Thanksgiving sermons might feel like a challenge at the best of times. How does one offer thanks in the face of difficulties like illness, or mourning a loved one, or an unsuccessful harvest?
And then there is the legacy of Thanksgiving. It is an American tradition that was transferred to Canada by United Empire Loyalists who fled to what is now Canada following the victory of Americans in their fight for independence from British rule in the war of 1776 to 1783. Loyalists shifted Thanksgiving here to the second Monday in October from the fourth Thursday in November because of the shorter harvest time in Canada.
Given the roots of American Thanksgiving in the history of the Puritans who conquered and settled parts of eastern North America in the 1620s and our growing awareness of European genocide of First Nations’ communities via settlement, how does one give thanks for this disturbing history and its impact on current troubles?
And then there have been the past two years. This is the second Canadian Thanksgiving that is being celebrated amid the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that Canadian governments, like so many other governments in the world, have bungled their handling of the pandemic and which has resulted in unnecessary death, disability, and other social harms, how should we give thanks?
Of course, this Thanksgiving is not the same as last year’s. Despite our governments’ mistakes in dealing with the pandemic, vaccinations and vaccine mandates look like they are bringing a fourth wave of the disease to an end; and perhaps there won’t be a fifth wave. Perhaps next year will be one of economic and social recovery as Canada and much of the rest of the world recovers from COVID and moves to the next stages of our social evolution.
And regardless of obstacles, we view each Sunday, just like each moment, as a good one in which to give thanks for life’s many unearned blessings. In this way, Thanksgiving becomes yet another moment when we give thanks regardless of what is happening our personal lives or in broader developments in society.
I sought inspiration for this sermon from the writings of Rev. Bruce Sanguin. When I was in seminary, from 2007 to 2011, he was probably the most prominent United Church minister in the country. I first bought one of his books at Emmanuel College in 2008 — “Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos;” and although I was disappointed in it, it did help in my preparation for 2009, which was “The Year of Darwin.” Two thousand and nine had that moniker since it was both the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth in England in 1809, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most important book, “On the Origins of the Species by Means of Natural Selection,” in 1859.
I first preached about Sanguin in 2012, on Thanksgiving Sunday as I prepared to travel to Banff where Bruce was the speaker at the now-defunct Banff Men’s Conference. The Conference was organized by the United Church from the 1950s until last decade; and I had commented on a blog entry by Bruce that week, to which he graciously replied. He also met me for breakfast at the Conference, which I appreciated.
This words of Bruce that we heard this morning are from 2019 when he had left the United Church following a divorce from his wife and the troubles the divorce caused in his-then church, Canadian Memorial United in Vancouver. Since that painful falling out, Bruce has reinvented himself as a psychotherapist, which he continues to practice in his mid-60s in Vancouver and Denman Island.
Bruce and I got into a heated online dispute on Facebook in 2016 when he attacked the person who by then had replaced him as the best-known United Church minister, the Rev. Gretta Vosper of Toronto, and who was the minister in the church in west Toronto that Bruce had left for Vancouver in 1997.
I saw Bruce again in Portland in 2017 where both he and Gretta Vosper were speakers at “Embrace,” the Conference of the American Centre for Progressive Christianity, and we more-or-less buried the hatchet, which I also appreciated.
I like the excerpts of his 2019 blog post we heard this morning. It is from a longer piece in which Bruce expresses the frustrations he felt as a United Church minister who had to come up with a Thanksgiving sermon year after year for 28 years. In it, he wrote [quote] “the Sunday of thanksgiving was always right up there for me, with Christmas and Easter, on the internal groan meter” [end quote] I believe he expresses here some of the disquiet I expressed this morning.
Nevertheless, I think Bruce points in a useful direction in the rest of his 2019 blog post. He writes about God as the Great Mystery out of which everything emerges as a gift. It is all grace, he writes, and even suffering, challenges, and broken heartedness are integral to what it means.
He suggests that if we stumble, with Grace, into accepting this Great Mystery, we may be both filled with gratitude and utterly transformed. Such transformations might be uncomfortable, but what else could we expect in this world of wonders, conflicts, and joys?
Today’s famous Gospel passage is one I treat with both skepticism, since it seems to wrongly suggest that birds and flowers don’t toil, and with gratitude, since at a deeper level it reminds us of how we can enter the flow of the eternal now by rising above or below the level of our egos. At the surface level, the Gospel passage seems inane. But seen from a deeper level, it can help lead us to great gusts of thanksgiving, regardless of what else is happening to us.
To end this brief Reflection, I turn to a poem that was written just over a week ago and to which I was introduced this past Friday by Katharine Weinmann. Some of you may remember that Katherine was one of two facilitators the Worship Committee engaged to lead a sharing circle here at the church in early 2017 when I had been so unsettled and disturbed by the results of the 2016 election in the United States. She is one of Sherwood Park’s great treasures, I believe, and in her weekly e-newsletter she circulates her thoughts, or her own poems, or the poetry of others. Last Friday, she did the latter with a poem from October 2nd that seems to capture the wonder of a gorgeous day. Here it is . . . “A Perfect Day” by Lyn Ungar.
I wonder if some language
has a word for it – the elation
of a perfect fall day, crisp and
gilt-edged and glowing,
mixed with melancholy
of wondering whether this might
be the peak, the moment when
the fruit is perfectly sweet
before it tips to decay.
I mean not just the coming winter,
but the dropping shoe of it all-
flood and drought and
the cruelty of the terrified and in denial.
And what if another perfect day
does come, and I fail to notice?
What if I wake up as if from a dream
in which I’ve opened a room full
of opulent gifts, and then neglected
to thank the giver? It happens.
The ground is littered with
bright leaves and sturdy acorns.
I carefully select a few to bring inside,
when I could lie down and roll
in the brittle beauty of it all.
May we all find time today, tomorrow, and at any moment to thank the giver, and to wonder about the brittle beauty of it all.
May it be so. Amen.