At God’s Table: The Thanks is in the Giving (Thanksgiving Eve: November 22, 2017)

Sermon for the 31st Annual Thanksgiving Service for Temple B’nai Shalom and Abiding Presence Lutheran Church at Abiding Presence.  My last as senior rabbi of Temple B’nai Shalom. 

We sit at the table and break bread with friends, and strangers who become friends.  We share memories and stories, in our hearts praying for understanding and a brighter future for our community and our children.  In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, Assad abu Assad of Hebron and the Perlins of Fairfax Station, Virginia, share lunch at the Holy Land Trust for interfaith dialogue and understanding, just one week ago today.

Assad talks about creating and coaching a soccer team for his son composed of Israeli and Palestinian boys, three of each per team.  He talks about how, in a very short time, the boys have become friends.  Some of us at the table cry, as he shares that this team is his hope and prayer for his son to have a better life in a world of peace, rather than hatred and mistrust.  He describes how he knew it was working when during a game his son shared the ball with his Israeli teammate, not his Palestinian friend on the other team. He describes how the families get together, despite the constraints of the current reality.

Others in the room share the deep bond they have forged with their Jewish dialogue partners.  Muslim, Jewish, and Christian partners in dialogue have broken the barriers of their communal narrative and have formed friendships, based on mutual trust and respect.

We are about the same age, Assad and I.  I share my last memory of being in Bethlehem, in 1972, as a 16-year-old teenager, and how I freely visited Hebron, as well.  There were no borders or barriers.  Assad remembers owning a construction company doing business mostly in Israel. He had Jewish friends and they stayed in touch and went to each other’s homes and sat at each other’s tables and were welcomed to each other’s wedding celebrations, with hospitality and respect. It was a lifetime ago before the promise of the Oslo accord resulted in the building of walls between two peoples who were actually co-existing and living together.

Over rice and eggplant, vegetables and lemonade we are parents and partners for peace here in this holy city. Where was the media when we got off the bus and a merchant came to sell us menorahs, prayer shawls  (tallitot), ram’s horns (shofars), and other Jewish objects, here in Palestine? Where is the media when good Muslims, Christians, and Jews sit and eat together, suspending their differences and grievances to speak of peace and compromise?

And after our delicious lunch, we learn together from an inspirational Palestinian Christian, Sami Awad, who shares that only after visiting Auschwitz was he able to feel the Jewish narrative and understand the ever-present Jewish fear of extermination.  He encourages all of us to go beyond our personal narratives to be able to live in the reality of today and vision for tomorrow.  And for the first time in a long time, I feel there is hope. And I understand Psalm 23 in a new way: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… my cup overflows.”  When you sit with a child of God, a fellow human being, at a table set by God with bounty and blessing, a table of good intentions, the perceived enemy cannot be an enemy any longer.

We sit at the table and break bread with friends, and strangers who become friends, just over a week ago, as I was part of a delegation from our Reform Seminary first visiting Poland and then Israel.  We are eating kosher style food in Warsaw, Poland, a city where, in 1939, one out of every three people were Jews.  Our new friends are young Christian Poles who have taken it upon themselves to preserve the Polish Jewish heritage of their country.  They know Hebrew and have visited Israel.  One of the women is the daughter of the man who created the Jewish Cultural festival that draws thousands together (a large number of whom are not Jewish) to experience the culture and music that survives even after our Jewish ancestors perished in the ghettos and death camps.

These same new friends will be our guides at Treblinka, where almost a million Jews were slaughtered in the most systematic and brutal way, in just one year, as part of the greatest mass genocide in the history of humanity. Half of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust were slaughtered by Nazis in Poland.  Many Poles were fully aware of the systematic extermination, and some used the opportunity to claim Jewish homes and belongings.

I marvel at these young people who are determined to keep the memory, heritage, and legacy of Jewish Poland alive as a sacred vocation, even as racist factions were protesting in the streets outside our hotel.

We sat at the table and broke bread with friends, and strangers who became friends at a Burke Community Center, decades ago, as the members of Abiding Presence and Temple B’nai Shalom got to know one another better over Jewish foods, as we shared Havdalah, the ceremony that bids farewell to the Sabbath, as grateful Jews wanted to show appreciation to the Lutheran neighbors who gave them a home and place of worship with more generosity than any community could have hoped to receive.

They sat at the table and broke bread with friends, and strangers who may have become friends, each praying for understanding and a brighter future for their children at that first Thanksgiving, after a long period of hunger and hardship that took half of their community of 102 colonists in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621. There were only four adult women left.

Ninety Wampanoag Indians who had helped those early settlers survive came with freshly killed deer and local grains. It wasn’t called Thanksgiving; it was a harvest festival of gratitude.  I am sure neither group imagined a holiday commemorated by turkey and pumpkin pie, football and shopping.   For that moment in time, suspicion was suspended as neighbors sat together over a meal.

Over a hundred years later, Thanksgiving observances were held in the time of George Washington, but it wasn’t until President Abraham Lincoln supported legislation that Thanksgiving became a national holiday, in 1863.  America was in the middle of a bloody Civil War and Lincoln hoped that the holiday would help to unify the bitterly divided country.  He knew what we all know, what God knew in our shared sacred text from Psalm 23, that when we sit at the table and break bread together, and share a meal, it is hard not to feel that the stranger, even the enemy, is a human being with dreams and prayers, children and hopes for the future.

Every group has its narrative of victory and defeat, suffering and hunger, adversity, death and then the resurrection of hope and possibility.  We gather together “to ask the Lord’s blessing” and we sit at our tables sharing the gratitude of our hearts for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us.

Brain research reveals that we are wired to complain, more so than count blessings.  But, this one day a year, our nation is bound in thanksgiving. Our brains are not just wired to eat and fall asleep, we are collectively and communally grateful.

I am more filled with emotion and gratitude this Thanksgiving than I have been ever before in my 61 years of life.  I am so grateful for family, my five beautiful grandchildren born over the last five years and the hope of the next grandchild to come, God willing, this summer.  And I thank God tonight for the friends, for all of you from both of my congregations, TBS and Abiding Presence, who are family of my heart.

I thank God tonight for my pastors, the one who took me and my people in off the street and gave my homeless congregation a spiritual home for nine years with an abundance of Christian love and the generosity of his heart and soul.  And I thank God for the pastor who was called to continue this act of Christian charity, becoming not just my pastor but my friend and fellow traveler in the world of serving God and others, as clergy, as women, and as mothers.   I thank God for both of you, my cherished friends, every day of my life, and I will offer praise and thanksgiving for you, and this community, until the day I die.

I am more thankful this Thanksgiving than ever before to be an American Jew, free, for now, in this Commonweath and country I love, even as I returned on Saturday night from the horror of the history of extermination and hatred of my people, who once sat at tables with their families and friends, created music and prosperity, great schools of learning and loved their country as I love mine.

I am thankful to be here tonight, even as their agony claws at my heart, and even as I still feel fear after the anti-Semitic vitriol that spewed through the streets of Charlottesville this past summer.

As an American, I think to myself, as you must, what is the Native American narrative of Thanksgiving? And what is the narrative of those who came to these shores filled with hopes and dreams only to find death and despair? Where is the story we do not have of the mother who lost her children to famine in this New World? or the father whose son was reviled and subjugated by those who came to these shores in search of religious freedom and a better life?

This summer, dear friends shared a story with me that touched my heart.  For years, they lived in Pennsylvania, and for years they put out birdseed for the birds in their yard, faithfully.  And after a while they noticed something:  the crows were leaving them bits of glass and mirror and other treasures near the bird feeder.  And when the Blue Jays ate their cat food, they were leaving seeds and other interesting things beside the dish.  They finally realized that the birds were saying thank you with these gifts.  There was a reciprocity of giving built into the relationship.  The birds were leaving something for my friends to thank them for being welcomed to their “table”.  It was a beautiful reminder in nature that when you are given something, and you are thankful, that you give in return.

Even for a bird, there is a natural inclination to offer reciprocity and giving as gratitude for generosity.  It is not words of thanks, it is action that nature models for us.  God gives and we are grateful.  Then what?  What are we supposed to do with our gratefulness? How are we to manifest our thanks?  By giving in return.

Everything we have comes from a beneficent God.  We are guilty every day when we make excuses as to why we are unable to find a way to share our abundance with those in need.  Isn’t that what God asks of us tonight, and over and over again in our sacred Scriptures?  To share with the needy, the orphan, the widow, the hungry, the stranger, those who are our kin and those who are not?

The response when life is good and prosperous, kind and generous is not a “thank you.”  The response for blessing, for the food on our table and those who share it with us must be “giving.”  The way we thank God is to GIVE.

We will sit at our tables tomorrow and we will be grateful to be alive, grateful for this house of prayer and welcome, so filled with God’s goodness and blessing.

We will sit at the table and break bread with friends and family, and strangers who become friends and family.  We will all offer our respective prayers of thanksgiving for the blessings that are ours to enjoy.  But, if we think the blessing and thanksgiving is enough, we will fail God.

God calls each one of us to GIVE:

Give understanding, and space for dialogue and reconciliation.

Welcome someone with a different narrative to your table.

Open your home and heart to someone who is not like you.

Sit at the lunch table at school or work with someone who is alone, someone who doesn’t look like you or even eat what you eat.

Keep someone else’s story or pain as your own.

Give what you have to someone who does not have.

God calls each one of us to GIVE to others in need as the best way to offer thanks for what we have been given.  It is a mutual relationship. The thanks is in the giving, as we pay God’s beneficence forward.

This is God’s table.  Tonight, we bring our offering to God’s house, this amazing sacred space I love so dearly that will always be a spiritual home for me.

Tonight, strangers and friends become family, at God’s table.  And thankful for 31 years together in peace, we pray, we sing, we eat, we are thankful, and we give generously to others in gratitude for the incredible bond and blessing that is ours.

Don’t give until it hurts.

Give until it shows how grateful you are.

Years ago, Pastor Bailey and I were sitting and drinking tea at my old house, before our synagogue building was built.   We got to the subject of our respective religious views of the world-to-come. I shared with Pastor Bailey that the Jewish world-to-come has an all-you-can eat buffet.  His eyes lit up, and he said he would definitely stop by.   I can’t imagine a more wonderful blessing.

May we all sit at God’s table and break bread with family and friends, friends who become family, and strangers who become friends, tomorrow and every day of our lives.

May we welcome others to our lives, our sacred places, and our tables, generously, so that in the world-to-come our hearts will be filled with a lifetime of shared Thanksgiving.  Amen.