Dreading Thanksgiving Table Talk? Helpful Words from Jesus, Piglet and Pooh

Here is the homily I preached at the Simsbury Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church on November 20, 2016.

Luke 14:1, 7-11

Good evening!

For those who might be meeting me for the first time, I am George Harris, or Pastor George, as I am known to many at First Church Simsbury. I am fast approaching my one-year anniversary as that good church’s Senior Minister, and my six-month anniversary as a proud and happy resident of this special town of Simsbury. My family and I moved here all the way from New Britain where I had been serving a church for eight years.

My Simsbury colleagues turned to me several months ago and said, “George you’re new, and the new minister usually preaches at the Thanksgiving service.” Though I wasn’t given much of a choice, I was thrilled by the opportunity! I love to preach; some at First Church have told me that I am courageous, risk-taking, even fearless in the pulpit, unafraid to take on tough issues from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So I thought, how fantastic is this? I have the attentive ears of Simsbury all in one place. Think of all the trouble I could cause?

And then I read my Bible. Nothing ruins a preacher’s great idea for a sermon like reading the Bible. The parable of the wedding banquet in Luke quickly put me in my place. It’s not all about me. Jesus directs the guest at the banquet to humble him or herself, to choose the lowest place at the table instead of sitting at the head of the table. So much for my visions of grandeur.

As I sat down to think about this wedding banquet table in the parable, it morphed in my imagination into a table set for Thanksgiving. I smelled the delicious smells of roast turkey and fresh baked pies. I saw the best china, polished silver, the gravy boat that only comes out once a year. And the air is filled with happy sounds, the youngest cousins squealing as they chase each other through the house, older cousins comparing videos and music on their phones, and the grownups, many of whom have made the annual trek from out of state reconnect over a beverage.

Suddenly, these happy sounds are interrupted by “Wah-Waaah!” Oh no, it’s Debbie Downer! Some of you may know Debbie, a recurring character played by Rachel Dratch on the long-running sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live. Others will recognize Debbie Downer from your own Thanksgiving gatherings.

There was even a Debbie Downer Thanksgiving skit some years ago. A family is gathered around a Thanksgiving table filled with happy banter when one guy at the table says, “Wow, the traffic on the way here was a disaster,” to which Debbie responds, “Nothing compared to what the Chinese are going through…” Wah-Waaah… The camera zooms in on Debbie’s downturned face. Everyone falls silent and shifts uncomfortably as Debbie describes the typhoons and bird flu that have devastated China. Debbie finishes and the conversation picks back up; the father at the head of the table passes a bottle of wine around asking with a wink if the Pilgrims brought Pinot Grigio to the first Thanksgiving. Debbie responds to the rhetorical question with, “I’ll tell you what the Pilgrims did bring, smallpox.” Wah-Waaah… “they killed scores of Native Americans, ravaging their population.” Again the camera zooms in on Debbie. And on it goes, happy conversation followed by a buzz-killing comment by Debbie Downer until one person at a time walks away from the table leaving Debbie by herself. Finally, even the roast turkey gets up and walks away.

Almost as much as Thanksgiving meals are known as love-filled expressions of gratitude, they are also too often stressful gatherings rife with conflict. As a pastor, church members sometimes come to me expressing dread at the prospect of being at the table with Uncle Ferd or Aunt Izzy. I think this anxiety about family gatherings is true this year more than ever, given our bitterly divided political climate. I have a dear friend who has unfriended her own mother on Facebook as a result of their angry exchanges about politics, but come Thursday mother and daughter will be sitting across the Thanksgiving table from each other. Wah-Waaah. I don’t doubt that there are those here this evening who are facing similar fears.

Looking for a helpful word to share for those with Thanksgiving anxiety I again turned to Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. What would it mean to take the lowest place at a conflicted Thanksgiving table?

But before I could get very far in interpreting the text, my mind drifted to a more innocent time.

As a kid my family owned a twenty-five foot sailboat that we would take cruising on Long Island Sound and around New England.  One of my favorite memories from this time is rocking gently at anchor, the halyards clanging against the mast, and curling up below with my brother as my Mom read Winnie-the-Pooh stories to us. This was probably around 1970 when the Viet Nam War and accompanying protests were going on, so the times weren’t really so innocent. But fond memories of my 8 year-old self, listening to Winnie-the-Pooh stories, now seem worlds apart from our current trials.

Returning to some of those stories as an adult reminds me that there is some deep wisdom in those books by A. A. Milne. In fact Pooh and Piglet knew a lot about humility.

So, here is the lesson of the wedding banquet, interpreted by Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet, and applied to a conflicted Thanksgiving dinner in this conflicted world of ours.

Think of these as five steps to humility, ways we might work our way down from the head of the table, to accept Jesus’ invitation to take the lowest place.

First, seek understanding.

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has a brain.”

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has a brain.”

There was a long silence.

I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

This exchange between Piglet and Pooh about Rabbit reveals the difference between being clever and understanding. There is no doubt that we will be prepared for clever conversation around the Thanksgiving table, bringing carefully practiced and well-worn arguments in support of our favorite causes and positions. But understanding is different; understanding one another requires seeing from another perspective and may require leaving our clever arguments behind.

The first step to humility is to seek understanding. The second is to pay attention. This quote is from Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” This is an elegantly simple definition of mindfulness, a way of quieting our busy minds. Have you had the experience of formulating a response to someone’s comment before they have even finished talking? I pretty much do that all the time. It means we aren’t really present with someone or listening to what they are saying. We also aren’t in touch with how we are feeling. Maybe if we just sits, pay attention to our breathing, allow ourselves to be present with what is happening inside us without jumping in to respond, the energy around the table may change for the better.

Seek understanding, pay attention and then be patient. Piglet says, “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Perfect! When Uncle Ferd cuts me off and begins ranting, I will assume he has a small bit of fluff in his ear! He’ll wonder why I’m just sitting there smiling.

So, humility understands, pays attention, is patient, and then gives way.

Winnie-the-Pooh says, “Love is taking a few steps backward maybe even more…to give way to the happiness of the person you love.”

What would happen if we gave way on those hot-button issues that arise at the dinner table? I don’t think Pooh is suggesting that we give up our deepest held beliefs, but that the love that is nurtured by letting go in a particular moment could be more important than driving someone away on principle.

We are almost there. A last word from Piglet.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could still hold a rather large amount of gratitude.

With each of these steps we have worked our way down from the head to the lowest seat at the table. We seek understanding, pay attention, are patient, give way, and when we arrive at the other end of the table we just might find that our very small hearts are filled with gratitude for the people at the table, even Uncle Ferd and Aunt Izzy!

Of course Jesus’ lesson in the telling of the parable was never meant to apply to just wedding banquets or Thanksgiving dinners, but was meant to be a lesson for life. And again, none of this is to suggest that we stop fighting for what we know is true and just in our lives; Jesus stood up for who and what he believed in, even unto death. But like Pooh and Piglet, Jesus also sought understanding, paid attention, was patient, gave way, and lived with a heart filled with gratitude for God and all God’s children.

Whether in our encounters at the Thanksgiving table or in this conflicted world we live in, may we do the same.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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