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Most of here gathered around a table this last week to be together and give thanks for the blessings of life. There is usually much ado around UU Thanksgiving tables about just who to give thanks to. I have heard many wonderful graces given thanking God, Life and the Earth for bounty of our lives. Some of us get downright eclectic in our thanksgiving as I can remember my own grandfather starting the grace with some caustic diatribe from the NY Times on the commercialism of the holidays before giving thanks in its original meaning. It has become, alas, true that Thanksgiving is seen as only a starting point for the Christmas frenzy. Or instead giving thanks for the football season.
When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they originally headed for Virginia but were blown off course and landed at Plymouth, MA. Originally the pilgrims thought this land “sweet and gentle” only soon to realize, having arrived just before winter, that it was anything but. In the course of that first winter, half the men and two thirds of the women had died of cold, disease and starvation. The following spring the Natives, the first Americans, to us white immigrants, made contact with the beleaguered pilgrims. They showed them how to plant seeds, build better shelters, find medicinal herbs for health, how to hunt and trap and tan fur. The bounty of the following autumn was great and so, legend has it, we pilgrims invited these natives to celebrate and give thanks.
No doubt thanks were given to the gods of each tribe. The sky God of the pilgrims and the Earth Circle of the natives, even given that these pilgrims saw their native hosts as beneath them, even given that they thought their god superior, even given that they would the following year begin the long slaughter and displacement that would become the sad history of our civilization towards native peoples, those pilgrims must have been truly thankful for the natives themselves. As people. Ever since we have been trying to reenact that meal, but as Jon Stewart pointed out if we really wanted to celebrate thanksgiving the old fashioned way we would invite all our neighbors to our house, feed them this incredible feast, then kill them and take their land.
The real story about thanksgiving beyond the genocide of native people’s it inaugurates is the fact that vastly different people sat at the same table together. It is mythical of course, to believe that all was smooth sailing at that first thanksgiving dinner. It certainly never has been since. How was it in your house? Perhaps with relatives who were quite different than you, politically, religiously, socially? Thanksgiving is the day when you hear from relatives you hardly see use racial slurs about people who are not going to take their jobs away. This was particularly difficult this year for some of us as we processed the election. Perhaps Johnny Carson was right, thanksgiving is the holiday when people travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year and realize that was one day too much.
Of course I am sure your dinner wasn’t anything like that, right? It takes planning and tolerance to invite people to the table who are radically different than you. It takes in the words of the philosopher William Connolly calls ‘agonistic respect’; understanding and working with someone most unlike you, someone you might not even like. Why is that we invite people to our table who are so unlike us? Could it be that we are inclined by our nature to celebrate the human within us regardless of how we relate?
I think there is a deeper meaning to this season. I believe that we are here to transcend our differences however stark they are and, for a brief moment, to celebrate our common humanity. Some people liken this election to 9/11 but I think it isn’t that. We take it as a given that we will stand with all people in the days and years ahead. What really brings us to the table is what we learned on 9/11, that day when citizens of 115 countries died. We remembered empathy, that feeling for being the other. Empathy. In the wake of this raucous election, my message is not so much to rise up and fight, although the time will come for that but rather to look around you. Look around you and see the reflection of yourself in others eyes. And then see their own eyes. This is what the wisdom literature teaches us: seek first to understand and then be understood. As the great Rabbi Harold Kushner said, Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.” (From Living a Life That Matters) For many years my brother who is the executive director of the Western Massachusetts Food Bank did not celebrate thanksgiving which he sees, in good liberal fashion, as a celebration of genocide. The genocide of our Native American sisters and brothers is quite real and even today we honor those resisting the pipeline at the Sioux Reservation at Standing Rock in ND which is going across sacred land secured with the sacred trust of a treaty from 1868. What my brother (and I on occasion) do is to feed people who are vastly different than him, the poor, migrants, those who politically in some cases are as different as he is in time and space. I admire him for that. And while we don’t give up Thanksgiving, which like Halloween and Christmas are a vital part of our family traditions, I do try to live up to that mandate in the work we do together here.
Whether you celebrated thanksgiving or not, the fact remains is that we live and make meaning in a world of increasing plurality; a vast sea of differences that makes us white, black, brown, rich, poor, conservative, progressive, gay or straight. We are going to have to come to grips that there are more and more people coming to the table of our bounty and we need to make room for them, not just invite them to the feast of life, but offer them a seat at the table. The immigration debate notwithstanding, the world our children’s children will inherit has a much larger table. I find it amusing that we are so preoccupied with who we are going to let into our country when the white upper class will soon be the minority, as the comedian Al Madrigal put it: “I’m actually half-Mexican – get used to it ’cause in about five to ten years, you’re all gonna be related to one. Whether you like it or not, no matter how much you prepared your family, you’re gonna show up at Thanksgiving one of these years, you’re gonna walk in and say, ‘Hey! What’s happening? Since when did we start serving tostadas?’ ”.
All at the table. That is where we are going regardless of who is president and the sooner we get ready the better. Western civilization has never been all that civilized. We are in a time of great incivility. The extent to which we need to hold onto our moral compass. Our liberal faith exalts kindness, compassion, and understanding. William Connelly reflects of our perception of change this way: We participate in (change) in at least two ways; action oriented perception and the slower experience of the past folding into the present and both flowing into the future. (from A World of Becoming) In other words, we can just wait for it, or we can hasten it along. I choose to hasten the coming. A day when thanksgiving will be about an even bigger family than just the relatives we don’t really like. And isn’t this what our faith calls us to do? Our sixth principle calls on us to work toward world community. It’s not just an international community, it’s the world of community.
Social media is filled with screeds against this person and that policy. If you follow Facebook you know how exhausting that can be. And honestly, I think through the holiday season we might all take a bit of a holiday from it all. As the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us ‘there is a time for everything under the sun; a time for war and a time for peace. As we leave the season of Thanksgiving and enter the season of Advent, we all need a bit of peace before we take up the struggle again.
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, proclaimed Jesus. Jesus, the apocalyptic Jewish peasant who invited everyone to his table at thanksgiving realized the inevitability of balance in the cosmos. Change occurs because empires must fall, it is in the nature of empires to topple, wrote Howard Thurman, and so it is with us here: The Table For ALL is coming. Maybe not in our lifetimes but it is coming.
The great feminist theologian Sallie McFague put it thusly,
“Jesus spells not primarily holiness but wholeness, the salvation of God’s basilica is present and experientially available whenever Jesus casts out demons (Luke 11:20), heals the sick and the ritually unclean, tells stories about the lost who are found, of the uninvited who are invited, of the last who will be first. . . . Not the holiness of the elect but the wholeness of all is the central vision of Jesus.’
“The emphasis here is on inclusiveness: all are invited and what they are invited to is a feast, fulfillment, joy. The invitation is not to chosen individuals but to all. But unless we envision this feast as merely an allegory of a spiritual feast in another world-as solely an eschatological, mythological feast-it has implications for the holistic sensibility needed in our time. That is, the insistence of liberation theologies that salvation must be a social, political, economic reality in history, since oppression is precisely that kind of reality, means that in order for all to be whole.” (from Models of God)
We can’t choose our relatives but we can choose to hasten a radical hospitality. Here is the question I leave you with as you enter this season of advent: “What will you do live out your faith in a table for all?”
Will it be to witness for justice by attending the Women’s March on Washington in January? Will it be to support the Native Americans at Standing Rock? Or will it be something closer to home reaching out to the ones we love? Caring for the hungry at Christmas time? Finding some space in your own life to care for your own soul? What will you do to live out your faith as a Unitarian Universalist this season?
Annie Dillard said, “There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end. It is all so self-conscience, so apparently moral…But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.” (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) At the very least we should make room at the welcome table for all who come. Amen.