Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, November 18, 2018.
A few days ago I was in the car, heading back to church from a meeting over in Newburyport. I was in Amesbury, about to turn up the on-ramp to 495, when the road straight ahead beckoned to me. It was a beautiful and blustery fall day—bright and sunny and very windy, with leaves blowing everywhere. And the road ahead promised winding curves past fields and farms, along stone walls and barns and out into country with wider skies and maybe a field I could walk across, even a small hill to climb in order to take in our New England landscape in these late fall days when Thanksgiving is almost here.
But that winding road I imagined, was, at least that day, a road not taken, as Robert Frost would put it. I didn’t head down that road less traveled, but it has stayed with me: that longing, to be out under the sky and in touch with the earth, to better feel the spirit of these days between autumn and winter.
Today, at the start of this week that takes us to our national holy day of feasting and giving thanks, it seems an obvious time to reflect on gratitude. Everyone is in favor of this, right? We all want to be seen as thankful people. We know that having an attitude of gratitude makes us happier, more contented people, it makes us more generous people, it makes us more fun to be around. Which is why it feels so bad when you find yourself in a state of ingratitude—because you’re cut off from your better self and others don’t want to be around you either!
Two thousand years ago the Roman philosopher Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Cicero understood that to lead a good life, to embrace the four classic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance; that ir all starts from a place of gratitude.
And how do we get there? My hunch is that we need to do something ancient people were better at than we are. To pay better attention to the world around us and within us. To look up at the stars, and listen to the longings of our own hearts. Tell the truth—how often does scrolling through the news feed on your phone bring you as sense of awe and wonder? How often does being plugged in to the internet make you more grateful and glad?
I’m not suggesting that we throw away these things that do have the potential to bring some good to our lives; but rather, that we moderate our use of these tools, so we don't become captive to them. So they don’t separate us from our experience of being human, on this earth, for the brief span of time that we get here, with these companions.
If you want to be grateful, start with getting in touch with the longings of your own heart. What is calling to you from there? What is it that makes you glad? Even if you can’t take that road today, try to be mindful of your longing to head in that direction, and take some time to wonder about that. Ask yourself, “What is it in me that likes to hang out in an art store, or a fabric store, or a hardware store? What is is about that song or that hymn that makes me cry? What about that dream that I can’t forget, or that project I started that I keep meaning to get back to?”
If you want to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, it helps to practice. Some people make a habit of writing in a gratitude journal, or naming at least one thing every day they are grateful for. Saying “thank you” is a simple practice, and a profound one, when you look someone in the eye or take their hand and say “thank you.” Any kind of practice that helps you slow down and pay attention will help increase your capacity for gratitude.
The farmer and poet Wendell Berry describes an annual ritual where he goes out into a field and digs a trench to discard old papers he doesn’t want to read again. Standing over that opening in the earth, he says,
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
What do you need to confess? What do you need to change? So you can be happier, and more grateful, and more connected? So you know that you belong, here in this body, and on this earth. What is separating you from life and Love, what do you need to let go of, or get rid of, in order to more fully belong to your life?
In our first reading we heard this, that it can be difficult to say thank you, “because we don’t want to acknowledge our interdependence. We don’t want to be obliged. But in a healthy society that is exactly what we seek: mutual obligations. Everyone is obliged to everyone and everything else; we all belong together, we are of each other” (from Earth Prayers, by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon).
Isn’t that what we love about Thanksgiving, and what we seek even more than turkey or stuffing or pie? That feeling of belonging to and with those around the table, even those who sometimes bug us or disappoint us. And this is why any separation at the holidays, because of death or distance or estrangement, is so painful. Because deep in our hearts we know we are meant to be together, we belong to one another. And when this isn’t possible, that truth is hard, and hurts. But telling that truth, and grieving that loss, this can help you to be grateful for what you do have, and not be, as John O’Donohue says, “haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.”
The invitation is to be open-hearted, to others and to our selves, to learn what we need to learn: how to connect and love and have hope and have faith. Like we heard just now in that poem, “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade” (by Brad Aaron Modlin). What we may have missed somewhere along the way—
how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer…
how not to feel lost in the dark…
how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.
My hope and my prayer for you this week, when people will be traveling and gathering together, when some of us will be lonely and sad and some of us will be stressed over things like table settings and pie crust, my hope and prayer is that you will remember that who you are, all of who you are, adds up to something that is good and worthy, valued and needed.
For us in this community, my hope and my prayer is that we will keep on growing into who we are in the midst of becoming; people of faith and gratitude who do know how to pray and sing our lives, how to live out those words we sang a few minutest ago: “For all that is our life, we sing our thanks and praise, for all life is a gift which we are called to use to build the common good and make our own days glad.”
When we say “for all that is our life,” we are saying that we give thanks for the light and the shadow, for the the sorrow and the joy; that we see all of it as gift which we are called to use, to build the common good, and make our own days glad.
The invitation in this week is to open our hearts and our arms a little wider, to see that we are here to sing our thanks and our praise, to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, so that come what may, we will be people who keep on singing, offering our thanks and praise, now and always,