A Bigger Table

Introduction

Around Thanksgiving we spend time cataloging our gratitudes, but Thanksgiving is also a time to see and appreciate our family, whether that’s blood relations, found family, or an entire community. This Thanksgiving, we invite you to reflect on what happens when we extend the warmth of family beyond our single dinner table.

Time for All Ages

When You Have More Than Enough, by Dawn Star Sarahs-Borchelt

Reading

Excerpts from Thanksgiving Sermon by Rev. Scott Alexander

“Take a moment right now to visualize in your mind’s eye the first American Thanksgiving feast which our Pilgrim forebears shared with their Native American neighbors on the shores of Massachusetts Bay in the Fall of 1621.

“If you’re like me, you imagined a pretty pleasant and peaceable scene – a rather rosy elementary school or Hallmark greeting card view – well-dressed Pilgrims and proud Indians congenially gathered under the bright autumnal trees sharing a large table overflowing with plenteous fruits of the harvest, thanking their respective gods for life’s copious blessings, and enjoying a carefree day of companionship. This is the myth that has grown up around the first Thanksgiving.

“The reality was far different and more painful. The only accurate element of the “Hallmark” Thanksgiving is the genuine friendship and goodwill that apparently existed between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in the fall of 1621. The rest of the story is tragic and brutal.

The Brutal Winter

“As you may remember, the Pilgrims who landed on Cape Cod in the summer of 1620 (and then settled down for the winter across the bay in Plymouth) were an English religious sect fleeing persecution in their homeland.

“When the little ship Mayflower reached landfall at Cape Cod, the 100 men, women, and children on board were disappointed to discover that they were 300 miles to the north of their more temperate Virginia destination.

The next few months in the new land would prove to be a nightmare. There was very little to eat. They survived on small portions of salt beef and hardtack, and developed scurvy because no fruit and vegetables were available. Almost everyone fell sick, and fully half of the expedition died cold and horrible deaths before spring. William Bradford, the first governor of the new colony tells the terrible tale:

“So they died sometimes 2 or 3 a day, and of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained. And of these, in the time of most distress, there was but 6 or 7 sound persons who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night or day … in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to here be named.”

“The historical record clearly shows that without the help of the local Wampanoag Indians who generously shared food with the Pilgrims that winter, and showed them how to plant and cultivate the native corn the net spring and summer, the colony would have certainly been wiped out by starvation and disease. Luckily for the fifty survivors, that first summer was a generous one.

The Summer Bounty

“And here is the part of the story that spiritually stuns me. In spite of all the hardships and horrors they had endured, in spite of what must have been their nearly bottomless grief and suffering, the surviving Pilgrims decided to mark their good fortune and give thanks to both God and creation!

“They put on a three day “blowout” of food and festivities for themselves and their Indian friends, Chief Massasoit and ninety other Wampanoags. Again, Bradford’s account:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men out fowling so that we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors…And although it may not always be so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish others partake of our plenty.”

“The part of this historical account that I want to focus on is not the happy ending with the plenteous and peaceable feast, but the tougher, brutal first part, which was so systematically kept from me in elementary school. Ponder the absolute horror of that first Plymouth winter. By spring, no family was left unmarred by the ravages of disease, despair and death. Imagine living in cold, dirty hovels watching half the people you know and love perish because of natural forces beyond your control. There must have been so much suffering and sadness, I shiver just thinking about the manifold miseries they were forced to endure.

The Courage to Rejoice

“It is spiritually important that we not romanticize that first American Thanksgiving as some carefree festival of reckless joy. With apologies to Hallmark and my well-meaning fourth grade teacher, the Pilgrims seated at that first Thanksgiving table were haggard survivors – exhausted men and women still thin and weak, wearing little more than rags. Yes, they were grateful to have endured, to be sure, but looming over whatever happy feelings they mustered must have lingered incredibly deep measures of grief and fear.

It’s a miracle of the heart that those pilgrims could even think of giving thanks to God, or celebrating life’s bounty with their Wampanoag neighbors. No one could have really blamed them if, as the first anniversary of their arrival in America approached, they had decided to hold a service of mourning for the dead and withdrawn into their own sadness in the gathering autumnal darkness.

It seems to me that what makes the real Thanksgiving story so remarkable is not the joy which the Pilgrims and Wampanoags shared on that day, but rather that their painful backdrop of grief was not allowed to block out their celebration. What makes that first American harvest so nobly instructive is our remembering the profound depths of misery which preceded the Pilgrim’s decision to celebrate and share. Somehow they were able to choose gratitude over bitterness, generosity over greed, thanksgiving over self-pity. Sore Keirkegaard once observed, “It takes real courage to grieve, but it takes religious courage to rejoice.”

Sermon

A Bigger Table by Chelsea Musson

Holidays are times of stories, and the Thanksgiving story gets told and retold every year. This year’s rendition highlights one of the many things glossed over in the simplistic, mythologized version that lives on holiday cards and decorations. While we’re gathering with family, eating our favorite traditional foods, we don’t usually like to think about the suffering, disease, and starvation that preceded the very first Thanksgiving. Why would we want to bring sadness into this warm family gathering? It’s much simpler to put aside the negative parts and focus only on the togetherness, the family, the food, and use the holiday as an opportunity to pretend our lives are as simple and happy as the Hallmark First Thanksgiving story we learned as children.

But then we have times like now, where things have been very hard for a lot of people, where grief and exhaustion live at the edges of most days, quiet enough for us to continue getting by, but rarely gone. It is important to be reminded in times like these that gratitude uplifts our spirits even when things are not easy. Especially when things are not easy. And this story, with all the hardships and struggle kept intact, provides us a path forward, a way to find thankfulness amidst the complicated and difficult times in our lives.

Missing History

Our story during Time for All Ages ended by calling us to reflect on the stories we tell, and what stories we leave unsaid. In the historical Thanksgiving story that followed, even with special effort to include parts that are often left out, there was still a large, conspicuous empty space where the story of Indigenous Peoples belonged. Native Americans feature more heavily in this holiday’s story than any other in the US, and yet their perspective is markedly absent. If we were to invite them to our figurative table, as the family did in our story, what would we learn from their perspective?

Inviting new people to the table involves work; we have to find those extra tables and chairs and make space. Telling people they’re welcome at our table without giving them a place to sit ends the same way it would if we told them to go away. In our figurative Thanksgiving table, this means stretching our perspective, challenging our expectations, and practicing empathy. Like the story of the Pilgrims’ suffering, Indigenous Peoples’ stories of Thanksgiving are painful and unflattering, not the kind of thing we tend to welcome at our family dinner tables. The United American Indians of New England wrote: “Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”

Thanksgiving as a holiday is inextricably entwined with a legacy of colonialism that left entire peoples disenfranchised, and unsurprisingly, Indigenous Peoples have a fraught relationship with the holiday. Some have advocated for rejecting Thanksgiving altogether in favor of a National Day of Mourning. The United American Indians of New England have commemorated National Day of Mourning every year for the past 50 years, and they write: “Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

But Native Peoples are not a monolith, and some simply want a Thanksgiving that includes them at the table, instead of using Tisquantum and the Wampanoag people as set dressings for the Pilgrims’ feast. There is room at our table for these stories. We don’t have to turn away from the parts of Thanksgiving that give us hope and respite in order to acknowledge and honor the people we’ve been leaving out, and the stories they bring with them.

Missing Stories

If we look closer to home, are there other stories we’ve been leaving out, other people we may have been excluding from our table without realizing? Three weeks ago, we gathered together for our first in-person service in a year and a half, and many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief. We could finally see each other again, and the constant waiting with changing information and uncertainty could end. We gathered, we rejoiced, we started getting back into a routine, and then just like before, one week after Music Sunday, we had to move our worship online. Unlike in 2020, we adapted much faster this time. We didn’t need several weeks to put together a plan for virtual worship because we’ve grown and learned a lot of new skills since then. As a group, we’re much more resilient and flexible than we were, and this is definitely something to be grateful for.

But there are some people missing from this version of the story. While many of us gathered again in person, there were faces we didn’t see, parts of our community still attending online or not at all. Where were those stories?

The stories of people awaiting vaccination, and of people who will never be able to get vaccinated; stories of families whose isolation can’t end, because immunocompromised people need to be kept safe even when they’re vaccinated; stories of people who would return to in person gathering if they could trust that every person would take all possible precautions, and not just the least inconvenient; and stories of people who will never gather with us again because they’ve passed into the great unknown. These stories are the ones that were missing. Just like the other excluded stories, they’re not the feel-good stories we clamor to tell at holidays, but they’re stories that need to be heard nonetheless.

As we return to online worship, these stories can help us remember why we do this, who we’re taking care of with our choices, and importantly, remind us that we’re not alone. Disability activist Stephanie Tait has spoken at length about how it feels watching most of the country gather in person again and discard or laxly enforce safety protocols, because it forces her immunocompromised family to stay in near-complete isolation. They watch from inside while everything reopens, knowing that the more and more others celebrate a return to normalcy, the less and less safe they are. The most traumatic thing about the pandemic, she’s said, is going unseen and uncared for.

Telling All the Stories

If this reminds you at all of the experience of Indigenous Peoples during Thanksgiving, it should. Our lives are rife with stories we don’t like to confront, with truths that are painful to hear, especially on a holiday where we want to be focusing on the good things in our lives. But if our Thanksgiving origin story can teach us anything, it’s that our gratitude doesn’t need to be kept separate from the bad things in life.

Gratitude is made greater and more meaningful when we can find it from inside the complicated mire of emotions that come with all of the stories. Real life is full of grief and joy, struggle and hope, disappointment and a hundred other things, but we find things to be grateful for anyway. When we can find gratitude among all of this, rather than pretending the bad things are gone for the day, that gratitude is grounded in our lives and it becomes something we can carry forward after the holiday has passed, instead of a fantasy that fades the moment the real world sets in again. And, when we make room for the stories that too often go unheard, our table grows big enough to include the people too often left behind.

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