Our Thanksgiving table will be beautiful, (I know this because I am hosting). It will be covered with things I love to cook, surrounded with people who love to praise my cooking. We’ll have all of our favorite holiday foods and the house will be filled with yelling cousins, laughing sisters, football games, parade watching and delicious smells.
But it wont be perfect. Even though there are lots of family members in town, there are some who couldn’t make it because of work. My grandma will be there but my grandpa wont – he passed away earlier this year. And there are certain topics we can’t discuss, things better left alone, if we want to enjoy our time together.
Around our table tomorrow there will be broken families and families just beginning; there will be job struggles and health struggles and the struggle to really connect across some generational lines. And some regrets or longings just seem to surface more when we are with our families than at any other time.
But when we sit down at the table, for a brief moment that past and the future don’t exist. We sit down in a moment of gratitude. For the purpose of gratitude. And I am so grateful. I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for the ways I have been loved and shaped by them, for the laughter and the connection. I am grateful to be at this table with them even if five minutes before or five minutes after, or right in between, someone – sometimes me- says something asinine, and I can’t stand that person for a moment. The truth that shines through that moment is that I am so thankful for the chance to be. To be with them. To live. For the opportunity to have lived. To have loved them and been loved by them. I am so grateful.
For the past few weeks, I have been catching up on the story of Emma, a nine year old girl with autism. For the first eight and a half years of her life, Emma was completely nonverbal with a mental retardation diagnosis. But about six months ago, they had an amazing breakthrough, and Emma began to share her thoughts with her mom Sabra through a slow and deliberate method that involved pointing to letters on a paper keyboard.
For the first time in their life together, Emma and her mom were communicating with each other. Sabra discovered that Emma’s favorite color was yellow, her favorite food was pizza, and that if Emma could have a pet, it would be an Orangutan. Sabra discovered that her daughter was a poet, that her vocabulary was immense and precise; she learned that Emma saw and experienced the world deeply, and was sometimes sharply and bluntly insightful.
They’ve been blogging together about their journey; in Emma’s slow and careful words, “I am trying to teach other kids to hope.”
On Tuesday they posted what will be their last blog entry. Emma asked that they be finished blogging because, as she says, “I am trying to be part of this world.”
Sabra shares, as she writes their final post: I never could have imagined six months ago that I would know Emma as I do now. My God! How could I ever have conceived it? In all my entries, I don’t know that I’ve been able to fully express the joy it has brought me.
Words themselves have taken on a whole new meaning for me. I see them pour out through Emma’s fingertips and every single time it feels a little like the first time. These words have filled up my life and left behind only all that is possible. After all these years of her silence, it is my desire above all else to just listen to her. And what she says could never fail my heart, not even if it might be hard to hear.
John Milton says, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” For me, Sabra is a witness of gratitude. The power of gratitude. Gratitude is not trite. It is not shallow. It comes out of suffering and survival. And it demands honesty. Gratitude recognizes that life is filled with tragedy or at the very least anxiety, and it acknowledges our finitude, and at the same time it notices that our very existence is a gift from God; it opens us to see the gift that life is.
When we gather around our tables on Thanksgiving day, we are gathering for the purpose of gratitude, a celebration of gratitude. Gratitude is a moment of joy that is a break from time itself. It is a time out from all the struggles, from the pain behind us and the unknown ahead, because the power of gratitude is that it holds us in a moment, a moment that doesn’t anticipate the future or regret the past. It takes us for a short time outside of our existence, while also holding the truth of our existence with it.
For Sabra and Emma I imagine that every other day is filled with anxiety – progress is slow, connection is poignant but ever so limited. I imagine that every other moment in their lives is filled with questions, breakthroughs and setbacks, what does her future hold? What lies ahead for her? But gratitude says, right here and now, the chance to be this child’s mom is a gift – to love each other in this life is a gift, even in the tragedy, it is a gift. And life itself – with all its tragedy- is a gift.
We are usually pretty unable to live in the present much at all. We are always remembering or regretting the past, or dreading or anticipating the future.
We are always looking forward with our calendars and our schedules and our plans and our worries and our dreams, and we are looking backwards at the things we wish we’d done differently or the things we wish we could go back and live again and never leave, the people we miss or the mistakes we’ve made that can never be corrected.
The better days, or the real days, seem always to be behind us or before us. And those two places are where we live most of the time.
But gratitude happens only in the very moment we are in, not allowing regretting the past or anticipating future to corrupt the moment, or move us away from the present. “Life is a gift,” gratitude points out, “and this moment is a gift.” And we can look across the table at those who we love and wish we could love better, and sit around that table with our joblessness and our cancer, our autism and our anger, our stupid mistakes and unfulfilled goals and every other weak and sad part of who we are: they can’t say anything to that moment, can’t break it at all, because the moment is suspended and held in gratitude - thankfulness for the very gift of life.
When we choose to pause in gratitude, we give ourselves the chance live in a moment out of time. A sample-sized taste, a foreshadowing of a future altogether different, not a future like the ones we live in: filled with the consequences of past choices or impossibilities of human limitations. Not a future that comes from the present - from the pasts we’ve lived and the future we are creating -but a future that comes from the promise. The future outside of time.
Because someday time will be wiped away, and what we will have is the eternal moment of gratitude. We will have the suspended joy of being alive, of being with God face to face, of being wholly, truly, fully alive. Gratitude lets us see the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are we, whoever we are and whatever we bear, because the kingdom of God is breaking into our world. The kingdom of God, where the hungry are fed and the mourning are comforted and the meek inherit the earth. We don’t see the kingdom of God a lot of the time, but it’s here. We don’t feel it every moment, but it’s real. It is leaking into our world through the splits in the seams, the pain and the hope, the grief and the gratitude. And when we allow ourselves to stop in the moment of gratitude, for that moment, the kingdom of God is tangible.
In Jesus Christ the eternal has entered time; God has come near, and shares our very lives with us, every moment - and God is always, ceaselessly working to redeem, and restore, and renew us, our minds and hearts, our relationships and world, our pasts and futures.
There is no pain that Christ does not hold, no suffering he is not sharing. And one day, when time is no more, and the kingdom of God will come in all its fullness, there will be no more pain and no more suffering at all, no more inability to connect, fears or worries, sickness or sadness,
only wholeness, abundance and peace, life, wrapped in Eternal gratitude.
So when the moments come, the small moments of gratitude,
when Thanksgiving comes –whenever and every time it comes,
whether it creeps up on you in complete surprise as it did to me last night when I kissed the forehead of my tussled-hair, flushed-faced sleeping son,
or whether it is a deliberate decision as you sit around the table with family for tomorrow’s holiday – Those little moments of gratitude say to us:
Don’t worry about tomorrow or dwell on yesterday. God’s love holds it all – past, present and future.
Just eat this meal, be with these people; recognize that you are alive, and give thanks.
Let yourself be held in the timeless gift, the eternal promise, of gratitude.
Prayers of the People
We thank you for those we’ve loved who are no longer with us. We think of them tonight, and we grieve their absence at tomorrow’s meal.
For all the ways they’ve shaped us, for the memories they’ve left us, and for the gift of having shared life with them, we thank you God, and we lift up our prayers…
We pray for those we come from and those we’ve had a hand in creating, for the lives we’re tangled up in, for better or worse.
For the moments with family that give us great joy and belonging and connection, we thank you God. And for the places of longing and sadness, we lift up our prayers…
We pray for those separated from family and friends: soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world, families divided by divorce, young people away at school.
For separation from our loved ones in all ways we experience it, and for those whose work or distance keeps them from celebrating with their family or friends on Thanksgiving, we lift up our prayers…
We pray for those who are sick and suffering, for those in pain mentally, physically or spiritually, for those fighting with disease or despair.
For those struggling with things that seem bigger than they can bear, for the overwhelmed and the frightened, and for all who love them and worry for them, we lift our prayers…
We pray for those who are in need tonight, those whose have not found work, those who are faced with foreclosure, overwhelmed with debt, drowning in medical bills or wondering where their next meal will come from.
For those of us here tonight, for others we love, and for so many we’ve never met who struggle in fear of the unknown, we lift our prayers…
We give you thanks for this world that you’ve created. For the forests and oceans, for the mountains and rivers, for the animals, fish and birds, and for all the peoples and rich cultures filled with story and song, we thank you.
For the delicate balance that feels often precarious, with wars and division, destruction and disasters – for the world you love and have called us to care for in all that we do, we lift our prayers…
For all these we pray, Gracious God.
We know that when we gather around the table all these also come with us to the meal:
(gesturing to each of the lit candles at each seat)
The memory of those we’ve loved and lost,
Our families, in love and complexity,
The people we feel divided from,
Those we love who are sick,
Those struggling to make ends meet,
And the burdens of this great world you love.
But you are here as well. Your Spirit moves in and through each of these relationships and situations. Thank you, God.
May we find ourselves held in your holy and timeless moment of Gratitude, when we recognize our fragile humanity, and celebrate the promise outside of time that guides us even today.
For tastes of life and love and wholeness, we thank you.
For experiences of health and the promise of healing that awaits us all, we thank you.
For the glimpses of your kingdom on earth,
when we have what we need, no more and no less,
when peace wins out over conflict,
when people are there for each other
and share your blessings with others, we thank you, God.
Into your hands we commend our lives, this world, and all for whom we pray.
Trusting in your mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord,
we pray the gift of prayer he gave to us…
we pray the gift of prayer he gave to us…
(Congregation joins in unison Lord’s Prayer)
(Thanksgiving Prayer, Kara Root, 2010)