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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 began.
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 beginning.

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 began.
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 each.

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.”

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