Sermon preached at St. John the Baptist, West Seattle, November 26, 2014. Available in audio under “Sermons” above.
Tomorrow, most of us, will sit down and give thanks.
That wonderful information online resource Wikipedia says his of Thanksgiving, In the United States, the modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition is commonly, but not universally, traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims, in that year after their first harvest in what we Europeans called the “New World”, which said a lot about their feeling and regard for those that had already been here for centuries.
That first Thanksgiving was celebrated because the Europeans wanted to give their thanks for what the Native Americans did to help them. It is said this feast lasted three days, and it was attended by 90 Native Americans(as accounted by attendee Edward Winslow) The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”-days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought. It was most often a “happy” time.
After our recently completed Diocesan convention, as a group was telling me how much they enjoyed it, and saying it was one of our best conventions, one person opined that we were just “too happy.” I am always taken aback by such remarks, because I often wonder if there can be such a thing, as being “too happy. ”
Of course, I am pretty sure I knew what she meant. We get together and are simply glad to get through our work, without taking up some of the more difficult issues before us, as if all is well with the world, when we all know it’s not. I truly get that.
I explained that I agreed with that but found parliamentary procedure, which is not biblical or given to us by Jesus, to be a most difficult way for us Christians to talk about the hard issues, that it seems to lead toward winners and losers, and often not to any real resolution. Of course, she got that.
That said, I think I am going to make her happy, now, if no one else, by perhaps not being so “happy.” Last year in my Christmas Eve Sermon I tried to be light, and fun. One man said, as he left the Cathedral, “I am disappointed in you, this is not a night to have too much fun.” I assured him that the first gift he would get for Christmas was the promise that I would not be preaching next year. And I can probably offer you the same even before I finish this one.
So, I get it, these days especially are always a balance. Most people would prefer not to even have a sermon, so my apologies to those of you in that camp out there. But for those that can at least tolerate one, on these days especially, we want lightness, joy, happiness, and you are probably not going to get a lot of that in this one.
While most of us plan now to sit down at table with friends and family, and gorge ourselves on a feast tomorrow, our world is hurting. While we take our break and fill ourselves, these problems will not cease.
It is really the case every year, but this year some things are really fresh. School shootings, very close to home, which have been devastating to the Tulalip tribe, to the people of Marysville, to the perceived innocence and safety of school and of childhood. Those families will grieve tomorrow.
The entire Ferguson issue, which is only a symptom of much larger ones for us, will be still swirling in the air while we feast.
We have a race problem in our country. Ferguson is any town and everywhere. All over, but especially in the Pacific Northwest, we live in an illusion that we have figured this all out. Racism is something that happens somewhere else, not here. In our very city we see it daily, if we care to look. Racial profiling, inequalities in our schools, the whole Jon Greenberg issue, a teacher at my son’s School, the Center School, who taught and challenged on this subject, a course that was highly acclaimed by students and faculty alike, not only ended by complaint of one white family who said it made them feel “uncomfortable”, but resulted in his being reassigned by the school district who would rather sweep it away, than confront it. The discomfort of the black person, or any person of color, on a daily basis quickly dismissed or forgotten.
We cannot blame the School system truly, since this was barely noticed by the citizenry here either, and I might add by very few people of faith. It is what we all would prefer to do.
It is easier and happier.
It was only after much soul-searching, and a lot of African-American mentors and people who truly loved me, by challenging me and hanging in there with me, that I was able to see that, being a white male in this country, and raised in the South no less, I am a racist.
I believe I am now in recovery. I call myself a recovering racist. Like an alcoholic, one has to admit they are sick before we can heal. This country, and many of the whites in it, have yet to reach that place, and until we do, our race problem will continue. Our church does not get to escape this neglect. It is just as prevalent in our system. Some of you are squirming and already composing your later email to me right now. None of this will cease during our feast tomorrow, because it never does for people of color in this society.
The immigration crisis, which is also related to race. It will not go on recess tomorrow. I will not soon forget the nun telling me on the Mexico border in Arizona, to think about the over 2000 Mexicans that had died in the desert attempting to cross the border that year, and asking us if we think the response would be any different if those same 2000 had been Irish? That will all be going on tomorrow. Some will die there tomorrow.
Soldiers will die in the wars we fight, some will come home. Some of those we will fail miserably at helping with the wounds they carry on our behalf.
Ebola taking untold lives “there,” while we seem to be able to cure it over here with the very healthcare so many people think they should earn, instead of have as a human right.
Isis, and gruesome senseless killings there.
Our world is hurting, and it will all go on while we feast.
Most suffering in all these battles will not get the luxury of Thanksgiving.
But I think we should be thankful, and I believe and wish all could be happy. If we look at this Gospel tonight, of the lepers, and think of it as one of those surveys you hear on commercials, we would surmise that, what Jesus was trying to tell us is, 9 out of 10 people forget to turn and be thankful, even when their lives have been saved. Truly, most of us take for granted how many times that has happened.
Sometimes we forget the source. It is so easy to become immediately absorbed in the “happy. ”
We should sit down tomorrow and be thankful. I will, as I said, but I am going to do something tomorrow a bit differently and I ask you to consider it to. Don’t just bow your heads to pray, but first look at the table, look at it as an iconic history of all that has brought us to this day.
Remember the people, many of whom are what we would call “illegal” who most likely painstakingly worked to get that food to your table. Remember that the land it came from was first inhabited by a different nation, there were people here, it was not a wilderness. There were nations here. I am bold enough to claim I am descended from those “illegal immigrants.”
Remember those who are grieving, for whatever reason, for the loss of loved ones who they had hoped would be there, for the loss of the feeling of belonging in this country even though they fought for it, for feeling even though they are at home, they have no home.
Pray for a better tomorrow, where all are happy, fill yourself with the bounty of food and love that will surround you, and then, get up from that table and put those prayers into practice. Perhaps you could ask everyone at your table to think of one thing they are not only thankful for in their lives, but what they intend to do to make others thankful, to give others something to live for, to make others happy? How will they heal the lepers this next year?
I guess that woman was right, there is such a thing as being too happy, if it blinds us completely to those who are thousands of miles from it or leaves us in the illusion that everyone lives this way.
That is the reality from whence thanksgiving comes, knowing that is not true, and so it is not an end, but a call, so that next year, our world, in whatever way you and I can affect it, is more, in a word, happy.