Preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
November 19, 2017
Thanksgiving Sunday at the First Church in Sterling, MA
by William Stafford
Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.
People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.
Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.
Later in the day you can act like the others. You can shake your head. You can frown.
Any morning can be an occasion for frowning. There is so much trouble busying itself elsewhere; it has so much to do in the world. Any morning can also be an occasion for gratitude. Little pieces of Heaven left lying around can be picked up and saved.
It is not one or the other: trouble or heaven. As always, it’s both. Frowning and joy; grief and gratitude; the desire to save the world and savor it. Don’t let anyone tell you you have to pick between two things. The world is both brutal and beautiful, and anyone who notices the beauty in the world must want to save it from brutality.
In our reading from the Epistles this morning, St. Paul in his letter to the people of Thessalonica gives instructions to prepare them for Christ’s second coming with instructions for their holiness. He says to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.”
Rejoice always, Paul, really? Even at the DMV, the traffic on the mass pike, the hospital, the funeral home? I am still mourning the death of people I love. I am worried about the uncertainty of the future and my children’s future. We have been plunged into the darkness of the winter this month and the seasonal depression that is sure to come along with it. People are dying every day, and the world is violent and mean. Rejoice always, Paul? Seriously?
Pray without ceasing, Paul, how? Sometimes I have to, like, sleep, bathe and read InStyle magazine. And sometimes it’s hard just to put one foot in front of the other, get my grocery shopping done, get my kids to all of their appointments and pay the bills. I should be praying that whole time? Really?
Give thanks in all circumstances, Paul? Even when I have heard countless stories of assaultive men I once admired in the news this week? This congregation readies itself to celebrate Thanksgiving again this year, and there will be newly empty chairs at our Thanksgiving tables. There will be anger, grieving and loneliness. Some of us are so ill we have lost hope. Some of us won’t be able to afford a turkey. Some of us won’t be able to stay sober or sane. Give thanks in ALL circumstances? These ones, too?
These are seemingly impossible feats Paul is requiring of the followers of Jesus. But he may just be reminding us that there is no other choice but to rejoice, pray unceasingly, and yes, to be thankful in all circumstances though we’ve considered all the facts.
When I was studying to be a minister, I did a summer long chaplaincy internship at Mass General Hospital on the neurological floors. I remember going to my supervisor in a panic before being on call for the first time. I could be beeped to go into any part of the hospital during the overnight shift. I had a 9 month old baby and a four year old at the time. I said to my supervisor: “I don’t think I can go to the NICU or the PICU. I can’t handle it. I’m a mother.”
And she said to me, rather harshly (she was a rather harsh person): “Robin, this is not about you. That’s not your kid in the hospital bed. That’s not your baby. That’s someone else’s. It could be your kid, and it may be your kid one day, but its not today. So today the right response is gratitude. The second response is to suck it up and show up.”
Ann Lamott says, “Sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses.” I have been thinking about my need for a new prescription as I reflect on my regular failure to be grateful.
A few weeks ago, I awoke to a leak in my ceiling dripping dirty water onto the foot of my bed from the attic floor boards. I got up, walked downstairs and stepped on legos with bare feet as I crossed the kitchen floor, swearing as I realized there was still a sink full of dirty dinner dishes left over from the night before. No one seems to know that there is a dishwasher in my house except me. My head is aching, it’s too early in the morning, I stayed up too late last night, I have to go to the dentist, I am so busy, it is so hard, I have too much work to do and not enough time to do it in, I want to go back to bed. “Ugh. When will I get peace and quiet and time for me and a vacation and a maid!”
And truthfully, too often I say that instead of: “thank you, God, for my life and breath, for the fact of my rising from a warm bed, for the two strong legs that carried me to the bathroom to splash water on my face like a baptism. Thank you for the dawn of a new day, for the healthy, funny, loving children that leave their toys on the floor for me to step on. Thank you for clean water flowing from my sink that I can wash my dishes with. Thank you for the food I have to scrape into the trash before I do. It is a ridiculous blessing that I have so much food I am scraping some of it into the trash.
Thank you for the shower I took this morning, in clean drinking water. An embarrassment of riches, I think, after reading about the people all over the world, and even in Flint, Michigan and Puerto Rico who still don’t have clean drinking water; the children who are poisoned, the cholera epidemics. And I am literally bathing in drinking water.
Which reminds me to thank you for excellent medical care, and a mouth full of teeth that chew. Thank you, God, for the floor on which those legos were laid, and the roof over my head that will be patched and then fixed and paid for by people other than me.
Thank you, God, for the husband who gives me his whole heart, for the boy who wakes me up too early to ask me what I want to think about. Thank you for a mind that thinks, and for people who encourage that mind to think differently. Thank you for the girls who are fighting over the television remote right now. Thank you, God, for the gumption they inherited to fight for what they believe to be right…they’ll need it. And thank you for the coffee maker, which makes it all more bearable.
Thank you for meaningful work serving people I love. I am blessed to have too much work. I am blessed to have the best and most loving boss, You.
Thank you, God, for the good earth that created us, that warms and feeds and sustains us; that astounds us with beauty every day. Thank you, God, for all of the extra: we have so much that we can give some away. Thank you for your Church; for a place where our giving can match our deepest held values.
Thank you, God, for the tears of mourning I have shed. I have loved and been loved so fully that loss feels like a hole in my heart that will never be filled. Thank you, God, for the pain of being fully alive because it cuts through the numbness of depression. It cuts through the empty consumption of mindless consumerism. Thank you for all of the memories I have of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, responsible for both deep wounds and deep wisdom. Thank you, God, for good therapists and for Zoloft.
The only prayer on my lips every morning should be “thank you,” because there is nothing else to say in the face of such abundance.
As we sit around our Thanksgiving tables this week to give thanks for what we have, let us remember that our joy comes from Love; our ceaseless prayer is Love in action; our gratitude is the only response.
Beloved: this holiday season, in the words of First Parish in Concord's weekly benediction:
Go out into the world in peace
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings, especially yourself.
Later in the day you can act like the others. You can shake your head. You can frown. But for now, pick up and savor little pieces of heaven wherever you find them.
For now and in all things, enter God’s courts with Thanksgiving, and God’s gates with praise.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.