The following is an excerpted version of a sermon delivered last Sunday by Rev. Emily Gage at Unity Temple:
I’m lucky enough to have had a lot of Thanksgiving celebrations in my lifetime. One memorable year when I was already a minister, so more or less a grown up, I flew to my dad and stepmom’s house. My dad had just had a serious accident falling out of a tree stand. He was delivered home from the hospital after I arrived into a hospital bed from which he could not get up. He was always head chef for Thanksgiving, but that year he directed the cooking and baking from the room next to the kitchen. I made an excellent, very elaborate cranberry relish that I never would have attempted otherwise.
I have been thinking about all the Thanksgivings past. Most of these happened some time ago, and will never happen again in the same way, for all sorts of reasons. Some of those whom I loved have died, and others have been born. People have been married or divorced or moved or any number of things. And still, even though those Thanksgivings will never happen again in the same way, they still are with me. Memory can be like that — it can stay with you and be part of you forever. On my way to exploring memory, I was also reminded of this quote from Linda Hogan: “Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me. ‘Be still’ they say. “Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.'”
Each one of us is here today because of all of those who have come before. If you think back on the Thanksgivings you may have celebrated and about those people who have been part of that, and maybe think about when they were younger and who they celebrated with, you can keep going back in time. When I was younger, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my grandma, and there was a time when probably she celebrated Thanksgiving with her grandmother in Maryland, the one who was probably Jewish and was an immigrant from Germany. I don’t know what that great-great-grandmother celebrated, but she celebrated with someone, and they did before that, going all the way back in time.
And here’s the thing — all those people are part of who you are today. That great-great-grandmother loved my grandmother, and she loved me and that is part of who I am. And now part of who my son is. We are the result of the love of thousands.
We are also the result not just of love, but of people’s actions, and events, and places. My favorite story about Thanksgiving is about Sarah Hale, the woman who pretty much single-handedly ensured that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Laurie Halse Anderson writes about this in her awesome book, Thank you, Sarah! Sarah got this idea that all of us in this country should take one day to give thanks at the same time. So she wrote letters to make it happen. It sounds like something easy, but it turns out it took her “38 years, thousands of letters, and countless bottles of ink” until President Lincoln finally said yes.
Thirty-eight years. When I think of how much work there is to do to make the world a better place, I take Sarah as inspiration. If she kept at it that long, I know that each one of us can make a difference in this world.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863, which was probably one of the worst times in our history as a country. The Civil War was happening, people in the country were battling each other, and the future did not look good. We weren’t sure what was going to happen to the United States; we didn’t know what, especially, was going to happen to the enslaved people. And still, Lincoln agreed that it would be a good time for people to stop and look around and give thanks.
It seems like it would be easier to give thanks when things are going well. But I agree with Lincoln on this — I think it’s even more important to give thanks and be grateful when things are at their most challenging. I went to the Shabbat of Solidarity a couple of weeks ago, to gather with people after the tragedy at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. We gathered to mourn and to celebrate what someone called “subversive joy.” Subversive joy is an act of resistance. Giving thanks in difficult times is also an act of resistance. Giving thanks reminds us of the good, it lifts our spirits, it gives us courage to keep being who we are and doing what we need to do to help the world. There are many things that are weighing heavy on my heart these days, and so I take deep breaths and enjoy the clear cold blue skies. I hug the people I love. I enjoy delicious food and interesting conversation and great music. I appreciate being warm and cozy on a cold almost-winter’s day. I keep on learning and sharing my voice.
I am part of the thousands, the millions, the infinity that love the people and the world around me.
I have been lucky enough to have been part of many Thanksgiving celebrations over the course of my lifetime. They have not always been perfect. There’s been lumpy potatoes and spilled gravy, and arguing over toys, and bad table manners. There’s been traveling misadventures and difficult sleeping arrangements. There’s been ones where I’ve missed someone because I’ve been far away, or missed someone because they died. But there is always, always something to be grateful for. And so each has been perfect in its own way.
“Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me. ‘Be still’ they say. “Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.'”