Thanksgiving in a Time of Covid

October 11, 2020                   Harvest Thanksgiving

Deuteronomy 8:2-18                Psalm 126


Happy Thanksgiving! It is so lovely to gather, for those of us who can, in a church decorated with the emblems of the harvest – it can feel like a piece of familiar, nostalgic normalcy in the midst of this chaotic and frightening year. And though there are many who cannot be with us in person, some are worshipping with us online, and we hope that they will feel themselves connected with the gathered community, and that we who can come together will feel ourselves connected with them.

We are privileged to be able to gather in relative safety, when we look at other places where the virus seems to be out of control: Quebec and Ontario, parts of the States, and around the world. We can be thankful to be living in Nova Scotia. And yet there are people we love in these other places, and we fear for them, and we miss them, not being able to visit.

We are coping, each of us as we can. Many of us seem to be doing well, six months in, though it may be the brave face we put on for the world. Others are struggling: struggling financially, perhaps, or struggling with the isolation, or our health. Most of us, I suspect, are feeling more anxiety than usual – sometimes acute, often just a dull, almost imperceptible anxiety that drains our energy, and leave us wondering what is wrong with us. We are living through a difficult time, that’s what’s wrong, and we are reacting in perfectly normal human ways, coping as best we can.

All of this maybe doesn’t feel particularly Thanksgiving-y. At least if Thanksgiving means belting out “Come ye Thankful People, Come” in a packed, joyful church; if it means gathering with a large family for a feast with plenty of laughter; if it means relaxing with a serene feeling of peace and gratitude fueled by a bellyful of turkey and a couple of glasses of wine – well, we may not get that this year. Hopefully we will get some of it, but this holiday, like everything lately, is going to feel different.

And yet in many ways, an attitude of Thanksgiving is with us more than ever this year, in away that is raw and messy and real. Amid all the other things we are experiencing, we are experiencing gratitude in intense and unexpected ways. We are learning to appreciate anew the small things, the simple facts of our lives that we so often take for granted. At a time when many possibilities have been taken away from us, we are thankful for home and health, for the precious people in our lives. At a time when many of the trappings of our church life are on hold, we can be more aware of God’s presence and care in the midst of our troubles.

It is a dynamic as old as the Bible. This morning’s first reading, from Deuteronomy, is a sermon set at the end of Israel’s time of hardship in the wilderness, on the cusp of moving into the Promised Land. At that momentous point in the history of the people, it reflects on the spiritual significance of that change. Looking back on the difficult time behind them, it sees also a time of being close to God, a time of gratitude for God’s care in adversity. Looking ahead to the good life to come, it warns them about how easy it is to forget God then, to take the good things for granted, to imagine that we live by our own entitlement, and to lose that attitude of radical gratitude that makes of everything a gift and an occasion for praise.

The psalm, too, looks to a similar moment. It holds onto that moment when the exiles return from Babylon to their homeland, when captivity has ended and their new freedom is like a dream where everything feels strange and wonderful. In times of hardship, like the present, we look forward with longing – Restore our fortunes, o Lord, like the streams of the Negev; in times of prosperity we look back to remember that feeling of joyful gratitude. What we sow today with tears, in our longings and hopes and labour of caring, will bring a harvest of joy and praise.

In the Thanksgiving letter, I included a poem by the Irish poet and spiritual leader Padraig O’Tuama. I’d like to share that with you again today, because to me it speaks powerfully of the kind of lessons we are experiencing today in our somewhat stripped down lives. Facts of life, it is called: a list of the kind of simple truths about life that we often forget, but which can come into focus for us in difficult times. Some of these truths are stark and challenging. Some are the hope and beauty that we wrestle from dark times.

The Facts of Life

That you were born
and you will die.

That you will sometimes love enough
and sometimes not.

That you will lie
if only to yourself.

That you will get tired.

That you will learn most from the situations
you did not choose.

That there will be some things that move you
more than you can say.

That you will live
that you must be loved.

That you will avoid questions most urgently in need of
your attention.

That you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg
of two people who once were strangers
and may well still be.

That life isn’t fair.

That life is sometimes good
and sometimes better than good.

That life is often not so good.

That life is real
and if you can survive it, well,
survive it well
with love
and art
and meaning given
where meaning’s scarce.

That you will learn to live with regret.
That you will learn to live with respect.

That the structures that constrict you
may not be permanently constraining.

That you will probably be okay.

That you must accept change
before you die
but you will die anyway.

So you might as well live
and you might as well love.
You might as well love.
You might as well love.

These are lessons for our times. Reminded of the simple and stark facts of our lives, we are reminded too of the grace and beauty that is given to us as well. Let us make these sparse truths the basis of our thanksgiving this year.

Let us give thanks for a home to shelter in, for food on the table, for the simple needs that we have and that are met. And let us remember those who do not always have the things we so often take for granted.

Let us be thankful for our health, for the good health we have, and, where illness and debility intrudes on our lives, for the resources to meet those challenges with grace and hope.

Let us be thankful for the people who are important to us, for friends and family, for the support and encouragement we can give one another, for the love that binds us together, even when we are separated, even when we misunderstand one another.

Let us be thankful for the hunger for meaning within us, the thirst for God’s presence in our lives that deepens our joys and blesses our daily habits. Let us be thankful in adversity – that the things that challenge and grieve us can also nourish our awareness of what is important in life.

Let us give thanks for our lives, for our days and years: not as a time just to drift through and enjoy, but as the precious gift that life is, an adventure to embrace with seriousness, a space to learn what it is to be truly alive, to be filled with gratitude and joy and praise.

Grant us, Lord, most of all these simple gifts. Amen.