Thanksgiving 2020—a Thanksgiving, perhaps unlike any in our recent memory. And however you’re spending this holiday, I think we all feel a sense of loss this year. Traditions with friends and family that must be canceled, or changed and adapted. New conversations where we discuss risk, where we admit our own vulnerability to forces of nature beyond our control.
Perhaps today, we find ourselves standing at a border, a boundary. Standing in the unknown—the winter holidays in a pandemic, thinking about the past, and looking into an uncertain, but hopeful, future.
And so this year, if that is indeed where we find ourselves, we are in the exact same place as the Israelites. Despite what it sounds like in today’s first lesson from Deuteronomy, we, they, are not in the promised land yet. The whole book of Deuteronomy is them standing on the shore of the Jordon, listening to Moses speak. Almost there, but not there yet. So close, but not yet.
In this passage, Moses speaks of the goodness of the land before them, a land with flowing streams, a land where you will lack nothing. It is a mental picture sketched before a hungry, tired people, a tantalizing picture of what might be. But there is an underlying warning, if you’re looking for it: do not forget. Do not forget the Lord your God, do not forget the years of the desert, do not forget. Remember it is God who brings you to the goodness of the land. Do not forget.
After generations of slavery, years of wandering in the wilderness, how could they possibly forget? After so many hard lessons, and witnessing God’s provision, how could they forget this wilderness experience? Walter Brueggemann writes that this experience permitted “Israel to recognize that it was not self-sufficient, could not manage its own way, and therefore could not pretend that it was in charge of its own life.” For Brueggemann, “The wilderness memory is one of vulnerable dependence, the shattering of all illusions of adequacy.”
And yet, it’s so easy to forget, when things get better, when the hope-for future finally arrives. As people, we want to put aside our vulnerability, banish the memory of a time that is so far out of our control. But God says, do not forget. Remember.
Remember the time when you needed me, God says, and I showed up. Remember the manna in the wilderness, the Zoom and phone calls with friends and family and church family, the dedicated work of so many making sure the poor have access to housing, food, clothing, medicine. Remember the new furry friend you brought home from the shelter, the extra time with kids (as challenging as it may sometimes be), the delight of seeing the seasons change at a slower pace of life.
Remember, God says, that even in the wilderness, there can be sufficiency. There will be brighter days—after all, we haven’t crossed the Jordan yet. Don’t forget. Don’t forget the homebound, and those who live far away, who we welcome to our Sunday services week after week. Don’t forget the creativity and ingenuity springing from the children and family website, from youth leaders taking charge of small groups and figuring out new, safe ways of being in community. Don’t forget the partnership of faith leaders, who worked tirelessly to create and fund the learning site, to help children in our community amidst the challenges of learning during a pandemic. Don’t forget, that we know now more than ever, that we can still be the church, the Body of Christ, from our own homes, or from wherever you’re worshiping with us today.
Do not forget, that this is the God who brought you out of Egypt. Remember the manna in the wilderness, new every morning. Do not forget the water from the rock, the mercy of God, the laws that bind us together as a community. Remember the covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.
So on this Thanksgiving, a Thanksgiving in the wilderness, I hope that amidst whatever is happening in your life today, I hope we can remember. As we remember the past, and hope for the future, I hope we can remember to give thanks for the blessing of today: for a God who is cultivating this field as his own, who is still at work in the wilderness of our lives.
So we give thanks, and wait on this side of the Jordan. And as we wait, we remember the works of God in this wilderness and all the goodness that is yet to be, remembering with hymn-writer Henry Alford that “all the world is God’s own field”. And so we pray, and sing:
“Even so, Lord, quickly come,
bring thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin,
there, forever purified,
in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest home.”