All Souls Kansas City

November 24: “To See the Beauty of the World” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

So, Thanksgiving – can we just say, It’s complicated? Who is so small-spirited as not to feel the tug of gratitude for harvest? Even the harvest that is there for us every time we walk into any of the several grocery stores we are fortunate to have access to? Surely we all owe some props to the earth — to the sun and the rain, and the rivers and the soil, to the pollinators like the bees and the detrivores like the dung beetles who clean up so much organic mess, to the turkeys and the oysters, and the cows who make butter and the chickens who make eggs… Surely one fancy dinner party a year is not overdoing it in recognition of the sustenance that is provided by the sheer organic generosity of the planet.

Moreover, while I wouldn’t want to live in a Downton Abbey universe where I had to spend an hour getting into a fancy gown for dinner every night of the year, there is something appealing about once in a while making an effort, to dress nicely and behave nicely and use the good china and spend time enjoying food that is prepared with thought and effort. These kinds of domestic and social rituals help to reframe our lives when they are too often hectic and heedless, careening from one time-pressed obligation to the next with little opportunity for reflection, or for honoring that which is most important with our calm and undivided attention. Or else, when we find ourselves isolated, fearful, lonely, bored or sad because we can not keep up with that overstimulated pace. Occasions like Thanksgiving practically demand that we slow down, and set aside the multi-tasking responsibilities and on-screen distractions for a few hours, in service of the original form of networking, which is being in the actual presence of people who we are, for better or worse, connected to.

You’d have to be pretty well on your way to Scrooge-hood not to affirm the proposition of Thanksgiving at this level. But then on the other hand, there is the very questionable historical mythology of the thing. That whole dauntless pilgrims in search of religious freedom having a great neighborhood potluck to celebrate their survival and say thanks for the help of the friendly natives scenario, which is pretty thoroughly not historical, and would not have been the first European Thanksgiving in this hemisphere anyway, the Spanish having stolen a march on the English in both Mexico and La Florida. There is also the plight of present day Indian nations to consider, who have ample reason to regret whatever initial hospitality their ancestors may have offered, having endured two centuries of theft and attempted genocide by white settlers. The conventional colorful narrative about the origins of this particular cultural observance is a large load of white wash, and anybody who wants to move on the leading edges of justice, liberation or dismantling supremacy has some significant research and reconceptualizing to do.

Then, of course, there are all the contemporary realities that make any simple gratitude appear naive. One can scarcely give untroubled thanks for the gifts of the earth without acknowledging that the planet is on fire, to a degree unprecedented in human experience. The glaciers are melting and the seas are rising; our trash has overwhelmed the capacity of even the industrious dung beetle; the birds and the bees are poisoned and disappearing; the forests are being destroyed and the aquafers and rivers drained; and a wave of extinctions is underway that may very well end up sweeping homo sapiens in its train. Our traditional harvest hymns require significant nuance if we are to sing them as anything other than grim parody.

Our impulse toward gratitude must also contend with the political chaos of the moment. The line between irony and sheer hypocrisy is all but indiscernible when settler culture seeks to celebrate the arrival of desperate and incompetent strangers in search of a better life three centuries ago, while our elected government – itself a legacy of European political philosophy’s encounter with the traditions of the Iroquois confederacy – daily engages in kidnapping, incarcerating and abusing refugee children, and forcibly repatriating political exiles from repressive regimes to their foreseen deaths.

There is a bit more historical consistency between the vision of so-called religious freedom that the Mayflower pilgrims were seeking, and certain forms of cultural Christianity among their descendants of the present era. What the first New England colonists really wanted was not any form of diversity in worship, but rather a civil order in which their profession of faith would be the majority, and could be enforced upon everyone else. By the time those who became known as the founding fathers were undertaking their experiment in nation building a century later, the already existing religious diversity of the colonies made separation of church and state a practical compromise – though not, of course, protecting the religious practices of the indigenous tribes. Whatever thanks we owe today for whatever freedom of theology remains to us as dissenters comes only reluctantly and indirectly from that Puritan heritage.

Giving thanks during periods of armed conflict is both a tradition and a dilemma of long standing. Up until the time of the Civil War, days of national prayer and Thanksgiving were not annual observances, but declared spontaneously by governors or presidents in response to immediate events. More than 90 percent of these in the 17th and 18th century were military victories, many of them over the indigenous tribes, often in the form of massacres more than battles. It did not appear to disturb the consciences of the pioneers to offer gratitude to their god for the death, defeat, and suffering of their enemies – men, women, elders and children — who were, in their own minds, defending their homes and families in lands they had occupied for centuries with the blessing of their own gods. It was not until the Civil War and the World Wars of the 20th century, when people of European descent were pitted against other people of European descent, that something began to feel off about honoring these blood baths with feasts of celebration. Today we must swallow the knowledge of Syria and the Kurds, of Hong Kong and Barcelona, of Bogota and Bolivia, of shootings in Fresno, Santa Clarita, San Diego and Oklahoma just in the past month, along with our turkey and cranberry sauce. As the poet reminds us, “Peace is the temporary, beautiful ignorance that war somewhere progresses,” and we no longer have the luxury of wrapping our gratitude in that ignorance.

Not only is there all of this reality to contend with, there is also the fantasy of the Normal Rockwell family that few of us actually measure up to. The sheer financial and logistical challenges of assembling family members are daunting, even when the participants want to be together. And when folks do gather, their mutual DNA is no assurance of shared political opinions or religious values or child rearing strategies or sports team loyalties or agreement about the events of family history. In fact, Thanksgiving dinner is a spiritual exercise in relationships as much as in awareness of blessings, and it may actually be easier to give thanks for relatives whose annoying habits are not on display in front of our noses at that very moment. The cultural constructs around this holiday can invite us to feel that we, and our particular families, are failures if we don’t live up to the greeting card images by sharing profound and meaningful intimacy along with the homemade pumpkin pie. And if we don’t have a gather-able family, and don’t have the energy to organize a “Friendsgiving” celebration alternative, we can also be left feeling isolated and inadequate, convinced that everyone else is having a better time, because they are better at life, than we are. The invitation to consider one’s blessings can easily become an occasion for enumerating one’s deficiencies, whether privately or in the midst of a crowd.

As if that all wasn’t enough to justify the It’s Complicated designation, there is also the matter of loss. For some of us, the Thanksgiving table is the annual milepost by which we measure additions and subtractions to the family. Babies are welcomed, new in-laws and partners are encountered, and absences become apparent. Deaths and divorces and departures may be theoretical until turkey day, and that’s when it’s official; no more grandma, ever, and no more Cousin Terry until her hitch in Afghanistan is done. And of course it’s not just the people themselves who leave holes – there may be no more job, or no more driving, no more hearing, no more special pet, no more single family home, no more wine or wheat or meat or sugar for certain people. Little losses across the year, or big ones carving out the shape of memory; they linger unseen and perhaps unspoken around the table, but their inescapable truth flavors the meal. Like I said, It’s complicated.

This is the Thanksgiving recipe we all long to know, that has never yet been printed in a glossy magazine – how to reconcile gratitude with grief, and regret, and guilt for the past. This is where I think perhaps both the murdered trans women and trans people, as well as first nations people, and even the tarot cards, have a message for us. The seven of pentacles, the card which is the focus of Marge Piercy’s poem, stands for patience, persistence, and that which is earned through faithful effort, like a harvest. It is about the fulfillment of organic growth, which cannot be hurried by force, or bribed, but can only be attended to and nurtured. It is about receiving the gifts that you have cultivated over time from the seeds that you once planted, and things that grow, as the poet says, invisibly, underground, without noise. Thanksgiving is at its most honest when it celebrates these cooperative triumphs from the partnership of human intention and the larger wisdom of nature. It is when we are impatient, and rip things out of the earth to satisfy our greed, that we become a toxic species. Keep reaching out, she says, keep bringing in, including. Appreciate the result. Live as if you like yourself, and it might happen – that is how we will restore our relationship to this vulnerable planet, through patience, persistence, and humble effort. In fact, that is how you redeem any relationship, and for that, we could be truly thankful.

Prairie Rose Seminole, a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and descendant of the Sahnish/Arikara, Northern Cheyenne, and Lakota Nations is an educator and advocate, a leader in deconstructing colonial systems of oppression. In a recent interview with Netroots Nation, she said this:
To those who want to be our allies I would say: Question why people have these mistruths about us, because once you start doing that, then we can start healing as a community and saying oh, we have this history where my people killed your people and here’s how we move forward together, right? It’s not necessarily like get over it, but it’s like an acknowledgment of a hard truth that allows us to move forward.
To my own younger self I would say: Start to connect the dots and to realize that there’s so much that we, that I blame myself for. How my family was, how my community was. And then I started to really unpack all of those dynamics and relate them to intergenerational trauma, and relate them to how as Native people in our communities it’s like we’re here by design.
There’s a whole structure put in place to deny us our humanness and our beingness and our access to the political systems, to financial systems, and to everything around us. Like our wanting to be successful, our desire to bring our gifts into our community however those gifts present themselves in our lives, and we discourage ourselves because we don’t think we’re good enough. And I would tell my younger self that you are good enough.
And all this could’ve been done so much earlier if you just had that courage, right, to say this isn’t because of you. It’s that we’re here by design and the beautiful thing about that design is that we can change it and move forward and take our gifts and share them with the world.
To be an ally, with any oppressed people, is to question conventional misinformation, and acknowledge the hard truths that allow relationships to move forward. It is to find gratitude that the design can be changed, and gifts of community still given, even now, if we have the courage and the persistence and the willingness to change.
Finally, I hear the voice of Ysaye Barnwell as a prayer to the martyred saints of the transgender community; people who were not perfect, but who were perfectly themselves; who insisted on the joyful expression of their true identity with such authenticity that the world would not tolerate them, but had to see them dead. They have a message, a lesson, for us all, it seems to me; they saw the beauty of the world uniquely, through their own eyes, and their example invites us to do the same. Listen:

You used to rock me in the cradle of your arms
You said you’d hold me ‘til the pains of life were gone
You said you’d comfort me in times like these
And now I need you, now I need you, and you are gone

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes
Since you’ve gone and left me there’s been so little beauty
But I know I saw it clearly through your eyes

Now the world outside is such a cold and bitter place
Here inside I have few things that will console
And when I try to hear your voice above the storms of life
Then I remember all the things that I was told

I think on the things that made me feel so wonderful when I was young
I think on the things that made me laugh
Made me dance, made me sing
I think on the things that made me grow into a being full of pride
I think on these things
For they are true

I thought that you were gone but now I know you’re with me
You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear

I know that I am you and you are me and we are one
I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand
I know that I’ve been blessed again and over again

And I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes

Of course it’s complicated, friends – whoever told us that it was simple, lied. Authentic gratitude is a complex accomplishment, a cultivated work of patience in spite of lies and loss and tragedy and fear; in spite of all the ambiguities of love and connection; in spite of complicity and privilege and the unrelenting conviction that we could always, somehow, be better than we are. But I know that in this interconnected web of existence I am all the voices that ever sang to me of beauty and pride and truth, and they are me, and we are one. I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand, and that I have been blessed, over and over again. And I know that in this complicated, blessed world, for this complicated, holy life, I am forever thankful.