It is Thanksgiving Weekend and a time when we remember the goodness of the land and the goodness of our life in this land of ours. While the custom is that we wish one another a Happy Thanksgiving, I wonder if we should really be saying Good Thanksgiving. Good land. Good life. Good Thanksgiving. The Toronto Star editorial for yesterday pointed out that there is something inherent in human beings that leads us to acknowledge and honour the genuine goodness of life and the generosity of people in that life. It seems as if we are created to give thanks, good thanks for the goodness we find. Whether it be part of our genetic code or whether it be part of our cultivated learning from childhood onward, we give thanks. The morning radio show host that I listen to was laughing during his show recently about a pizza delivery to his home. If you have ordered anything such as pizza lately you know that the routine is the driver sets it at your front door, rings the doorbell and then leaves. That maintains social distancing during this pandemic. He opened the door to see that the pizza driver was already back at his car so he shouted “thank you” to him. The driver replied, “No, no, thank you.” The radio host insists that by the time they had gone back and forth with their thank yous that the “thanks” had actually been exchanged nine times! I know I almost invariably say thank you to a store clerk even though I am the one that has just handed over money for whatever it is I have just purchased. We do like to give thanks, and that is a good thing.
The people of Israel were also thankful. They were thankful to Moses for leading them safely out of Egypt. They were thankful to God for providing food sufficient to meet their needs every morning of every day. Their journey was long but the people of Israel were thankful—thankful until they were no longer thankful. Moses was somewhere on the mountain top, at least that is where they thought he was but they were not sure. They had lost leadership that they could count on. Instead of a journey to a promised land they found themselves camped at the foot of the mountain. No leader. No journey. They very quickly moved from a people giving thanks to a people plotting their own way—“Aaron make us a god” was the demand even though they already had a God who had orchestrated their liberation. Their God had appeared to them in lightning, fire and cloudy pillars and although they had followed their God they now wanted something tangible, something they could touch, something they could create themselves. So they did just that. Aaron build an altar for this new Golden Calf made from their gold…and said “let the feast begin”. However, this quickly became not a time of religious praise but a time of wild partying.
As with Moses people we are thankful people—until we are not. We too grumble and complain when what we expected from life turns out not to meet our expectations. We are easily disillusioned if remedies to societal problems take longer to implement then we thought possible. It has been saddening lately to hear social justice advocates lately, and I support their causes, acknowledge that our federal government has taken some bold and necessary initiatives BUT that the government has not gone far enough. Perhaps we need to find the patience to implement today and assess tomorrow what then is left to be addressed. We are anxious to move on even though spending some time at the foot of the mountain is good for us—physically, emotionally and spiritually. COVID-19 is the mountain that we have come to at the moment. I am the first to wish it would just go away but that is not going to happen anytime soon. I tend to squirrel away in my dark basement office and wonder why my wish is not coming true. A better strategy would be to say: “Okay, what can I do physically that might make this more livable?” I’ve recently discovered the joy of walking, well actually strolling in my case, in nature and discovering the sights, sounds and smells that greet you when you have no place to drive but anyplace to walk. Certainly that sustains me emotionally and not surprisingly even spiritually as well.
As with Moses’ people though, we do not want to wait any longer. We have, quite frankly, had enough. So while we have not built a literal golden calf we have rushed to create multiple panaceas to make us feel better. Sadly the result is that we are inadequately prepared for the second wave of this pandemic, which we knew was coming, and our own actions as community, province and country have brought about the need to avoid family and friends at a time of Thanksgiving. We cling to the promise of “maybe Christmas” while knowing that it is up to us to see if that goal is realized.
As Prof Sara Koenig noted, sometimes the answers are unclear until we begin to formulate the right questions. Koenig writes: “First, God’s anger throughout the Old Testament ought not be ignored or dismissed. However, it also must be contextualized in the larger narrative, as well as within the details of the texts in which it is narrated. Second, God’s acts of power earlier in Exodus were, in part, “so that the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD. The LORD is not simply a tribal God for one people group, but is God for all people and all nations throughout the entire Bible.” Koenig suggests that just as we can remember a person’s birthday without having forgotten it so when God “remembers”, it always comes before God’s action. In this case God changed God’s mind, after some coaxing and pleading from Moses, and the people were spared. There are other places in the Old Testament where God changed God’s mind as well. Some will ask what kind of a God is so open to human persuasion so as to change God’s mind. While others will celebrate that God is open to conversation, to communion with God’s people. Others will argue that “Moses intercession had no effect on God but shaped Moses’ own feelings about the Israelites.” Koenig concludes that: “The safest theological space is to take seriously the words of the text: in response to Moses’ plea, God decides not to do what God originally said. In fact, God opened the door for Moses to participate with God in Exodus…the Old Testament gives us examples of humans who understand prayer to be a conversation, and God to be a relational God who actually listens to humans. To settle here does not deny that God is God, but clarifies that God is a God for us and with us.”
It is this gift of conversation that for me is the key to this passage. Yes, Moses received the 10 Commandments and they are an important part of what the Israelites and ourselves look for in terms of giving us some direction along the journey we must take in our day. Yet the saving grace in this story remains with God, God who is open to conversation. We need conversation amongst ourselves so desperately in these days. Just look south of us to see what happens when people with opposing viewpoints cannot even agree to disagree while respecting the inherent value of the other person, the other viewpoint. Foul, disgusting, demonizing language occurs when we do not treat one another equally and with respect. We build golden calves to symbolize our cause and promote our case. Symbols are good but not when they are made as hard as metal and as immovable as an altar. That is when the party gets crazy and people or communities get hurt. If God can forestall God’s rightful anger in favour of conversation then imagine what we could achieve with a commitment to lose our anger and desire for revenge in favour of what is good for everyone. That is when mountains are no longer barriers but opportunities to work in unprecedented ways to resolve the challenges of unprecedented times.
I am so thankful that as Canadians we never boast about being the best or greatest in the world. At the same time, and especially at Thanksgiving, I think we can honestly say that we are a country that is blessed by truly good fortune. Good land. Good people. Good government. Good thanksgiving. As if that were not enough we find ourselves faced with a God who is open to conversation. Part of our giving thanks is to ensure that not only do we not forget all of God’s goodness to God’s people today but that we remember them tomorrow as well. We do that through acts of kindness and charity, through actions of government, and through a communal sense that we all stand in need of God’s presence every day of our lives.