Rev. Teri Peterson
Not Just One Day
Interfaith Thanksgiving Service
November 23, 2008
We have finally reached it—that time of year that everyone is supposed to love. The time of year marked by parties, by family time, by fun, by eating and eating and eating. Put another way, it’s a time of year marked by excess, stress, and consumerism. But that doesn’t sound quite as nice, does it? Most of us, I suspect, would just like to sit down to a Thanksgiving feast, maybe including mashed potatoes, green beans, yams, bread, squash, stuffing, Turkey, and dessert. We might gather around a table and each say one thing we’re thankful for. We might pray for those who spend the holiday alone, or on the street, or hungry. We might just dig in and eat and laugh and eat some more, until we collapse into a tryptophan coma. Then we’ll eat the leftovers as soup and sandwiches while we watch football and play games between naps and shopping trips, all the way through until January.
I have to admit that this stark description of Thanksgiving isn’t flattering. It reminds me that we seem to have given gratitude one day out of the year, and then turned it into something that is somehow about us. In my family growing up, we often had enough food at Thanksgiving to feed our family of four for at least a week, maybe more. But even with leftovers, we managed to devour the feast in a few days. Meanwhile, one of my neighbors was a single woman with two kids that I sometimes babysat for free. They were really struggling, and every year my brother and I packed up two paper grocery bags of all the Thanksgiving fixings for the three of them: a small turkey, a box of stuffing mix, some vegetables and rolls and canned pumpkin pie filling. One thing the kids always really looked forward to was olives. We always put in a can of whole black olives, and I could just imagine the kids each sticking the olives on the ends of their fingers and eating them off one by one. Olives were such a treat, they only got them at Thanksgiving, when my family included them in our grocery gift.
I don’t think of olives this way—olives are a normal thing to me. I like them on burritos at home, and quesadillas, and salads, and all kinds of things. I don’t even consider them to be expensive. But when times are hard, I suppose luxuries like olives can be hard to justify. Every year at Thanksgiving I think about that family and their olives.
I don’t think I’m alone in my experience of giving to “the needy” at the end of the year, especially around major holidays. I read recently that nearly 80% of Americans give to charity at this time of year, and many charities are wondering if the economic downturn is going to affect giving. Meanwhile, polls suggest that nearly ¾ of people who say they give to charity at the end of the year say they’re going to keep their giving constant this year in spite of the economy. I think many of us will be waiting to see if that’s true or not.
In the meantime, we have gathered here to pause and contemplate our blessings, even as some of us might be having a hard time making ends meet, some of us wonder if we’ll have a job next week, some of us plan to spend the feast day alone, missing family members and friends no longer with us. In a season of joy and exuberance and excess, we stop to remember from where we have come. We remember the many generations before us who have made our lives possible. We remember the One who has blessed us and guided us to this place. We give thanks to God, who is always good. To use a cliché, we count our blessings and find that, even though the economy looks dim, there are still too many blessings to count.
It is important to give thanks. And not just once a year, on the fourth Thursday of November. Not just when we sit at a table laden down with a feast. Not just when the whole family is together. All the time. Every day. “Give thanks in all circumstances” we heard a little while ago. “Give thanks to the Lord for God is good.” “If there is anything excellent, think about these things.” Gratitude doesn’t require its own holiday—it’s meant to be a part of the fabric of our being, a natural response to all that has been given to us. Sometimes gratitude is really hard—it’s hard to give thanks in all circumstances. Really, all circumstances? Even in the midst of grief? Depression? Anxiety? Fear? But Paul, when writing his letter, didn’t qualify his statement. Just “give thanks in all circumstances.” I think that might be a clue that it isn’t supposed to be simple, but it’s also not as complex as we often make it out to be.
Gratitude isn’t really about a feeling or even a word—though a “thank you” can go a long way! I suspect this is true in many of our traditions, and I know it’s true in my scriptural and theological tradition: feelings, while important, are not the point. God is much more interested in how we choose to act, how we respond, how we love, than how we feel. I wonder, then, what gratitude looks like as an action rather than as a feeling?
I suspect it looks like sharing. Even though we may not feel we have much to share, there’s probably something. Like the stone soup story, where the villagers were each certain that food was scarce until the man with the soup stone showed up. He mentioned that he was hungry, but the people he spoke to said there was no food. He said he had a magic stone that would make soup for all of them, he just needed a pot and some water. These were soon produced, and he put the stone in. He tasted the soup and said an onion would make it a little tastier, and an onion appeared out of a cellar. He thought a carrot might really help the color, and a carrot appeared from a cupboard. He thought a potato or two would really make the texture much better, and a few potatoes made their way up from the ground. Soon the whole village had brought something and there was an amazing soup for all to share.
I think about 75% of the sermons I preach are, in the end, about community. I really believe that when we come together as a true community, a community able to share our lives—our joys, our needs, our hopes, our fears, our love and compassion as well as the dark sides of our personalities—that’s how the Divine becomes known to us. When times are hard, it’s even more important for us to come together, to build community, to care for one another, and to share the grace we have received, to encounter God together.
I was listening to Chicago Public Radio this past Monday, and I happened to catch an interfaith dialogue on one of the programs. One of the participants said a phrase that I found very compelling. He said, “Each of our faiths was designed not to serve the faithful, they were designed to empower the faithful to serve humanity.” (Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld, Worldview from Chicago Public Radio, Monday November 17 2008) That’s not to say that there’s nothing in any of our religious traditions that’s good or helpful for us, but rather that our traditions give us a wonderful gift by empowering us to share love and grace and blessings with the world. There’s a lot of need in the world, even here in our own communities. And there’s also enough to go around—if one will bring a carrot, another a potato, another an onion, another some herbs, soon we’ll have soup for everyone. Another of Paul’s letters says it well: “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, that you may share abundantly in every good work. The sharing of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but overflows, with many thanksgivings.” (from 2 Cor. 9)
As we give thanks, both in this season and every season, this day and every day, let us remember that gratitude is not primarily a feeling, but an action—an action best known in community.
May it be so.