Thanksgiving 2018

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Exodus 3:7-9; Psalm 108: 2; Chronicles


        Since 1621, when those first English Separatists landed in Massachusetts, we’ve had the same moral problem that the folks in the bible have. God promises the enslaved Israelites a “land flowing with milk and honey”.  So far, so good.

        But then God, offering full disclosure, tells them that” it is the land of the Canaanites, Hivites, Hittites, and Jebusites.” Big problem. Your new apartment has existing tenants.

        So too with the discovery of the New World. You may not know that when Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon up New York Harbor, there was a bed of flowers floating in the water, under what is today the Verrazano Bridge. One of the shipmates wrote. “There came a smell of flowers so sweet and pleasant that it seemed to be the sweetest thing in the world.” Reportedly they could be smelled dozens of miles away out at sea… Back when the Garden State was still had some garden.

        They too thought they had stumbled upon the land of plenty, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

        But when the English came back that first little colony that landed on Cape Cod in 1621, they were woefully unprepared. They estimated that the natural tides would take them farther south. They were not prepared for the winter of Massachusetts. Who is? Miserable place to live and worse today… You have to watch Tom Brady all winter… Grr.

        No sooner had they landed than they realized they were completely unprepared. Out of the 102 people that were on the boat, fully half of them would die that winter and into the next spring. These people were desperate.

        And so were the native Americans, the Wampanoag tribe that still lives in Massachusetts. I’ve actually preached in one of their churches at Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard.

The Wampanoag had been hit by an epidemic sickness the year before, something we can really understand anymore, but it killed thousands of people, especially in the area where the English established a village. So when the English got there, it appeared that the place had been abandoned.

        But they knew people were there. The fields were cultivated, but dormant. Starving men don’t really care. They found storage bins with corn for planting in the spring. The English stole it to survive. They figured out that the Wampanoag buried corn in their graves, so they dug those up too. Starving men will do these things to stay alive. It is not pretty.

        The English started dying. Low grade fear must have stalked the colony. Meanwhile, we don’t have any record of what the Wampanoag thought about these invaders that stole their corn and desecrated their graves, but you can imagine they thought they were barbarians spiritually.

        The next fall, the English are celebrating being alive and their first harvest, since they were afraid to eat a lot of the foods around them because they were unfamiliar to them. They were, undoubtedly starving in the midst of food but they didn’t know it.

All they knew is they survived. So the English started shooting off guns. This alarmed the Wampanoag nearby, who gathered a contingent of warriors to check out what the English were up to. They camped nearby the English village.

        The Wampanoag outnumbered the English about 2 to 1. Surely the English were nervous. The English explained that they were just celebrating. The Wampanoag camped nearby another day. The English were probably still nervous, so they invited the Wampanoag to a dinner.

All people at this time had fall harvest festivals like that. Among the Native-American nation’s inviting neighboring tribes was a sign of honor and a display of wealth in the service of communal good will. They accepted.

        The whole encounter proved fateful for the Wampanoag. As you probably know from reading “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamant a few years ago, it wasn’t simply European aggression and violence that decimated the Wampanoag and other nations in the America’s, it was simple contact.

        Europeans had developed immunities to a variety of diseases that affect cattle, horses, sheep and goats because we had domesticated these animals across thousands of years. All we had to do was hug people who had not developed immunities to these diseases, so to speak, and they eventually got sick and died. And they died by the thousands.

        We estimate that probably 90% of the population  of Native Americans died. Not surprisingly, Native Americans today, look back on the story that we tell about the original Thanksgiving with a sense of tragedy and loss. It is a bitter day for them.

        I was thinking about this subject a couple weeks ago, being on the Crow Indian Reservation in eastern Montana. I was at a stop sign on a dirt road. Someone had shot it with a shotgun so it was pock marked. And someone had spray painted “Meth” across the sign as in “Stop Meth”.

        You drive through the broken towns, high unemployment, abandoned homes, disrepair from the toll that drugs take on families. The Crow Nation is much healthier than most other Indian reservations but the brokenness is palpable.

        They are healing themselves slowly by slowly. The younger people on the Crow reservation started to return to the religion and the spiritual values of their people historically. They’ve become more educated, graduating from college and law school. And their first lawyers went to work on behalf of the Crow nation. One of the huge problems from the past was that leaders from the Native American nations weren’t legally educated to match representatives on the other side in treaty negotiations. They didn’t make good deals for the people (mining rights, etc.). Hopefully, that will change.

        You would think that we Americans would have a fairly humble and reconciling posture towards our neighbors on our southern border since we expropriated Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California from the people that lived here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

        We may need legal immigration reform, but this moral disposition ought to remain long after we develop legal clarity. If you zoom out a couple clicks on history, we all look like migrants in search of a fair and prosperous land, a land where each of us can sit under their own vineyards and eat the fruit thereof and be at peace” in the words of Micah.

        We call those original English settlers Pilgrims because they felt themselves to be ‘strangers in a strange land.’ And we lift up the Wampanoag nation because they made space for them. The book of Exodus says, ‘Remember that you too were strangers in a strange land’ and people welcomed you.”

        In thanks that your people survived and thrived, God says, ‘Welcome others’. Help them find a place. That is the moral of the Holiday.

        And give thanks, for our brief time here on this earth. Be with your people. Remember your connection with the earth. Sometimes I’ll have an hour or two, alone in the quiet in the wilderness of Montana, literally miles from the nearest people. Absolute quiet in every direction as far as I can see. You keep turning to take it all in.

        The sound of quiet, watching a Golden Eagle soaring above, the antelope on the side of the mountains in the distance. Native-Americans call it an “Aho moment” when you feel that grounded sense of connection to the world. The goodness of being alive. The grace of our existence itself.

        We are filled with gratitude and so Native Americans will typically give thanks to their Mother, and then they give thanks to Mother Earth. In the Old tradition, this thanksgiving is done without words. Together they smoke a tobacco and then release the smoke to the heavens. It is an ineffable prayer because our sense of gratitude is beyond words.

And I suppose the smoke also represents the evanescence of our lives. They don’t last long. Remember that you are watching the ‘good old day’s right now. Fill them with meaning and love right now. We aren’t waiting for our lives to start. This is it. These are the ‘good old days.’

        Spiritually speaking, we are all migrants, some of us very recent, some a little less recent, none of us with any special claim that separates us from one another. To the contrary, we are all people in search of a place at the Table.

        God makes room for you. Make some room for someone else. I recognize that this is where it gets difficult. Because some of the people that are hardest to make room for are your knuckleheaded relatives that leave those boneheaded posts on social media that just enflame the situation and make it worse. Aye Gefult! Good luck with that. And may you be able to offer something witty and reconciling this year as you gather and rise to your higher self.

        On our best days that is what we do for one another. I think of the mother that I heard about recently whose teenager told her, in adolescent angst, that he would rather have his mother give the money she would spend on a birthday present to the poor than give him something stupid. ‘Your gifts are stupid’… that hurts Mom.

        At first dejected, no doubt, like parents the world over that wish their teens weren’t so hostile to them, she enlisted her sons little brother. She went to the bank, withdrew $170 or $10 for every year her son was alive and gave the ten dollar bills to her middle school son with a camera and sent him out.

        The kid finds homeless person after homeless person, gives them a $10 bill and says, “Today is my brother Phillip’s birthday, here” and he handed them a $10 bill. Over and over, he had these videos of really poor people smiling into the camera saying, “Happy Birthday Phillip”. That is inspired and probably just what that kid needed to get him out of his angst for an hour on his birthday, watching 17 poor people thanking him.

        Because it is really profound when we actually show up for each other, in reconciliation, out of our positive gratitude in spite of it all. I think of a middle school teacher that I read about. She was pregnant and full of the expectation of new birth… She was full of hormones that get us ready for new life in our midst. One day there was no heart beat in her belly and she was overcome with a deep grief that mother’s know too well that is just devastating at the time. You are watching that life grow, getting ready, so sad when you miscarry.

        She takes a couple days off but the time comes she has to return to class. She gets to her class, unlocks the door, turns on the lights. Her colleagues and the kids in the school have cut out hundreds of butterflies out of construction paper and taped them to all the walls in the room with notes of support. Hundreds of butterflies, so much prayerful support.

Many months later, she would be able to say, “it was just what I needed.” There was one girl in her class that continued to leave her cards every few weeks with butterflies pasted on the card and a note that said, “still thinking of you.” Extraordinary kid, spot on with their response.

        That is what we need in the midst of our fear and our anxiety, the knowledge that we are not in this alone but other people are supporting us as we go. It is the ordinary that sometimes becomes profound when we as a spiritual community show that welcoming support to others.

        Just a couple weeks ago, there was a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. 11 people were killed. Those events send a deeper fear among the Jewish community than you might realize, fear that anti-Semitism is rising and more pervasive than they know, fear that they don’t really belong. It triggers all those negative spiritual emotions from the pogroms and the Holocaust just three generations ago. Fear, some irrational fear (because fear is like that) that Jews are all alone, that others don’t care to stop anti-Semitism, that is coming back.

        After church that week, we sent the altar flowers to the three congregations in town with a simple note, “From the congregation at Christ Church to our brothers and sisters at Temple Ohr Shalom (Temple Sinai, Temple Beth Hatikvah), we stand with you in your grief.” It was a simple gesture. It is what we would normally do, send flowers with a note of prayer.

        You never know. It turns out, Rabbi Avi Friedman at Temple Ohr Shalom, used to be a Rabbi at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, he knew all of the people killed well, and he was deeply upset. He was so moved by our simple compassion that he took a picture of our flowers and note and put them on Facebook. In the midst of tragedy, he was grateful that Jews don’t have to endure this tragedy alone. He wanted to know that there was welcome support out there.

        I probably got half a dozen notes and emails from people at the different synagogues in town thanking you for your support in the midst of tragedy and violence.

        That is our challenge today, as great as it ever was, to make room at our table. We were all once strangers in a strange land. Our common humanity is in a struggle to transcend the tribalism that limits the scope of our compassion.

        We have to see what binds us together, so often our common fear of being so vulnerable, and let that spiritually guide us towards reconciliation- warm humor, understanding, creative imagination to see what others would actually need to feel included and accepted.

        May you be inspired with reconciliation, grace, and generous hospitality. May you be the face of the Christ, limited though we all are. We speak glibly about the need to transcend the partisan divide. We speak glibly about the need of the Palestinian and the Israeli to drop their differences and make a tolerable peace.

        But we can’t figure out how to deal with Crazy Uncle Fred and we hold a generation of resentment against our siblings. We can’t even be present with our own people. This is a test, a test of the Divine Emergency Broadcast system. Can you find a place in your heart to deploy understanding and deflection, with and humor. Can you figure out a way to get Crazy Uncle Fred into a space, others might recognize as human?

        Forget the final status of Jerusalem in the negotiations for Middle East peace. That is easy compared to Crazy Uncle Fred. But you are better than you know. And what you do is more important than you realize. And the next generation is watching. And this is your time. This is your show. This is your chance to shape and to lead.

        Be filled with grace. Be in touch with your gratitude. Live generously. God has blessed you, quite in spite of yourself. Amen.

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