Colossians does not assume that we show gratitude only when everything is perfect. Instead, Paul knows that there will be much hardship to endure at the same time that we are giving thanks.
Holding thanksgiving and hardship together is a spiritual challenge. We struggle to give thanks after the death of a spouse. We try to be grateful when a child is sick. We do our best to count our blessings when we lose a job, fail a class, suffer an injury, or experience a crushing disappointment.
Fortunately, many people find a way to do this. In on-the-street interviews when asked about being thankful, few people bring up about material gifts. Instead, they mention the gifts of God that sustain them through the struggles of life: Children, friends, partners, good health, kindness, generosity, knowledge … plus the gift of life itself. George Niederauer, the Archbishop of San Francisco, adds to this list: “God’s gifts of artistry, imagination and creativity; his gifts of dedication, fidelity and perseverance; his gifts of strength, acumen and skill.”
Those gifts you cannot buy at Macy’s, Target, Walmart or Toy R Us or Costco whether they are open on Thanksgiving or not.
Paul concludes today’s passage by inviting the Colossians to give thanks to God for what God has done for us. First, we can be grateful for his forgiveness and acceptance as presented to us the in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. To Paul’s mind God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). No matter how many times we stumble, Christ is present to pick us up.
For Paul Jesus is at the center of creation, holding everything together. “He is the image of the invisible God,” says Paul, “the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:15-17).
Jesus Christ is the one who is at the center of everything that is precious to us: Children, friends, partners, health, kindness, generosity, knowledge, artistry, imagination and creativity. In Christ, all things hold together.
Finally, we can be grateful for the presence of Christ in the community of faith. “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.
Whenever two or three are gathered, in church or around the Thanksgiving table, Christ is present. The love of Christ shows us the fullness of a God who loves us so much that he sent him into the very middle of human life, to do the work of making peace.
Is Thanksgiving dead? Not as long as Christ Jesus is alive among us, at the center of creation and the community of faith. But it is our job to respond by giving thanks for the gifts of forgiveness, for the gifts of the world, and for the gifts of the church.
Let’s do this on Thanksgiving, regardless of when or whether the stores open their doors.