“Small Favors”

Is.64/Thanksgiving Sunday

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

We are about to enter the presidential primary season, and many of us find aspects of this venerable democratic process to be annoying.

Whatever our political persuasions, the endless commentaries and speculations, the misspoken comments, and the vague statements of policy can be grating.

One thing that bothers me is the way that some candidates behave after they have won an important primary. The candidate will be addressing a late-night assembly of a crowd of supporters. He (or possibly, “she”) will begin his speech with a long list of thank-you’s.

The candidate will express gratitude to voters from that particular state. He will give credit to his local campaign workers, and his staff. He will acknowledge the support of his family.

As he proceeds through his list, however, the candidate won’t be very convincing. Sure, the candidate appears “thankful.” But the pride and self-satisfaction on his face is so abundant that he really seems to believe that he deserves all the credit! While the candidate goes through the motions of showing gratitude, he’s actually feeling pleased with the demonstration that he is the most popular person in the field!

This of course undermines the candidate’s effort to ascribe credit to staff and supporters. They know perfectly well that insincere thanks is no thanks!

So to be credible, our gratitude must be directed toward some exterior source beyond ourselves. That’s why the original Thanksgiving Day included not only a bountiful feast, but prayer.

The Pilgrims gathered to give thanks to their divine Creator, who had allowed them to survive in the New World.

One participant described the first Thanksgiving in these words,

“Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men bird hunting so that we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. The men in one day killed as much fowl as… served the company almost a week… Many of the Indians amongst us and… we entertained and feasted their greatest King, Massasoit, with some ninety men, for three days, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought…”

The witness concluded, “And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet BY THE GOODNESS OF GOD WE ARE… FAR FROM WANT.”

“By the goodness of God, we are far from want.” When the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, they could never be sure where their next meal was coming from. So after the first harvest was in, and food had been set aside for the winter, the colonists could finally relax. And while they no doubt felt pride in their labors, they offered their ultimate thanks beyond themselves, to God.

The Pilgrims were, of course, a religious community. They had journeyed to America in order to find freedom of worship. Their vision was a nation lived “under God.” No wonder they remembered to offer their gratitude to the Creator.

But given this foundation in history, it is curious that Americans today can be so self-centered. Like the political candidate basking in the glow of victory, we think, “It’s all about me.” Americans are grateful, yes, but when life goes well, we tend to thank ourselves!

We forget that, as we heard in the First Lesson from the Book of Isaiah, “we are the clay, you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand…” We are formed by our Creator. Our souls contain a divine “spark;” even our bodies–on which we lavish such care–are the creation of the Divine.

And, as the marvelous Prayer of General Thanksgiving in the Prayer Book advises, we should give thanks not only for “all the blessings of this life,” like food and shelter–but for the most fundamental blessings. We should be grateful for “the means of grace” which allow us to act in a way that will give us “the hope of glory” and the joys of eternal life.

And if we stop and think about it, most of us can recall occasions in our lives when we received blessings that we ascribed to divine intervention.

You may not have survived a year in the wilderness like the Pilgrims, but maybe you were awaiting the results of medical tests, and you were fearing the worst—then the news turned out to be good.

Or you were struggling with your career, and then you received a great job offer, completely out of the blue.

Or you were almost crushed by a New York taxi running a red light. Most of us have had that terrifying experience! Afterwards, you catch your breath and, as the Second Lesson says, you “wake up”—you awake to the basic blessing that you are still alive on God’s earth.

Yet these are all exceptional occasions for thanksgiving. We should also keep before us the ordinary times. The participant in the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving whom I quoted earlier used the phrase, “far from want.”

Most of us, too, are “far from want.” Not only can we count on our basic needs being supplied, but much happens around us to make our lives comfortable and interesting—from the heat that comes through the radiator to the electromagnetic waves that arrive in our cell phones.

The comic hero of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Sea, The Sea thinks of life as “a succession of little treats.” The hero’s pleasures might not be ours, for they include British comfort foods like “beans on toast!”

But most of us have our own little treats: watching a favorite TV show, playing a sport, shopping in a neighborhood store, sitting in a comfortable chair reading a book. We have pleasures that the Puritans couldn’t have imagined.

So as we listen to the offertory anthem today, let us meditate on the blessings of this life. Let’s recall the times when God has intervened in our lives to save us or to move us forward.

Let us give thanks for the people whose presence has enriched our lives—especially those whose help we take for granted.

And let’s not forget the many little joys that come our way. Let’s remember today, and every day, to thank God for small favors.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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