A Harvest of Gratitude
It is the time of frost. As the last remaining leaves finally let go and flutter to earth, it is time for us to take stock of the year’s harvest, and face the inevitable task of planning the dreaded Thanksgiving dinner.
We less talented cooks do our best to conform to tradition, often settling for tired imitations of the Thanksgiving feasts we think we remember from our childhoods. Those of us with more culinary aptitude do our best to impress with new variations on old themes. In either kind of kitchen, there’s the constant worry – will the turkey be done in time? Did I put the potatoes in too soon? Or even worse, the feared criticism of rude in-laws to who pose unanswerable questions, such as “what do you mean there are no candied yams with marshmallows”? Or the worst of all, “What the hell is a To-fur-key?!”
Despite the annual lessons in humility, we still seem every year to expect that this time, with determined effort and planning, we can finally create that scene from the Norman Rockwell painting, or the cover of Gourmet magazine. Given all the planning and preparation that goes into it, we could be forgiven for thinking that Thanksgiving is all about the food. We even call it Turkey Day. The traditional narrative bouncing around in our heads goes something like this: The pilgrims, upon first landing in the New World, suffered great hardship especially in that first New England winter. But thanks to help from the friendly local Indians, they learned how to make new world foods, like candied yams and corn casserole, and they were so grateful to God for this bounty of starchy dishes, that they held a great feast and invited the friendly local Indians over to impress them with their best English china. Well, something like that, anyway.
Yes, historians have taught those of us who are listening, that there were no giant-breasted Butterballs or pies—more likely boiled eels, venison and harvest grains. The native American diet, in addition to wild game, would have been all about the Three Sisters – corn, beans and squash, which they grew together in a natural mini-ecosystem. The beans vined upon the corn stalk, and the squash leaves spread around the based choking out weeds. So if you want a truly authentic experience, toss out the pies and stuffing and try roasted venison and the three sisters for a lean and healthful feast.
And I’ve got some more bad news for you. The idea that the Pilgrims were friendly with the native Americans is also myth, based on both oral and written accounts from both sides. The Protestant Separatists, who called themselves “Saints”, not Pilgrims, came to the new world to seek religious freedom, but only for themselves.
Native American advocates Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin, explain: “By 1620, hundreds of Native people had already been to England and back, most as captives; so the Plimoth colonists knew full well that the land they were settling on was inhabited. Nevertheless, their belief system taught them that any land that was "unimproved" was "wild" and theirs for the taking.” The first arriving settlers stole food from the natives and robbed their graves. Eventually, the Wampanoag would be decimated by the colonists, who took their land and killed them with disease and guns.
The three-day feast in 1621 was really not the “first Thanksgiving.” For the people we call the Pilgrims, a celebration to give thanks to God for any good fortune was a well-established practice. For the native Americans, their culture is one that is based on giving thanks every day for the gifts of life. Dow and Slapin remind us that for many native peoples today, "Thanksgiving" is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship. So much for Pilgrims and Indians holding hands around the Thanksgiving table, as much as we’d like to think of it that way.
So now I hear you thinking, “Thanks a lot, George!” First you make us feel guilty for taking pleasure in our delicious food. Then you shatter our cherished idea that Thanksgiving is our best, most unifying American holiday. As my son would say, “buzzkill!”
There is one element of the traditional Thanksgiving story that still resonates. Most of us are aware that the native American Tisquantum, popularly called Squanto, taught the Pilgrims how to survive in the wilderness. Tisquantum showed the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. This personal generosity, for me, is the beginning of what I would propose as the true UU vision of Thanksgiving.
Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux, elaborates on this concept of generosity: “These were not merely ‘friendly Indians,’” she writes. “They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary—but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing. Among many of our peoples, showing that you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect.”
We cannot undo the injustices of the past. But what we can do is to give thanks for the blessings we receive from each other. Look to your right, and to your left. This is our horn of plenty, our richest treasure. You are the ones who have given deeply to each other, without holding back… who have chosen to give your time to this sacred place despite the demands of work and family… who have chosen to show love and compassion for those in need despite having needs of your own… who have given of your wisdom and life experience to benefit those who are still searching for meaning.
So here is my own home-grown harvest of gratitude.
May we be thankful this day…
For Lorraine Wallis, who has been sharing her smile with the world for more than a hundred years…and counting.
For Jim Stoien, who teaches us the meaning of perseverance and the joy of candy.
For Tom and Judy Crouch, who have taught us that it’s never too late to switch religions.
For Mike Nolan, who is a Catholic and refuses to switch religions…but he still comes here anyway.
For Jeanne Morrel-Frankin, who always wins our hearts with the best batch of vargabeles at the annual Partner Church dinner.
For Paulita Pranschke, who inspires us to live in harmony with the earth.
For Tim Barklage, whose Better Life products give us one terrific way to do it.
For Lisa Ross, who worked with others to turn our love for the earth into a Green Sanctuary designation.
For Emily Pearce, who fills this sanctuary and our hearts with glorious music.
For Joel Knapp, who spices up our worship with steel drums and love songs.
For Bill Drendel, who allowed us all to discover his beautiful baritone singing voice.
For Danny Milam, who can give you goose bumps during a worship service with his baritone speaking voice.
For Teresa Sweeney, who has a way with words, and is generous in sharing them.
For Greg Hoeltzel, Tony Fathman and Dwight Homer, who remind us that jazz is a lot like Unitarianism.
For Rob Meister and Ben McClusky, whose dedication to running marathons makes them the best friends to have in the long run.
For Jeremy Colton, for having the chutzpah to wear that awesome black cowboy hat anywhere he wants.
For Emily Colton, for letting him do it.
For Carolyn Haller, who teaches us how to find the best in each other, and put our musical and theatrical talents to use in building community.
For Ted Haller, for being, well, Ted Haller!
For Charles Manley, who posed the question, “am I the luckiest man alive?” even though we all thought he probably already knew the answer.
For Kimberly Perry, who is the world’s best worship assistant and cornucopia maker. And who is a very big part of the reason that Charles Manley is the luckiest man alive.
For Thomas Perchlik, who delights us with stories of coyote and raven and multi-colored elephants. And so much more.
For Amy Genova, who, like me, loves movies, beer and young people. And poetry. And plants growing in her window sill, given by friends.
For Jane Hoekelman, who adorns our window sills with festive seasonal and holiday cheer.
For Margaret Weck, who loves a rose in the wintertime.
For Mary Markiewicz and Brian Blosser, and others who are working to turn on the light of welcome for members of the LGBTQQIA* community. And who are teaching us that these letters represent real people who need this church to stand with them, on the side of love.
For Bob and Cathy Reszinski, who show their love with donuts and freshly brewed coffee every Sunday.
For Terry Yakota and Dan Franklin, for providing that fair-trade coffee, faithfully.
For Sue Herzberg, whom I greeted on her first visit, and who now greets me as our congregation president.
For Marietta Hunsche, who after 70 years of church membership, could probably answer any questions that Sue might have about how things are done around here.
For Melanie Fathman, who will never let us forget our past.
For Mary Ward and Yvette Clemons, whose newsletter and yellow sheets never let us forget our present.
For Jim and Victoria Bosnick and the rest of the young adult group, who show us what our future is going to be.
For Augie Underwood, who is the very embodiment of love—and who, along with her entire family, has given generously to the care and nurturing of our children.
For Eden Vitoff, who accompanies the Hope Choir on piano, and squeezes in a little Beethoven during rehearsal breaks.
For Terry Reilly, who, miraculously, year after year, fashions our dear children into a heart-warming tableau of angels, multitudes, wisemen, shepherds and sheep. Always more shepherds than sheep.
And for Lynn Hunt, who teaches them the ways of our faith and sends them to Boston for proper indoctrination. And reminds them put a few coins in the Guest at Your Table box on their dining tables at home. And teaches them to bake cornbread and pour cider.
For Carole Watson, who wears a small banana tattoo on her wrist as an outward expression of her and John’s love for their little lost grandbaby.
For Sue Ashwell, who called just to make sure Betsy was OK after her recent brief hospital stay.
For Sidney Watson, who works for health care for all.
For Rena Chesla, who has shown us all that it’s possible to make a fresh start and take a leap of faith into the unknown –while holding on tightly to the hands of friends, and trusting that they will never let her fall.
And for my wife Betsy, who took a leap of faith by marrying me 20 years ago and brought me here to this sacred place of her childhood. And introduced me to Gloria Grimm’s cheese ball, which I will make again this Thanksgiving.
Who are the special people that you’re thankful for? There are so many more names that are in my thoughts this morning. I’m just sorry I can’t name each and every one of you. I am truly blessed.
Thomas recently shared with me a conversation he and Amy recently had about what it means when people say they are blessed. Doesn’t it mean they are somehow claiming to be God’s chosen people, or somehow superior? I now think I have the answer, Amy. We are not blessed by being a chosen people. We are blessed by people choosing…choosing to share their gifts generously with others. We create blessings every time we choose, like Tisquantum encountering the Pilgrims, to share the gifts we possess that can nurture and sustain our fellow human beings. We create blessings when we make a place at the welcome table for a newcomer, or light a candle in honor of those who have fallen away, or say a prayer for the healing of a broken world.
I am so thankful for this community, for this crazy quilt of colors and patterns, stitched together with love and mutual caring, and handed down from generation to generation. May this quilt be our gift to warm and comfort all people. May each of us continue to give generously of our gifts and, in so doing, foster a spirit of giving in others, so that the whole world might be blessed with the spirit of abundance.
November 18, 2012
Webster Groves, Missouri
*Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and allied