That's Gratitude for Ya! A Thankgiving Sermon
Reverend Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of
Edmonton, October 9, 2005
“An awe so quiet I don’t know when it
A gratitude had begun to sing in me.” Denise Levertov
Yes, but God? What have you done for me lately?
Today is Thanksgiving. In my humble opinion, it is one of the most
abused festivals in our holiday calendar, for we live in a society
that has largely forgotten how good it can be to feel grateful.
Queen Victoria began the Thanksgiving festival in the Commonwealth
back in the 19th century. It was created as a religious holiday,
a day when we were invited to give thanks to God for the harvest.
Now back then, a harvest thanksgiving meant something. A poor crop
a century ago did not mean higher prices for avocados and oranges
at the Safeway. It meant real privation, winter diets of turnips
and cabbage soup and dried beans if you were lucky, with the potential
for starvation staved off only by charity handouts if you weren’t.
A couple of bad harvests meant the loss of a lifetime’s work
and families driven from their lands. A century ago the opportunity
to give thanks around a table laden with autumn’s harvest
treasures was a deeply meaningful celebration, a chance to breathe
a sigh of relief. Life would go on until next Spring’s new
A farm family a hundred years ago may or may not have believed
in God, but they sure knew what it was to be grateful for the harvest.
Today, the vast majority of the population has moved to the cities.
There are a fair number of you here who perhaps grew up on farms,
but your children and grandchildren will not have that memory. The
world has changed. Our western civilization has developed the mechanisms
to ensure that no one needs to starve
to death. If our Alberta harvest fails, there will still be hard
times for some farm families, but the trucks will roll in from elsewhere
with food and supplies. And crop insurance and government programs
will help a good many stay on their land. Indeed, most folks younger
than I am will not even remember that 45 years ago, come December
and January, finding good lettuce or a green pepper or a cucumber
was a rarity in grocery stores. In fact it was an expensive luxury.
Winter stew recipes call for potatoes and turnips and parsnips because
when the snow was on the ground, you only had root vegetables to
eat. There was a time when fresh vegetables were something for which
you were grateful.
And, although deeply flawed and imperfect, we do have social safety
nets that provide some of the basics when hard times arrive. We
have welfare and pensions of different kinds, public and private.
There are various kinds of insurances, and if all else fails food
banks and soup kitchens. We have publicly funded health care and
publicly funded education. None of it may work the way we want it
to, but the fact is there is something in place, and that makes
anyone with the good fortune to live in Canada luckier than 2/3
of the rest of the world. The bottom line is that we don’t
need to rely on God’s blessing and bounty to get us through
the hard winter anymore, if ever there was a God to rely on.
But there is a shadow side as well, a cost to this benefit, a price
for this sense of security. We have become a society where more
and more people drift through their lives oblivious to the gifts
laid before them. They have never known want or privation. They
don’t know how to feel grateful for things that have just
always been ‘there’ for them. I wonder how many of us
ever pause with a feeling of gratitude for the gifts of our imperfect
society in our flawed nation? We live in the “Age of Entitlement”.
When we come down with an illness, we expect medical science to
fix it. When we lose a job, possibly even through our own negligence,
we expect a good severance package or, failing that, we look to
the government to pick up the tab and help us get back on our feet.
When something bad happens we cannot understand why the police can’t
rectify the situation and protect us from, … well, everything.
During the CBC lockout I found myself listening to another AM talk
radio station for the first time. I was appalled at the pervasive
mindset that argued that a) no level of government ever did anything
good except by accident; b) anyone who asks me to make any concession
for the public good is making an unreasonable request…and
this statement includes: any tax or user fee, anything I might have
to sacrifice to protect the environment; or registering my guns,
or c) whatever the government gives me is something I am owed. Whatever
I want that the government doesn’t give me is also something
I am owed, but the bums in Parliament or the Leg are too crooked
to admit it.
At no time in six weeks of sporadic listening did I ever hear anyone
phone in to express a sense of gratitude. Rather I only heard people
saying in one form or another, “Somebody owes me! I am entitled!”
But I guess that’s no surprise. The major advertisers on this
particular station seem to be personal injury lawyers who do indeed
claim that somebody owes you, big time.
“An awe so quiet I don’t know when it
A gratitude had begun to sing in me.”
We are slowly strangling the song of gratitude, that great and
wondrous bursting of spirit that reminds us of the joy of living.
A great many of us here believe that this one life we have is it.
That’s all there is. A great many more may think there is
something hereafter, but that we would be wise to live as if this
is all we get…just in case.
The question is begged, shall we seek ways of being grateful for
this one life? Or shall we turn it down and isolate ourselves with
greed, self-absorption and mistrust of all around us? Gratitude
does not mean walking around with a silly expression on your mug,
saying “thank you, thank you!” all the time. It does
not mean an expectation that every day we live will be rosy in every
way. Heck, were that true we would never appreciate anything. You
must know the sad to appreciate the glad, live in the darkness to
embrace the sunrise.
Our last hymn reminds us to appreciate all that life offers. “Thanks
be for these, life’s holy times,” and then the lyricist
Richard Gilbert goes on to list moments of grief AND days of delight,
triumph and failure, birth and death. In equal measure these things
should inspire gratitude in us. Each one of these is part of the
great song of life. Listen to the wonderful baroque music of a Vivaldi
or a Handel. You will hear the slow movements balancing the joyous
sections all coming together to make one complete and balanced work.
We have to love them all and be grateful for the unique gift of
But in this age of entitlement, we are in danger of losing our
ability to appreciate the value of loss, hardship and sacrifice.
We certainly have lost the ability to be grateful for such moments.
By grateful, here I mean we have lost the ability to appreciate
their value. We learn more about life and character from these than
from all the pretty packages and pats on the head we may receive
in a lifetime. Too often these days a bit of rough water provokes
people to whine and complain and to give up their power as they
look to someone else to fix their problem. Just tune into that radio
station any morning and I promise you will hear what I mean.
Geez Louise, folks, what’s the point of railing complaining
all the time? “Me! Me!Me!” poisons your own life first.
It’s a soul sapping, spirit killing exercise.
But when we try to cultivate a sense of gratitude in our lives,
we soon discover our own generosity. They go together. You see you
can’t contemplate what you receive without grasping what you
have available to give back. Together they remind us that we are
not alone, that we need one another and that we are enriched by
one another. You can’t be grateful all by yourself. The very
act of feeling gratitude means you have to acknowledge someone or
thing, be it a parent or lover, a friend or the LIFE
that gave us birth. Some one or thing allowed for you to receive
a gift that should inspire you.
Choosing the path of entitlement cuts us off from all of that.
The universe is divided into those who give me what I want and everyone
else who tries to deny my wants. How far have we gotten away from
the sentiment expressed by Unitarian Minister Ralph Waldo Emerson
150 years ago? “We have a great deal more kindness than is
ever spoken. The whole human family is bathed with an element of
love like a fine ether... How many we see in the street, or sit
with in church, whom though silently, we rejoice to be with!”
Let us rejoice in being with one another here. Let us rejoice in
being with family and friends now and then. Let us rejoice in being
part of humanity. Let us dare to say, “Hi” to a stranger
and even risk a smile. Okay, they might not smile back, being taken
by surprise and all, but perhaps they will smile at the next person.
Expressing your gratitude gives a gift to someone else.
Long ago the Jewish philosopher Maimonedes described a hierarchy
of giving. At the pinnacle of that pyramid was the anonymous gift.
It was the most religious and blessed thing we could do, he said,
to give without any expectation. It was the ultimate act of gratitude,
being able to say, “What YHWH has given me, I will give away.”
This Thanksgiving let us remember to pause and appreciate the good
things that have come our way. Let us also pause to appreciate the
tests that have challenged us and helped us grow into the people
we have become. Let the song of gratitude swell in our hearts. Let
us not withdraw into a sense of entitlement. Let us embrace life.
In a few minutes we will sing a closing hymn. Let us take in the
words and the meaning, “For all that is our life, we give
our thanks and praise, for all life is a gift which we are called
to use to build the common good…and make our own days glad.”
Back to Sermon Archive