My remarks at the New Providence – Berkeley Heights Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Monday evening at Faith Lutheran Church.
As I was preparing for this moment in this place, I have to admit that I was feeling a little….. ambidextrous. What exactly do I mean by that? I mean that I feel like speaking with both of my hands.
On the one hand, it is very strange to be standing here in the pulpit of Faith Lutheran Church without Pastor Mac here. But, on the other hand, it is the most logical, natural thing in the world for us to come together this evening in song, in prayer, in laughter and in community, as we all prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday. After all, this Interfaith Thanksgiving service is yet one more piece of the legacy that Pastor Mac left behind for all of us – regardless of our faith tradition.
Along those lines…. On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that this is our 11th annual Thanksgiving Service. On the other hand, it seems so natural. Haven’t we always come together for Thanksgiving? I’m not sure what took us all so long to figure out that we could celebrate Thanksgiving together. The truth is that being thankful is central to every religious system I’ve come across.
We are grateful to some higher power or powers. We are grateful to our fellow human beings. We are grateful for all that the bounty and beauty of the earth. The language of our prayers and the images that we create either through words or art might be different, but the basic concept is the same. And for those of us who find ourselves in this country – either because we ourselves made the journey or some ancestor had the foresight to do so – we certainly have a lot for which to be thankful. This country – despite any of the imperfections that we could all identify – is a source of tremendous blessing to those of us who live here.
In one of the two primary sources about what we call the first Thanksgiving in 1621, Edward Winslow wrote: “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.” That is still true today. Perhaps, things could be a little better, but we should always be thankful for what we have.
Over two centuries later, in designating (at that time) the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed: “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
Who among us doesn’t need a reminder every once in a while to be grateful for things that we take for granted? Which parent, grandparent, aunt, uncles or teacher has not had to say to a child “what did you forget to say?” in order to elicit a “Thank you.” So, we join together to tonight – on the one hand – because all of our faith traditions implore us to be grateful and – on the other hand – because it’s human nature to forget to offer thanks.
Any of you who have seen Fiddler on the Roof probably know that when we Jews start talking with our hands, we pretty quickly run out of hands.
So, on the one hand, it’s so easy and wonderful to come together tonight for thanksgiving – As the Psalmist wrote so many years ago, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters sit together.” On the other hand, it’s much harder next month, when our practices diverge and contrasts come into focus instead of our similarities.
Those of you who are NOT Jewish – and I am assuming that some of you here tonight are not, in fact, Jewish – may not know this, but over the years, there has been a conversation – a debate, really – about what to say when someone you don’t know – like a cashier or a waitress – says “Merry Christmas” to you.
Now, I’m going to have to use my fingers. There’s one school of thought that says it’s okay to let them know that you don’t celebrate Christmas and, therefore, they shouldn’t assume that everyone does. When I was young, I was inclined to be in that first school. After all, it’s hard to be on the outside looking in – as Evan Hansen would say, waving through the window and tap, tap tapping on the glass. No one likes the feeling of knowing that there’s something great and exciting going on, but it’s not for you.
There’s a second school of thought that says you should respond with something more neutral like “Happy Holidays” in order to show them that there is an alternative to Merry Christmas. As I got older, I moved firmly into that second school. I had grown to love my tradition. I didn’t feel that I was missing anything, but I wanted others to think about the possibility that we’re not all the same. And what gives the world meaning and structure for one person may NOT be what gives the world meaning and structure to another.
Then there’s a third school of thought that says the appropriate response to someone wishing you a Merry Christmas is: “Thanks. You too!” In order for me to fully understand this last possibility, I actually had to leave this country. I had to go to Israel, where I spent a year as student living in Jerusalem.
On my first Friday, living in Jerusalem, I went to the bank to get some money and then I went to a series of stores and shops in order to buy the things I would need to celebrate the Sabbath. Candles, wine, bread, meat, vegetables, flowers for the table. And an amazing thing happened. Every teller, cashier and vendor wished me a “Shabbat Shalom” — the traditional Sabbath greeting exchanged by Jews.
No one asked me if I was Jewish. No one asked me if I would be using any of the items I bought to observe the Sabbath. They just assumed I was Jewish and wished me a Shabbat Shalom. And you know what? It felt pretty good. I didn’t feel compelled to tell them that not everyone in Jerusalem is Jewish. I didn’t simply reply, “Good day” or some other neutral greeting. I said, “Shabbat Shalom” right back.
So, on the one hand, I know the feeling of exclusion when someone I don’t know assumes that everyone in the room or community is a part of the same group and I am not. On the other hand, I also know that feeling of inclusion when someone I don’t know assumes that everyone in the room or community is a part of the same group and I really am a part of that group.
They are two very different experiences. But, if we’ve only had one of them, it behooves us to try to understand what it’s like on the other side of the glass.
I have talked a great deal about hands this evening. So, I’d like to ask everyone to take the hands of the people next to you. Let’s remember how this feels. Let’s enjoy the somewhat easier task of using our hands to reach out to one another during this Thanksgiving season when we all seem to agree.
However, as we flip the calendar from November to December, let us try to remember the feel of one another’s hands as we clasp them together tonight. And then, let’s all reach out again, with both hands, with understanding and with inclusion. Then, we’ll all be talking with our hands ambidextrously.