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Thanksgiving Eve 2016: On Grace and Gratitude

Homily preached by Susan Russell on Thanksgiving Eve [November 23, 2016] at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

I know your service leaflet says “Homily” … but I’m going to start with a Confession. For the first Thanksgiving in as long as I can remember I have been struggling to be thankful.

The cumulative impact of the longest election cycle in the history of voting compounded with the events of the last two weeks have left me feeling bruised and battered, have triggered a boatload of fear and anxiety and have made me question many of the core assumptions I hold about humanity in general and our nation in specific.

And so – for me – it has been a challenge to go from immobilized on the couch refusing to watch or listen to the news to deciding between jellied or whole cranberries and whether we need pecan if we’re already having pumpkin and apple pie. It is definitely not a “Thanksgiving As Usual” Thanksgiving this year.

So that’s my confession. And since confession is followed by absolution, let me move now to this prayer written by my friend Diana Butler Bass. These words — shared on her Facebook page earlier this week — [and later posted to the Huffington Post] served to absolve me of my guilt for not feeling appropriately seasonally thankful … and reminded me that I am far from alone in the struggle.

God, there are days we do not feel grateful. When we are anxious or angry. When we feel alone. When we do not understand what is happening in the world, or with our neighbors. God, we struggle to feel grateful.

But this Thanksgiving, we choose gratitude. We choose to accept life as a gift from you, from the unfolding work of all creation. We choose to be grateful for the earth from which our food comes; for the water that gives life; and for the air we all breathe.

We make the choice to see our ancestors, those who came before us, and their stories, as a continuing gift of wisdom for us today. We choose to see our families and friends with new eyes, appreciating them for who they are, and be thankful for our homes whether humble or grand.
We will be grateful for our neighbors, no matter how they voted or how much we feel hurt by them. We choose to see the whole planet as our shared commons, the public stage of the future of our race and creation.

God, this Thanksgiving, we do not give thanks. We choose it. And we will make thanks, with strong hands and courageous hearts. When we see your sacred generosity, we become aware that we live in an infinite circle of gratitude.

We will not let anything opposed to love take over this table. Instead, we choose to see grace, free and unmerited love, the giftedness of life everywhere, as the tender web of all creation. In this choosing, and in the making, we will pass gratitude onto the world.

Thus, with you, and with all those gathered here, we pledge to make thanks. And we ask you to strengthen us in this resolve. Here, now, and into the future. Around this table. Around the table of our nation. Around the table of the earth. Amen.

This Thanksgiving, we do not give thanks. We choose it.

That, my brothers and sisters, is where grace comes in. Years ago a wise spiritual director challenged me to change the phrase “There but for the grace of God …” into “There but for the empowerment of God …” and to recognize that it is nothing less than the grace of God that empowers us to be the change we want to see in the world; to live our lives in alignment with God’s values of love, justice and compassion;  to choose thanks when we’re struggling to be thankful.

And here’s another thing about grace. Grace requires — as the reading from James reminds us this evening — that we be doers of the word, not just hearers. It is a lesson that at first glance is not very “Thankgiving-y.” There are plenty of other scripture verses that have much more to do say about thankfulness than these, speaking of the bounty of God, the abundance of the harvest — the things more traditionally associated with Thanksgiving Day.

But these are the passages appointed for tonight — challenging us to think of Thanksgiving beyond the perfect turkey laden table on the cover of Bon Apetit — moving us instead to a thanksgiving of action — challenging us to proclaim by word and deed our thanks to God in our behavior as well as in our beliefs.

Verna Dozier – the African American biblical scholar who inspired a generation of her fellow Episcopalians also challenged them – challenged us – challenged me – with these words: “Don’t tell me what you believe. Tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”

As a congregation committed to putting our faith into action; to making God’s love tangible 24/7; to the audacious goal of turning the human race into the human family the idea of making a difference because we believe is not breaking news – it’s in our DNA.

Our bottom-line … our foundational call as peace-makers, Christ-bearers, Thanks-givers in the world … is that none of us can truly raise the song of harvest home until all are safely gathered in.

The child in Aleppo and the soldier in Mosul.
The foster child in Monrovia and the AIDS patient in Malawi.
Those sleeping in the streets of Pasadena and those protecting the water in Standing Rock.

And so this Thanksgiving Eve – whether or not we’re struggling to feel thankful — let us open our hearts to the God who empowers us to choose thanks.

Let us come to awareness that we live in an infinite circle of gratitude.

And then let us go out into the world – empowered by both grace and gratitude — refusing to let anything opposed to love take over our tables … or our nation. Amen.

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