Thanksgiving & Hospitality
I was in Chicago this past weekend for an early bachelor party for a friend who is getting married in July. After nearly dying of wind chill (which I didn’t think possible until I was in the Windy City itself) at Wrigley Field, us twelve rowdies descended on Giordano’s to have three World Famous Stuffed Pizzas. After our food came (three inches deep and fifteen across of cheese, choice meats, and tomatoes), everyone removed his Cubs hat and bowed for grace.
I usually feel awkward when people give thanks in public places; I feel like I’m wearing a cheesy Christian t-shirt. I gave up my knee-jerk prayer habit a few years ago when I thought that saying grace was more about manners than thanksgiving. In the South, this is one habit you just don’t quit, and this dinner table institution reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s statement that the South is not so much Christian as “Christ-haunted.” The forms remain, but the substance is gone. Extra helpings of approval for those who keep their prayers short, especially after those 11 o’clock services let out.
I know. The disciples gave thanks all the time. And there’s that verse about doing absolutely everything for the glory of God, including eating. Give me some credit though; I’m much more stubborn than that. But now I’m rethinking my spiritual crisis at the table because of the table the Lord has set for us.
All Saints emphasizes that our Sunday liturgy is actually a microcosmic story of life. We are called to worship, but we realize that we are unfit to enter God’s presence. We confess our sin, are assured of our pardon, and hear the Gospel through the homily and taste it in the Eucharist.
In reflecting particularly on the Eucharist, we see that the way we approach this table should be the way we approach every table. If Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we might say that the Eucharist is really the Table of Tables. Every time we meet for lunch at a restaurant, or in each others’ homes for dinner, we are affirming the bonds that the gospel creates among us. Of all the places to start a practice that would last some 2000 years, Jesus chose a dining room and a table. As we gather to eat, we need to remember that we are imitating the prelude to Christ’s sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that restores us to God and each other. That is why we give thanks, and that’s why we do it at our tables (This is idea behind All Saints at the Table. If you haven’t signed up, keep your ears open for the next round of dinners which are coming up this May 4. Hopefully by the next round we’ll have enough material for a cook book, or at least enough for “best cook” gossip.)
But there is something else going on with this table that enhances our understanding of what thankfulness really is. If you think about where these tables are being set throughout Scripture, thanksgiving seems nothing short of absurd. Jesus is offering thanks to God in the middle of an upper room in Jerusalem, and Roman and Jewish leaders are looking to arrest and crucify him. The apostles and disciples meeting in each others’ home seems simple enough, until you remember that now they are the leaders of a religious insurrection with bounties on their heads. And let’s not forget Paul on his journeys, who apparently thought it was a good idea to break bread and give thanks during 14 days of unrelenting Mediterranean storms. Right. If a plane I’m on ever tailspins, I don’t think I will be asking the flight attendant for some extra peanuts and those little single serving Jack Daniels bottles to bless. These people are setting tables in the most unexpected places.
Ironically, or maybe not at all, this is one of Israel’s chief complaints against the Lord as recorded in Psalm 78:19, “They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’” We know the stories of manna and quail in the desert, and water coming from rocks, and they seem like well-worn stories of God’s provision until you realize that God is in the business of setting tables in the wilderness. That’s where he sets them more than anywhere else.
Thanksgiving is not just being joyful because the gospel is true. Thankfulness is our complete response to the gospel of grace, and our love of this good news should inspire us to imitate Jesus. We can see this part of thanksgiving in Scripture, too. At Pentecost the disciples are powerfully changed, and they begin to seek out the wildernesses where they can set tables for the poor, the diseased, and the dying. Christianity, for the apostles, was an aggressive hospitality in which no one needed invitations; people only needed to realized they already had them.
It doesn’t take too much time to see that this radical idea of hospitality seriously challenges us as Christians in our society. Where consumption becomes a need, instead of an occasional luxury, and when we spend so much of our time getting the resources to continue consuming, this aggressive hospitality undermines some of our basic assumptions about how we spend our time and money. Once we understand that there is an element of invasion, of incarnation even, in the way we are thankfully hospitable, we should begin to be like the apostles who looked for wildernesses ripe for table-setting. As individual Christians and as All Saints, we need to continually keep our eyes and ears open for these deserts in hopes of continually preaching to gospel and building the kingdom. Hospitality is not something that we do because some verse in Scripture tells us that we really need to work on it, but we are hospitable because it is the right response to the gospel. It comes from realizing that an amazing hospitality has been shown to us in a radical way, and we should seek to be welcoming to those who seem far removed from our personal standards and ways of life.
Because after all, what is hospitality but saying without words that we believe, and are thankful for the gospel?