Ephesians 1:15–23; Psalm 100; Matthew 25:14–30

One of the constants in my life as a child was the act of saying a blessing before family meals. Giving thanks for the food set before us was always the first step before we could plunge into our meal. The problem, though, was that there was often something set before me that I didn’t feel like giving thanks for. Like green peas.

It would be hard to overstate how much I hated green peas. When served them I would spread them across the plate in the vain hope of making it seem that I had eaten some of them, or I would attempt to cover them up with bread or meat. It didn’t help to hear constantly from my parents how good they were for me. Sometimes during the blessing my eyes would gaze at the bowl of peas, and I remember being struck by the unfairness of having to say thank you for the last thing in the world I wanted.

It is hard to be grateful for a lot of things life serves us. That was the substance of a comment I heard in response to last week’s sermon about gratitude and giving. ‘I liked what you were talking about,’ the person said, ‘ but gratitude is much harder when life itself is hard.’ What does it mean to be thankful when life isn’t going well?

That’s a good question to be asking as we prepare for Thanksgiving, which is for many of us one of the best holidays of the year. No worry about presents, none of the same high level of expectations, just a day to be with people we care about, enjoy a feast, and be grateful.

Every year, when I can, I get to a family reunion at a small lake house out in some scrubby woods. There isn’t much to do there but catch up with each other after a year apart, eat entirely too much, and watch whatever football game happens to be on. The highpoint, though, is when we gather outside for a simple service of lessons and prayers, and sing those wonderful Thanksgiving hymns—“Come Ye, Thankful People, Come,” “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing,” and “Now Thank We All Our God.”

What will it be like, I’ve been wondering, for people across our country to sing those hymns in this season, when it may seem harder than usual to feel grateful? The nervousness in the world around us is palpable. Paul Krugman, the winner of the Nobel Economics Prize this year, says that the U.S. economy is suffering from a “crisis of faith,” a growing lack of trust in all our economic institutions. People are watching their savings dwindle, and the attempted solutions aren’t working. I read a news account of a financial consultant who has several clients living in their cars now.

This will be a different kind of Thanksgiving. But there is still something essential about giving thanks, even when times are hard. After all, that’s how it all began.

The Pilgrims who arrived in this country at Plymouth had a hellish first year—of hunger, disease, conflict with the native people, and death. Of the 102 who arrived at Plymouth, only half were still alive to mark their first anniversary in the new land. Nearly all the families had buried a husband, wife, or child in the rocky New England soil by then. The crops they planted from the seed brought over on the Mayflower almost all failed, and they were facing starvation. Only the corn brought to them by the natives saved them—two pounds per day per person for the hard second winter.

When the time came, though, to mark their first year, they chose to do it as an act of thanksgiving. These Puritans lived by their Bible and knew about Israel’s annual harvest festival. So they thanked God—not for easy lives and a comfortable world, but for providing them enough corn to survive the winter, for God’s presence and guiding hand, for being able to put one foot in front of another through the cold, hard days and nights. It was a choice to respond in thanksgiving instead of resentment or despair, and to focus on the gifts that kept coming, even in the hard times.

If we are going to live glad and grateful lives, we will have to do it in a world that is a mixture of good and bad. No one has caught this better than 18th century poet William Blake in these simple lines:

Man was made for joy and woe
And when this we rightly know
Safely through the world we go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.

In fact, I have learned from a Catholic writer named Richard Rohr to call this experience of pain and woe “the left hand of God.” The right hand of God, he says, is the way God brings us joy, friendship, and love. We sense God’s goodness directly. But the other half of life contains disappointment, pain, and agonizing effort. Yet God comes to us mysteriously, hiddenly, in the times of suffering and crisis, so that the hard times, too, can draw us close to God.

On this day when our [Sunday] Forum focuses on the human journey of aging, you’d have to say that getting older is one of those mixtures of joy and woe. The wrinkles appear, the memory sputters, the body starts to creak. But there’s another side to this. There’s gratitude, which, as Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it, is “a way of life that does not change the facts of your life but has the power to make your life more enjoyable.” In his book about the 23rd Psalm he has a chapter on the phrase “My cup runneth over” where he describes the pills he takes for blood pressure and the eye drops for glaucoma.

Instead of lamenting the ailments that come with growing older [he says], instead of wishing I was as young and as fit as I once was, I take my medicine with a prayer of thanks that modern science has found ways to help me cope with those ailments. I think of all my ancestors who didn’t live long enough to develop the complications of old age and did not have pills to take when they did.

I have known more people than I can count who have said that in a strange way they don’t regret their bout with cancer, as terrible as that experience was. Because after that nothing looked the same, everything was clearer, things shined in a way they didn’t before.

“Give thanks in all things,” St. Paul says. It’s no easy thing to live with this mixture of joy and woe. It is no easy thing to live in an economy that is staggering, that hasn’t found its bottom. And yet we must. Years ago there was a book called The Choice Is Always Ours, which made the point that we are not free to determine the events that come our way. But we are free to decide how we will respond to them.

It is natural to ask of anything that happens a question filled with resentment: “Why did this happen to me?” and in doing that to focus on our frustration and anger. But every situation offers another possibility of asking, “What is the gift this hard thing has to give?” which assumes that an infinitely creative God always has more life for us.

This is Christ the King Sunday. Today, we declare that there is a vast cosmic love that holds us in its care. If when you stepped into the Cathedral this morning you had continued walking up the aisle all the way to the high altar, you would have found yourself standing in front of a majestic sculpture of Jesus, sitting on the throne raising his right hand in blessing and holding a round orb, symbolizing the earth, in the palm of his hand.

That’s where we all are, our faith says, in the palm of Christ’s hand. And to know we belong there is to know that gratitude can never cease, and that God never stops holding us, seeking to stretch and teach and deepen us. We can’t fall out of that embracing hand.

Did you hear the words from the Letter to the Ephesians today? God has seated Christ “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named… And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church.”

Christ’s love, Paul is saying, rules in this cosmos, above every president and CEO and Prime Minister. It may not seem that way very often in our troubled world, but that is its deepest secret. Christ’s love is at work in this moment in you and me and across our world, and we believe that it will finally draw all of us into a new and healed world.

And that means we can trust that even when things are at their hardest, even as the stock market stays shaky, even as great industries threaten to crumble, we cannot fall out of that loving hand that holds us. And that means that here and now we can be patient and watchful for God’s good gifts.

The choice is always ours. Either we live a way of gratitude in these hard times by reaching out and giving, serving, and caring for our neighbor next door and across the city, or we choose lives of fear and selfishness.

I believe God is calling our nation, and us individually, to a simpler, more grateful, more connected life together. What a gift it would be in this hard time if we were to find ourselves staying closer to home and turning to our neighbors giving in ways we never expected.

A friend of mine a few years ago visited war-torn Croatia and found himself one evening going to church service in a small town there. The day before he had visited a nearby village that had been recently destroyed. Virtually every building was gone and the population of 50,000 was reduced to less 3,000. The patients in the hospital had all been executed. The small town my friend visited hadn’t been overrun, but every person there had close relatives and friends who had been victimized. Unemployment was over 25%, and the average wage was $400 per month.

The Protestant church had been decorated for the harvest season, and the service was simple with people offering their thanks to God for the blessings in their lives. They sang hymns accompanied by violins, guitars, and keyboards. And my friend recognized one of the songs they sang in Croatian, but he knew it in English by heart from his early Sunday school days. It went like this:

When upon life’s billows, you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God has done…

My friend said that if someone had slapped him in the face he couldn’t have been hit any harder than he was hearing those people with almost nothing sing that song.

The weeks and months ahead are not going to be easy for our nation and world. But even in hard times, we can choose to hold on this way:

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done.
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

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