Sermon, Thanksgiving 2003 (Giving Thanks for What Is)

First, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you this morning. I can’t imagine any other pastor giving up their pulpit on Thanksgiving Sunday, but Susan did, and it was a gracious and generous gesture.

I’m also grateful to be grateful. I have had a hard time this year. At various times I have been out of work, out of a place to stay, and nearly out of my mind, but looking back over the last year I realized that I’ve really enjoyed most of it in spite of everything that’s gone wrong, and until I started working on a “Thanksgiving Sunday” sort of sermon, I couldn’t even put my finger on why. Looking at the events of the past year at face value made me wonder what I could possibly be grateful for.

I’m grateful I have friends. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Creator feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Skipping the theological debate on the hierarchy of the animal kingdom, I’d like to point out that I have never felt more valued, or more loved, than when I accepted you as my community of faith.

In fact, I wouldn’t have survived without you, because you came to my rescue in a multitude of ways.

  • Towanda and her cielo let me come over to their house every Saturday for three months straight just so I could watch Trading Spaces because I didn’t have cable.
  • Tania took me to the Women’s World Cup because she knew how much I would love it even though I didn’t have the money.
  • Karen offered to bring a picnic to my empty apartment so we could sit on the floor with purpose.
  • Diane offered me tickets to a student dress rehearsal at the Portland Opera and to the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s first concert this season.
  • Keith introduced me to the orchestra at University of Portland so that I would have a place to play my trumpet and another group of people to belong to.
  • Scootter and Ann gave me work as a handywoman even though they knew I didn’t have any experience and quickly learned that I’m quite a klutz.
  • Theo and Andrew envisioned an incredibly moving jazz service and asked me to be a part of it all.
  • Pam and Suzie helped me get involved with the youth group, where I found an amazing group of kids that I am proud to help lead.
  • Karen said, “Of course I’ll talk to you,” when I expressed interest in truly determining if the plan for my life included professional ministry.
  • And there are countless others who called just to check in, and stayed right there with me as I struggled to create a life and a circle of friends.

I’ve had so much to be thankful for, even when I didn’t have anything to hold in my hands… which made me realize that I’m grateful for where I am… because it took a long time to get here.

Before I came to Portland, my former partner and I both worked for a multinational oil company. Pooled together, our income was larger than the yearly operating budget for some countries in which it drilled. We lived in a large townhouse in the posh suburb of Alexandria, and spent our weekends going to restaurants and movies in order to escape the austere environment that was work. We both drove late-model cars. We had over 200 cable television channels. As our careers advanced, we learned that it was possible for one or both of us to receive expatriate assignments so that we could live overseas. It was exactly the type of life that I thought I wanted, until I was shaken into a different reality. My position was downsized. My partner left me, and unable to cope with the carpet-sucking depression that both life events dealt, I retreated in shame to my parents’ house in Houston, Texas. Immediately following the move, and for a long time afterward, I was so stuck in the rut of wanting what I USED to have that I forgot to give thanks for everything I DID have… both to God and to my family, because not only did they give me the space I needed to recover, they encouraged me to find a job I really, really liked. As I began to heal, I knew it was because my parents had given me so much. Little things I had taken for granted, like a place to live, in fact, a room of my own. In terms of my relationship with God, I went through the motions of going to church, but I’m not sure that I was all there. Had I been paying attention, I could have given thanks for the closing of many emotional wounds.

Eventually, I became aware of the fact that I had committed a series of mistakes that, looking back on it, were nothing more than entitlement issues. As in, “I’m depressed, so I DESERVE this” or “My partner just left me, so it’s ok that I don’t notice all these people running around trying to make me feel better.” It was a paradigm shift that I cannot and will not forget.

For me, “the place I am” also includes physical location. I’m so grateful that I’m in Portland, because until I moved here, I never knew that love for a place could be so intense. Each morning when I wake up, I look out the window at vast Oregon hills and mountains unlike anything I’ve ever known as a Houston, Texan. I marvel at the line of Japanese Maple trees leading up the street to my apartment. I love, to paraphrase Norman McClean and Robert Redford, that “a river runs through it.” I love the Columbia Gorge, with the way that from a distance it looks as if the rock is actually rising up out of the water and curving slightly inward as if a wave was frozen into place. I love Jake’s Grill on the ground floor of the Governor Hotel, where the food is so cheap and the people watching so grand that I have often gone alone just to be able to take it all in. I love the Portland Opera and the Portland Youth Philharmonic because when I have nothing, I still have music.

I’m grateful for music. As James Duffecy once said, “Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.” Sitting in a dark theater as notes and rhythms wash over me in rapid succession is the purest pleasure I know, because often hearing a particular piece will articulate the emotion I’ve been trying to express, but haven’t. It is also a moment of sustenance and strength in acknowledging that symphonies do not happen alone. They are created when many people come together.

And finally, I am grateful that what is won’t always be, because whether it is done through a change in circumstance or a change in attitude, my God is big enough to turn my situation around… Kind of like a story I read earlier in the week while I was still in the early stages of preparing my sermon.

In Budapest, a man goes to the rabbi and complains, “Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?”

The rabbi answers, “Take your goat into the room with you.” The man in incredulous, but the rabbi insists. “Do as I say and come back in a week.”

A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. “We cannot stand it,” he tells the rabbi. “The goat is filthy.”

The rabbi then tells him, “Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week.”
A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, “Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there’s no goat and only the nine of us.”

I won’t always be poor, looking at lattes and thinking of how many packages of Ramen noodles I could have bought for the same price. I won’t always be a struggling undergraduate with the dream of becoming a pastor. I won’t always be able to give so little in terms of material gifts, because the gifts I have already received will push me forward toward my goals.

I am so grateful for this point in my life, the city that surrounds me, and the people who have met my needs both spoken and not.

You are my Thanksgiving. Thanks be to God.

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