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The Welcome Table – 11/20/2011

One of the things about being a minister is that you collect lots of stuff. I’m sure that my dear colleague, Sylvia, can attest better than I to what a lifetime spent in ministry accumulates, but if you’ve seen my office, you know that I am already well on my way in the acquisition of curious items. Among these are, this panel of stained glass, which is a replica of one of the windows at Arlington Street Church, where I was an Intern Minister. There’s also this peace crane, which was a gift from a group of nuclear disarmament activists who slept on the floor of the church I served in Albion, NY.

And I also have this stack of little slips of paper. Last year at this time, our congregation shared a ritual where we each wrote or drew some things that we were thankful for on a piece of paper. And after we’d hung them around the sanctuary and taken them down, they ended up with me. Here’s one that says, “I’m thankful for the ocean and the sunlight, for my family, my friends, and other people’s patience with me.” This one just says, “The 3 Best Daughters in the world!” A couple of them are unlabeled drawings. This one is a family with a house, two cats and a dog. And this other one is a pretty fair likeness of our own church building. In fact, several of you listed your congregation as something you were thankful for last year. One of you wrote with gratitude about your “community based on love and abundance, not based on fear and scarcity.”

Now we are just a few days from another Thanksgiving. Like so many of our civic traditions it is a holiday with more twists and turns in its history than we usually acknowledge. A celebration of Thanksgiving in November was not an annual observance in this country until late in the Civil War, and its current place on the fourth Thursday of the month wasn’t set until World War II. But it is generally agreed that some of the roots of the holiday trace back to the English colony at Plymouth, almost four hundred years ago.

The first English-speaking settlers in what is now Massachusetts came to these shores with terrible odds of survival – they did not know the land, nor did they have any understanding with the native inhabitants here. Their celebration of the first successful harvest after their arrival is thought to be one of the forerunners of our Thanksgiving, but they never would have reached it without the help of the Wampanoag people, on whose land they chose to settle. The people of Plymouth received instruction in how to farm corn and hunt animals native to the area from members of the Wampanoag nation, and their leader, Ousamequin, sometimes called Massasoit, donated enough food to the settlement to see them through their first winter. What followed the success of English-speaking colonies here in Massachusetts and elsewhere on this continent – the wars, the stolen land, the broken treaties, the slavery, forced migration and mandatory reeducation – would seem to make Ousamequin’s gift a bitter object lesson in the dangers of generosity.

But although we need to remember the pain and injustices that are connected to the ‘first Thanksgiving,’ we should not let it harden our hearts to all that is good in that story. One group of people had come to a land they did not know – they were hungry, and at the mercy of the winter cold. And another group of people more secure and better prepared made the choice to be generous with their fellow human beings. This is the real ‘first thanksgiving,’ if there can be said to be such a thing. Not the party that the people of Plymouth held when their crops finally came in, but the gifts the Wampanoag gave to them during the hard winter. Because when we are truly grateful for what we have, the best way we have of expressing that thankfulness is by sharing that blessing with others. You sit down at a table set with good food, surrounded by people you care about, and it makes you want to pull up a chair, and invite someone else to sit down.

It is a bit like a story that is told in the Muslim tradition about Uthman ibn Affan, one of the great figures in the early history of Islam. The story goes that there was a famine that year in the city of Medina. Medina is an oasis city set amidst a vast desert, and much of the food that its people depended on, even then, had to be brought in from far away. The people grew hungry in waiting, until a great caravan, a collection of carts and wagons and camels and horses and people finally arrived with food to sell. That caravan was led by Uthman, and the merchants of the city went out to meet him and to bargain for the food he was carrying, so they could resell it to the hungry people of Medina, and make a nice profit for themselves. But Uthman refused to sell; no matter what they offered him, he shook his head and said that he had a better offer. Then he went into the city, and he gave all the food he had brought with him away for free. When the merchants turned to him, angry and puzzled and asking what sort of better deal this was, Uthman reminded them of a line in the Qur’an, the holiest text in Islam. “Those who spend their wealth in the way of God are like a grain of corn. It grows seven ears and each ear has a hundred grains.”[i] In other words, caring for others and sharing what we have with them is a gift that renews itself, over and over.

Which is why we began a project last year called Simple Gifts. Our society is very well practiced at helping us to want things that we don’t particularly need, and that won’t make us particularly happy or satisfied if we get them. And we know from the music and the decorations in the stores that the Christmas buying season has already begun. So last year we decided to work on helping ourselves and each other show our gratitude for what we have by sharing with others. Last year we raised $3,114.95 together, and this year I believe we can raise even more. Here’s a reminder of how it works:

It starts with a challenge to all of the individuals and families in our congregation. Take a real look on what you spend on Christmas, Hanukkah, and any other winter holidays you celebrate. If there’s more than one of you in your household, sit down at the kitchen table together and really think about this. Imagine together the ways in which you might spend more energy saying ‘I love you, I care about you, I want you to be happy,’ directly, and less on buying things that will wind up in an attic or a basement or the free section of Craigslist in a few years. I know a few of you shared with me last year that you just lived to give presents and you couldn’t imagine cutting back on that part of the season – but for you there may still be some room in holiday budget. Maybe in decorations, or perhaps in travel. Wherever you find it the challenge is to make giving one of the central practices, and one of the main expenses, of your household’s holiday season.

In two weeks, on December 4th, our children and young people will vote on a list of worthy non-profit groups that serve the common good. That’s right, Sunday School folks – you are in charge of what cause we’re going to give our gifts to. And in four weeks, on December 18th, we’ll gather whatever checks and cash and loose change we’ve set aside to practice our gratitude with, and pool it to give to the organization our children have chosen. Most of us, I know, have more stuff than we can reasonably use in a lifetime. A holiday that is about accumulating more stuff hardly seems helpful. But all of us, I also know, need ways to practice being grateful for what we have, and this is one such way: a way to help others, and also ourselves. I look forward to all the new ways of living our gratitude that we can discover together.

[i] Qur’an 2:261


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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