Thanksgiving: Check your privilege

It’s probably no surprise that, on this long weekend when many of us will be joining friends and family to celebrate Thanksgiving, we find that our lessons this morning share the theme of thankfulness.

After all, thankfulness – gratitude – is important if we’re going to share our lives with those around us.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that for most of us, one of our first lessons in using our manners was to say “please” and “thank you” when we asked and received what we needed.  Even this week, I had a great conversation with someone about the simple act of sending a thank-you note, and how, in this age where communication is quicker and easier than ever before, we rarely take the time anymore to thank someone for what they’ve done for us, other than a quick “thanks” on the way out the door.

There’s no question: gratitude is important.

Yet, as many Canadians sit around the thanksgiving table for a feast this weekend, I wonder if our gratitude has become somewhat shallow.

Thankful for What?

If we were to hold up a mirror and really unpack what we think and say on this weekend meant to give thanks for food, shelter, clothing, freedom, and family, I wonder how often that gratitude goes beyond “me”.  After all, it takes hard work to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and toys in our kids’ hands, and those freedoms that have been won by those who have gone before us are now our absolute rights to which we are entitled.

It’s a tough question, but one worth asking: if we scratch below the “good manners” that we’ve been taught, how much of our thankfulness stops at “I’m thankful for me”, or “I’m thankful for what I’ve done”.

Privilege

We live at a time when we are constantly being reminded in the media and in public discourse to “check our privilege”.  Maybe you’ve heard the phrase.  In younger circles, it’s becoming a phrase to live by when engaging in the discussion of politics or religion or beliefs about society.  The idea is simple, but for those who have adopted the phrase, it’s meant to cut deep: before you say something, or before you enter a discussion with someone with a different viewpoint, before you argue for what is “rightfully yours”, you “check your privilege” – you step back and consider if what you believe, if what you bring to the conversation, is universal, or if it only appears to be universally true based on your own experience; you step back and ask if your position and your actions would be true if the “privileges” you enjoy were removed – privileges that reflect the uneven playing field on which we are born: a world bent and tilted towards pride and selfishness, with race, money, status, level of family support, and opportunities either as privileges that give us a leg up, or as pitfalls which hold us back.

This idea of “privilege” is popular in public speech today, but it’s really an ancient idea found in philosophy: if God is eternal and unchanging as we believe him to be, if the One True God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then for anything to be really and truly Good, True, or Beautiful in God’s eyes must be equally Good, True, or Beautiful in every time and place, and for every culture or situation.

Of course, every culture and society needs rules and customs and systems to operate, but for something to be ultimately Good, and Good in God’s eternal eyes, then it has to be as true for the wandering nomad in the desert as it is for us; for something to be really True or Beautiful, it has to be as true and beautiful for the 7-year-old slave girl working in a clothing factory in Pakistan as it is for me.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s check our privilege.

The truth is that every one of us here has had struggles, requiring real work for us to get to where we are.  The food on our table hasn’t been manna appearing overnight, but has taken effort to put there.  All of us, at some point, have had worries and anxieties about work or our homes, often requiring hard and costly decisions, even uprooting our families and leaving loved ones to make our living.  Many of us, at some point, have had to make hard personal decisions, reaching a decision point when we reached the end of the rope and had to decide if we would keep going the way we were going, out of control, or if we would turn our lives around and get on the right path.

Perhaps you, like me, have a lot to be thankful for.

But if we check our privilege, if we take the opportunities that we were given through no effort of our own out of the equation, we find that “I’m thankful for what I’ve done” doesn’t hold true.

All of us have free will and are responsible for the moves we make, but none of us chose where we started out.  The privilege of a supportive family; the privilege of skin colour or an accent that doesn’t stand out; the privilege of that connection to get a foot in the door for a good job; even the privilege of access to education, of access to loans and funding, even the privilege of having someone to teach you how to speak kindly-yet-assertively to people and to make yourself look presentable so that you earn someone’s trust. 

When we take these into consideration, “I’m thankful for what I’ve done” is a most privileged statement, only true from the vantage point of those who have been given much.

Looking Back: An Older Model

So where do we go from here?

In Deuteronomy 26, God’s chosen people under the Old Covenant are given instructions for what we might call the first Thanksgiving. 

“When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess … you shall take some of the first of all your harvest, and bring it to the house of God.  You shall go to the priest who is in office and make this declaration: “Today I declare to the Lord that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us”.[1]

Then, the people were instructed to make an account of the blessings their ancestors had received, which brought them to that point: that God saved Israel out of Egypt, provided for them in their time of need, and brought them into this pleasant and fruitful land.

In the Biblical narrative, Thanksgiving isn’t about our effort and what we’ve each achieved.  It’s the exact opposite.  Thanksgiving is about acknowledging our inheritance.  It’s about acknowledging all of those God-given things outside of ourselves that have brought us here.

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s no question, these people worked hard for their food.  They tilled the land, they woke up early and worked late; this was the work of human hands.  But, the were called to acknowledge that it was by the grace of God that they were in their position.  It was by the grace of God that they had strength, and health to work and freedom to enjoy their leisure.  It was only by the grace of God that they, at harvest time, found themselves in a position to celebrate.  After all, not one of us can add even one breath to the span of our lives.

And celebrate they did – but God had instructions about that too.

You’re to celebrate with all the bounty that God has given you – a true feast with all of God’s good gifts of wine and meat and maybe even a second plate of dessert.  But, verse 11, you’re to celebrate with the alien who is in your land.    You’re to celebrate with the person who isn’t privileged; the person who has no family, the person who doesn’t have the same opportunities and connections to get a decent job, the person who doesn’t have the support structure they need to turn their life around and build bridges to get back to where they belong.

Acknowledging what we have

Thanksgiving calls us not to look at the things around us and be thankful, but to think upon and appreciate those things that paved the way for us, and to thank God. 

We thank God for that which is really Good, True, and Beautiful.  As we heard from Philippians, we’re to rejoice always, with prayer and thanksgiving, thinking on whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just and pure and pleasing and commendable.  This Thanksgiving, think on these things.

And, we think back to the manna from heaven.[2]  God’s inexplicable provision, that came with the caveat that whenever you tried to store it up so that you wouldn’t have to trust  God for tomorrow, it spoiled and grew maggots.

And maybe that’s the point: when we check our privilege, when we’re honest about what is really the fruit of our labour, and what is really just the skewing of the playing field through sin, anything that we think we’ve stored up is actually rotten.

It’s by grace that we’re here.  Not one of us, no matter how anxiously we worry, can add a moment to our lives or an inch to our stature: it’s the Lord who provides.

So, this Thanksgiving, I want all of us to remember that first Thanksgiving in scripture.

Today or tomorrow, take a moment, and consider all that you have.  But, take a moment and consider all those who God has put along your path to help you get here: those friends and loved ones who went before you, who shared what they had, who helped you get to where you are. 

Think on, rejoice in, those things that are Good, True, and Beautiful.  And declare – truly declare – that “these are gifts from God”.

And then, whether it’s today or tomorrow, or whether it’s one day this week, follow through: share your celebration with someone in need.  Whether it’s an invitation to dinner, a visit to someone who is lonely, supporting someone who is going without, or coming alongside someone who is at the end of their rope and needs a hand to turn their life around, a true celebration, a real Thanksgiving, is one that takes what God has given you and offers it freely to one in need.

For you never know what mighty tree God might have in mind for that small seed of kindness that you sow for your brother or sister, and Christ says, whatever you do for the least of those in need, you’ve done for him.

To God be the Glory forever and ever.  Amen.

This sermon was paired with the hymn “My Worth is Not in What I Own” by Graham Kendrick and Keith & Kristyn Getty

Note: “Privilege” as a framework has its limits, as does any attempt to subjectively categorize the complexities of human interactions in which each individual perceives different advantages and disadvantages from their individual vantage point. This is behind my shout-out to “the Trancendentals” — universal Goodness, Truth, and Beauty — which are used in Western Christian theology as truly universal descriptors of God’s Being, and as interchangeable or intertwined (that which is Good must also be Beautiful and True, etc.).

My use of “privilege” is intended to expand the horizons of this discussion at a holiday during which when family, traditions, and worldly gains are increasingly front and center.


[1] Deuteronomy 26:1-11

[2] Exodus 16:1-36

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