A few years ago our parish held an Passover seder with our friends at the Lutheran church down the street. If you were there, you may remember that we sang a very infectious song called “Dayenu.” The title of the song is also its refrain and it’s Hebrew for “that would have been enough.” The verses of the song list the things God did for his people at the Exodus, such as “if God led us out of Egypt, but he did not part the waters--if he led us out of Egypt, dayenu.” Or “if God brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us commandments--if he brought us to Mount Sinai, dayenu.” The chorus is that word over and over. What I find interesting is that at each point in the story, we sing that if God’s providence had stopped there, that would have been sufficient for us. The cumulative effect is to see each step of the process of liberating these slaves, making a covenant with them, adopting them as god’s people and giving them a homeland as a separate occasion to thank God. At the end, having sung their way through the whole saga, the worshippers are left contemplating a huge heap of blessings.
Last Thursday was Thanksgiving. Like most of our holidays, it has become an excuse to consume more food and drink than normal and, the day after, to buy lots of commercial goods. Originally, it was a harvest meal, thanking God for getting a group of Europeans through a harrowing time. Scholars disagree as to what group did this first and in what year. A couple of teachers from the University of Florida say the first such celebration was held by Spanish explorers on September 8, 1565 in what is now St. Augustine, Florida! Others argue for a day in 1619 in Virginia. Still others hold to the traditional year of 1621 in Massachusetts when the pilgrims of the Plymouth Plantation celebrated with Native Americans of the Patuxet tribe, without whose help the settlers would have starved.
Regardless of which celebration was the first, the holiday originally was about gratitude. And gratitude, both science and scripture teach us, is good for us. Keeping a gratitude journal, in which one lists daily 3 things or persons for which one is thankful, is an effective measure for dissipating stress and negative feelings. When you keep reminding yourself of the things for which you can thank God, it begins to change the way you look at life--emphasizing pleasures, love, and friends.
I was thinking how this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my family--how supportive they are and how fortunate we are to appreciate and enjoy each other’s presence. For some families, coming together for a major holiday is a bit like negotiating a truce. But we like each other and like getting together to share our enthusiasms with each other. We don’t ignore our foibles but if they come up, we joke about them and take the jokes in good spirits. No one thinks they are perfect or that the others should be. We let the picky eater taste and spice the food. We not only laugh at the incorrigible joker’s bad puns, we enjoy the eye-rolling reaction of other family members.(Which is often funnier than the joke.) We use the know-it-all as a walking encyclopedia. We let the bureaucrat plow through the paperwork that confuses and infuriates the rest of us. We listen to the critics of things we should read, see, buy or do and either follow their recommendations or do the opposite, depending on whether their tastes and ours tend to run along the same lines or diverge. If that were all I had, dayenu--it would be enough.
I am grateful for my parish. It has sustained me and my family for decades. I am grateful to have been called to this particular form of serving God through the people at St. Francis-in-the-Keys. I am grateful for the support I got learning this role. I am grateful, too, as my secular jobs have come and gone, and I began to wonder, against all the objective evidence that it was in fact systemic economic problems, if there was something wrong with me, that this church has affirmed that I am a valuable member of the community. I am grateful that ministering to this parish has challenged me to move out of the comfort zone of my introversion and made me discover social gifts I didn’t know I had and develop them. This, I hope you realize, is a work in progress. If that were all I had, dayenu.
I am grateful for the fact that having to preach more than 50 times a year has made me dig deeper into the substance of my faith and the various ways that the gospel can be explored, expressed and celebrated. I am grateful to be able to share and bless and find meaning in the transitional moments in your lives--your baptisms, weddings, even burials. I am grateful for all of the people who have stepped up to the challenge of keeping this parish running by cleaning the church, repairing it, setting up the altar, reading the Lectionary, serving at the Eucharist, doing the bulletins, playing the music, making the deposits, paying the bills, serving on the vestry, leading Bible studies, taking care of the coffee hour and organizing events. If that were all I had, dayenu.
I am grateful for my present nursing job: helping a human being with a rough start but a jubilant spirit grow and discover the beauty of this world for the first time. It is amazing to watch a baby look at his hand and figure out that it is part of him and that it works a certain way and that it can help him bring to his mouth what he wants--a toy, a bottle, my pen. It is marvelous to hear him try out his voice with all manner of high pitched noises, determined grunts and contented coos. It is wonderful to sing to him and have him smile at the tunes and rhythms of nonsense songs, mother goose rhymes and hymns, or play Bach and Beethoven and watch him listen intently to the soaring melodies and roaring orchestrations, or rock him and feel him succumb to the sleep he desperately fights but deeply needs. After more than a half a century it is good to be reminded once again that everyday things like baths and food and hugs and the sun and trees and dogs and your sister and your mother are to be greeted with a big smile and swinging arms and feet kicking the air in joyful anticipation. If that were all I had, dayenu.
But this all presupposes the one who brings us here. I am grateful for God our creator, who made the world and all its inhabitants--animal, vegetable and mineral. I am grateful for the climate and environment of the Florida Keys. I am grateful for the human body, its amazing intricacy and paradoxical strengths and weaknesses. I am grateful for our brains which enable us to figure out how the things of this universe work and conceive of ways to help us conquer our weaknesses. I am grateful for our spirits, which set us apart from our fellow inhabitants and drive us to create music and stories and art and dance and jokes and philosophical questions and noble endeavors. If that were all I had, dayenu.
I am grateful for Jesus Christ, the God too big to imagine focused in terms we understand: time and space and humanity. I am grateful for his teachings about God and love and trust and peace and forgiveness and moral behavior. I am grateful for the things Jesus did to show us how beings both divine and human should act in the face of the evil of this world. I am grateful for his self-sacrificial action in going to the cross for my sins, giving up his life to give me a new life. I am grateful that God raised him from the dead, to vindicate his words and works and to assure us that our Heavenly Father is God of the living and not the dead. If that were all i had, dayenu.
I am grateful for the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, who brings the life and love of God into our very hearts and minds. I am grateful for his patient work in me, teaching me God’s wisdom, encouraging me to trust God, changing me into someone worthy to be called a child of God, and binding me to God and Christ and to the people who are his body on earth. I am grateful for his communicating to my Heavenly Father things too deep for me to express. I am grateful to the ways he speaks to me, not in words but in ideas that burst upon me like fireworks, illuminating things that I was previously was unable to see. I am grateful for how he is always there when I need him, giving me hope and energy and love when I have none of my own left. If this were all I had, dayenu.
There are many more things for which I am grateful. Some of them are the same things you are grateful for. Others are unique to each of us. I hope that sometime during this holiday you have taken time to think about all the things for which you are grateful, both big and small, general and specific, cosmic and comic. And as we enter Advent, the approach of God’s greatest gift to us, I hope you make a practice of gratitude, in your prayers and as you review each day. Start by contemplating the marvel of life itself and your body, from the way your heart keeps pumping and your lungs keep working to all the things you can do voluntarily, merely by thinking of doing them. Then go through each person you know and love. Work your way up to God and Christ and the Spirit and all things heavenly. And at each step, after each gift, say “dayenu.” If this were all, it would be enough. And then go on to the next gift. Because the blessings of God are neverending