Thanksgiving in the Wilderness (Exodus 20:1-4)


A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday/ The Sunday Prior to Thanksgiving

Let me tell you the story of the first Thanksgiving.  Whatever you’ve been told about the Pilgrims, Squanto, and Plymouth rock is out of date and wrong.  The first Thanksgiving isn’t what you think it is.  Instead, it is a much older story, often overlooked, especially as you’re passing the turkey and dressing.

Here’s how it goes.  A long time ago, in a country far, far away, there were a group of people living under the oppressive rule of a mighty king.  They were slaves.  Existing in bondage to a ruler they never saw and building monuments to Gods that weren’t theirs; they lived and died over many generations.  The king and his children were brutal; showing no kindness or love to these slaves.  In famine, they starved.  In flood, they drowned.  In heat, they withered.  Their God, whose name they only dared to whisper, was silent to their pain.  Or so they believed.

Many years passed and a new king adopted a young son. The baby, found abandoned by the river, was brought to the palace by the king’s daughter.   The king did not know the boy was intentionally hidden by his birth mother.  Why was the boy left, floating by the water’s edge?  The king was as wicked as his father.  On becoming king, he decided to murder every first-born male slave child.  There were simply too many slaves to feed.  The baby’s mother wanted to save his life.  She placed him in a spot where he might be found.

The once hidden child was taken by the king’s daughter to the royal palace.  From that day forward, no one knew this baby was born a slave.  The mother came secretly to work at the palace and watch over her son.  The king’s daughter made sure this boy would be raised to royal manhood.  He would be a prince, perhaps even a king.  The boy’s life was one of privilege and prestige.  He learned the gods and language of his land.  In a few years, he was a great warrior and leader of the King’s soldiers.  Life was good for the boy found by the river.

One day, when he was among the slaves and doing the king’s business, he saw a  royal soldier savagely beat a slave.  The boy, now a young man, wasn’t used to feeling fear but for some reason, this frightened him.  He was scared because of how it made him feel inside.  He was angry, hurt, and wanted to do something to stop this cruelty.  What he was witnessing was wrong and he knew it, deep down inside.

In a fit of rage, he attacked the soldier and saved the slave’s life.  Though the slave lived, the soldier did not.  The boy killed the soldier.  Though he was a prince, royalty, and secure his life was about to change forever.  Safety was only a temporary feeling.  His position could be taken away.  In the eyes of the world, he lost everything.

He knew he was different, he just didn’t know how.  And it was only after he killed the soldier and everything slipped away that he began to understand.  He too was a slave.  The people living in the mud and building bricks all day long were his people.

Like the pilgrims, the young man found in the river decided to leave his homeland.  He needed to go somewhere and become anonymous.  America was that kind of place for the pilgrims.   The new land was called Midian.  Here, he could work hard and build a new life.  And so he did, until his God called him.

His God came in the strangest of ways.  He spoke and yet remained silent.  This God was present and somehow absent.  Despite these contradiction, the young man knew this was his God.

When he was alone, in a far and distant place from all he knew, God came to him.   This seemed right.  Companionship was never easy to the young man found by the river.  God came in the dark and spoke through fire.  The fire burned but did not consume.  It warmed but did not burn.  God was in the fire.

God’s words to the young man were beyond belief.  Go to the King who makes your people be slaves and demand their freedom.

How? A message to be ignored, delivered by a man the King will surely kill?

Go to the king who makes your people be slaves and demand your freedom.  We will speak together.

A promise was made.  This God makes promises to people.  In the traditions he learned as a child, the gods were silent.  People made offerings and promises to the gods, not the other way around.  God promised him companionship and presence.  No bull was sacrificed, no blood was shed, and nothing died.  God promised,  The young man believed God’s “yes”.

So he went, ready to say that God’s silence was broken.  God was not deaf.  God shared in their misery.  When they bled, he bled.  When they cried, he cried.  God is with us, the young man would later say, he is our Immanuel.

Evil does not release its grasp on reality lightly.  It was hard for the king to let go and admit defeat.  He needed to slaves to make him rich and build his monuments.  A king isn’t used to being told no.  Nor was he accustomed to saying yes.  This is what the young man was beginning to learn, each time we say no, God finds a way to say yes.  God’s yes is more powerful than our strongest no and ambivalent maybes.

When the slaves were eventually liberated, the young man was once again heading to a new home.  None of them knew the place, the land, or the life ahead of them. Above all, they were going to a place defined not by slavery but by freedom.

How would they handle such unimaginable freedom?  After hundreds of years of bondage, beatings, and slavery where would they begin?  What should they remember about the past or discard forever?

As the former slaves were asking these questions, the young man realized he needed to help provide answers.  This was how the first Thanksgiving dinner came together.

The light always came after the twilight before sunset.  The young man went to the mountain to be with the light.  Words are sometimes hard to understand when people talk to each other.  Nuance, tone, and inflection mean everything when you’re alone with the light.  The young man listened, hard, to God’s silence.

When the day was over, he returned to the former slaves.  He wanted them to gather, so they might answer their questions.  Freedom would begin with taking stock.  Before they traveled further, they must give thanks for where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going.  Gathering and acknowledging who made their reality real was the first step toward God’s grand promise.  Remember, God was still making promises.

How did they acknowledge who made their reality real?  The young man, now aging rapidly, shared with a conversation-an ongoing dialogue between he and God about what matters most.

The first thing (and this is what called the first thanksgiving together) God and I talked about, said the man, was remember and giving thanks to God.  If we don’t do this, it’s all been for nothing.

Our relationship, God says, should be the most important thing in your life.

In that day and age, in the old kingdom, people worshipped something called idols.  Everyone knew about idols.  Idols were religious statues and trinkets which people used in place of worshipping a God.  Some idols might represent certain God; others may have been more random.  Idols were a big thing.  People loved their idols.  Here’s the thing:  the people who were devoted to idols believed in them.  They thought they worked.

The God of the former slaves knew that idols didn’t work.  If people were putting their hope in idols, they wouldn’t be grateful to God and appreciate how far they’ve come or where they’re going.  It’s much less about this God saying don’t worship a religious thing than God saying, don’t let things short circuit your ability to be thankful for the here and now.

Idols rob us of our ability to love God.  It’s tough for us to love anything outside ourselves.  Humans are narcissistic creatures by design.  We love things on top of everything else.  We put value, almost divine like value on the craziest things.  We prioritize some awfully weird junk, both physically and emotionally speaking.  Yes, we all have idol baggage.  But it’s very easy to allow and begin to justify innocuous seeming good things as they become idols.  They take the place of God, they get in the way of us appreciating what God has done for us, where we’ve been and we’re going.  That’s an idol.

Idols also cause us to set unreasonable standards for gratitude and happiness.  The shoes have to become fancier.  The phone display clearer.  The car is faster.  We won’t be happy and grateful unless it is.  We want more and more from our ideals before we’ll be pleased, click, yes, download the newer version, or write a good review.  Idols have more features, updates, and are “the best”.  Idols demand our time and attention.

At the first Thanksgiving, there in the wilderness, what does the man found by the river say God wants us to do?  Moses says remember.  Remembering is the key to moving past idolatry and being thankful.  Remember who and whose you are.  It’s no accident those are Moses’ successors last words to the Israelites.  Thanksgiving starts with remembering, like Moses, where you came from and listening to God (even in the places you think God would never be) about where you’re going.