Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, November 19, 2017
It’s almost Thanksgiving, the day when we gather with family and friends around a table. It seems we pay more attention to the food than anything else: how are you going to cook the turkey, and when will it be done? What kind of pie are we having? Wonderful things to think about! But the reason for Thanksgiving is right in its name—to give thanks. To say, “Aren’t we fortunate? Aren’t we blessed?” And there’s something good that happens when we do this. Our hearts widen a bit, we seem more open to the present moment and the gifts it holds. I wonder how many of you are intentional about this on Thanksgiving.
There’s a moment, when the meal is finally ready and on the table, and people are sitting down. It can feel like an awkward moment these days, when fewer people go to church or identify as religious. I’ve felt this with some of my extended family. Is there going to be a prayer or a blessing? One year the host simply raised a glass and said “Cheers!” For me, it felt like something was missing. Not just the ritual of a blessing before the meal, but the opportunity to say thanks for all of this—for this food, for these people and the love we share, for these lives we have been given.
If you feel this way too, then I want to encourage you to do something about it. You could offer to say a prayer or blessing at Thanksgiving. If you get to that moment, and no one seems prepared to do it. You’re a church person—you can do this! You could say a simple prayer, just naming what is going on in your family, and giving thanks for the good you see. You could invite folks to go around the table and say one thing they’re grateful for. However you do this, the act of saying grace helps people shift their perspective; helps them remember why we gather on Thanksgiving. If you’re not the host, it’s a good idea to ask if you can do this. I can almost guarantee that they will be grateful and relieved that you are willing to help out in this way.
With Thanksgiving coming, I keep picturing a scene from that TV police drama from the Eighties, “Hill Street Blues.” The show started with the cops gathered for their daily briefing. Their sergeant would always end with these words: “Let’s be careful out there.” Picturing you all going off to family gatherings this Thursday, that’s what I want to say to you today: let’s be careful out there!
Because you know, especially these days, there are minefields, right? Given the polarization in our country and all of the issues that people can disagree on these days, we can find ourselves getting into arguments almost anywhere. And who wants to do that on Thanksgiving?
My friend and colleague, Rev. Robin Bartlett, wrote a newspaper column recently about how people seem addicted to being outraged these days, and how that doesn’t help us to see each other’s humanity, how it keeps us from working together to make ours a better world. Robin had heard an interview on the radio with Al Letson, a liberal black journalist, who had stepped in to protect a right wing protestor at a rally in Berkeley, when that protester was being beaten by angry leftists.
Letson said, “What came to me was that he was a human being, and I didn’t want to see anybody die. And, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the events in Charlottesville, and I remember seeing the pictures of a young (black) man being brutally beaten by these guys with poles, and when I saw that I thought, ‘why didn’t anybody step in?’ And you know, in retrospect, it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t see my humanity, what matters to me is that I see his…”
In a world where too often we take sides that only pull us farther apart, Al Letson crossed over to help a fellow human, even though that person may not have acknowledged Letson’s humanity. “What matters to me is that I see his,” Letson said.
The other day I heard a story about someone in my extended family who was at dinner with his in-laws, and he brought up sensitive social issue. This person, convinced that he was right, tried to show everyone else that they were wrong. He still has the idea that if he shared the right newspaper article with them, or showed them the perfect episode of one of those political TV shows, the blinders would fall from their eyes and they would finally say, “You are right! And we were wrong! Thank you so much for showing us the error of our ways!”
I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about politics or argue about things that matter with those we love. It’s important to know what you care about; it’s good to be able to say where you stand. But let’s be careful out there. Let’s be careful with our speech, and with our assumptions, especially when we think we have cornered the market on the truth.
My teacher Carter Heyward wrote a book called Saving Jesus From Those Who are Right. She says this was originally intended as a response to the religious right, to challenge the ways Christian fundamentalism has distorted Jesus’ message. But she came to see “those who are right” as not only the Religious Right, but “all of us whenever we assume that we know it all or that our way is the only way to think or act. Those who are right,” she says, “tend to be impatient with God, themselves, and others. They do not accept the incompleteness of God’s creation.” Carter emphasizes “the significant theological and ethical, pastoral and political, difference between trying to ‘be right,’ on the one hand, and the struggle... for right relation on the other.”
Think about it. When you feel inclined to get into an argument with someone, at Thanksgiving or somewhere else, what do you want? To be right, or to be in right relation with them?
The rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman reminds us of the truth that we can’t change anyone else, as much as we might like to. We can’t change their minds or their behavior. We don’t have that power. What we can change is ourselves. Friedman writes, “If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them.”
When we change our own behavior, when we act with love and with integrity, that has the potential to affect positive change way more than our arguing or pontificating does. In every moment, in every encounter, we have a choice in how we are going to engage.
You’ve heard those words spoken and lived out by Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” We may tend to think of this on a grand scale. But where we have an impact is in our daily lives. In those interactions, are we being bearers of peace and understanding, are we encouraging health and growth?
You will be showing up on Thanksgiving, won’t you, hoping to be filled, not just with food, but with gratitude and connection. But there may be people at that gathering who have hurt you, or disappointed you, or made you angry. What are you going to do about that? I’m not saying you need to forget the past. But are you going to let it define the future? Is this the time when you will make a fresh start? When you decide to accept that you can’t change what is past, and so you’re going to focus on being grateful for what you have right now?
It’s good to be reminded that we always have a choice. How are we going to act? How are we going to live this day? Rebecca Parker asks us. “What will you do with your gifts?” And she answers, “Choose to bless the world.” (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/blessing/choose-bless-world).
It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? But it can be hard, especially with those who trouble and annoy us, especially some of those we are related to! But think about it—aren’t you fortunate to have them, to be with them on Thanksgiving? Even those who are not your favorites— what if they were gone? Deep down, aren’t you grateful for them? And if we can’t be generous and loving with our family, what hope is there for our world?
We each get to choose how we are going to act. And how we act will affect others, for better or for worse. Let us vow to be the change we wish to see—in our families, in this congregation, in the world.
Let us go out with this intention, to be the change. To be people who choose to bless the world.
Happy Thanksgiving, and Amen.