For many of us, Thanksgiving is going to look different this year. I’ve heard the heartache of many who are mourning the loss of another expectation going unmet in 2020. In many ways, the holiday seems like it will embody all of the frustration, disappointment and isolation that have defined this year for so many. I want to start by saying that it’s okay to be sad. It’s healthy to mourn. There are plenty of Psalms of lament that witness to the fact that God is present to us in those spaces.
The challenge that comes to us as people of faith is: will this experience make us resentful or will it make us kind? The story of this holiday season will be told by families for years to come. The stories we tell shape us. The way we tell this story can lead us into more faithful spaces.
Will our story be self-centered? A gloomy tale of how horrible it was to not get our own way. It doesn’t have to be. This could be a story about how we cultivated compassion and how that transformed our traditions, our families and our communities.
As odd as this Thanksgiving may seem to you personally, the experience of loneliness and frustration during the holidays is nothing new. Many people are not able to experience the holiday in a way that our culture demands. There are students on our college campuses who can’t afford to go home and are left in dorms that are darkened and quiet. They may feel forgotten and left behind. There are many who spend the holiday in the hospital, both patients and staff, who would rather be at home with family. There are people living in their cars or hotel rooms who wouldn’t be able to cook a turkey even if they had one. Prisoners, both young and old, are perpetually frustrated by holidays that are spent alone. Those who grieve are very aware of who is missing at their table. We are not the first people to not get to spend Thanksgiving the way we would like. Will we tell our stories in a way that remembers these others?
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) we find that God is found with the sick, the imprisoned, the stranger and the poor. We find that, “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” In a normal Thanksgiving, it’s easy to get focused on our own to do lists. As our experience is disrupted this year, will we let ourselves be open to the experience of grief in a way that helps us identify with the very people that Christ identifies with? How might that shape our future celebrations?
In Luke 14:13, Jesus tells us that when giving a banquet we should invite the poor. Next year, when many of us (hopefully) will return to our “normal” traditions, will we set an extra plate at the table for the exchange student? Will we invite the neighbor whose house burned down last month? Will we visit those in the hospital or in prison? When our children or grandchildren ask us why this new person is at the table, I hope they hear the story of 2020. Tell them the story of how we weren’t able to gather. Tell them of how we were lonely and disappointed and yet found that God was faithful to be present even in our isolation. Let’s tell them that now we remember God’s faithfulness every year by setting a place for a new friend so that they do not have to feel alone or forgotten. Let’s tell them a story of finding God present at our table.
Wherever we find ourselves this week, may we have eyes to see God with us. May we care for those around us. May our stories be crafted by the Spirit to shape us into a more faithful people. Amen.