Thanksgiving in Trials (Sermon from October 10, 2021)

Since 1879, Thanksgiving has been a federal holiday in Canada.  Originally set aside as a day of gratitude for the harvest, Thanksgiving has now grown into one of North America’s most commercialized holidays secondary only to Christmas.  In Canada alone, nearly 5 million people purchased over 2 million turkeys, and the amount of money spent on this holiday is only increasing.  Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to gather with loved ones, share in elaborate meals, and to take a long weekend off work or school to rest and relax, and yet, in the hustle and bustle of the season it is so easy for us to forget the real reason we are celebrating.

While recognizing that the Indigenous people who came before us had their own ways of showing gratitude, and while acknowledging our complicated history with colonialism, this Sunday is still an important date for us to mark and remember.  And I believe it is no coincidence that this year Thanksgiving falls on the same day as World Mental Health Day.

We are now nearly 20 months into a global pandemic and we have all experienced radical life changes as a result.  For the past two years our world has known loss, grief, uncertainty, fear, disillusionment and disappointment in epic proportions.  Mental wellness issues have sky rocketed as our world has faced increased isolation especially within vulnerable populations.  Some people have felt a distrust towards the government, some people have felt exasperated, some have faced strained relationships with family and friends, and many have felt alone.  We likely have people within our own family and friend groups who have suffered immensely through the pandemic and not everyone has been able to cope in the best possible ways.  I personally have lost three friends to drug related overdoses, some of us have lost loved ones in this time, many of us have faced pandemic fatigue.  Perhaps questions of how much longer this time will last, when we will be able to do the activities we once loved and enjoyed again, and if our world will ever be the way it once was have surfaced for us.  There might even be some here today or people within our networks who wonder if there is any point to keep going, and if there are any reasons to keep hoping and dreaming.

With everything that has happened in our world over these past several months not just with the pandemic but also with the violence, poverty, and social inequities we continue to see on the news, it can be easy to focus purely on the negatives.  To think solely of what we have lost.  Part of this is a healthy practice.  Research and professional counselors have shown that we cannot fully heal and move on until we have acknowledged our pain and distress.  However, practicing thanksgiving and gratitude is one way for us to continually remind ourselves that even in the painful seasons God walks with us.

The Bible is one book that literally touches on pretty much any hardship or issue we could face in this life, and yet it mentions thanksgiving or a derivative thereof at least 139 times.  Even one of the most important symbols of the Christian faith, the Eucharist literally means “Thanksgiving.”  How is it then that Christians can continue to praise and seek God even when the rest of life has been thrown upside down?

Last week, Phil gave me permission to do something a little different with this sermon so instead of focusing solely on one Scripture verse, I would like to jump around a bit and touch on several different sections which deal with this issue.  In my own study for today’s sermon I located over 15 Bible verses that lay out the who, what, when, where, why, and how of this particular topic (don’t worry I won’t be sharing all of them here).

Firstly the WHO.  The Bible says that everyone, all people should give thanks to God for what we have been given.  Psalm 150:6 says, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”  I would like for us to all take a deep breath in and then do a slow exhale.  Feel your pulse.  Feel the ground under your feat, your back against the chair.  Take notice of where you are and what you are doing.  If you feel this, you are alive.  Life might have thrown some curve balls our way, but instead of worrying about what happened yesterday or what will come this week, we can focus on the present moment.  And in this present moment we are sitting here at church or comfortable in our homes, among our friends, and in the presence of God. It isn’t just Christians who benefit from this reminder though, but everyone in the general public, even though who do not identify themselves as believers.

 Research from Harvard Health experts has shown that gratitude profoundly alters both our mental and physical state for the better.  Being grateful, mindful, and in the moment, reduces our stress, improves our sleep, and even boosts our immunity.  Psychologically speaking, thankfulness makes us more resilient, improves our friendships, and helps us deal with adversity through relishing in the good experiences we previously had.  Many people choose to engage in practices such as having a gratitude journal, list, or jar where they write about the things they are thankful for.  This is more than just a simple exercise, it can become a deeply spiritual practice, and is also mentally satisfying.  There is proof that in recalling and writing about a good experience that we receive double the results.  We get our first hit of Dopamine (the natural drug inside our bodies that makes us happy) when we first experience the situation, and we receive our second hit again when we recall it.  So gratitude is a natural joy booster.

WHAT is Thanksgiving?  The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes thanksgiving as “conscious of benefits received, expressive of thanks, and well-pleased.”  This seems to be pretty in line with the Biblical understanding of thanksgiving as well.  In the Bible thanksgiving means talking and sharing about what God has done.  Psalm 9:1 says “I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart, I will tell of God’s wonderful deeds.”  In some Christian circles, these moments are referred to as testimonies, and sometimes they can get quite rich and deep.  But they don’t always have to be profound.  Even just sharing with another person about the good news that you have received is one way of being grateful.  It is not about bragging or making ourselves better than others, but it is about remembering that we have been given a gift. And it is in remembering this gift that our outlook usually can shift and the focus of our attention changes to something better.

WHEN should Christians be thankful?  In the passage we read today from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 we read that we are to “rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.”  This is not just because these actions are good ideas, but because it is actually God’s will for our lives.  Paul also wrote in Philippians 4:6 that we are not be be anxious or worried, but instead to lift up our prayers in thanksgiving.  Paul is not talking about clinical anxiety here.  There are many believers who do struggle with anxiety and depression.  Rather Paul is reminding us that when we pray we should be grateful just as much as we ask God for things.  I taught Sunday school for a number of years and it was interesting to see the spiritual development in the children.  When they were young many of them had rather self-centered prayers.  That’s not always bad.  God wants us to tell Him our troubles and concerns.  But as the children got older, they often remembered to start thanking God as well.  

WHERE should be practice thankfulness?  Essentially anywhere.  Lots of people, myself included, feel very connected to the earth and to nature.  My happy place is outdoors and I would probably spend every waking moment outside if I could and if the weather cooperated.  For other people this happy place is in drinking a cup of tea by the fireplace, in curling up with a good book, in listening to their favourite music, or in getting lost in a wonderful piece of art or in crafting.  Wherever your happy place is, I encourage you to go there.  When you go for an autumn walk, feel the crisp air against your skin, feel the crunch of leaves beneath your feet, sip on a cup of Pumpkin Spice Latte and let the delicate flavours dance around your tongue.  In these moments, we once again are being mindful and grounded, and in our being present to the moment we are practicing gratitude.  Of course we can practice gratitude at church, but being physically present in this building is once a week, whereas our worship lasts all week long.

WHY should we be grateful? Aside from the physical and mental health benefits we already touched on, it has been proven that people who are grateful tend to be more generous, more empathetic, more open to other people’s perspectives, and are more likely to be content rather than envious.  This attitude of gratitude can even improve our jobs, our relationships, and our life goals.  We all know people who complain about every little thing and who are never happy regardless of what good things come their way.  These are people we likely do not want to spend much time with.  We also all know people who are always jovial, friendly and helpful even when they themselves are experiencing difficult times.  Who we spend time with makes a world of difference to our own outlook as well.  In Colossians 2:7 Paul writes that thankfulness can strengthen our own faith, and in 2 Corinthians 4:15 we read, “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” Being grateful is actually a wonderful way to witness to other people.  Those around us are more likely to want to take part in our faith and to be curious and interested about our beliefs when they see that we are kind-hearted, loving, and thankful people.

Finally, the HOW.  So we know that gratitude is a wonderful attitude to have and that it really benefits us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, but how exactly do we become grateful?  Being grateful is a practice that takes time and is not cultivated overnight, yet the more we remember to be grateful, the more it will come to us naturally.  There are several verses in the Bible that point to how we can develop this skill: through prayer, through being generous to others, through sharing, and in song.  Colossians 4:2 lays out a two part command: to be watchful and to be thankful.  The two go hand-in-hand.  Watching ourselves and noticing when we are starting to feel grumpy and discontent, challenging the thoughts and assumptions that come into our mind that suggest we should be unhappy or that everyone has it better or easier than we do, and being careful of the comments we make even if we think they are only in jest help us to better develop this sense of contentment.  Paul taught his mentee Timothy that “Godliness with contentment is great gain” in 1 Timothy 6:6.  It is not easy to be content in this world of advertisements targeted just at us, social media, apps that beautify our appearance, and social pressure that reminds us that we need more or will be happy once such and such happens or when we finally meet our soul mate, but if we are able to learn to be content and at peace with our present circumstances, our spirits will become more free and light as a result.

Thanksgiving might just be one day, but the attitude of gratitude is one that we can adopt for the other 364 days of the year.  By asking God to help us be content regardless of how difficult the circumstances surrounding us are, by honouring and tending to our own mental wellness and sharing our burdens with others when we aren’t able to be content through no fault of our own, and by working towards a world where all will be thankful for the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clean drinking water, we are practicing the very acts that God calls us to.  This week may we be ever more mindful of the ways God is at work, may we seek to find joy in the little things, and may we always seek to stay present and grounded in each and every sacred moment.  May it be so.  Amen.

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