First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Thanksgiving Reflection

November 20, 2016
Rev. Sandra Fees

For many years we have shared in the breads of the world communion. We have been doing it annually for over a decade. I was introduced to the ceremony as an intern at Main Line Unitarian Church in Devon. I brought it here to this community where it has become a sacred ritual. Breading this bread together expresses important aspects of our Unitarian Universalist theology. This morning I want to highlight just three of them.  

First, this bread embodies our theology of radical hospitality. Our aspiration and our commitment is that all are welcome at the table – all kinds of people. Everyone has a place. And everyone needs to be fed. Everyone needs to be nourished – in both body and in spirit. Our Universalist heritage in particular insists that no one is outside the circle of God’s love and human worth and dignity.

Bread speaks to us of the hunger for inclusion. Why? Because we know that every culture and every community has people who are left out of the circle of care. There are those who don’t have enough physically or spiritually. There are people who go to bed and wake up hungry every morning.

In biblical times, bread (“lechem”) was such an integral part of the diet that the word came to be synonymous with food. Bread also came to represent life itself. And so the bread we shared this morning represents not only the food we need for the survival of our bodies but all that is needed for our survival. Bread addresses the many hungers we experience. Bread is shelter, equality, health care, justice, peace, and human rights.

To satisfy these hungers is to extend a radical hospitality. Our Unitarian Universalist faith asks: who among us is not being fed? Who is hungry? How can we address the world’s great hunger? In every culture there are people who work to feed the hungry. We are among those people.

Second, sharing this bread expresses our commitment to a truth and reconciliation process with historically marginalized groups. Unitarian Universalists have much to learn from those among us and those outside our UU faith who are members of historically marginalized groups.

Many Americans, including some Unitarian Universalists, celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday without realizing the pain felt by First Nation people. The first harvest festival in America, the first so-called Thanksgiving, has a complicated and painful history. For the Wampanoag community in Massachusetts, for example, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning focused on genocide. For them, it is not a day of celebration.

This past summer at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, delegates passed a resolution calling on our congregations to rethink Thanksgiving. Laura Wagner who proposed the “Thanksgiving Day Reconsidered” resolution says:

It’s not about boycotting Thanksgiving, but raising that awareness to stop the perpetuation of the story, the myth that’s told around Thanksgiving, that the colonists were welcomed and they celebrated this lovely meal together.

The year 2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower and the colonization of New England. Leading up to the anniversary, the resolution calls for a national education program for Unitarian Universalists about the real history of early America, particularly the reality of what happened to Native Americans. (The Washington Post, Unitarian Universalists helped start Thanksgiving. Now they have second thoughts.)

This history is not entirely negative. There are aspects to be honored as well. The pilgrims are some of the people Unitarian Universalists recognize as forebears. Many churches established by pilgrims and early colonists in New England in the 1600s later became Unitarian Universalist churches. The pilgrims came to this country in search of religious freedom and provided models of community that have informed our understanding of living in covenantal communities.

Third, bread expresses our theology of gratitude. In particular this ceremony expresses our gratitude for the contributions and work of people everywhere. In this season devoted to giving thanks, gratitude may be just a little harder to locate this year than usual. Many of us are finding ourselves still emotionally raw from the election season and feeling especially vulnerable.

The prospect of being with family and friends for Thanksgiving may be comforting or it may be especially worrisome. Long-standing differences and tensions within families can make the holidays stressful in any year. The election may be exasperating those anxieties. It may be making it harder to be together in love with loved ones. Some among us will be alone on Thanksgiving or unable to be with family who live at a distance. For some this aloneness might be a welcome time of solitude, but for others it represents a time of loneliness and longing, a deep hungering for connection. Still others are grieving losses, including loved ones who have died, relationships that have ended, financial struggles, and loss of employment, among others.

I think we all know that when life is humming along for us and our relationships are at their best, gratitude comes pretty easy. When things are going our way, gratitude comes pretty easily. Finding gratitude in times of human disconnection and deep-seated hungering for connection is challenging. Yet this is exactly when gratitude is most needed.

Here too we have much to learn from individuals and groups who have been historically marginalized. These individuals and groups know what it is to affirm that life is precious, to keep hope alive, and to remain in the struggle for the long haul – despite setbacks. During upheavals as well as times of progress, gratitude refuses to let go of what is good, true, and beautiful and refuses to allow us to succomb to despair. It affirms our connection and hunger to be one with the many people and cultures throughout the world. To be grateful is to remember that we depend on each other for our well-being.

Yesterday our board had its annual retreat to consider the value of this community and the board’s goals for the year. We began by sharing what we value about this religious community. Many things were mentioned. Two that stuck out for me were our commitment to social justice and the importance of community. I want us to take just a moment right now together in community to embody our gratitude for the connection we have to each other and for the existence of this religious community as a refuge and source of justice. I want us to say thank you to each other for our toils and struggles. Will you take a moment now to simply turn to a person or two close by and say “thank you, thank you for sharing.”

(pause)

Thank you for sharing. We need each other. The world needs us. You are going to hear this from me a lot this year - because it’s true. We need each other and the world needs us.

Here we gather, side by side, in this, our circle of kinship. Here we pledge to share the bread with all who hunger. Here we pledge to share goodness, hope, gratitude, courage, healing, justice, and beauty. This Thanksgiving may we raise our voices in grateful praise. May we lift our voices in song to the source of all, the spirit of life. “May we be made holy by sharing of our substance and sustenance with those who circle the earth.” (from the Breads of the World Communion)

Amen. Blessed be. Happy Thanksgiving.