First Universalist Society in Franklin

In Grief and In Gratitude: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday 2016

“In Grief and In Gratitude: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday 2016”
Rev. Jenny M. Rankin
First Universalist Society in Franklin
November 20, 2016


The poet Elizabeth Spires once wrote “In heaven it is always autumn” I think of her words as I walk my dog In the fields near home:

Crops safely gathered in

And the fields are bare

But some grasses have been left standing

And the tops of the grass gleams gold in the late afternoon sun

Around the edge of the field, trees stand like sentinels

Many of them bare; their branches a soft brown lace against the sky

But some still with leaves—leaves that glow

Burnished copper

Deep red

They stand, strong and true, like pillars of fire

It is almost achingly beautiful,

The gold of this late afternoon,

The light that lies like a benediction over the fields.

I come here to be comforted

To be grounded again.


We need comforting, don’t we, in these days. It has been a difficult time. You’ve told me in the last week that you notice you’re more distracted than usual, it’s hard to focus. You say you feel like you’re walking around in a daze, Still not quite believing. You find yourself on facebook too much, decide to take a break. You say you’re jumpy, irritable, Just downright discouraged. Angry.  Sad.

The news, of course, keeps on coming. That’s the nature of it, the news, I mean. Incidents of bigotry, racism popping up. The Southern Poverty Law center reports 400 of them. Swastikas, it seems, are popular, appearing here and there—

  • Painted on a car in Denver
  • The side of a church in Beanblossom, Indiana

There are signs that say “make America white again”

— a dugout in Wellsville, New York

–on a bathroom wall in a high school in Minnesota

(along with the words “Go Back to Africa)

In northwest Texas, female students from a largely Hispanic high school show up to play volleyball and are greeted by signs that say “Build that wall!”

There have been incidents of Trump supporters being physically accosted and in some cases beaten up. There is talk of a registry for Muslims. There is talk of deportation. Fear about repercussions in the LGBTQ community, mothers worried their daughters will not have access to basic contraception, choice.

Whatever political party you belong to, however you voted, looking out at the great divided nation we have become I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to use the words “broken hearted” to describe many Americans in these times.

Amongst it all, we come together as a community to sing and pray and hold onto one another and later, to eat a delicious feast with one another! We come together Try to be the face of God for one another, the face of Love, try to be for our children. A rock, and a strength, try to be that for one another.

Here you are a spiritual community, trying to take your first steps into the next chapter of your life together. Your first steps after enjoying a long and prosperous partnership in ministry with Carol Rosine. You are getting yourself together. But Carol was a strong, dedicated, loving minister, and moving on isn’t always easy.

Change isn’t easy. There is grief, anger, feelings of all kinds, all normal and natural. Love is strong and letting go of love is never easy.

It is a complicated time and it may seem difficult to think about celebrating Thanksgiving in the face of these complicated times, but I’d ask you to remember two things.

First, on that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth when the colonists gathered around that table, remember all the people who were NOT there. Fully half of their number had died the winter before. And so when they came to eat they came with great gaping holes in their hearts. The people they loved, so many of them, were gone. There was grief around that first Thanksgiving table. They gathered in grief and in gratitude and, sometimes, so do we.

Secondly, if we think about how Thanksgiving started as an official holiday–It wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln started it—proclaimed this Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. It was in the darkest days of the Civil War, just a few months after the battle of Gettysburg. That battle which in three days had killed more soldiers than the rest of the war altogether—about 50,000 men.

Lincoln established Thanksgiving not as a day to have a meal but as a day for Americans to go to their churches and give thanks; give thanks for the blessings that they had and that things could have been much worse.

Despite the intense civil war that was dividing the nation, it had not yet been attacked by foreign powers and Lincoln wanted people to recognize what they had been spared and give thanks.

Thanksgiving is not a Hallmark card. As much as we might yearn to have it so, it’s a complicated day That has had a complex history right from the very beginning. Abraham Lincoln wanted the nation to come together to pray because times were difficult and maybe that’s not a bad thing for us to think about now–Coming together to pray for our nation that is wounded and torn apart.

I said earlier that it would not be an exaggeration to use the word “broken hearted” to describe some of us in these times. And maybe that’s why the words that have been running through my head:

Come from the prophet Isiah. Words like

“the lion shall lie down with the lamb”

And “they shall study war no more”

Words like “Send me” to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, minister to the prisoners.

These are ancient words; as ancient as the words of that wonderful comforting Psalm that the choir sang earlier. These are ancient words; spoken by a prophet thousands of years ago to a broken-hearted people living in exile. Forced from their homes, their land, all that they knew. They were strangers in a strange land, living in captivity, losing hope.

Isaiah’s words come back to me and I remember that from time immemorial it has been the role of prophets and mystics and poets to use their imagination, paint pictures with words and art and music so that we can see, see in our mind’s eye, that new and hopeful reality they are pointing us towards.


“They shall beat their swords into plowshares

And their spears into pruning hooks

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation

Neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2:4



Thanksgiving is not a Hallmark card. When we gather around the table this Thursday we will all be there, with all of our fragility and all of our strength. We’ll gather round, people who love one another, people with flaws, people with complicated lives. There will be worries about money, some who are struggling with mental health or recovery. Thanksgiving is complicated. Has been from the beginning. We are complicated people and that humanity is what will be around our tables this Thursday, no Hallmark card perfect family. That’s ok.

We gather, as did our forebears, in grief and in gratitude. One of the great gifts we have been given by poets and artists and mystics. One of the great gifts we have been given by spiritual teachers like Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and so many more–Is the gift of religious imagination.

Poets and artists and mystics and visionaries use their imagination they dare to dream a new day, they dare to look beyond things as they are and begin to imagine things as they could be. This can be a radical act–This act of religious imagination.

“I have been to the mountaintop” Martin Luther King said a few days before he died. I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the Promised Land. He sketches a picture for us. We can try to scrunch our eyes tight shut and imagine it in our mind’s eye–that land of milk and honey where there will be no more warring and fighting; no more discrimination and racism; no more tears.

Where each person will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Poets and mystics encourage us to remember that we, too, are human. That we, too, have the capacity for imagination–Religious imagination, spiritual imagination. We can see beyond things as they are to see how they could be.

Perhaps that is our task in these difficult and trying times. To remind ourselves and one another and the wider world that when swastikas are painted and unkind things are said and unjust laws threaten us, it does not have to be this way.

It could be…..that way.  That other way.  That way which from time immemorial faithful women and men have called one another to imagine, and then to create.

These are days that call on us to use all our faculties of religious imagination. And not just to dream, but to take steps towards putting that dreaming into building–Building the new reality we want to see.

These are days that are discouraging, yes. These are days that are difficult, yes. These are days that call us to put down all the petty little things that so often consume us. These are days that ask us to pick up our heads. Look around. Try to become the best self we can be. And try to work together for the best world we can make.

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