I have prepared for you a special Thanksgiving table. You see it there? Goodness, what a strange-looking table!
There’s a turkey on the table. Well, that’s normal. But a lamb is also lying on this Thanksgiving table. And Abraham Lincoln has his feet beneath the table. And Jesus of Nazareth. And a woman is down there on the floor, weeping.
What a strange Thanksgiving table this is! What’s that lamb doing there beside our traditional turkey? And why was Lincoln invited? And that dismal, weeping woman – who let her in here?
Everything about this Thanksgiving table seems askew and out of place. Nothing belongs except the turkey. So what about the turkey?
We always think of turkeys at Thanksgiving time, remembering our pilgrim forebears – how, after a severe winter when they had an abundant harvest, they celebrated. Governor Bradford declared three full days of thanksgiving during which the pilgrims feasted, and although they were a somber people, they knew how to feast. They invited their “Indian” friends to come and eat with them, eating, among other things, venison and wild turkey. That’s why we eat turkey at Thanksgiving.
What a beautiful thought! Sitting there at table with their Native American friends! And yet, we cannot think about this without feeling pangs of conscience, remembering what happened later — how those who were native to this country were driven along many trails of tears onto reservations, and how many are mistreated still. And soon we will be sitting around tables groaning with food and afterward we will be groaning from having eaten too much, while many in the world do not have enough.
But wait a minute. I just heard Old Abe clear his throat, so we better get to him. What’s he doing at this Thanksgiving table?
Well, you see, our forebears celebrated many times on many different occasions – when the crops were good, when a ship arrived from England – but the thanksgivings they celebrated were never annual holidays. It was not until the Civil War that a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale brought about the first Thanksgiving Day. She was the editor of a prominent women’s magazine and she wrote editorials and letters to President Lincoln asking for a Day of National Thanksgiving. Finally Lincoln consented, and proclaimed the last Thursday of November, 1863, to be an official Day of Thanksgiving, stating that although the Union was at war, the nation had reason to give thanks.
And yet there really was not much to give thanks for when Lincoln announced that first Thanksgiving Day. The cannons of war were booming, men were dying, and the North had gone without victory for a long, discouraging time. Fort Sumter, where the war had started, was again under bombardment, this time from the Union navy seeking to recapture the fort. And down in Chattanooga, Ulysses S. Grant, the newly appointed, untried, untested commander of the Army of the West, was not accomplishing much. Lincoln was worried.
Some people were saying that Lincoln had better get busy and order up a victory for Thanksgiving Day – which Lincoln would have liked to do, for he well knew that he was now so unpopular that he could not possibly be reelected. Indeed, the committee in charge of the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg had been reluctant even to invite the unpopular president to speak, and asked him to keep his remarks brief.
When Lincoln left Washington to go by train to Gettysburg, someone made the quip that it was “the dead going to eulogize the dead,” for Lincoln was now a dead card in the political deck.
After the tiring train ride, Lincoln dined alone in his hotel room. Not feeling well, he looked over his short speech for the following day and went to bed early. The next day he was driven out to the cemetery where he sat on a platform while a great orator of the time, Edward Everette, discoursed long and elaborately. Finally Lincoln stood up and read from a single sheet of paper: "Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…"
He went on to say that although the world would not long remember his words, it could never forget what those who had struggled here had done. He went on to say that it was not enough to dedicate this land as a hallowed resting place, but far more important that we here be dedicated to the unfinished work remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The speech was short. Some were disappointed with it. On the train ride back to Washington, Lincoln felt ill. He laid down and had a wet towel placed across his forehead. Later, in Washington, it was discovered that he had small pox. The president took to his bed.
And the days wore on and the guns boomed and the earth trembled as men died on battlefields north and south. And then, just before Lincoln’s Day of National Thanksgiving arrived, newspapers of the North filled up with nervous, uncertain headlines. Something was going on near Chattanooga. Grant was moving. Something was happening, nobody knew what. And then, just as Thanksgiving Day arrived, the papers of the North trumpeted out the jubilant news. There had been a major victory at Chattanooga. Grant had taken the city.
So all across the north that first Thanksgiving Day, families had reason to give thanks, though many gave thanks through tears, having lost loved ones – sons, brothers, fathers, husbands – lost, swallowed up in the great war that swallowed up so many, that swallowed up so much.
And the fighting went on, and the earth shuddered, and men died North and South as the divided nation struggled on toward that day when the war would end. And as the war was coming to its close, Abraham Lincoln, again elected president of the United States, stood before the nation and closed his second inaugural address by saying: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and his widow, and his orphan, to do all that may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Not long afterward, Lincoln was dead, assassinated, his death a tragedy for the nation, South as well as North.
So, Mr. Lincoln, goodbye. We are glad to have had you at our Thanksgiving table, for even though you presided over a nation at war, you were a man of peace, a man whose heart yearned for peace, for the biblical vision of swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and nations never again learning war.
But why is that lamb lying there on the table? And that weeping woman – I hear her still.
The lamb is there because I cannot think of any significant gathering at any significant table without remembering the table where Jesus and his disciples gathered on that last night before he died, that Passover table on which lay a roasted lamb, symbolic of the redemptive blood smeared on the doors of the children of Israel on that night when, traditionally, God struck broad Egypt and set them free, sent them streaming out of slavery, out of the house of bondage into freedom – free!
And Jesus and his followers gathered to celebrate that ancient tradition, the lamb lying before them and the bread and wine and bitter herbs reminding them of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, and reminding them too of their own bitter slavery still under Rome, and their undiminished hope for freedom.
But Jesus gave them something new to think about that night, for he took bread and wine and told them that he was about to become a sacrifice of love intended to bestow on all the world new freedom from all bondage – bondage to sin, fear, death, and all the old alienations, shames, and despairs.
What a significant table! Yet every table fellowship with Jesus had been significant, for he made sitting a table with him a joy – a feast of joy in anticipation of an even greater feast the prophets said was coming, the old prophetic dream that God would one day spread a table for all peoples, all nations, and they could come and sit together at a banquet of love, joy, fellowship, and universal peace, and all would be one family, brothers and sisters together, with no more hatreds, no more shame and sin, no more crying, and tears would be wiped from every face.
Jesus especially loved that old prophetic dream, that vision, for once in he sang out joyfully, “Many will come from east and west and sit at table in the kingdom of God.” We too yearn for such a table, and would like to think the Native Americans will be there, all the tears they wept on their trails of tears wiped away, and all the victims of black slavery also there, made whole, with every scar from every lash, before or since, somehow removed and healed.
Oh God, that that day could quickly come! For our swords have grown so huge and dangerous! Our swords have turned to missiles, our spears to rockets, our chariots to tanks and submarines that can destroy entire cities and kill whole continents.
If only we could turn those spears into pruning hooks and plows, into implements of peace in a world at peace where all will have enough and none too much and we can all be one family of love.
But how can that day come? What does God want of us? Commitment to justice, righteousness? Determination that never again will we allow people to be treated as some have been treated, blacks, minorities, immigrants, all the less fortunate peoples of the world?
Then let us lift up human rights, animal rights, earth rights, for all are one. Natural rights, ecological rights – the right of our life-giving rivers to flow unpolluted to the sea, the right of oceans to maintain their health, the right of our atmosphere to cleanse itself, the right of all of us to drink clean water and breathe fresh air. And if that costs us something, then let it cost us something!
Surely that’s what God wants. Surely the old prophetic dream is God’s own dream!
But I think God wants something else as well, and perhaps the only person here who knows what that is – is the woman down there weeping on the floor. She’s weeping at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus tells us that she knows. She knows what really matters. And, Jesus warns us, we may not.
Here we are, sitting at table with Jesus and all our good, pious friends, and here comes this woman into the room, weeping.
We didn’t invite her. We don’t want her here.
But she comes into the room and stands near Jesus weeping, and when she notices that her tears are wetting Jesus’ feet, she kneels down and starts kissing his feet and wiping them with her hair.
And Jesus does not draw his feet away from her, as we think he should. He does not thrust her aside. He accepts her. And we say to ourselves, “How can he have anything to do with a woman like that? She’s trash. He ought to pull his feet away from her. How can he even let her touch him?”
And Jesus turns and says to us, “You see this woman? She’s closer to God than you are in your self righteousness, because she knows God’s loving mercy. She knows that she’s forgiven. She knows that I accept her. Her tears are tears of grateful joy because she knows that although her sin is great, God’s love is greater. Before she even came into this room, she knew I would accept her. As you should too.”
Dear friends, that’s what God wants this and every Thanksgiving Day: Humble, loving gratitude.
Gracious Lord, we give you thanks, remembering our pilgrim forebears and that table where Native Americans also sat, remembering also that table where there was a lamb and bread and wine, anticipating the greater table in your kingdom where all may sit in love and fellowship with no more war or sin or shame, and tears will be wiped from every face. We want to sit at that loving table, Lord, so teach us, we pray, to approach it the way that woman did, with humble, loving gratitude. Amen.