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Thanksgiving Care

by Rev. Andrew Warner
Nov. 18, 2012

In a church named after Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, thanksgiving comes as special holiday, a time when the whole nation looks back on our spiritual ancestors.  

Norman Rockwell shaped my internal image of thanksgiving; in a classic painting he depicted a grandmother bringing a huge turkey to a table of eager eaters, anticipation glistening on their faces, as a proud grandfather stood ready to carve up the bird.  We replay the image of Rockwell’s meal in so many ways in our country.  Sometimes literally: I saw an ad for a kitchen store offering to sell their versions of all of the dishes used in Rockwell’s painting.

But years ago I looked more closely at the image Rockwell gave us.  He created the iconic thanksgiving painting to celebrate a speech of President Roosevelt in which FDR spoke of the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  The grandparents and their brood spoke to the freedom from want.

With that in mind I saw how the table Rockwell imagined offered abundance but not indulgence.  Food enough for everyone at the table, but they drank water.  Meat but no wine.  Food but nothing too special.  And looking around the table Rockwell depicted, I saw all of the grandchildren and the mothers but few of the fathers.  Painted in 1943, during the Second World War, the men were not at the table.  
Abundance, but also absence. (Post sermon note: looking again at the painting this point was overstated).    

Looking at the painting now, I see the it depicts thanksgiving as a gathering to share what we have in the midst of our own needs, the abundance of care amid the experience of want.

Whether or not there ever was a first thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, there certainly were numerous meals in which the beleaguered Pilgrims shared what they had with others at table, an abundance of care amid the experience of want.

Historically, the first recorded mention of a thanksgiving celebration among the Pilgrims came in 1623.  One of many difficult years for the Plymouth Colonists; this time drought nearly wiped them out.  In desperation their community called for a general fast.  Everyone would spend the month fasting and praying for rain.  The day after the fast was declared, it rained.  Then a ship loaded with supplies and new Pilgrims arrived from the Netherlands.  They moved from fasting to feasting, as their governor led them in prayers of thanks to God.  

The Pilgrims reflected the long understanding of thanksgiving in our spiritual tradition.  It comes out in the reading from the Prophet Joel, who said, “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain.”  Joel heard God promise renewal and restoration of the land - drought overcome by rain, barren fields blooming, empty storehouses bursting, once meager tables overflowing.  Joel called the people to offer thanksgiving, to express their joy at the renewal and restoration God brought.

Unlike the Pilgrims and Joel, I don’t believe God directs the rainstorms.  But I do believe God works for renewal and restoration in our lives.  Thanksgiving as a holiday points me to look at the places and relationships in my life where I have experienced renewal and those places and relationships still needing restoration.  Like Rockwell’s painting with the missing soldiers, Thanksgiving means more than turkey; it is the reminder of the beauty and brokenness, the presence and absence around my table.  This Thanksgiving, how will you name the renewal God has wrought in your lives?  And how will you name the places in your heart which need restoration?  How can you have an abundance of care amid experiences of want?

A few weeks ago I passed a personal milestone - fifteen years as your pastor.  The apostle Paul often wrote to the churches he served with words of thanksgiving.  I know what he felt.  There is much I am thankful for in our congregation: the gifts of so many musicians and artists who make worship inspiring, people passionately engaged in community service, the constant witness of this congregation for the rights and dignity of all people.  I can see many places of renewal and vibrancy in our church.

But I also see places and relationships which need restoration.  Aware of the abundance of our gifts, I see something wanting in our community.  As I look to the years ahead, I see a need for us to grow and deepen our capacity to care for one another.  

Last year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our congregation becoming an Open and Affirming Congregation; twenty years of publicly welcoming the LGBT community to our congregation and speaking across the region for equality.  Our welcome is widely known in Milwaukee.  Many of you joined Plymouth because of our openness..

During the celebratory season of being Open and Affirming, Linda Valdez asked me a question which stuck with me.  She wondered, “One of the first things I knew about Plymouth when I came was that gay people were welcome here.  I could sense it in a thousand ways.  What would it be like if our care for one another was as self-evident?”

Its a great question: what would have to change in our life together for mutual support and care to be as palpable as our open and affirming stance?

Throughout the last year the Board of Deacons and the Befrienders each sat with this question.  And they are discerning a new program initiative for our congregation, a program of the United Church of Christ named “Called to Care.”  The program involves many volunteer jobs, concrete ways they can implement care for each other; but it is about more than duties and roles and job descriptions.  It really aims to have us imagine how we can develop a culture of caring as vibrant as our culture of inclusion.  

Afterall, care and support of each other is larger than any job description, either staff or volunteer, in our church.  A recent TED talk on NPR captured it well for me.  Barry Schwartz was speaking about the overhaul of the healthcare system but he began by listing off the job description of the hospital janitors, things like:

- make beds and change linens

- mop floors and stairways

- pick up paper or trash

- clean up spilled liquid or food

The list was quite long; I won’t read it all, but you can imagine all of the different elements that went into the work.  Schwartz then made an observation, “There isn’t a single thing on this list that involves other human beings.  Not one.  The janitor’s job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital.”  

But then Schwartz went on to describe the actual work day of the janitors, not their job descriptions.  Mike stopped mopping a floor because Mr. Jones was out of his bed, trying to build strength, walking up and down the halls.  Charlene ignored her supervisor’s direction to vacuum the visitor’s lounge because she knew a family who was there every day had finally found some quiet to sleep.  Or Luke, who washed the floor in a comatose patients room twice because the patients father didn’t see him do it the first time.  

All of those janitors provided care, kindness, and empathy to their patients, care which was not spelled out in any job description, but which mattered and even contributed to the patients healing process.  

What are the ways we can work care and support for each other into everything we do as a congregation?  Being a caring congregation can’t just be the job description of the pastors, the job description of the Deacons, the job description of the Befrienders.  How can kindness and empathy be part of the palpable energy of our congregation?  

I think we face two roadblocks - one is a fear of vulnerability, the other of perfection.  I think it is a challenge for us to be vulnerable with another, to name the ways in which we need support.  There is a hesitancy, not unique to Plymouth, to share our failures, our pains, our brokenness.  

And yet we all carry those stories with us.  Several years ago I worked on a manuscript for a book on Christianity, a basic introduction to our faith.  Many of you read early drafts of it and I appreciated your input and encouragement.  I hoped it would become a book, but finding a publisher turned out to be much harder than writing it.  

My timing was not right - I was looking for a publisher just as the recession started and the long downturn in publishing began.  But perhaps it was also the concept.  Regardless, I kept plugging away at finding a publisher.  Several times it seemed likely, once a publisher was ready to send a contract, but then news would come of downsizing, a constriction in what the press would publish.  It was discouraging, and frankly deadly to my ego.

It was one thing to tell you and others that I was working on a book; another thing to talk about being unpublishable.  I know we all carry these kinds of stories - hurts and worries, pains and anxieties, which we aren’t sure we can share, aren’t sure we want to share.

I go on retreat with a group of friends, other pastors from around the country.  And one of the things we do is to share what is on our hearts.  One year I shared the disappointment in my effort to become published.  Naming what I carried inside didn’t solve the problem, but it didn’t feel so lonely afterwards.  I felt their care, love, and kindness.  Sometimes we carry things inside of us so long and for no apparent reason; my friends didn’t love me any less.  And with their care I loved myself a bit more.

What things do we all carry with us but do not name?  I think one of the roadblocks to our congregation becoming a more caring place for each other is the fear of vulnerability.  Could we each share something with others in our congregation?

But another roadblock is a desire for perfection.  We want to get our caring right - to know just what to say, to get it right - but often we fail to say anything at all.  We lift up people in prayer every Sunday; how many phone calls do we each make during the week?

I saw this need to get it right play out in friendship this past year.  As you know, I like to cook.  And this sometimes presents problem when friends want to invite me over for dinner.  This summer I had a week off with the kids here in town.  I mostly puttered in the kitchen, learning how to make and can jam.  But I also worked on several dishes for a dinner party with friends.  What started as a dinner became a feast after a week in the kitchen - seven courses, a tasting menu, through a variety of recipes from Sanfords.  Watermelon Sorbet with Feta Cheese Sauce and Balsamic Vinegar Reduction, Gingered Beets with Provencal Granola, Mascarpone Toasts with Maple Glazed Dried Tomatoes and Greens, Salmon Spiedini with Sauteed Spinach and Saffron Olive Dressing, Duck Sausage with Fingerling Potatoes, Sauerbraten Dumplings with Red Cabbage Raisin Vinaigrette, Hazelnut Praline Pastries, Chocolate Macarons, and Drunken Cherries.  

Well, it looked like we wouldn’t get any invitations for dinner after that meal.  But this fall one couple invited us over.  The wife kept apologizing for the meal and wouldn’t let her husband cut the lamb at the table, for fear we might all discover the meat was not cooked properly.  But for all her apologies, the food was excellent - a harvest flavored salad of blue cheese and walnuts, breadstick twists with black pepper, a herb rubbed lamb roasted and succulent.  Wonderful food.  

The truth is, I’d have also loved tuna casserole.  When it comes to food, I’m a racoon, and I love it all.  But what mattered to me was the care expressed in the dinner, the hospitality, the company, the conversation.  It didn’t matter if the food was perfect, because the act of care is what mattered.

And something similar is true with our care of one another.  We don’t have to have the perfect phrase of comfort to a grieving friend, we don’t have to be Oprah or Dr. Phil.  We just need to reach out - to call, to write, to hug.  Because while we search for the perfect thing to say, someone else wonders why we don’t say anything at all.

I know that we can become a congregation where our care for one another is as palpable as our commitment to social justice.  We can do this.

And I know we can because I already see so many ways this happens quietly in our congregation already.  Last month I went to see Sally Schmidt in New Castle, where she is recovering from some setbacks with Parkinson's.  Sally had only recently moved to the rehab unit from the hospital, so she didn’t have much with her.  On a dresser were a few favorite framed pictures of her children.  And on her bed, a quilt.

She pointed it out to me.  “The quilters made it for me three years ago.  I always keep it with me.  It makes me think of church.”  A small gift, an act of care, a tremendous impact.  When we care for one another, it makes all the difference in our lives.  It gives us a reason to be thankful when we know the abundance of care amid experiences of want.

Alleluia and Amen.  

Stewart, Alison, “Barry Schwartz,” TED Radio Hour, NPR, May 25, 2012.