Community Thanksgiving Sermon

November 25, 2015

The Power of Simple Kindness
Genesis 45: 1-15

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. I dare say it’s our best national holiday. It’s not a holiday that belongs to any particular religion or culture – it belongs to everyone in our country. And we need a day like that. We need a day that causes us to pause and to be mindful of our blessings. Clearly some people have more to be grateful for than others, but for the most part there’s nothing divisive about Thanksgiving. I know Thanksgiving has largely turned in to an opportunity to overeat, to nap on the sofa, and to gear up for shopping, but at least we’re all sort of doing the same thing. It’s a good day for our country. It’s a day that highlights kindness and encourages hospitality.

I love the fact that Thanksgiving is rooted in such a good story. In case you’ve forgotten what you learned in elementary school, let me remind you that the tradition of celebrating a day of thanksgiving goes back to the story of how the Pilgrims survived their first year in the New World. The Pilgrims arrived on the coast of Massachusetts in the fall of 1620. According to their own records, they hardly got off the boat that first winter. But those who survived the treacherous Atlantic crossing and the harsh New England winter disembarked in the spring of 1621, and they were soon met by some friendly members of the Wampanoag tribe.

I don’t think these Pilgrims appeared to be much of a threat, but I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if they had encountered hostility from the people Columbus had mislabeled as Indians. Things could have gone badly between them, but they didn’t. The Indians were helpful to the Pilgrims.

One particularly fortuitous turn of events was that the Pilgrim’s ship, The Mayflower, landed near in the neck of the woods where an English speaking Indian named Squanto was living. Squanto had been captured by an English sea captain and sold in to slavery, but he had escaped and had made his way back to America after spending some time in London, and through all of that he had picked up the English language. I guess Squanto’s experience with the English wasn’t all bad because he chose to help the Pilgrims adapt to the new world instead of helping to eliminate them. Consequently, the Pilgrims were much better off when the fall of 1621 came around, and they invited their Wampanoag neighbors to join them in a harvest feast – which we now think of as the first Thanksgiving.

They shared food, and they shared the land for a good period of time. The story of the interaction between the Europeans and the Native Americans got ugly fast in many other ways, but this story of the interaction between the Pilgrims and Wampanoags is a good one. It’s a story that involves a lot of surprising kindness, and stories like that are good to hear. They remind us of the goodness of people, and stories like that serve to extract goodness.

As surely as there are some stories that make us sick – there are these other stories that make us feel better. And we need to hear these good stories. I know my heart has been hurt by so many of the stories that we are seeing on the news lately. There are so many stories of predictable hostility. There is an abundance of hostility in the world today, and it’s hard to see how it’s ever going to be resolved, but it makes me feel better to remember this story of the first Thanksgiving.

Stories are powerful things. They can make us sick, and they can help heal our wounded hearts.

My father didn’t tell a lot of stories. My mother was more of the story teller in our family, but my mother died rather suddenly one year and it left us all feeling pretty devastated. We grudgingly engaged in the business of putting together her funeral service, and out of the blue as we were doing that my father said, You know, there was only one time that Martha threatened to leave me. Well that got our attention, and he went on to tell this story of the time my grandfather (his father) brought an old short-haired bird dog up to our house and tied him to a tree in our yard.

My grandfather was a good man in many ways. I loved having him as a grandfather, but he was not a particularly sensitive person, and he had somehow come across a bird dog that he just expected us to take care of. As my father told the story I remembered the day my mother and I drove up to the house and saw that bird dog tied in the yard. I was probably in about the 6th grade, and I remembered her being pretty quiet as we went in the house. My mother didn’t get loud when she was mad. She got quiet. I remember that we only had that dog for a couple of days, but I never really knew what that was all about until Daddy brought it up as we were sitting there planning my mother’s funeral.

That bird dog wasn’t the first thing my grandfather had imposed upon my parents, but it sort of functioned as functioned as the last straw. Daddy said: Martha told me, “Either that dog goes, or you go!” And then he said: And I didn’t want to go, so I told Tom he had to find somewhere else for that dog to go.

I think that was the first time any of us had laughed since my mother had died, and it was a very healing moment for us. Daddy told me he wanted me to tell that story at her funeral, and I did.

That isn’t a traditionally heartwarming story, but it warms my heart every time I think about it. I think that was the moment my father had to decide who was the most important person in his life, and I think he was proud that he had decided to do what he needed to do to get to stay with my mother.

Stories are powerful things. They can touch us in deep places. Stories of surprising kindness are particularly powerful. I picked this story of the reunion of Joseph to his brothers and his father because it is one of the many stories from our faith tradition that reminds us of how much more powerful it is to be surprisingly kind than to be predictably revengeful.

I think it’s worth noting that Thanksgiving Day wasn’t designated as a national holiday until 1863. It was at the height of the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation establishing this day as a national holiday and entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

It’s good to maintain a grateful heart during times of good fortune, but I think it’s even more important in times of distress to find ways to express a little extra kindness to people who are feeling particularly vulnerable. Thanksgiving isn’t just something to exercise when things are going well for us – Thanksgiving is the hard work we need to engage in when times are hard and relationships are strained.

I’ll be joining all of you good Americans who choose to celebrate Thanksgiving by gorging and napping on Thursday afternoon. That’s a nice tradition that I whole heartedly encourage and practice, but what I know is that the real work of Thanksgiving doesn’t just come when it’s time to clean up the dishes. The work of Thanksgiving comes when you are faced with an opportunity to extend kindness in a surprising manner to someone you may know too well – or to an ailing stranger.

It’s not easy to reach out in a risky way – the way the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims did to each other, but that’s the most fulfilling Thanksgiving tradition that we are called to maintain. And it’s through such acts of costly kindness that we come to experience the greatest sense of fullness. It’s such a good thing to practice courageous kindness. It’s good for your own heart when you do it. And it will help so many more when they hear the beautiful story of what you did when times were hard and hostilities were high.

Thanks be to God for placing the true spirit of Thanksgiving in our hearts and enabling us to live as those who truly understand the power of simple kindness. Amen.


2 Responses to “Community Thanksgiving Sermon”

  1. Cassandra Bonds Says:

    So sorry to have missed the service. Your sermon touched my heart. Kindness, thoughtfulness, and thankfulness cost nothing and should be so easy for each of us but are so often hard for us to offer to one another.

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