The Dream of the Table, Thanksgiving Day (A) – 2002
November 28, 2002
On this day, the people of our land all dream the same dream. From one end of the nation to the other, in the cities and in the suburbs, in the towns and on the farms, we dream a common dream. The dream reveals the best that is in us as a people. It shows what we want our life together to look like. It is what you might call, “The Dream of the Table.”
This dream is so simple, so homey, that it takes us by surprise. There’s a gigantic table, with countless people sitting at it and eating together: women and men, children and adults, healthy and frail, poor and rich, black folks and white folks and yellow folks. An investment banker from New York is seated next to a truck stop waitress from Montana. An Iowa farmer exchanges stories with a New England fisherman. A bearded professor from Berkeley passes the gravy to an auto mechanic from the Deep South. A young soldier laughs at a joke an old lady tells him. And the gigantic table stretches far into the distance where people from other lands have found their seats and enjoy the same meal.
This is “The Dream of the Table.” A dinner where all people share, and all people feast, and all people give thanks.
We dream this dream for a single afternoon each year as we gather around the Thanksgiving Day table. For it seems then that our entire nation offers a single prayer and sits down to a single meal. The dinner is shared in the homes of the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. It takes place in soup kitchens and suburban restaurants, and happens with studied formality and with casual folksiness. It feels as though all our people eat together today. On this one afternoon, we dream, however fitfully, “The Dream of the Table.” And for a moment we see what God wants for us and for all people.
Yet the sad thing is that Thanksgiving Day is but one day, and the rest of the years seems different, somehow. The dream remains a dream. The world does not normally appear as a dinner where all people share, and all people feast, and all people give thanks. Not all share, for some have plenty and some have none. Not all feast, for some throw food out and others die from hunger. Not all give thanks, for some cannot see past their wealth and others cannot see past their poverty. The dream remains a dream. It seems insubstantial. And so on Thanksgiving Day we seek consolation in yet another helping or in too long a time spent in front of the television.
What great barriers keep the dream from becoming real? What prevents us from taking our places at the table, and helping others find their own places?
What makes the table a distant, insubstantial dream is that we choose not to trust. Lack of trust keeps us from sharing. We become preoccupied with holding tight to what is ours — and to getting more. Lack of trust keeps us from feasting. We’re not in tune with the universe; we’re incapable of joy. Lack of trust keeps us from giving thanks. No longer do we savor life as a gift; we experience it, instead, as a burden. This lack of trust spoils us as persons, but does not stop there. It pervades and pollutes our institutions, our communities, our society. We’re left anxious and alone and far from the table.
We’re familiar with how things are in this world where trust is weak. The scene is so familiar that we cannot imagine what it would look like for someone to live a life of trust. But a life of trust is what appears in the Gospel portrait of Jesus. It is trust that he shows in choosing such plain, ordinary people to be his disciples. It is trust he shows out in the wilderness when he feeds the crowds with only a little fish and bread. And it is trust he shows when, nailed on a wooden cross, he gives up his life into the hands of his Father. A life full of trust is what we see in Jesus. But we can get started with just a little bit of trust.
Let me tell you a story passed on to me by a clergy friend. Some years ago he attended a church supper in Birmingham, Alabama. He was a stranger in the town. When he sat down at the table, there was no one across from him, and no one to the right of him. To his left, however, there was an old man he had never seen before. He was quiet, a bit withdrawn. My friend’s first attempts at starting a conversation did not get far. It began to look to him as if this was going to be a pretty dull dinner!
But it occurred to my friend that he and the old man were together for some purpose. He founds himself, he told me, trusting, trusting some purpose beyond his sight, so he continued to try to start a conversation.
It turned out that this old man’s father had been an Anglican priest in Lincoln, England. My friend did some quick mental arithmetic.
“That must have been when Edward King was Bishop of Lincoln,” my friend observed.
“Yes,” the old man replied, his eyes brightening a bit. Perhaps he was pleased that a young man like my friend knew the name of a long-dead bishop from far away.
But my friend happened to be well acquainted with Edward King! He had read biographies of the man, had savored his words, and had seen his photograph. He had even written an article about him. Many people considered Edward King a saint. One of his contemporaries had said that Edward King had the face a man would have if he were truly himself. My friend, too, considered King to be a saint.
“And did you know Bishop King?” my friend asked the old man.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I saw him many times when I was a child.”
According to my friend something shifted at that moment. The plain church basement supper revealed its true character. The old man and my friend were at “the universal table,” together with Edward King and a crowd of countless others drawn from every race and nation. They were at that dinner where all people share, all people feast, all people give thanks. They saw, the old man and my friend, what God intends for us and for everyone. For a moment “The Dream of the Table” came true for the old man and for my friend, sitting there in a church basement in Birmingham, Alabama. All it took was a little bit of trust.
Today is Thanksgiving Day. Once again, we experience that haunting dream of the universal table where all people share, and feast, and give thanks. Will the dream come true for us today? Will we, in reality, find our places at the table, and help others find theirs?
The choice is ours. We can live a life full of trust — and a little bit of trust is really all it takes to get started.
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