Thanksgiving as refugees

a sermon for Thanksgiving Day [Year B]

Matthew 6:25-33

Everybody probably has a Thanksgiving that stands out in their memory. After all, the whole premise of this day rests on a gathering around food that stood out to the pilgrims and their descendants to such a degree that Abraham Lincoln proposed a national holiday around it in 1863. For some of you it might be the Thanksgiving when someone had returned home from military service, or the first thanksgiving with a new child or in a new home. Maybe this will turn out to be the Thanksgiving you will talk about for years to come.

One of the Thanksgiving meals that stands out in my memory was one that our congregation in Pittsburgh organized jointly with the Muslim and Christian Burmese refugee community we had helped resettle. They had only arrived a few months earlier from one of the refugee camps in Myanmar, and I’ll never forget what they looked like standing in the airport when they deboarded, each one holding a white plastic Ziploc bag that contained everything they could call theirs. They were put up in an urban neighborhood in some affordable row houses we had furnished with donated furniture.

Ah Pi family
The Ah Pi family (ignore the photostamp date)

By late November that year they were still getting their feet under them, but we invited them over to a meal in our church basement one Sunday evening to celebrate this traditional holiday in their new country, but we didn’t have a way to get them there, so a member of our congregation figured out a way to borrow a public school bus and a school bus driver. We had also helped them do all of their food shopping earlier, so when the time came they grabbed all their grocery bags and boarded this big yellow bus and rode over to our church and started fixing their food in the church kitchen right alongside our members.

We made turkey with all the trimmings that, according to tradition, were eaten by those original pilgrim refugees from England in the 17th century, and they made traditional Burmese dishes, which, we quickly learned, contain a whole lot of hot spicy peppers. They spoke no English at all at that point, so there wasn’t a whole lot of talking going on, just chopping vegetables and boiling big vats of water. The refugee children were fascinated with the deep fryer some of our guys were using to cook one of the turkeys. I can only imagine how gross and bizarre that process must have looked to them. It kind of looks bizarre to me.

Our church women, by contrast, were fascinated with the fact the refugees didn’t wash any of the veggies they were chopping up. All clumps of dirt that were caked onto the onions and peppers went straight into the pot like everything else. After all, they had lived in a refugee camp without running water for 18 years. Washing produce was a waste of resources, especially since the boiling water and the acid from peppers kills germs anyway.

To help drive home the idea of thanksgiving, which none of us could figure out the Burmese word for in a way we were sure they could understand us, we decided to take large pieces of newsprint and tape them to the wall and spread out magazines and scissors and rubber cement on tables in front of them. The idea was we’d all make collages together on that newsprint with images of things we were thankful for. It took some prodding and some jerky sign language motions, but we think we got the point across. We ended up with four or five posters of random pictures cut out from People and InStyle Magazine, which was all we really had.

Unfortunately none of the photos in the magazines resembled anything remotely similar to the culture they came from. So in the end we had collages of Taylor Swift’s hair and jewelry and Will Smith’s clothes, piles of colorful food stacked perfectly on white plates, and the mansion-like homes pictured some Nationwide insurance ad, which didn’t look like any of the houses or apartments that any of us actually lived in. We think the refugee families understood what the point of that task was, but to this day I worry we may have given the impression that our little craft was an American tradition and that wherever they happen to live nowadays there’s a little community of Burmese people cutting up magazines on Thanksgiving while the food cooks.

When the food was finally ready we all ate and cautiously but smilingly tried one another’s foods, but they thought ours was too bland and none of the Americans could really handle the level of spiciness in their food, so we both more or less stuck to what we had made ourselves. The Americans were actually gulping full glasses of water to wash their dishes down.

Oh, the risks we took that evening! The risks our guests took—boarding a bus going to a place they had no idea of, preparing food and eating it with people they didn’t know and couldn’t speak with who ate strange, tasteless food and who plunged whole birds into tubs of boiling oil. And the risks we took—toward friendship, risks in hospitality across cultures, in possibly being misunderstood, in swallowing things that could make us sick—all for the notion of giving thanks, for including newcomers in a tradition centered around a trust in the abundance of God. We had no idea how we would pull off such an evening, but in the end it went perfectly. To be honest, it went better than any of us imagined.

Indeed, how the act of giving thanks slices right into anxiety, like a knife-blade going through a dirty onion! How the act of pausing to remember God’s provision for all of life boils all the germs of worry and doubt away! One cannot be grateful and worried at exactly the same time. It is mentally impossible.


And how much we do tend to worry! We worry about our whole lives, planning them out with careful precision, avoiding risks when possible. We habitually check the stock market, the values of our 401K, or we add another extracurricular to our high school resume with the hopes it will get us into the right college, Ever focused on the future, we position ourselves and our children in all sorts of ways for a track to success. And while we know none of those things is intrinsically bad, it does seem to go against the life of vulnerability and fragility that Jesus calls us to. A life that is ever focused on the future—on what we need to do next to make us ready to respond to what might be coming down the road—can cause us to miss the moment of service and humility as well as the neighbor Jesus has placed in front of us now. When we concentrate chiefly on what might be coming and how it might affect us, we end up taking our mind off of the opportunities to seek God’s righteousness this very moment.

Why, in fact, just this week a member of the Men’s lunch group asked me to give him a ride to the restaurant and back while his wife ran errands. We had a great time at lunch, enjoyed the conversation, but towards the end of the meal I received a text that immediately refocused my attention on what might happen that afternoon. My anxiety went up, my brain conjured up all kinds of different scenarios and how I might respond, and I got up from the table, paid my bill, jumped in the car, and made it all the way back to church before I realized I had left my passenger back at the restaurant. I didn’t even realize I’d ditched him until I met his wife when I came back in the door and she said, “Where’s my husband??”

Jesus lays down this principle right at the beginning of his time with his followers. Like my Burmese friends, they are discovering they are embarking on a journey seeking a new kingdom—carrying only what they need in their hands, left to the care of people who might extend charity. They discover they are being called to take a risk, a big risk. It is the risk of being a trusting disciple in a world that doubts God’s ability to provide, in a world that believes of gospel of There Is Not Enough and This Will Never Work Out. And instead of obsessing about what they’ve left behind or what they still lack or how it’s all going to be enough they are to venture forth in faith. Can any worrying, in fact, add a single hour to your life?

And, as if to make sure they get the point, Jesus himself will lead the way. He is prepared to show God’s abundance throw in the whole of his life—to become the epitome of vulnerability and fragility—and plunge it all in to death on a cross. In a risk that demonstrates just how powerful God is in overcoming doubt and fear and anything that could separate us from him, Jesus offers himself up. Because of his love for us, we will find that even death becomes a place where we can say thanks be to God.


If for whatever reason this holiday is painful for you, of if you find you don’t have a Thanksgiving memory that stands out or is fun to recall, may this meal be that for you. This is a Great Thanksgiving, the chief reminder that God has provided all we really need, that those who sow with tears reap with songs of joy. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” Here is where the Lord of a new kingdom in which all are welcome, where all have a home, offers himself up again. He hands over his life in forgiveness and mercy and takes a whole bunch of strangers and makes them friends.

Have courage to step forward and receive it. It’s all been washed. Lay aside your fear of risks, your worries, your hesitations of food that has a kick to it. The kingdom of God and all its righteousness is given to you.



Happy Thanksgiving!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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