The following is the Thanksgiving homily given by the Rev. Ann Gaillard, St. Luke's the Beloved Physician Episcopal Church, Saranac Lake, NY. I asked Mother Ann if she would share this sermon with me to post because I felt it was such a powerful, positive message reminding us to seek the possibilities of gratitude.
"There was once a preacher who was known for his uplifting prayers. He always found something for which to be grateful. One Sunday morning the weather was so cold, dark and gloomy that one the members of the congregation thought to himself, "I'll bet the preacher won't be able to think of anything to thank God for today." But to his surprise the preacher began by praying, "Gracious God, we thank You, that the weather's not always like this."
This kind of glass-is-half-full attitude toward giving thanks was shared by the pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving. Remember, those folks had had an exceedingly difficult time.
For starters, they had begun their journey full of hope for a new life of religious freedom in a warm and welcoming land - Virginia. Instead they landed at Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620, not the best time of year in Massachusetts. Until such time as they could build houses and establish themselves on the land, they made their home on board their ship the Mayflower. The men went ashore every morning to work, returning to the little ship at night. They built a "common house" to which the sick and dying were transferred, placed their four little cannon in a fort, which they built on a hill close by, built two rows of houses with a wide street between and finally landed their stores and provisions. Then the whole company came ashore toward the last of March, and in April the Mayflower sailed away.
That winter before the Mayflower left was hard and bitter. At one time all but six or seven of the Pilgrims were sick. Eighteen women denied themselves food so that their children could eat. Thirteen of those mothers died. Half of the 102 Pilgrims died of malnourishment, disease, and exposure. Only about 30 of those who survived were over the age of 16. Those who died were buried in unmarked graves because the pilgrims did not want the natives to know how small their numbers had become.
In the spring they planted three crops: English Peas, Barley, and Indian Corn. The peas were planted too late - though they came up beautifully, the hot sun parched the blossoms and the plants died. Apparently the barley did not do well and was not worth harvesting either. Only the corn survived. Of course, not the corn we are used to with big, plump yellow kernels; this was "Indian Corn" with ears only two to three inches long and kernels of different colors. The Pilgrims harvested only twenty acres. And to top it all off, a second shipload of thirty-five settlers arrived without any provisions because they expected to live off the crops the first settlers had raised. By the end of their second winter in Plymouth, food had to be rationed again: five kernels of corn for each person per day.
A hard life. In fact, some proposed a Day of Mourning to honor all those who had perished. But the others said no, a Day of Thanksgiving would be more appropriate. After all, even though half had died, half had NOT. Reason enough to give thanks. Again, the glass is half full.
But is that really why people give thanks during hard times, simply to be grateful that things aren’t worse than they already are?
Try saying that to a mother who is facing an empty chair at the Thanksgiving table because her soldier son or daughter has just been killed in the war in Afghanistan.
Try saying that to a father who has just lost his job and is wondering how he’s going to pay the mortgage and feed his family.
Try saying that to a retiree who can’t afford his blood pressure medication because his pension has shrunk so badly during the recession.
Try saying that to a woman whose insurance company refuses to pay for her ovarian cancer treatments.
There are times when life’s pain and troubles are so enormous that they overwhelm our blessings and make it nearly impossible to feel gratitude or give thanks. When that happens, Jesus’ words about not worrying about our lives can seem irrelevant, even off-putting.
Yet he hits us hard over the head with his message in the gospel passage we just heard. Do not worry, do not worry, do not worry, over and over again. In fact, the word worry appears four (six) times in the passage. And why should we not worry? Because God is present and active in our lives. Because God loves us like a parent and knows what we need. Because God can be trusted not to abandon us.
Jesus’ words echo those of the prophet Joel. “Do not fear, O soil,” Joel says. “Do not fear, you animals.” Why not? Because God has done great things. Because God is in the midst of us.
For people of faith, the whole point of giving thanks is to remind us of the past, that God has done great things for us. It is about the present, that God is still very much alive and active, that God is at the center of all that we are. And it is about the future.
As people of faith, when we give thanks we are not denying that the world can be really awful sometimes. Rather we are giving thanks that we know in our heart of hearts that awfulness is not the end of the story. Presbyterian theologian Al Winn noted that at the heart of biblical faith we do not find air-tight arguments sealed with a "therefore"—we do not say all is right with the world, therefore, let us have faith; therefore, let us praise God; therefore, let us give thanks. On the contrary, at the heart of biblical faith we find things that do not logically follow at all, sealed with a "nevertheless." Much is wrong with the world, the mystery of evil is great, terrible accidents happen, NEVERTHELESS let us have faith, NEVERTHELESS let us praise God, NEVERTHELESS, let us give thanks. Perhaps we can better deal with the miseries of life if we remember that word, NEVERTHELESS.
Thanksgiving is about the future because we know that God has done great things and will do so again. It is about the future because he is present with us now, loving us now, and will continue to do so.
In one of his sermons, preacher J. Wallace Hamilton wrote that not only do we overestimate the length of our lives when we act as if we'll live forever. We also underestimate their length. He points out that people are wrong who say, "A hundred years from now, what's the difference? We'll all be dead." Actually, a hundred years from now we will all be alive, somehow, somewhere, with God in Christ. And what we have been and done will make a difference.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us see life in three tenses of past, present, and future:
God has loved us and gave us his Son. Christ walks with us today. Christ awaits us in all our tomorrows. Thanks be to God!"