This place matters

This place matters

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My last sermon for those what weren't there

These are just my notes, not anything formal or, you know, copy-edited, but it's the gist. I had read the story of the historical first Thanksgiving before the sermon, so you might want to do that if you find you've got no idea what I'm talking about. I may not have all the facts quite right, as I got them out of a children's book at the Canton public library, so be warned.

The magical heartwarming story of the first Thanksgiving is what we all learn in school when we're kids. And then we grow up and we learn it's not that simple. While the first Thanksgiving really did happen, and really was a heartwarming time when members of one Native American tribe gave food and comfort to a group of starving white settlers at Plymouth Plantation, this episode was just one tiny positive blip in the otherwise appalling history of the relationship between European settlers and the indigenous Americans. To quote one of my favorite movies, Across the Universe:
Thanksgiving is a heartwarming American tradition. It celebrates a time when the Indians shared their food with the early settlers. And how did we repay them? We slaughter them in thousands and ship them off to the shittiest bits of real estate.
But wait a second. Who is “we”? We are not responsible for the atrocities committed by European settlers all those years ago. My ancestors weren't even responsible – back in Ireland, the British had been doing the same awful stuff to my people as the British were doing to the native Americans here. So how come I'm a part of the evil, oppressive “we” and not the oppressed “we”?
People with skin the color of mine enjoy the fruits of racism every day. We have to acknowledge that. But that doesn't mean we're just inevitably locked into these two worlds, the world of “us” and the world of “them”? In fact, maybe the way a lot of well-intentioned peach skinned people take ownership of racism, in our seeing ourselves as the oppressors and the Native Americans or other folks with brown skin as the oppressed is part of what keeps racism alive. What if there were no us and them? What if we were all in this together?
So let's get back to the first Thanksgiving.
Squanto, whose name was actually Tisquantum, is credited with being the guy who gathered up members of the Wampanoag confederation and got them on board with helping out the pilgrims who were starving to death their first winter here. Tisquantum wasn't a saint and I'm not saying he was. He did a lot of bad stuff later on. And the pilgrims weren't perfect either. I don't want to gloss over that. But let's go crazy and focus on the good for a bit.
As we learned in the story, Tisquantum was as a very small child enslaved by Europeans who got off their boats, walked a little inland, snatched people up as if they were livestock, and left again. Tisquantum was torn away from his family, from the world he knew in an instant, brought back to Europe stowed in a ship like cargo. He was sold at an auction, and although he was freed by his captors, it would be many years before he would find a way return to the new world.
When he got home, he discovered that his entire tribe was gone, wiped out by a great plague brought to American shores by the white settlers. Tisquantum had every reason to hate people with white skin, to wish to do violence against them, to sit by while they starved to death in their new land.
But he didn't. He, along with a bunch of members of the Wampanoag Confederation, jumped in and helped, at great risk to themselves.
So learning all that got me thinking. If Tisquantum knew – had seen first-hand all the awful things that white people were capable of, how come he helped the pilgrims? I mean, maybe he was naive or maybe he was forgiving, or maybe he had a serious case of Stockholm syndrome. Or maybe, just maybe he recognized that the white people who had done all those horrible things to him weren't the same people as the folks starving to death next door to him – just because their skin was the same color, didn't mean they were the same people.
And how did the pilgrims repay him, by the way? Not by slaughtering his people or moving them to the crappiest bits of real estate, but by signing a treaty and honoring it. So Tisquantum was right, really, and he saw something that a lot of us don't – that the group of white people that he helped weren't destined to behave a certain way based on where they came from.
So anyway, learning about the fact that Native Americans were dropping dead of plagues all over the place, and under constant threat from all the European settlers showing up, I realized it's not like the members of the Wampanoag Confederation were rolling in riches themselves. They were a people under siege. They gave out of their poverty, not out of their abundance.
Okay, you want to hear a really cheesy story?
A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, "Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like." The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew which smelled delicious and made the holy man's mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. The Lord said, "You have seen Hell".
They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, "I don't understand." "It is simple," said the Lord, "it requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves."
As Thanksgiving, a celebration of gratitude, passes into the Christmas season, a celebration of generosity, let us keep in mind the example of giving not out of our abundance, but out of our poverty. Let us all find ways to challenge ourselves, to give of ourselves that which we don't have a ton of. Let's give of our money, our time, our energy, our passion. I mean, let's not kill ourselves, but let's just try. Each of us. Giving something we don't have a ton of to feel what it's like to sacrifice for another.
You see, gratitude is only the first part of the equation. There is no virtue to sitting down at the thanksgiving table and saying “Look at all this awesome stuff I've got. I'm so lucky,” if we don't then turn that gratitude outward, to share with others all that good stuff we're grateful for. And I'm not just talking about buying nice stuff and giving it to our loved ones, and I'm not even talking about donating to Community Christmas or sticking change in the Salvation Army kettle, although we should all do that too, if we're able. But give kindness. Give compliments. Give smiles, give a listening ear, give somebody company.
So that's your homework, and my homework too. Think of something you don't have a lot of, and then give it away as if you did. Stick that out into the cosmos and see what comes back. Every time we do stuff like that, we're creating the world we want to live in.


Bonnie Jacobs said...

Nicely done. Where did you preach this sermon? Was it perchance for a community Thanksgiving service? I did that once, contrasting the thanks of the one who returned with the nine who didn't.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Unitarian Universalist congregation here in Canton. We're lay led, so I get to take a turn now and then.