Thanksgiving mornings in my house always began the same way: a slice of Mom’s coffee cake, warm from the oven, a big glass of orange juice, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on the television, and newspaper spread out on the dining room table so we could polish the silver.
The scents of cinnamon and tarnish remover blended into an oddly comforting mélange of warm tininess, made more complex by the sautéing onions that would go into the stuffing, which would go into the bird. And the bird was huge – more than we and the family of our parents’ best friends could ever eat. There were enough sides to fill a plate twice over with small helpings, and practically a full pie for everyone around.
The whole house smelled amazing, the décor was perfectly autumn, and the long dining table had so many leaves in it we had to angle the table so Dad was stuck in one corner and Mom practically ate in the kitchen.
I never really thought about why Thanksgiving – and all the holidays really – were so important to my mother. I never thought much about why there was always room at the table…until now.
My mother and her family weren’t refugees from another country – in fact, as she researched our genealogy, mom discovered our roots in America go to the earliest English settlers – the Coles on the Mayflower and John Winthrop.
But at some point during the depression, my grandfather walked out on his wife and two adolescent girls – and grandma Grace, for whom I am named, pragmatically left the too-big house in Yonkers … and she and the girls stayed with one relative, then friends, then other relatives or friends, until the girls had graduated high school and met their first husbands.
My mother was, in a sense, a refugee, grateful for the space someone else made for her. And when she had a family of her own, and far flung relatives, and friends, and friends of friends, Mom made sure there was always room for one more.
Of course we welcome people in at thanksgiving. This congregation is so committed to welcome that even without a building of our own, we are still hosting a free thanksgiving dinner at the American Legion. Welcome and abundance is inexorably tied to the meaning and myth of Thanksgiving.
We get it from the originating myth, of course, that after a hard winter and meager harvest, the native peoples welcomed the pilgrims and offered a thanksgiving feast. In the story we’ve been telling for decades, the pilgrims were refugees too – leaving what they knew to be a harsh religious climate, seeking a place to build their utopian community. That the indigenous people didn’t have a restrictive immigration policy is probably what saved those English settlers.
And now, nearly 400 years later, we celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving, remembering this story of the pilgrims and that first thanksgiving, which teaches us, at least in part, about gratitude, the abundance of the fall harvest, and our commitment to welcome all, to make room at the table for one more.
So it’s a bit ironic that the debate on the national stage this week is about welcoming refugees from Syria – some of whom are moving to Long Island as we speak. Of course, the debate in part is the legacy of those pilgrim settlers, the refugees of our national myth. The reality is that the pilgrims were pretty clear about shutting the door after them, extending welcome to only those who looked like them and believed like them. But the myth is that we have always been open and welcoming, from the start…and thus the current debate seems antithetical to who we say we are as a nation, antithetical to Emma Lazarus’s words, memorialized on the statue on the front door of the country:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Or, in these words found in the gospel of Matthew:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.
How much room do we really have? Can we make room for one more? I remember the year we set the thanksgiving table for sixteen people – the most we’d ever had around that table, a number that meant we had to be very conscious about elbows and where to place the lefties. And as our family and our best friends’ family poured in, one more unexpected guest arrived. And my mother scrounged up another place setting, another chair, moved things around, and there was room – and enough food – for seventeen.
We are lucky to live in a nation that has abundant space and abundant resources. And whether by our faith or by our history, we have an abundant call to be welcoming – because most, if not all of us, came from other lands, and we must be careful not to shut the door behind us. Some may have native blood, descendants of a people conquered – and we bear that shame. Some carry the blood of people were forced to come in chains – and we bear that shame. Many of us have roots on other continents – with American ties decades or centuries old – and whether conquerors or refugees, our ancestors came here, expecting the door to be open.
Expecting there would be room at the table for one more.
We are grateful that today, in this time and place, in this church, we do have room, and we are welcoming to everyone – no matter their origins, no matter their class, no matter their orientation or gender, no matter their age or race. We are welcoming. We have room at the table for one more.
A Thanksgiving Communion
And so here we are – coming from many different places – bringing a slice of our heritage to this place, all welcome.
Now some bristled when I called this a communion last week – and I understand why. The word often carries difficult meaning and memories of less than open theologies and rituals. But let’s think about it for a minute – the word means simply ‘sharing’ and implies an intimacy…something often lost in the grand ceremonies of the Catholic Eucharist, but meant to be an intimate act nonetheless, between you and that which you are communing with.
It is meant to be a sharing blended with remembering – Jesus started that with his call to “eat this and remember me” – and so let us make a communion together.
Let us remember our ancestors and honor the culture they brought to these shores by eating these breads of the world. Those who brought bread to share, would you please stand and say what part of your heritage your bread represents? (people speak)
Let us remember our connection to this magnificent place we call the North Fork by drinking cider pressed from local apples.
Let us remember most of all our connection to each other – make a commitment to be open to one another and with one another and ensure there is always room for one more.
Let us pray.
We join our hearts in gratitude on this wondrous day where we have the abundance of our lives before us.
We remember this day of bounty all of those who do not have enough, who are afraid, who are lonely, and who suffer.
We wish for the abundance of this world to be shared, for fear to become love, for the lonely to feel welcomed, and for the suffering to know rest and joy.
For the labors, the love, the care that gave us the delights of this and every day, we say “thanks!”
For the nourishment of our spirit, the challenges that strengthen us, and the friends we have on the journey, we sing “thanks!”
For all that is our lives, for these good gifts, we whisper, “thanks!”
Overflowing with gratitude, let us shout, “thanks!”
The bread in these baskets was baked with love — abundant love, love that multiplies all that is around it. As you pass the basket to the person next to you, we invite you to turn to them and say “I offer you the bread of welcome.”
As the bread is passed to you, take a piece from the basket and eat it, in doing so taking in to you the welcome and love of this community.
The cider in these cups is pressed from apples grown here on the North Fork – a sweet nectar reminding us of our connections to this place and each other. As you pass the tray, we invite you to turn and say “I offer you the cup of community.”
As the cider is passed to you, take a cup and drink it, in doing so taking in to you the welcome and love of this community.
As you eat the bread and drink the cider, bring to mind those things and people for which you are thankful at this time of year, mindful of the ways we extend welcome, mindful of the ways we make room for one more.
We offer you the bread of Welcome and the cup of Community.
(Adapted from the words of Michael Tino)