Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sermon for Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, Tuesday November 20, 2012, Overbrook Presbyterian Church

A number of friends of mine are spending the month of November - the month of Thanksgiving - posting something they are thankful for on FaceBook each day of the month. It’s a good spiritual discipline to reflect on all that is good in our lives. Some people even keep gratitude journals to write in each day.
In fact, it is a common practice for many of us as we sit around the Thanksgiving table, usually overstuffed as the roast turkey, to share what we are most thankful for. The list is predictable: family and other loved ones, children and grandchildren, the delicious meal, a new job, a roof over our heads and food on the table, recovery from an illness...all wonderful things. And it is good to name the blessings that we have. I look around this church and I see many familiar faces - I expect that each and every one of you has faced a challenge, or many challenges, in your lives, but here you are, being thankful to God for what you have.

Sometimes our thankfulness is framed by what we do not have to suffer. After all, we watch the television news and we see those who are in great distress- people whose homes have been destroyed by SuperStorm Sandy, or  whose family has been killed by a bomb in a war-torn region, or whose child has been abducted and cannot be found. We do not face those awful situations, and we are grateful that we have been spared such pain.

But I fear that sometimes our prayers of thanks do not include the difficult things in our lives, the situations or events that try and test us.

In the Episcopal Church, we have a prayer of General Thanksgiving that includes the line: We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Hmmm. Thank you for disappointments and failures? Why would we do that?

That’s the interesting thing: when good things happen, we say thank you to God for those good things. When bad things happen to other people, we may not say it out loud, but perhaps we think “thank God that didn’t happen to me.”

But when bad things happen to us, do we ever imagine thanking God for those difficult things? And yet we are transformed by the difficult things in very fundamental ways, ways that may bring us closer to an understanding of who God is, ways that may give us an insight into Christ's suffering on the cross. Do I believe that God gives us troubles to help us grow? No, I don’t think God works that way, but I do think he walks beside us through our troubles, and grieves as we grieve. And I think God sees how our pain sometimes compels us to act in ways we wouldn’t have considered before.

I think of someone I know who lost his son to a terrible disease. He assumed that he was fine, and then suddenly, he was gone. He still struggles with his grief, but he has also taken that pain and turned it into energy by starting a charity to fund research into the disease that took his son’s life. I think of another person whose husband was hit by a car and left for dead at the side of the road. Remarkably, he recovered from the trauma to his body and especially to his brain. In the aftermath of that long road back to health, she wrote a book about the experience that now is used as a teaching tool in medical schools about the impact of traumatic brain injury on families. I think about a woman at the end of her life, who talked with me about the things she did and the things she didn’t do, and said “they all were important in their own way, even the bad things. They led me down a path to God, to an honest conversation with him. And at the times when I was most low, I learned more about him than at the times when I was riding high.”

We do learn lessons from the hard times, don’t we? Maybe about how resilient we really are, or how creative we can be when we’ve run out of options, or maybe just how tenacious, just gol-darned stubborn, we can be when we have to be. And we would have never known those things if we hadn’t faced pain and loss and grief.

Now, I’m not saying we should volunteer to be miserable just for the learning experience…that seems a little ridiculous somehow.

But what I am saying is that there is a gift of grace in the midst of pain. You know that old joke: The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities, one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist, their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the
ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist.

“With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Sometimes we have to go through the shoveling to get to the pony.

So on this day when we say thank you to our Creator for the many gifts he has bestowed upon us, when we gather with joy and memories and a whole lot of food, let’s not forget to say thank you to God for the less obvious gifts: patience learned while recovering from a serious illness, the sweet memory of a loved one who now dines at the heavenly banquet, the simplicity of a meal with less food because we cannot afford the bounty of years past. Find the less-noticed gift, and offer your thanks.


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