". . . for What?!"

A Thanksgiving Sermon
Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
November 18, 2001

Alone I walked the ocean strand;
A pearly shell was in my hand:
I stooped and wrote upon the sand
My name & the year & the day.
As onward from the spot I passed,
One lingering look behind I cast;
A wave came rolling high and fast
And washed my lines away.

-Hannah Flagg Gould "A Name in the Sand"

There have been those occasions wherein the pendulum of time has swung crazily out of its arc. The Thirty Years War was one such example. Beginning in 1618 in Eastern Europe, this struggle for power raged across several countries. Small periods of peace were inevitably followed by uprisings in other quarters. Bohemia, Vienna, Spain, France, Germany, Holland - all were in volved. Finally with the Peace of Westphalia the War came to a merciful close in 1648. The 30 Years War was a religious war. Catholicism was in decline. The Protestant Reformation had brought Calvinism to the fore. So that in the end what resulted was a breakup of the Holy Roman Empire begun by Charlemagne in the 9th century.

That same pendulum has left its orbit in our time, as well. I would mention only a few. One World War (called "The War To End All Wars") followed by the Great Depression followed by a second World War that included the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then came an ordinary Tuesday morning in September of this year. Only it, like Sunday, December 7th, 1941, will never be thought of in those terms again.

In an article in the New York Times dated October 7 of this year, Andrew Sullivan gives his readers the sneaking suspicion that we may be entering a time similar to those years that began the Thirty Years War. He writes:

"...this (war in Afghanistan) surely is a religious war & but not of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity. This war even has far gentler echoes in America's own religious conflicts & between newer, more virulent strands of Christian fundamentalism and mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism. These conflicts have ancient roots, but they seem to be gaining new force as modernity spreads and deepens. They are our new wars of religion & and their victims are in all likelihood going to mount with each passing year."

If what Mr. Sullivan states is true, and I think it is, there will be many who will hold some feelings of bewilderment this coming Thursday. Because this year, as we gather for what I have always felt was our most hallowed American tradition, some of us might be wondering just what there is, given current realities, to be thankful for. "Thanksgiving.....for What?!"

I do have some suggestions in answer to that question I will share later on. But first let me set the stage, so to speak, with a story. It's an old Jewish folktale which will most likely be told in temples and synagogues next December 10th when Hannukah begins.

There were two brothers. They lived all their lives in the city.. One day they decided to make a trip into the country. There they saw a farmer plowing his field. One wondered at what to them was a strange activity.

"This fellow marches back and forth all day, scarring the earth with long ditches. Why should anyone destroy a beautiful meadow like that?"

Later they came and found the farmer sowing grains of wheat in the furrows. One said to the other, "Now what's he doing? He must be mad. He's taking perfectly good wheat and tossing it in thoss ditches!"

The first said to the second brother, "This country life is no place for me. I'm going back to the city." But the second brother stayed. In a few weeks he saw a wonderful change - fresh green shoots began to create a beautiful meadow again. He wrote his brother to return. By the time he did, the golden field of wheat was ready for the farmer's work again and he began to cut it down.

"What's the imbecile doing now? All summer he worked to grow it and now he's destroying it with his own hands! He's a madman. I'm out of here!" And with that he returned to the city.

The patient brother waited and watched. As the wheat was collected and taken to the granary, he realized with great awe what a remarkable process he had witnessed. With but a few kernels of wheat the farmer had brought about a whole field of grain. "And this is how God works, too!" he said to himself. "We mortals can see only the beginnings & we can't understand the full purpose & the end of creation. We have to have faith in the wisdom of it all."
Bennett, The Book of Virtues, paraphrased, p.774f

Years ago Garrison Keillor shared some sentiments on the season in the Time Magazine Essay. (11/27/95) He began with a statement that rebounds off our consciousness today.

It is a wicked world in which the power of any individual to cause suffering is so great and the power to do good is so slight; but here we are, the week of our beloved national feast, our annual homecoming, and signs of loving Providence are everywhere around us.

In the aftermath of the Trade Towers; in the harsh daily reports of war from Afghanistan; in the constant tennis match of emotions from guilt at killing starving innnocents to anger at the madness of the Taliban; it is certainly time to slow the pace and take stock. We need to look with more precision at the simple things around us that give life its meaning. Nothing profound; not even intellectually provocative. But beautiful, nonetheless.

Let me ask your assistance in illustrating one of the most obvious. There in your seats, close your eyes. Now take a long, slow, deep breath and slowly let it out. Again. And again. Now open your eyes. Have you guessed to what I'm referring? Too often we take so for granted the best gift of all. The gift of life. I, for one, am grateful for being alive. For having been given the opportunity to consider each day as a time to notice; to pay attention; to marvel and wonder.
This morning between four and six a.m. was such a time. I stood, as most likely some of you did too, looking with wonder at the meteor showers. I am told that event will not occur in our lifetime again. But it was a wonder to behold.

Simple matter. But when one considers the fact that being human means realizing that we've been born into this world and that we will have to die, it's not so simple. Picture the changing colors of the woods and grasslands surrounding the North River through the year. As the sun strikes those marsh lands they reflect the gold of autumn. When winter comes, the whiteness of an occasional snow storm and the starkness of the scene seems a blanket of mystery. Then will come those tiny green shoots that seem to twinkle with life since they will be followed by the rich green of summer's refulgency. Oh, yes, much there is.

As I grew up I learned that Thanksgiving was Mother's time to command our attention. Unlike the thousands of meals she prepared so lovingly and well, and which my brother and I probably took too much for granted, the Thanksgiving meal was one that came on strong with meaning. It was more than just a groaning board of turkey and all the fixings. It was a time when we were asked to be on our best behavior; to remember how our country came to be and the freedom it enjoys. Lorna and I raised our children with the same emphasis on those values. The tradition continues as I am sure it has in your families. Simple things but with so much depth.

In her sonnets, Edna St. Vincent Millay once wrote,

Tranquility at length, when autumn
Will lie upon the spirit like that
Touching far islands on fine
autumn days
With tenderest blue, like bloom on
purple plums;
Harvest will ring, but not as summer
With noisy enterprise & to broaden,
Proceed, proclaim, establish:
autumn stays
The marching year one moment;
stills the drums.

Then sits the insistent cricket
in the grass;
But on the gravel crawls the
chilly bee;
And all is over that could come
to pass last year; excepting this:
The mind is free one moment, to
compute, refute, amass, catalogue,
question, contemplate and see.

Our liberal faith, if it can be said to have some weakness to it, tends sometimes to what one might call an unhealthy optimism. Hope is continually the central virtue. I have found myself preaching this value many, many times. But I have to be honest with you. As essential as hope might be to the living of these days, it is quite insufficient unless it is grounded in something deeper, something more in tune with the highs and lows of the human condition.

And so during these days of Thanksgiving let us know that a living, potent religion has to address what Robert Frost called "inner and outer weather". And how well we realize the truth of this today with all the seeming chaos that rages round the world. That darkness is real beyond imagining - even beyond Ground Zero.

But be assured, my friends, that moments of grace do come to us - not easily or often I do admit - but they do arrive. And it seems to me that they come softly following those times in which we acknowledge Life's inner and outer darkness. They come with opportunity. With softened sounds of human yearning. With buoyant sounds of children at play. With the steady sounds of the heart's continued life-giving beat. With times in which we stop, before a simple meal shared, and give thanks for this great gift - called Life.