Unlikely Gratitude

Sermon Audio: 

The Rev. Susan Milnor
November 19, 2017

Every two years, at about this time, I find I am feeling a bit sorry for myself. I don’t know whether I will be working a year from now or where I will be living or whether I will like it. That’s the nature of interim ministry. But because this is a time of thanksgiving, I try to remind myself of unlikely gratitude.  If it were not for this bizarre life, I would not have known the energy of New York City at Christmas or the beauty of Plum Island on a clear afternoon or the wonder of that golden field of sunflowers. I would not have known the surprisingly different personalities of congregations, nor would I have worked with so many wonderful people.

Gratitude, we know, is a keenly important element of a whole life. And, without fail, in November articles appear laying out how beneficial gratitude is for us as individuals. Apparently, it makes us more optimistic, more successful at work and at love, as well as mentally and physically healthier. Spinning the logic comically further, one columnist wryly observes, “We hope that, when insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on our picnics.”

But on a Sunday of Thanksgiving, in community, we have better reasons to reflect on our gratitude, both likely and unlikely, than our individual gain. As expressed in Mary Oliver’s poem, gratitude propels us into right relation with this life, which is, with all its pain, such a gift. “My work,” she says, “is loving the world.” When we don’t do that work, we have trouble living completely and finding even our likely gratitude. In a collection of healing stories, Rachel Naomi Remen writes of growing up with a father who could transform any good fortune into a source of anxiety, stress, and complaint. Believing that life singled his family out for ill fate, he would greet everything that happened by shaking his head and muttering, “The luck of the Remens.” Consider. When he won a sizeable prize in the New York State lottery while still hospitalized for some surgery, Remen taped the winning ticket to his chest because he trusted no one else to redeem it for him. You see, right relation doesn’t mean choosing moral wrong or right, but as found in the Native American and Buddhist traditions, living an ethic of proportion, interdependence and, yes, gratitude. “Every day,” counsels the Dalai Lama, “think as you wake up: Today I am fortunate to have waked up. I . . . I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.”

Please hear me. By counseling that we develop our “unlikely gratitude,” I don’t mean that we should consider the bad events in our lives to be “blessings in disguise.” The term suggests that a power greater than ourselves ordained it for our benefit, which is not my theology. In truth, we suffer tragedies, hard knocks, and difficult lessons, as we have been reminded so poignantly in Kim’s Journey of Faith this morning. We would choose none of them for ourselves or each other. Although good may emerge from bad things, and we may feel glad for that goodness, it’s not the same as saying we were fortunate to begin with.

Instead, Mary Oliver has it right: “Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?/ Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? / Let me keep my mind on what matters. . . /which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished/. . . which is gratitude,/ to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes,/ a mouth with which to give shouts of joy.”  Oliver, who herself has experienced abuse, loss of a long term beloved partner, illness, is no sentimentalist. She knows life can be hard. And she knows that life constantly offers messages of joy if we do the work of looking for our wonder and practicing our gratitude, both likely and unlikely.

Most importantly, such gratitude allows us to become messengers of hope in a world of brokenness and hurt. It empowers us to do our bit to repair the world. The most lasting gratitude, the kind that runs soul-deep, often emerges not from the everyday experiences, but from the profound ones of greatest struggle.

Joel ben Izzy speaks of the time when, as a youth, he reluctantly boarded a bus in Los Angeles, an apparently hated form of transportation in that city. In a sullen mood anyway, he took in a seat reserved for the handicapped and elderly. After a while a very elderly man boarded the bus, asked him to scoot over, then looked him over carefully and reflectively. Pulling an orange out of a shopping bag, the man asked ben Izzy, “What do you think?” “It’s an orange.” “But what do you think?” “It’s an orange.” “You don’t understand,” said the elderly man and explained that he had been a prisoner in Auschwitz during WWII. Everything there – the landscape, people’s clothes, and the gruel that passed as food --was gray.  

It was also cold in winter, and he used to look for stray pieces of paper to stuff inside his uniform to keep him warmer. One night he reached for a piece of paper and lifted it to find an orange in the center. Unable to believe it, he hid the orange in a crack of the wall; each night he took it out and held it. Scraping it with his fingernail, he smelled a fragrance that reminded him of freedom. Finally, after a day when he and others barely and randomly escaped death, he gathered the people closest to him and brought out the orange. What they all noticed, with a sense of astonishment, was the color. They had forgotten. After a while, the man peeled the orange, gave each section to a friend, and ate his. Nothing before or since, he told ben Izzy so many years later, had tasted as good. For him, one orange had become a message from a world of color and hope and freedom, one that enabled him to do what he could to repair a piece of the world, if only for moments.

The “sunflower, the moth,” the orange – we need them all, my friends --these messages of joy that call us to find gratitude likely and unlikely. In embracing them, in finding and sharing our gratitude, we participate deeply in this world.  In the day to come, let us give “shouts of joy.”  Have a blessed Thanksgiving.


Ben Izzy, Joel.  “The Orange,” snapjudgment.org/gratitude, 2011.
Oliver, Mary. Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.
Remen, Rachael Naomi. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.