Dinner Table Conversations

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is an excerpt from the long poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” by Ross Gay:

…And thank you to the quick and gentle flocking
of men to the old lady falling down
on the corner of Fairmount and 18th, holding patiently
with the softest parts of their hands
her cane and purple hat,
gathering for her the contents of her purse
and touching her shoulder and elbow;
thank you the cockeyed court
on which in a half-court 3 vs. 3 we oldheads
made of some runny-nosed kids
a shambles, and the 61-year-old
after flipping a reverse layup off a back door cut
from my no-look pass to seal the game
ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the gods
and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar
grinning across his chest; thank you
the glad accordion’s wheeze
in the chest; thank you the bagpipes….

The second reading this morning is from Mourt’s Relation, written in 1622. This reading gives the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration in the words of one of the Pilgrims who was actually there. (The language has been modernized.)

“You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Sermon: “Dinner Table Conversations”

Remember back in 2019, before the pandemic? It’s so easy to put on our rose-colored glasses, and think — those were the good times, the easy times. We sat down together at Thanksgiving, never knowing that the very next year we wouldn’t be able to have Thanksgiving dinner with all our relatives. And in 2019, we didn’t have to worry about the war in Ukraine, or the war in Gaza and Israel. Ah yes, those were the good times.

Except, of course, they weren’t. Maybe there wasn’t a war in Ukraine nor a war in Gaza and Israel. But I remember some of my friends coming back from Thanksgiving with reports of combative dinner table conversations between the opposing sides of the culture wars. And I remember talking to a non-binary teen who felt exhausted at having to accept that their relatives were just going to refuse to use their preferred pronouns. No, we should not look at 2019 through rose-colored glasses and think: Those were the last good times.

Ah, but if I think back to my childhood…. That was a long time ago. Surely those must have been the last good times. Well, no. I remember Thanksgiving dinner conversations that got onto the subject of the Vietnam War. An uncle would say something about Vietnam, that would provoke a cousin into challenging him, and then my grandmother would have to say in a firm voice, “Do you think it will rain this week?” That was her hint for everybody to drop the subject, and talk about something less controversial. Or actually it wasn’t a hint so much as a command to change the subject; my grandmother was a bit of a Tartar. No, I cannot look back at those childhood Thanksgiving dinners through rose-colored glasses and think: those were the good old days.

Well, then, surely we can think back to the very first Thanksgiving, back in 1621…. That was a really long time ago. Surely those must have been the good old days. In the second reading, we heard an excerpt from “Mourt’s Relation,” a contemporary account of the first celebration of what we now call Thanksgiving. It sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it? They had had a pretty good harvest that year, then they went hunting and got even more food, enough to have a big celebration. And when King Massaoit and ninety of his warriors stopped by, together they came up with enough food to go around, and they all shared a big meal together.

And in many ways, that first Thanksgiving really was the good old days. But we also have to remember what happened the previous winter. Less than a year before that first Thanksgiving, something like half of the Pilgrims had died of cold and exposure and starvation. Many of the Pilgrims must have felt sad on that first Thanksgiving; I imagine that more than one of the Pilgrims shed a tear or two for the people who didn’t live long enough to see that first Thanksgiving. And then when we remember that as recently as 1619, King Massasoit and his followers had been subject to a plague that killed off as many as ninety percent of their people, they too must have some sadness on that first Thanksgiving.

So when I imagine the dinner table conversations at the first Thanksgiving (not that they were seated at a table, there’s no way the Pilgrims had tables enough to seat a hundred and forty people) — when I imagine the conversations at that first Thanksgiving, it seems to me that there were many things people didn’t want to talk about. On the Pilgrim side, I can imagine that when the conversation started getting too close to the too-many deaths they had experienced in the previous ten months, one of the elders would firmly say whatever the Pilgrim version was of, “Do you think it will rain this week?” Similarly, on the Wampanoag Indian side, I can imagine that when their conversations started heading towards the aftermath of the plague, and the probability that the Naragansett to the west were going to try to invade, one of the elders would say, quite firmly, the Wampanoag version of, “Do you think it will rain?”

More to the point, the story as told in Mourt’s Relation shows that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags knew the value of doing things together. The Pilgrims, you may remember, “among other recreations, exercised [their] arms” — meaning that the men played games together, winding up with some sort of shooting contest. And when the Wampanoags showed up, they didn’t just hang around talking — they went out hunting so there would be enough food for everyone. As for the Pilgrim women, with only four of them to cook for a hundred and forty people, their focus had to be on working together. Communal events seem to go most smoothly when we’re working together or doing something together.

All this may sound like the usual holiday platitudes that you’d expect from a New Englander: if we all just work together and not talk so much, we’ll be fine. Maybe it’s a platitude, but sometimes platitudes represent wisdom. And I found confirmation for this kind of wisdom from a surprising source: from Seth Kaplan, a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and internationally-known expert on fragile states. Fragile states are those countries that have such a weak governmental infrastructure that their citizens are exceptionally vulnerable to a variety of shocks. While the United States is not a fragile state, Seth Kaplan realized that some places within the United States function exactly like fragile states — he calls these “fragile neighborhoods.” He contrasts these fragile American neighborhoods with his own neighborhood, which is the opposite of fragile. Kaplan lives in a tight-knit community where neighbors look out for each other, where nearly everyone belongs to several community organizations, including religious congregations and secular groups. Neighbors also help each other out in informal ways, buying groceries for an elderly neighbor, chaperoning at school events, and volunteering in many small ways to help each other out. Kaplan writes:

“As a result of all this, we know all sorts of details about just about every family for many blocks around us — how many kids they have, which schools and camps their kids attend, and what leisure activities they enjoy. However, we spend surprisingly little time talking about politics, and thus know little about many of our neighbors’ political leanings and preferences.” (Seth Kaplan, Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One ZIP Code at a Time [New York: Little, Brown, 2023], p. 184.)

When we change our perspective and focus on local community, there simply isn’t much time to spend in highly partisan arguments about national politics. This is not to imply that national politics are unimportant. They are important. But in America today, when it comes to national politics, it feels like our highest priority lies in expressing our individual political opinions. As much as I value free speech and free expression, I don’t think we want to be our highest value. Instead, our highest values are, or should be, hope and courage and love. As the Pilgrims knew deep in their hearts, we humans are meant to be together and to work together; we are communal beings before anything else. My grandmother knew the value of conflict avoidance when she would say, “Do you think it’s going to rain?” Then after dinner, she got us all to avoid conflict by playing cards: sometimes a vicious highly competitive game called “Pounce,” other times poker played for matchsticks.

I’d like to propose that at Thanksgiving, there’s no need to talk about national politics or international politics at all. There will always be people who really do want to talk about partisan politics, or international topics, at Thanksgiving dinner; you may be one of those people. If this is something you want to do at Thanksgiving, and if you can find someone else who wants to express their individual opinions, go ahead and find a corner somewhere where you can go at it hammer and tongs. The rest of us will be doing something like helping in the kitchen, or setting the table, or washing the dishes, or playing cards. The rest of us need not get involved in conversational conflict at Thanksgiving. And even if everyone who comes to your Thanksgiving celebration is in complete agreement — even if you agree completely on every aspect of domestic and foreign policy — you still don’t have to talk about anything to do with the culture wars. In fact, that might be a good way to keep everyone’s blood pressure down.

To put this another way: There are many strategies for managing conflict. Conflict avoidance is one valid conflict management strategy. And there are times — Thanksgiving is one of those times — when conflict avoidance is the best conflict management strategy. Now that I say this, I’m sure that you can think of lots of conflict avoidance strategies. In my childhood, we asked if it was going to rain, or we played vicious card games. Watching football games also works, or playing video games, or — well, you get the idea.

May our Thanksgiving dinner conversation avoid the culture wars. Instead, may our Thanksgiving dinner conversation center on what’s really important: the people you love and care about. May our conversations revolve around questions like these: Who is doing well, and who could use some support? Who would benefit from getting a phone call or a handwritten card? How are the young people doing, and how can we support them? Has anyone visited this or that distant relative, and should we reach out?

May your Thanksgiving conversations center on hope. May they center on courage in daily life. May they be filled with love for neighbors and family and friends.