Thanksgiving is just a few days away, and chances are, you are already making—or have already made–your plans for the holiday. Thanksgiving brings so many things we love–our comfortable traditions; people we enjoy; and favorite family recipes (both to make and to eat) that connect us to our past and give us a sense of sustenance for our future.
In our family we have a tradition on Thanksgiving morning of gathering at the local IHOP for a big breakfast, before the intense holiday cooking begins. I’m not sure how many years we’ve done this, but I probably love that time as much as anything we do for the whole rest of the day. We all go–my kids and their beloveds, and my grandkids—we push tables together and sit, bleary-eyed and barely awake, some of us still in jammies, and share a carb-elicious meal, drinking coffee or hot chocolate and telling stories that don’t really have to make much sense. There are a lot of sleepy smiles and it’s just good to be together. These are moments of precious and gentle connection before the busyness of the day begins. No matter how many people we invite to our Thanksgiving meal later in the day—and some years there are many—those early morning IHOP moments are for the tenderest of the tender bonds. Just us.
But generally, the feast of Thanksgiving itself isn’t a “just us” event. We open our homes and hearts to one another, and share a meal in the name of gratitude and grace. That was the intention at the center of what we think of as the first Thanksgiving, which took place back in 1621. Historians aren’t sure about the actual date but they think it occurred between September 21 and November 11, sometime after the first harvest. The first settlers we know as the pilgrims were actually closer to Quakers in belief than to the Puritans they are sometimes confused with. The pilgrims were separatists who wanted the freedom to worship in their own way, while the Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its former Catholic practices. The Puritans remained connected to the Anglican church.
The settlers had arrived in Plymouth Bay on December 20, 1620, and they started building their houses on Christmas Day. But their momentum was short-lived—they were stopped by a devastating illness that swept through the group, taking the lives of half of their settlement—50 people–in just three short months. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to endure such terrible loss—fathers, mothers, children, friends—in a strange and what must have seemed unforgiving land. Toward the end of that disastrous winter, Native Americans brought the settlers food—venison, corn, and grain—and their generosity helped those remaining make it through until spring. That was part of what they celebrated that first Thanksgiving.
Our Old Testament reading this morning, from the book of Ruth, also includes a story of terrible loss. After a time of famine, Naomi has lost both of her sons and her husband and finds herself along with her daughters-in-law in a foreign land with no means for support and no security for her future. She once felt blessed and close to God, but this devastating experience took away all her hope, and she tells her daughters-in-law to return to their home lands, suggesting they might marry again and have children. The other daughter-in-law tearfully complies, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi alone in her grief. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”
This is significant because Ruth was from Moab, and she didn’t know anything about the God Naomi worshipped. Choosing to stay with Naomi meant Ruth would give up her family, her people, her familiar gods, her tradition’s faith. And yet something in Ruth’s heart told her to stay. She wanted to be a comfort and an encouragement to Naomi, to help her find her way through heartbreak.
In Hebrew, Naomi’s name means “pleasant,” but when she returned to Bethlehem, Naomi was in such despair that she told the townspeople to call her Mara instead, which means “bitterness.” She was so convinced she’d been cast out of God’s favor that it changed her identity, altered her name, and filled her doubt that anything good was possible for her, for the whole rest of her life.
If you don’t remember the rest of Ruth and Naomi’s story, you’ll be glad to know it has a happy ending. Because of Ruth’s faithful devotion to Naomi—no matter how bitter Naomi was—God blessed them both, eventually bringing a happy marriage into Ruth’s life, and restoring Naomi to a life of security and contentment. There also was a bigger purpose unfolding: When we look across the span of time, we can see that the marriage that came about because of Ruth’s devotion to Naomi led to children that would eventually produce King David—Ruth was his great-grandmother—and then, further down the line, Jesus of Nazareth.
Ruth and Naomi’s story demonstrates that God’s blessing flows through and among people of all types, sometimes unexpectedly, across borders and around the globe. A woman from Moab befriends a daughter of Israel, and later, Native Americans care for starving pilgrims. God’s long-range plan seems to guarantee that we all have a place at the table, whether we see ourselves as worthy or not.
Our New Testament reading is the story of the King’s banquet, taken from the book of Luke. We hear a familiar parable about those who God wants to bless. Many who received the initial invitation didn’t think it was anything special. Either they overlooked its value or they had something more important to do, a television show to watch, tweets to read, social media to catch up on. When the person delivering the invitation goes back and reports what he’s heard, the host is understandably angry. He says, “Go out and invite to the feast everyone you can find. No one will be turned away—no matter what their age, their role, their ethnicity, their orientation. All are welcome.”
The parable says something about what it means to be accepted and welcomed by God. To have a place at the table, a little card with our name on it, reserved just for us. Some of us have a hard time envisioning that—it may be a bit hard to picture ourselves sitting at that table, having dinner with God and all of humanity. And, because we are human, it’s possible there are some folks we’d rather not sit next to—maybe there were hard feelings, hurtful words, experiences that are hard to forget. The good news is that our host knows just what to do with those kinds of problems—God’s love can transform any hurt or resentment into a strengthening bond of grace, if we’re willing.
Sometimes it’s not other people we’d like to disinvite but rather parts of ourselves we’d rather leave out in the hallway. At some point in our lives, we may have acted in certain ways or had experiences we wish we could now erase. Mistakes, bad choices, and blind spots are part of all our stories. It’s the human condition. But those things that we hold against ourselves—the places we feel we fall short in life–continue to live on in us, lurking in the shadows of our own self-judgment. Although past mistakes can’t be erased, they can be brought into the light, understood, and healed. And after God heals them, God may use those very things to bless others in surprising ways, redeeming those hurts and transforming them into a force for good that helps others who are struggling.
I’ve seen this first-hand in my own life. When I was 7, my mom remarried and brought my stepfather into our lives. He was loud, smart, and funny, a copy editor who worked second shift at the Indianapolis Star. He also—it turned out—had a problem with alcohol, and our family story during those years was dotted with chaotic weeks when he was drinking, which invariably slid into long stretches at rehab centers. In-between, we had tense months when he struggled to maintain his sobriety and went faithfully to AA. When I was fifteen, my stepfather hit a particularly rough patch, which wound up costing him his job at the Star. And after his next trip to rehab, he and my mom decided to divorce. Doesn’t sound much like redemption, does it?
But here’s the surprising thing: He never drank again. That moment, that low point, turned out to be the time that God really got through, the time hope whispered to him that he had a chance for a different future. He continued going to AA; in fact, he took classes and became a counselor specializing in recovery. For the next 50 years of his life—he lived into his 90s—he turned his experience of loss and struggle into a story of hope and light for hundreds—maybe thousands—of people who found themselves walking that same devastating road of addiction. He was absolutely dedicated to them, like Ruth to Naomi. He saw what they could be and made it his job to encourage them toward hope and healing. That, to me, is a redeemed life. It’s just one example, but God is doing that same kind of healing work, bringing light to this world—life by life by life—every single day.
Our role and witness, as Friends, is to hold onto the hope that even the most despairing among us are still and always within the reach of God’s grace. We are all works in progress. There is much going on in this world that we don’t see, much that we don’t understand. But as we look for that of God in each other, we get glimpses of God’s redeeming love at work in peoples’ lives. This Thanksgiving, maybe we can make space at our tables for the parts of ourselves we’ve held outside of God’s forgiving gaze. Maybe we can extend that soft welcome to everyone in our path, no matter what our history, no matter what kind of future we are picturing. In the here-and-now, we can experience peace, sitting shoulder to shoulder at God’s table. And we can truly give thanks for that.
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- OT: Ruth 1: 16-18
- Luke 14: 15-24