At this time of year, we are acutely aware of the need to be grateful, though what we’re grateful about may be as different as we are from one another. We may be grateful for family, for friends, for health, for our homes. We may be grateful for food on the table and people with which to share what we have. Still others may be grateful for nature’s beauty and the wonderful pleasures of life. We may also be grateful for those kindnesses we receive from others, for words spoken with compassion, for opportunities to work together and play together, for caring voices and calming hands.
As Christians, in the area of gratitude what we have learned to be grateful for is due in part to our awareness we might not have all these wonderful blessings without God’s grace and love. Gratitude is closely linked to adversity. We’re grateful to God for the gifts God provides because we recognize that without God’s goodness those gifts would likely be lacking in our lives. So a time to celebrate gratitude like Thanksgiving reminds us of God’s grace in the midst of day-to-day difficulties and life’s uncertainties.
When we think about the story of the early pilgrims we get a fairly good picture of what a challenge life can be. It certainly was for them. Thanksgiving reminds us of them, of their journey and their struggles and how they endured all to settle in a new country so they could restart their lives. The pilgrims understood what it meant to be grateful. They understood that gratitude is closely linked with adversity and with daily difficulties. Here were a people who had survived many hardships: they crossed an ocean to arrive in this very unfamiliar land. They met up with strange and unfamiliar native people who didn’t speak their language and whose patterns of behavior, worship, and work ethic were very different from their own. They saw animals and vegetation not known to them before this journey. In fact, though some were probably accomplished farmers back in England, none of them knew how to grow edible food here. It was all new and it made for a very difficult first year. Many of them died from a lack of food, from disease and from exposure to a climate that was harsh and unfriendly and equally unfamiliar.
Though that first year was a hard one, and they had to struggle constantly just to stay alive, the pilgrims took the time to pause and give thanks to God. God had protected and sustained them on their journey across the ocean. God had watched over them and cared for them throughout those early days in their strange new home.
Sometimes, I think, those who have little give the most and statistics bear this out. Percentage-wise, those who have less in the way of income are often the very ones who give the most to charities. Why would that be? Well, I have a theory and it goes something like this. Those who have less know how it feels to have little but they also know they have something and sharing what they have increases their own sense of self. When we have a little and give some of it away, we simply feel good because we’ve been able to help someone else. I experienced that kind of generosity in Nicaragua and the lessons of giving, gratitude and blessing, which I learned in this very poor country have never left me. I recognized then and, even now, how much growing in the area of giving thanks I needed to do to be more fully what God is asking of me. Like the Pilgrims, everyone needs some help some time and everyone, rich and poor has the capacity to extend such help. Giving and gratitude are equal opportunity blessings. They flow indiscriminately and in both directions.
The words from Matthew could have been written about these early settlers when they arrived in this land, a land they believed God had given them to possess and settle, they trusted in their Heavenly Father to provide for all their needs. God didn’t fail them. Yes, some had died, but many among them lived. They survived the journey and they would survive living in this unfamiliar land. Among those who first arrived, there were more who didn’t have a religion as such but, even these I suspect, saw something in the ones who did hold to a faith that would be inspiring and give them hope for a future blessed by a larger reality than they could imagine. Thanksgiving celebrates the courage and strength of faith, of community. And the strength and faith of those who believed in God helped to ease the worry of an unknown future. Banding together, that same strength and faith in God by some would prove to be a gift to all as it helped the community to face any trial, any difficulty, or any distress.
Matthew recorded Christ’s words so we wouldn’t forget that in every trouble or difficulty in our lives God is present. Many among the first settlers to this land knew these words. They held them in the core of their being. They trusted in the One who had said them. Because they believed and trusted in God, they were able to let go of their fear, their discouragement, even the loss of their loved ones, never an easy thing to do, and to move into their future as they built a nation. And through it all, they took time out to share a meal and to give thanks to their maker. To them, tomorrow was another day with its own set of problems but today, today they would celebrate and praise God. Today and especially on Thursday as we join our families in offering thanks, as we ask God’s blessing on our lives, and as we offer to give what we can to those with little or none, we give thanks and praise to our God, Giver of all that is and all that will be. Amen.