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Thanksgiving Day | Thursday, November 28, 2019

Transformative Tables

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Kent M. Organ
Interim Pastor, Presbytery of Chicago

Psalm 145
Ephesians 4:4–6, 14–16

Vicky: Celebrating holidays with relatives has gotten trickier for people in recent years. Political polarization is straining many family ties. This seems especially true for Thanksgiving, which often comes on the heels of an election or in the midst of a political campaign season. Or today, which begins the weekend when, in the nation’s capital, Articles of Impeachment are being drafted by Democratic staff while, at the same time, Republican staff are writing counterarguments.

Two years ago a study was done on holiday gatherings. This was right after the last presidential election. It was found that, that year, Thanksgiving dinners attended by people from divergent party precincts were nearly an hour shorter than for those who ate with folks from compatible districts. The researchers calculated that, in the aggregate, this added up to 34 million lost hours of cross-partisan conversation during Thanksgiving 2016.

When extended families do talk politics, what happens is that participants tend toward “belief polarization,” which means that positions get more extreme and combative as the discussion goes on (Keith Chen and Rhyne Rohla, “The Effect of Partisanship and Political Advertising on Close Family Ties,” Science, vol. 360, 1 June 2018, p. 1020). It’s no surprise, then, according to the study, that 39 percent of American families intentionally avoid political conversations during the holidays. That’s true for our extended family. Perhaps it’s true for yours, too.

Kent: Consider today’s epistle lesson from Ephesians. Ephesus was one of the seaport cities of the ancient Mediterranean world; these were astonishingly cosmopolitan. Crews from the ships—from throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East—filled the streets and establishments of places like Corinth and Ephesus. And because diversity has a way of engendering division, Paul’s letters to the churches there bristle with admonitions for them to remember their fundamental unity, despite every indication to the contrary. The fourth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians emphasizes this oneness repeatedly. The author writes, “There is one body, one Spirit, . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.” Never forget—in the face of every disagreement and contradiction—that you yourselves are one. Therefore, “we must no longer [act like] children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine. . . . But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up . . . into Christ.”

At our best, Christians have endeavored to live in that way. For example, during the era of the old League of Nations, an official who was high in the secretariat was once asked whether he noticed any difference in the way the Christians acted, so far as the practical functioning of the League was concerned. This official was not himself a Christian. He thought for a time, and then replied, “I have observed that when deliberations have reached such a point of acrimony that adjournment is required because the organization’s very existence could be in jeopardy, it is the Christians who return the next day ready to begin again as if nothing had happened.”

Apropos of the current awkwardness in family gatherings due to politics, listen to a word from Eleanor Roosevelt. She said, “It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own. For the same reason,” she wrote, “I believe it is a sound idea to attend not only the meetings of one’s own party but of the opposition. Find out what people are saying, what they are thinking, what they believe. This is an invaluable check on one’s own ideas. . . .  If we are to cope intelligently with a changing world, we must be flexible and willing to relinquish opinions that no longer have any bearing on existing conditions” (Jon Meacham, “The Impeachment Inquiry Is about More Than Donald Trump—It’s about Who We Are as Americans,” Time, 18 November 2019, p. 38). Or, to put it in contemporary terms, don’t let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think.

Vicky: Exchanging ideas and perspectives across differences, and building community, is essential to being faithful to God. Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, recently wrote:

For a long time, it seemed that politics in the United States was “old hat.” I sometimes thought that supporting one party or another was almost like choosing Coke or Pepsi; you might have a preference, but it didn’t really make a difference. But recently our politics have grown more and more divided with many religious people exclusively focusing on narrow issues of abortion or sexual identity while disregarding the lives of so many—refugees, the poor, the incarcerated, the abused or addicted, people at risk from climate change or pollution. What will it take to come together and work for the common good—not only our personal interests? (Richard Rohr, “Politics, Old and New: Willing to Be Changed,” Daily Devotions, Week Forty-Seven, 22 November 2019)

Kent: Peter Armstrong, a white, straight, male seminarian at Yale Divinity School, looks to the Gospels for practical guidance for what can bring us together to work for the common good. He says that

just as Jesus was moved to ministry by entering into relationship with other people along his path, we too are moved by stories and relationships. For me, it took actually showing up at different events in order to learn about . . . [various forms of] privilege—and meeting people who were experiencing the negative side of this phenomenon—for me to have my heart transformed with compassion and a desire for action. . . . I could read all about redlining, mass incarceration, and the case for reparations, but it wasn’t until I actually started showing up at actions with the intention of being transformed through relationship with other people that I began to want to become a better ally.

He goes on to say, “I need to seek out voices that are different from my own. We are not meant to live isolationist lives, because God created diversity and it was good. . . . The work of getting to know others different from ourselves, made so difficult by our society’s divisions, is nevertheless the work of following Jesus” (Peter Armstrong. “Faith in a Prison Cell: A Personal Narrative of Transformation,” “Politics and Religion,” Oneing, vol. 5, no. 2  pp. 73–74).

Vicky: Here at Fourth Church, under the leadership of Associate Pastor Nanette Sawyer, some church members have begun coming together around the dinner table, sharing a meal and conversation with people whose perspectives and experiences differ from their own. This ministry is called Deep Listening Dinners. It is an effort to help us live into the values and vision to which God calls us as a church—showing radical hospitality and reflecting the inclusive love of God. The initial experiences have led us never to underestimate the power of a dinner table.

Deep Listening Dinners are inspired, in part, by others in our nation who are doing similar work, for instance, the Reverend Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers, who cofounded the People’s Supper. Over More than 1,500 People’s Suppers have happened across the political chasms of the last few years. These suppers create nourishing spaces, nourishing for both body and spirit, around the table for people to bring their full humanity—whoever they voted for, whatever their identity is, across the spectrum of all our divisions.

Jennifer Bailey believes that the great question of the twenty-first century is the question of how we “be” together. For her it’s not just a question of how we be in terms of our personhood, but how we do this American project together. Our aspiration as a nation is to live in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy. But to live towards that, she believes we must get it right in these small ways, building relationships of trust over time, creating what they are calling “brave spaces.” A brave space works to create a common space that is supporting, healing, and nurturing for all involved. It begins by eating a meal together at one table and telling one’s own story. The storytelling starts with a question that leads toward shared experiences. One such question is “Describe a moment, recent or long-since passed, when you felt isolated, alone, or unwelcomed.” Everyone has such a moment. Starting here lets people settle into common ground. If, in contrast, people start by talking politics, their guards immediately shift, and they go into “fight” mode and not a mode of invitation. That blocks the growth we need.

Kent: Jennifer Bailey says, “The reality is, if we are going to do the work of what it means to grow into being fully human, to grow into the promise of America, to be in process, then we have to be teachable. We have to be moldable. We have to be willing to engage one another and be wrong sometimes. . . . We have the responsibility to examine what we know. . . . We call each other to more truth and love” (“An Invitation to Brave Space,” an interview with Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers, On Being with Krista Tippett, 17 October 2019).

Vicky: We build community by spending time together, eating, drinking, talking, and listening. We build trust by spending time together, hanging out over late-night bottles of wine or on front porches or in backyards. Our Lord Jesus actually spent a great deal of time that way. He shared table fellowship and enjoyed wine and conversation all the time. One key way that he called us to remember him was by sharing one loaf and one cup around a common table to which everyone—everyone—is invited.

Kent: May we celebrate this Thanksgiving and other holidays to come and the weeks in between with loved ones and with strangers. May we gather together around tables where God’s transforming Spirit can bind us to one another in new and deep ways. For the sake of our shared life in this nation, may it be so. Amen.