When There Isn’t Much to Be Thankful For

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 11/18/2012

It’s finally Thanksgiving this coming Thursday, which I’m glad about.  I always feel a bit of pressure to make sure Thanksgiving actually makes it in there, especially in these days where we start celebrating the winter holidays shortly before Halloween, it seems, and there are forces in my house which shall remained unnamed – (okay, one husband and one son in particular) – who would have started celebrating Christmas in August if the tree wouldn’t have dried out from all the heat.  But I like Thanksgiving and I try every year, and mostly fail, to make sure that it gets the attention it deserves.  It’s always a relief, though, in a way, to have it finally arrive, because then we all can succumb to the pressure of celebrating the winter holidays and I don’t have to work so hard to lobby for turkey and family and gratitude.


But what is it that I’m celebrating, anyway, at Thanksgiving?  There’s the four day weekend and the family time, which is the best part, and there’s also Thanksgiving dinner, which I happen to love.  I like that Thanksgiving is such a universal American holiday, so you can greet everyone you see with a fearless cheery “Happy Thanksgiving” without knowing anything about their background and without causing any offense. 


The minister in me generally preaches about gratitude, either to you guys or to my family, so that’s important.  But we’ve gotten pretty far away – or at least, the world that I live in has gotten pretty far away – from what we’re particularly supposed to be grateful for this time of year, which is a bountiful harvest.  In the privileged world in which I live, there may as well be a bountiful harvest every day.  Not only do I have access to a lot of food, but I have access to it all through the year, so I don’t have to worry that there will enough food to last us all winter, nor do I really need to celebrate it when there is.  I can just eat on Thanksgiving, more or less the same way I always do, but with more stuffing and gravy. 


So what is it, then, that Thanksgiving is really for?  Should I give up my valiant thanksgiving defense that I wage at home, knowing we’re going to have turkey at Christmas too, and we really should try to be grateful all year round, anyway?  Or, should I embrace the abundance of my life, and make a renewed concerted effort at Thanksgiving to be especially grateful for all my good fortune?


Having these questions in mind made me particularly attentive when I read a sermon by Rev. Daniel Schatz, who is the minister at the Buxmont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Warrenton, Pennsylvania.[1] He made me aware that both the event upon which Thanksgiving was based – meaning the dinner shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans –  and the time period when Thanksgiving was made a national holiday – the Civil War – were markedly different from our times now, in that they were not at all times of abundance – yet that is what the holiday supposedly celebrates.


The first Thanksgiving, Schatz reminds us, was not actually a time of new cross-cultural friendship and beladen tables, no matter what your kids might be learning in preschool.  There was really, objectively speaking, “very little to be thankful for.”  Schatz writes, “[d]ozens of colonists had lost their lives to cold, disease and malnutrition, and most of the crops they had brought from England had failed.  The deprivation was so severe that the Wampanoag guests had to return home and bring food to the pilgrims.”  And, as we probably already know, “the peace between the Wampanoag and the colonists did not last…”  So, although we don’t know everything about what the pilgrims and Indians were celebrating and thankful for, we can probably well assume that their experience is not like mine, the one where we always have enough food for the winter.  The Pilgrims did not have enough food for the winter.  Still, apparently, they celebrated.


Schatz goes on in his sermon to remind us of the creation of the Thanksgiving national holiday by Abraham Lincoln, and to point out the desperate times in which the holiday was created.  Nowadays, we may well think of the Civil War as some sort of a pre-determined done deal, where the North won in a straightforward and predictable fashion.  Schatz reminds us that in 1863, “violence had already claimed the lives of half a million people – nearly 15% of the US population.  Even if the North managed to win this terrible war,” Schatz says, and that was in no way a guarantee, “nobody knew what victory would look like, or if the country would ever be whole again.”


Lincoln chose this desperate time to create the national holiday of Thanksgiving.  He sure didn’t create it in order to stop and consider the easy everyday abundance of American life.  Lincoln first proclaimed that the last Thursday of November of that year would be set aside as a day of Thanksgiving.  And then he said,


I recommend…[my fellow citizens] do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers…


Lincoln called for penitence for perverseness and disobedience!  You don’t hear this language much around Thanksgivingtime anymore, that’s for sure.


So it turns out that both the origins of the holiday, and the time period that institutionalized it, came from roots that were extremely dissimilar from the way in which I celebrate the holiday today.  Schatz writes, “The real thanksgiving has its origins not in plenty but in deprivation; not in peace but in hardship.”  And he has an answer for me, too, about the purpose of the holiday, when he writes, “The real spiritual discipline of thanksgiving is not to ignore suffering, but to fully acknowledge it, work to alleviate it, and yet” - Yet! – “still give thanks.  It is to find reason for gratitude even in pain or chaos.  It is to look deeper into the fabric of our world and see blessings where we thought none could exist.”


I would suggest that here is where we find the meat of the lesson we could be learning at this time of year about gratitude.  We have fallen into the trap of thinking that we should practice gratitude when we are faced with abundance.  But Schatz – and Lincoln, and the original pilgrims – make a different point.  They tell us that the time to celebrate gratitude is actually when we have very little.  It is not abundance, therefore, that really teaches us about how to be grateful.  It is scarcity that teaches us how to be grateful.


I think this may in fact be something that we already know, because we’ve caught glimpses of it all our lives, no matter how fortunate we may generally be.  You thought you lost something – your homework, or that computer file with the whole project on it, or your wedding ring – and all that matters is that you have it back, and then, suddenly, there it is.  All of us know how to be foundationally grateful for that thing we took entirely for granted, up until we thought it was lost.


Or, you’ve been to the doctor and there’s a possibility that the news is bad.  And you have to wait.  And wait.  And during that time of waiting you watch your kids, and you breathe the air, and you notice trees and birds that you never saw before.  When you get the good news, you burst into tears, because suddenly you realize that you get to keep all those sweet things, at least for a little while.


These are the glimpses that living offers the privileged, to show them even better than their everyday abundance does how gratitude really works.  If we are wise enough, we come away from these common experiences remembering the value of the everyday stuff all around us.  But we usually aren’t wise enough to remember; those truths that we learned in the face of the threat of loss fade into the background until someone reminds you, or some holiday like Thanksgiving comes around and you try like heck to be grateful for the things you generally take for granted, like food and your health and the people you love around you.


It’s not very surprising to imagine that if the threat of loss can show us a glimpse of what we truly ought to be grateful for, then the presence, the unavoidable, constant presence of actual loss could, on our good days and when we’re our best selves, it could lead to a more permanent state of thanksgiving.  It’s counter-intuitive, especially in light of modern American Thanksgiving holidays when an over-fed people gather together to eat some more, both literally and metaphorically.  We aren’t often told in this country or in this age that loss and deprivation can lead directly to appreciation, to gratitude, to joy in what we still do have.  Yet it is true.


“True thanksgiving,” writes Rev. Schatz, “is born of hardship as much as of joy, for it is in hardship that we realize and appreciate the foundations of our lives – the community and spirit that keep us going, the smallest blessings now thrown into relief, the tiniest seeds of hope that unfold in us when we thought all hope to have fled.  True thanksgiving looks at life in its fullness and finds reason for gratitude.” [italics mine]


We Americans tend to tell ourselves a story this time of year about how we need a lot of stuff, a lot of abundance and privilege and happiness, in order to be fully involved, fully celebrating.  We need a lot of food to be grateful at thanksgiving, we think.  We couldn’t possibly enjoy Hanukkah, or Christmas, while dad is so sick.  Something terrible happened to us this year, so “we’re having a low-key holiday season.  Just not up to all the fuss.” 


But Schatz and Lincoln and the pilgrims insist that we need never wait for abundance to celebrate all that we do have, no matter how tiny that which we have may seem.  Oxygen is a mighty blessing for those who can’t always breathe well.  One cheerful face is a blessing for those whose lives are rife with conflict.  A can of spaghetti-os can be a feast, even on Thanksgiving, if you weren’t sure you were going to eat anything that day.  Those who want have the most fertile ground for gratitude to grow in.


If you are someone who is suffering in body or spirit this holiday season, please believe that joy and celebration and gratitude are yours for the taking, even more so than for those whose lives are easy and full.  Thanksgiving is meant for you, most of all – in fact, Thanksgiving was created by people like you to remind you of all that you have, all that we all have, all the time.  Community and spirit and hope, says Rev. Schatz.  Lincoln expressed gratitude for “fruitful fields and healthful skies” in his proclamation.  The pilgrims were happy that the Wampanoag had shown them new crops and new ways to plant, so future years might be better than the one they had known.  What do you have in your life to be grateful for?  What excess has been cleared out of your world by the fire of loss, so that which is also valuable shines out like the gold that it is?


I want to conclude with the words of Catholic monk Thomas Merton, from his book New Seeds of Contemplation.  He wrote, “Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure:  you were created for spiritual JOY.  And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and spiritual joy you have not yet begun to live.


Life in this world is full of pain.  But pain, which is the contrary of pleasure, is not necessarily the contrary of happiness or of joy… 


…[A]nyone who knows true joy is never afraid of pain because he knows that pain can serve him as another opportunity of asserting – and tasting – his liberty… Pain cannot touch this highest joy…”[2]


The liberty of which Merton speaks is the liberty of the truly grateful.  Because who is more free than someone who can give thanks regardless of what the conditions of his life may be?  Who is more free than someone who can always see the gifts she has gotten, even though not all the gifts were given?  That person is surely blessed, the person who is grateful, who sees what is there, who truly celebrates Thanksgiving.


May that person be you this Thanksgiving.  Happy Thanksgiving to you, no matter what.






[1] Schatz, D. S. (2011, November). The Deep Thanksgiving of Our Souls. Quest, pp. 1-3.


[2] Merton, T. (1961). New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books.