A Peaceful Thanksgiving

This is a sermon preached on November 18, 2018 at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, MD. Isaiah 36:1-3,Isaiah 36:13-20,Isaiah 37:1-7,Isaiah 2:1-4

There has been a saying going around on social media the last few years, one that gets shared a lot this time of year. It says, “If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”

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I love family meals. My family still sits at the dinner table regularly for an evening meal. There’s nothing better than the two of us, the four of us, and especially the six of us gathered around the table.

There is laughter, there is conversation, there is gratitude and sharing. It’s loud and rambunctious, it’s sometimes messy, and always entertaining. This week I will extend my table and put all the leaves in. I will round up extra chairs from the house and get out my great grandmother’s dishes and my grandmother’s crystal. We will use cloth napkins and I will make a dinner of love and care, a dinner of tradition and lots of butter.

For some of us, these are the sounds of Thanksgiving’s past, perhaps even its future, but not its present. For some of us we will gather together at our family’s dinner table, extended with all its leaves filled with anxiety and dread.

What will be said, who will be there, will we be able to avoid the landmines of “differences?” “Can’t we all just get along?” we will wonder to ourselves. “Can’t we put aside this warring madness for just one day?”

There are arguments that maybe we shouldn’t, that this is our chance to “turn the other side” and “bring them over to our side”. There are arguments that we should go into thanksgiving with our guard up, ready to fight the good fight.

So I had to laugh when I opened the narrative lectionary reading for today and it was about war and peace. As I contemplated changing it for our thanksgiving service to a psalm proclaiming gratitude to God for all our abundance, then I thought otherwise.

Maybe we should talk about war and peace, it may not be the most gratitude filled text, but it may just be a practical “how-to” guide to handle the American holiday of thanksgiving! The land of Judah is in the southern part of Israel. Israel was divided into two after Solomon’s son was defeated in war.

Hezekiah is the thirteenth king of Judah living in 700-600 BCE. He lives in the capital of Jerusalem, and like his sister country Israel the Assyrians have defeated his army and lands, an unstoppable force in this time. After defeat the king of Assyria sends a messenger to mock and scold not only the people of Judah but their God as well.

The King through his messenger declares that he is mightier than all the other gods of all the other lands he had defeated, and therefore is mightier too then this God in Israel. “Where is your God now?!?!”

When Hezekiah heard this he tore his clothes and covered himself in sackcloth. In other words, he mourned and grieved. When the prophet Isaiah gets wind of this he says to the king and his priests to not be afraid, that God will help them, but it will take time. God has not abandoned them.

The narrative lectionary does an interesting thing at this point. It has us turn back to Isaiah chapter two all the way from chapter 36 to remind us how we are to respond, what was foreshadowed for the people of God for this very moment. The people are to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore.

The representative of the king of Assyria has just mocked not only the people and their king, but their God as well. This political war isn’t just one of land and kingdoms, but of power and domination over the very souls of the people, their very religion. This is very, very personal. You didn’t just insult my official representative; you insulted my God as well. Today in America we are not at war with each other, and I think it’s important to remember that.

However, I do not think it is a far stretch in today’s political climate to draw some parallels here. Poll after poll tells us that Americans are more divided today then ever before, if there is a comparable time, it is civil war era contention. Can we ever get along? Will we ever end this warring madness?

I bet the people of Judah were wondering the same thing.

Two weeks ago SNL’s Pete Davidson mocked then Texas republican nominee for U.S. House of Representatives and former Navy Seal, Dan Crenshaw for losing an eye in “war… or whatever”.

As you can image the interwebs went crazy. In an opt-ed for the Washington Post, now member-elect Dan Crenshaw said this:

I woke up on the Sunday morning after the show to hundreds of texts about what Davidson had said. A lot of America wasn’t happy.

I agreed. But I also could not help but note that this was another chapter in a phenomenon that has taken complete control of the national discourse: outrage culture. It seems like every not-so-carefully-worded public misstep must be punished to the fullest extent, replete with soapbox lectures and demands for apologies. Anyone who doesn’t show the expected level of outrage will be labeled a coward or an apologist for bad behavior.

I get the feeling that … Americans sigh with exhaustion — daily.

Was I really outraged by SNL? Really offended? Or did I just think the comment about losing my eye was offensive? There is a difference, after all. So I didn’t demand an apology and I didn’t call for anyone to be fired. That doesn’t mean the “war . . . or whatever” line was acceptable, but I didn’t have to fan the flames of outrage, either.

SNL reached for with an invitation for Mr. Crenshaw to appear on the show and on November 10 he did alongside the man who insulted him, Pete Davidson. Pete apologized and Mr. Crenshaw said they agreed that certain things, like Veteran’s wounds were off limits. As I read the article and watched the video this week I couldn’t help but hear Isaiah’s words echo in my head. “turn swords into plowshares”.

Turn a weapon of war into a tool for peace.

Why is a gardening tool a tool for peace is a wonderful and very long discussion for another day and one I very much enjoy having.

They are both made from metal, metal mined from the same mines, thrown into the same fires, the difference is how they are molded and shaped. To turn a sword into a plowshare will take time and energy.

It will take literal transformation but it can be done. In a time and place where our words can seem like war- I ask you, what would it take for you to show up at Thanksgiving dinner with a plowshare instead of a sword?

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What would it take to meet your families with compassion instead of condemnation? Mr. Crenshaw continues in his opt-ed:

How, then, do we live together in this world of differing ideas? For starters, let’s agree that the ideas are fair game. If you think my idea is awful, you should say as much.

…People too often attack not just an idea but also the supposed intent behind an idea. That raises the emotional level of the debate and might seem like it strengthens the attacker’s side, but it’s a terrible way to make a point.

Assuming the worst about your opponents’ intentions has the effect of demonizing their ideas, removing the need for sound counter-reasoning and fact-based argument. That’s not a good environment for the exchange of ideas.

When all else fails, try asking for forgiveness, or granting it.

Friends, we all have a choice to make, not just this week, but every day. We can show up with swords ready to fight, ready to tear down and destroy the other, or we can turn those swords into plowshares, ready to do the hard work of peace and prosperity for all.

May it be so for you and for me.

To listen to the audio recording you may do so here.

Family. Food. Foot…in my mouth

This is what I’ve always said about thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year. It’s about my favorite things: family, food, and football. What’s not to love?

Last night I was a guest host on Pub Theology and we were talking about the awkward and divisive holiday meals where politics is on everyone’s no, no list.

But no matter what, we always have family, food, and football. “How’s the family? You wouldn’t believe what the baby did!” or “Is that sage stuffing I smell? Remember when grandad was so afraid of salmonella he used cook the turkey for 8 hours?” And when all else fails, “what’s the score?”

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Family First. Families have always been complicated. All families are, no matter how well you all get along or how toxic you are for each other. Thanksgiving being centered around family is… complicated.

If you spend Thanksgiving single or with your nuclear family, like I do, then it somehow feels like something is missing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great too, but there’s something amazing in the gathering of multiple generations. Don’t be afraid to mourn about the holiday if that’s what you need to do, but don’t lose sight of what you do have.

Do something nice for yourself. If you cook, cook it all. Buy the flowers that you would have bought if company was coming. Go out to dinner, even if there’s only one or two of you. Or, treat the day off as a free day. Order sushi and binge watch a good show, have a junk food day, the sky’s the limit! This is an opportunity, what do you need most?

The midsize gathering is probably the hardest. This is a few generations gathered, say 10-20 people (some of those children). This is where awkwardly all the adult can sit around one table and soapboxes get stepped upon. Politics and religion, God and country, all the hot button issues are land mines. This is also the perfect sized group for passive-aggressive behavior and multiple generations of family dynamics get played out.

No thank you. But if this is what you’ve got then dive in! What other topics is your ranting Uncle Joe into? Do 10 minutes of research on his second favorite person (besides Trump, Patton?) and talk about that. If he tries to bring it back to politics or you get cornered, say “I’d really rather not discuss this” and change the subject. You are an adult, you have rights!

If you’re hosting send out an email (or however you communicate) the day before and state the obvious. “Tomorrow is a day to give thanks and focus on each other as friends and family. In a politically charged world, which we all care about deeply, I’m/We’re asking everyone tomorrow to avoid hot button topics and rest from the 24 hour news cycle so we can live into the gratitude of each other.” This will probably not work, but it’s worth a try.

Last is the large family gathering. Multiple tables, multiple rooms. Find your tribe, stick with them. There’s safety in numbers. If the conversation gets uncomfortable, leave it. This is not you being avoidant, this is self care.

Take your cousin’s baby for a few minutes and give them a rest. Go watch an episode of Parks and Rec in your aunt’s bedroom. It’s 20 minutes, they won’t call the police. Force your grandfather to talk to you about his first job, or bring adult coloring for everyone, others will thank you. Assign yourself a task, put yourself in charge of the kids, or the dishes, or setting the table.

Then when the dinner is done, or the weekend, go home, open a nice bottle of wine and call a friend and debrief the day. Also, if you’re the one that loves to discuss hot button issues, remember this is not the place, keep yourself in check and do the work, this is not the time to pick your crazy cousin’s brain about gun control.

Food is Good. Thanksgiving meals are often traditional. If you love to cook but aren’t hosting, then decide that you will show up a little late. Cook your own Thanksgiving meal with all your favorites on another day so you can have leftovers too.

If you have dietary restrictions bring a dish. This not only relieves the host of “one more thing” but you know you can eat and not offend your host but also be a little satisfied with your meal. Restrictions suck, but it’s your day too.

Make all the pies. Seriously, Thanksgiving is about having all the pies, this is not a day to worry about waistline. Eat the pumpkin and the sweet potato, they’re vegetables after all! Pecan? Pass it. Apple? ah…please! Minced Meat? Okay, everyone had their limits.

Also, when the host offers leftovers, take them or if you’re hosting and you don’t want to give them away, don’t. You did the work after all!

Football: Is Nothing Sacred?

We used to at least have football. We could gather around the tv and coordinate dinner schedules to halftime and then TiVo came along and we didn’t even have to do that. A group gathered in the kitchen around the food preparation and others gathered on the tv with the occasional scream.

A lot of Thanksgivings arguments have been avoided because of football.

But not anymore. Some will blame Colin Kaepernick for his kneeling, others Trump for his involvement… AND there we are.

Open mouth. Insert foot.

If you’re boycotting the NFL, like we are, this is going to be one tough holiday. I don’t know a way around a “Trump vs. #noKaepnoNFL” debate. Which leads to a conversation on white supremacy and #blacklivesmatter.

Just accept that you’re screwed.

If you decide to suspend the boycott for one day to survive your family, no one will blame you, survival of the fittest, but tell your family you don’t want to talk about it. Simply DO NOT ENGAGE.

If it’s too complicated and you don’t see a way around it simply say, “I know you don’t understand but please, it’s important to me.” If football was the only thing that bonded two people together, as it is for many families. Accept your life is built on a lie and hide beer in your car. Also, create a fictional work emergency that makes you have to walk away from people for 45 minutes out of every hour.

These are not good solutions, but you’ve accepted you’re screwed so how can it hurt?

Seriously, good luck, and I promise you’ll make it. Remember, you are enough, you are loved, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Oh, and just to get the party started Happy Holidays 😉