Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

For those that can't be there, this is the sermon I'm preaching at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service tonight, along with the scripture readings that were chosen by some of the participants to go with it.

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Colossians 3:15-17.

15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Qur’an 2:136-137

Say: “We believe in Allah (God Almighty) and that which is revealed to us; and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants, and that which was given to Moses, Jesus and other Prophets from their God. We do not discriminate any of them, and to HIM (God) we have surrendered ourselves. So, if they believe like you have believed, they shall be rightly guided; if they reject it, they will surely fall into dissension. Allah will be your sufficient defender against them, and HE hears and knows everything.


Sermon


Thank you, first of all, everyone for coming out this evening. In today’s busy society, there are always a million different things pulling for our time and attention. And at a holiday, in particular, there are competing demands. You might easily have chosen to stay at home and cleaned the house for company, or prepped some dishes for the meal. You might have chosen to get a head start on Christmas shopping. You might have chosen to be a number of other places tonight. And yet you chose to be here, spending your evening in worship and in prayer.

And, of course, we spend the evening thinking about the meaning of Thanksgiving. And the first thing we do, in my family, is go around the table and each say what we are thankful for. Usually we focus on personal blessings—our family, food before us, shelter over our heads, and so forth. We give thanks for new babies or new jobs, thanks for health and well-being.
But there’s another level of Thankfulness we share at this time, too, and that has to do with the Thankfulness we feel for being in this country.

There have been hard times in this country before. And there have been times that our blessings we not extended to everyone in this country. We tell a story about people coming together from different cultures, different religions, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and breaking bread together and giving thanks together, but our country has a hard heritage of slavery, of people brought to these shores in bondage and kept in bondage for generations. It’s a pain that goes deep in our country, a mark that cannot be erased. The horrible legacy of the buying and selling and enslavement and brutality left its trail of blood across this nation. And we have the hard heritage of the ensuing relationship after that Thanksgiving that we had with the Native Americans, where we pushed them off their land in some cases and killed them in others. We have the story of the Trail of Tears, where the Cherokee died by the thousands as they were forcibly marched from the warm lands of Georgia that they had known as home to the brutal winters of Oklahoma. This is the way we built this country, on the backs of one group of people even as we forcibly evicted another group of people.

I carry that heritage in me. My Great-Great-Great-Grandfather, Jeptha Landrum, was in the Jackson County Militia in Georgia in 1825-1826, and he was instrumental in driving out the Creek tribe of Native Americans from Fayette County, Georgia. He actually named his horse after the chief of the tribe that he had helped drive out, Black Hawk. And that same great-great-great grandfather, Jeptha Landrum, went on to found a plantation on the land given to him for his government service and own fifty slaves.

This is all part of the heritage we celebrate when we celebrate Thanksgiving in this country. So what is it that, today, we can be thankful for?

The answer is, for me, something that was also there in the founding of this country, along with the racism, along with brutality, along with the religious persecution: some wonderful, shining ideals. We had some beautiful thoughts in the founding of our country about what this country was capable of, what our goal was to become: a shining city on a hill, a beacon to the world of tolerance, understanding, freedom, democracy.

Now, I used to say that I wasn’t patriotic. I didn’t think I felt pride in this country. I was grateful, yes, for having been born here. It’s a good place to live. But I didn’t feel responsible for that greatness, so I didn’t feel pride. And I associated feeling patriotic with thinking that this country and all it had done and all it was doing was great. I thought of the words of Frederick Douglass, the famous writer, speaker, abolitionist and escaped slave, and, I have to say, a Unitarian, when he said:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Harsh, harsh words from Frederick Douglass, but well warranted to a country that had yet to throw off slavery. He was speaking of Independence Day and people who were not free. Just as he asked, “What to a slave is the Fourth of July?” it might be asked, “What to a Native American, is Thanksgiving?”

So, no, I do not come here today to preach a glorious history full of peaceful meals between Pilgrims and Native Americans, not I, whose family participated in the stripping of the Native Americans from their land, in their forcible eviction.

But I do say that I had misunderstood patriotism when I focused on the past. And I would misunderstand Thanksgiving if I focused on the historical events of our nation. A recent article in Time magazine summed this up nicely, saying, “America is less a common culture than a set of ideals about democracy, equality and the rule of law. American history is a chronicle of the distance between those ideals and reality. And American patriotism is the struggle to narrow the gap. Thus, patriotism isn't about honoring and replicating the past; it's about surpassing it.”[1]
On Thanksgiving we must struggle between our ideals and our reality, and we must struggle to close the gap. On Thanksgiving, I don’t want us to honor and replicate what the Pilgrims did, I want us to surpass it.

Our myth about the Pilgrims and the Indians, that tells of brotherhood being forged there and belies the bloody history that follows, however, does give us an important lesson, that ideal, from which we grow our future. A central message of that story is the message of interfaith cooperation. We remember, on this day, that we are a land of immigrants and native peoples, a blending together of many cultures. We remember what it says on the Statue of Liberty, of the “Mother of Exiles,” who says:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!


So we celebrate Thanksgiving today, the coming to this land, and the blending of cultures that happened here, even from the first. In using bread from many cultures, we celebrate our diversity in this community. While my name, “Landrum” is Scottish, and I am descended from slave owners, our own reality is always more complex: my own ethnic heritage is German, Scottish, English, Swedish, Welsh, Irish, French, Native American, and probably a multitude of other things. In this room we represent many continents and many cultures, and we are grateful for that. We are grateful that we are a nation like a patchwork quilt. It links us to the past and to each other, but most of all, it links us to the diverse world and the interdependent web of which we are a part. One of the values of America that I’m proud of, and which I’m Thankful for, is this value of diversity, this value of welcoming in the immigrant.

Another American value I’m particularly proud of and grateful for is religious freedom. And we’re celebrating tonight, here at this interfaith service, that value of religious freedom and how it, together with the value of diversity, brings us to a modern version of Thanksgiving, to a time when we can worship together, across religious boundaries, knowing that while we have different cultures and different beliefs, we are one people, one nation. Sometimes people think of Thanksgiving as purely a Christian holiday. But it is, in fact, an interfaith holiday. The Pilgrims were there, but the Native Americans were, too. Thanksgiving, then, is a holiday which belongs to all of us. It is, if it is to remain true to its purpose, a time which brings differing people together across the table—the pilgrims and the Native Americans, or today, perhaps warring countries or event the most diametrically opposed of faiths. If we are to set our Thanksgiving table today, we must make room for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and people of Eastern and Native religions. Thanksgiving also includes atheists, agnostics, and Humanists. Our Thanksgiving table is the welcome table.

The scripture passages we read earlier show, too, how much we have in common. They speak of knowing God, of Thanking God, and of celebrating God. They speak of how we are to live together as people of different religions, yet all created by the same God, despite different scriptures and different passages. And so, tonight, as people of different faiths, we raise our voice together in Thanks, thanks for our creator, thanks for all the creation.

As people of faith, we come together this evening also, however, because we are part of one larger community, this Jackson community, and, as such, despite our different houses of worship, we have a common home in this community. And we know that this community is hurting right now. We have a national economy that is in shambles, a state that is particularly hurting and has been for a while, reliant on an industry that is going under. We have a community where we are high in unemployment, and low in economic security, high in foreclosures and low in economic growth. We have food pantries running low and shelters running full right now in this community. We are a community that is seeing harder days. The songwriter Irving Berlin, in a similarly depressed economy, said, “Got no check books, got no banks. Still I'd like to express my thanks - I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.” Despite our troubles, and I know some of you have troubles of health, or shelter, or jobs, we come together to give thanks.

In the Christian scriptures, it tells a story about loaves and fishes. Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and managed to feed five thousand. Some see that as a story of a miracle—food that expanded to fit the need. I see it as a story of people’s matching generosity with their own, and managing to see abundance rather than scarcity. People of a loving God know that there is no limit to God’s love. People of a loving community know that there is no limit to our resources when we pull together. In my tradition, we often tell the old tale of “Stone Soup,” a folktale that’s been told in different ways in different cultures. The story is a person goes into a new community, and this traveler is told that there is no food for him. He says that this is okay, he was planning on making soup to share with everyone. He is loaned a pot, and he sets water to boil, and he puts his magic stone in the pot that will turn it into soup. As villagers ask how it’s going, he tells them one by one “Oh, it’s good, but it would be better with a carrot,” or an onion, or a potato, and so forth. The villagers supply the items and by the end, there is enough soup to feed everyone, including the traveler.

I’m thankful today to live in this community, not because of our history, but because of our possibility. Because we have ideals of freedom, of diversity, of interfaith cooperation, and of generosity. I’m thankful to live in this community not only because of the blessings that it provides to me, but also I’m thankful that it provides me with opportunities to become my best self, to live from a perspective of abundance, rather than scarcity, to practice generosity, rather than to horde my blessings. I’m thankful that we have this opportunity to come together, to live our values and our faith in this circle of diversity, in this sanctuary of open love and acceptance.

Happy Thanksgiving.

[1] Peter Beinart, “The War Over Patriotism,” Time Magazine, Thursday, June 26, 2008, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1818195-2,00.html.

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