Being thankful seems such an important thing that we have a national holiday dedicated to gratitude! For many, it involves gastronomic excess, time off from work, and football. This holiday is our expression of something humans have been doing since the pre-winter harvest and hunt took place for the very first time, I imagine. We have our American version of the feast, but it is a universal impulse to give thanks for the bounty we humans receive regardless of clan, nationality, time, or place. “It is right to give our thanks and praise,” as our worship proclaims.
There are two things to ponder as we celebrate the bounty of the harvest, however. First, not all can survey a table full of more food than can be eaten. Countless numbers around the world starve on Thanksgiving Day, just like every other day. When I stopped by the Holy Trinity Food Pantry yesterday, 58 households, including three without a home, had been in to gather something to eat. That is around 150-180 people who do not share the abundance of this world.
That seems to suggest that giving thanks is also wrapped up in sharing our bounty. How can a person who says, “Thanks, God, for all I have,” not care for the one who has nothing across the table (down the block, on the other side of the world) without choking on the second piece of pie? You can either share or you can convince yourself you deserve your bounty (which you don’t) or judge the less fortunate as unworthy (which you can’t).
The second thing about Thanksgiving Day is that it can seem like a one-off celebration. It can feel like one day when we give thanks among 364 others where God’s grace is just as evident. It can also teach us to give thanks only when the harvest is bountiful and to despair when times are marked by scarcity or suffering.
For people who cling to the grace and mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ, giving thanks is not just a one-day festival, it is something we do constantly. We don’t just give thanks for the joy and the bounty, but also learn to give thanks for the tears and suffering because God is in it all.
Henri Nouwen, priest, professor, author, and spiritual guide taught about gratitude in a way that revealed a way of giving thanks deeply so that joy and rest from life could become an everyday blessing. He taught what Martin Luther was getting at when he said, “We find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the word of grace.” ― Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians.
Nouwen knew that we could not make gratitude about what we possess:
Gratitude goes beyond the 'mine' and 'thine' and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy. – Henri Nouwen
Gratitude flows from God’s grace which grants us all things. Yes, the feast on the table is a sign of God’s grace. Yes, the breath in your lungs and the beat of your heart is a sign of grace. Yes, the roof overhead, the spouse at your side, the job that pays you, and the joke that makes you laugh are all grace!
It does not stop there. Grace also comes to us in the suffering and struggle of life. Nouwen continues:
“To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let's not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.” ― Henri Nouwen
As we approach Thanksgiving Day this year, may we give thanks to God for every last thing that has made up our lives. God is in it all.
Tim Olson – Lead Pastor