As everyone here is well aware, last Thursday was a national holiday. We call it “Thanksgiving.” Most of the time, we don’t go a lot further than that in contemplating the day. So this morning I’d like to pose a modestly radical question. “Thanks for what?”
When I was a kid, I tended to think of Thanksgiving as Turkey Day. That’s what we called it. And that was a pretty accurate description. The Thanksgivings I recall were a day to stuff yourself silly. Baked yams dripping in brown sugar. Fresh pumpkin pies piled high with whipped cream. A token vegetable somewhere in the mix. But featuring, of course, a huge turkey. For a family of four, plus two grandmothers, a giant turkey was the gift that kept on giving. Turkey sandwiches for school. Turkey bits and pieces for days afterwards. But it was Thanksgiving dinner where we ate turkey and more turkey, yams and more yams, stuffing and more stuffing –slathered with gravy and more gravy, cranberry sauce from a can, and then, somehow, miraculously finished off with at least two slices of pumpkin pie swimming in whipped cream.
Turkey Day. Yes. But Thanksgiving? I know that for some of us, Thanksgiving is perhaps the one occasion all year where the entire family gathers, sometimes from far-flung corners of the country or even beyond. That is a good and wonderful thing and I don’t want to make light of it. But Thanksgiving for me as I grew older was just one more sign of our American obsession with over-consumption.
Then, as I got still older and learned the history of what United States of America did to the indigenous peoples as it expanded ever westward, Thanksgiving became for me a symbol of imperialism and genocide. This was not something I had any desire to celebrate. My excuse for declining Thanksgiving invitations from generous and well-meaning friends who didn’t want me to be alone on this traditional family day was to say, “Thanks, but I’m a vegetarian.” But my primary reason was I just couldn’t participate. I didn’t want to be a wet blanket on anyone else’s family gathering, but I just couldn’t participate.
And frankly, on this Thanksgiving, when so many are so overwhelmed by fear and hate that they are apoplectic over the thought that 10,000 refugees, 10,000 out of the millions of refugees who are fleeing for their lives, might after a two or three year vetting process be allowed to settle in the United States, I think it is not unreasonable to ask the question: “Thanks for What?”
It is frustrating and for many of us, myself included, depressing. And yet, “Thanks for What?” For a lot. There is much to be grateful for, and that’s really where I want to spend our time today.
Just a few moments ago we sang a hymn together. “Let Freedom Span Both East and West.” “In beauty, wonder, everywhere, let us communion find; compassion be the golden cord close-binding human kind. Beyond all barriers of race, of color, caste or creed, let us make friendship, human worth, our common faith and deed.” Yes, I am grateful for the hymn. But what I am truly grateful for is a congregation that can sing it, and mean it, and live it. I am so very grateful for each and every one of you. Muslim, Jew, Christian, Baha’i, Buddhist, Pagan, Secular Humanist, Seeker. We come together in joy, not conflict. We come together to share, not to convert or convince. We are a living example of how things can be. Please don’t ever underestimate that. It is indeed reason to be grateful.
I am also grateful that, as many of you know, there are people around the United States and Canada and even one or two countries beyond this continent who are now at work forming Living Interfaith congregations. It ain’t easy being at the beginning of a movement. But as our little seedling begins to grow and bear fruit, it is a lovely thing to see.
And yet gratitude is much more than that. If you’re on Facebook, you’ll know that many people have taken up the challenge of thirty days of gratitude: three things, every day, that they are grateful for.
Thirty days of gratitude? What about a lifetime? What??!!! The truth of it is, gratitude does not come easily to us. There’s an old adage, “There’s rarely a law against something unless people are doing it.” I would add a corollary. Our spiritual paths rarely nag us about something unless people aren’t doing it. And sure enough, the two things our spiritual paths, all of them, nag us about most are to love one another and to be grateful. Now we’ve hear a lot about love and compassion here, so today let’s look just a bit deeper at gratitude.
Of course, you can combine love and gratitude. As Abdu’l-Bahá of the Baha’i faith so succinctly put it “The best way to thank God is to love one another.”
Yet, the truth of it is, we humans are an ungrateful lot. … And so the nagging begins.
From Judaism, “Be not like those who honor their gods in prosperity and curse them in adversity. In pleasure or pain, give thanks!”
From Islam, “It is God who has made the night for you, that you may rest therein, and the day, as that which helps you to see. Verily God is full of grace and bounty to men, yet most men give no thanks.”
Ok, so we’re ungrateful. But humanity cries back in protest, “Have you looked at my life lately? Why should I be grateful?”
The Hindus offer this as a reason, “When a man is born, whoever he may be, there is born simultaneously a debt to the gods, to the sages, to the ancestors and to men.”
Frequently we reply, “I have so little, and you ask me to be grateful?” Let’s for now leave aside the wealthy among us who still find it so very hard to part with a dime to give to “others.” But for the rest of us, here is how Christianity replies:
“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
From Buddhism, “One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.”
Ok, a whole lot too many “he’s” in these and not enough “she’s”. But for me, all of this begs the really big question. Why is it so hard for us as a species to be grateful? Why is it that our spiritual paths have to keep coming up with reasons we should be grateful? Why is it that our paths all continually nag us to be grateful? Now in truth, I have yet to find anywhere in any of our Scriptures the words, “Damnit, be grateful!” But it’s implied.
And as I ponder this, I have a thought. I do not propose it as “the” answer, which I’m sure is shocking. But I think it is an answer. It is an answer to why we are so rarely grateful.
We humans are a small, fear-filled race. Truth be told, we are afraid of our own shadow, and petrified by the shadow of others. The last thing on earth that we want is to be reminded of just how small and fearful we are. And gratitude, at its core, reminds us. When we say “thank you” we acknowledge that we needed something.
Gratitude and humility are for me brother and sister. They both remind us of just how small we are. And we don’t like that. It makes us insecure.
If you’ll recall the puff fish, that puffs itself up when frightened, that’s us.
Gratitude, real gratitude strips us of our puffery. So when we ask others and ask of ourselves to be grateful, to give thanks, we are in point of fact asking others and ourselves to give up puffery, to live our lives without puffery.
That, to me, is what scares so many Americans and not just on this Thanksgiving weekend. And let’s spread the wealth, we’re not just talking about Americans. I think of Puff the Magic Putin as an international example of the perceived need to puff oneself up and be ungrateful.
So on this Thanksgiving weekend, what I’d truly ask us to think of, to ponder, to work at, is living lives of humility and gratitude. In the Christian tradition, folks often “give up” stuff for lent. What I’d ask of us is to give up puffery for Thanksgiving. Let us be humble. Let us be grateful. And I repeat, because I mean it from the very core of my being, let us begin by being grateful for the people in this room
In that spirit, and before we sing our song of praise and closing hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth,” a wonderful song of gratitude, I’d ask us to start a new tradition. A while ago we passed the peace. I’d ask us now to pass the thanks. Please, shake hands if the spirit moves, or hug if the spirit moves. But let us stand, look each other in the eyes and just say, “Thank you.” No more. Just, “Thank you.” It sounds simple. I think we will find it very powerful indeed.
Let us stand and pass the thanks.
(After the passing of the thanks)