Thanksgiving Homily: The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Cicero is purported to have said that gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others. This Thanksgiving Day is set apart for us to reflect on our blessings and, in a spirit of gratitude, to give thanks. We do that joyfully, but also mindful that we live in a time with many challenges. It’s been a particularly painful week with the mass shootings and stabbings in Colorado Springs, Idaho, Charlottesville, Chesapeake. We hold in our hearts those families affected, knowing that this is a difficult day for them. And, of course, the war rages on in Ukraine.
The reality is that there are challenges and difficulties in our lives, in our communities, in our nation, and across the globe. But I would argue it’s even more imperative that in these times we reflect on the blessings in our lives and not lose sight of them. A helpful word came to me from one of the daily meditations of Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, who reflected on gratitude, drawing from the Scripture that you heard earlier from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians—and specifically the fourth chapter. Rohr said this: “Paul sums up an entire theology of prayer practice in concise form: Pray with gratitude in the peace of Christ, which is bigger than knowledge or understanding, will guard both your mind and your heart in Christ Jesus.” He goes on to say that “Only a pre-existent attitude of gratitude, a deliberate choice of love over fear, a desire to be positive instead of negative will allow us to live in the spacious place Paul describes as the ‘peace of Christ.’” A deliberate choice of love over fear, and a desire to be positive instead of negative, opening up that space of the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding.
I would submit to you that we offer our thanksgiving and expression of gratitude, not in lieu of lament, but to help keep us grounded and near to God in the midst of it. Reflecting on that letter of Paul to the people of Philippi, remember the context: Paul wrote it in prison awaiting trial—a trial that could well have resulted in his death. It was in the middle of all that adversity and uncertainty that he reminded the people of the church in Philippi to rejoice in the Lord, to hold fast to what they knew, what they had been taught and experienced.
Looking at the Thanksgiving Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln read earlier: think again about the context during which Lincoln called a nation together to set aside a day to reflect, to give thanks out of gratitude for the blessings in our lives. Just the year prior, Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie died—the second of the Lincoln children to die, I might add. Mary Todd Lincoln was so overcome with clinical depression that she stayed in bed for three weeks and wasn’t even able to go to her own son’s funeral. Amidst all this, Abraham Lincoln—with his own grief and his own depression—had to look after their children and help guide this nation through the Civil War. During that summer of 1863, July to be precise, the Battle of Gettysburg was fought—when for three hot sultry days, 150,000 troops amassed at the town of 2,500 people leaving 7,000 people dead.
Just a few months later, in October, Abraham Lincoln penned the proclamation giving thanks for the blessings, but also calling on all to pray for the healing of the wounds of the nation and a restoration of the nation. So, too, we are called in the midst of our blessings to pray for the healing of the wounds of this nation and its restoration. We offer gratitude, not in lieu of lament, but to draw us closer to God and to ground us when storms do come our way.
We know from the social sciences the positive impact that focusing on gratitude has in our very lives—physically, emotionally, mentally. Research Professor Brené Brown writes about gratitude in her book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. She defines gratitude as follows: “Gratitude is an emotion that reflects our deep appreciation for what we value, what brings meaning to our lives, and what makes us feel connected to ourselves and others.” She cites the work of Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, whose research resonates with her own. He writes, “. . . gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we appreciate the value of something, we extract more benefits from it; we’re less likely to take it for granted. . . I think gratitude allows us to participate more in life. We notice the positives more and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life.”
They say gratitude is an attitude. I say it’s a way of life: a way of drawing us closer to the source of life itself and our many blessings, and that is God. Part of why we gather today is in recognition and thanksgiving for God who is in our very midst—in the good times, the bad times, and in the in-between times. I think so often in this country, we do take things for granted. My experience of mission trips in the Two-Thirds World, is that people understand much more clearly and directly their total dependence upon God and the mercy and grace of others.
I was reminded of this by a wonderful short interview that was brought to my attention by our vicar and my friend Dana Corsello. It aired earlier this week on CBS Mornings and the series is called Kindness 1 0 1. This particular segment was on gratitude. In the story, we meet two brothers, Abraham and James, who were orphans from Sierra Leone and had been homeless. They were adopted by a family living outside of Charlotte. The older of the two boys, Abraham, was asked, how, despite their situation of being homeless and living on the street— which would make many of us pretty depressed— you seem to have still found gratitude. How did you do that? Abraham replied that we have to remember our blessings. And every day I gave God thanks for the fact that I stayed healthy and didn’t get sick.
Next, there was a wonderful clip of the two boys experiencing just an everyday thing that we take for granted—we see the joy expressed on their faces when they sat in a car going through a car wash—if you can imagine! It was joyful and they rejoiced just in the blessing of that moment. Then the segment that totally blew me away was of Abraham on his birthday with the family gathered, singing happy birthday to him and bringing out a birthday cake with candles. He was so overcome with emotion. He was asked how did you celebrate your birthday before? He paused and he said, “That would be a crazy question.” I never knew when my birthday was. We never celebrated it. That birthday cake isn’t just a birthday cake, “it’s a blessing cake.”
My friends, if we set aside a little time every day to reflect on our blessings, I think we would be much more in touch with so many ways that God does shower blessings on us—day by day and week by week—drawing us closer to the source of life, the meaning of life and the value of life. In a few minutes, we’re going to be invited to join in the Litany of Thanksgiving. It has about ten prayer petitions and I’m going to invite you—not just on this day, but in this season—to set aside a little time every day. If you want to start off slowly, begin with ten blessings. The Litany of Thanksgiving is not a half-bad place to start because I am convinced that no matter what the storms are that we face in life, God is always near—always—in the good times, the bad times, and the in-between times. When we can hold fast to that, we will be anchored and make it to another day of gratitude. Amen.
Download the audio here.