There was a husband whose wife sent him to the shop to buy a ham. After he bought it and presented it to her at home, she asked him why he didn't have the butcher cut off the end of the ham. The husband was mystified and asked his wife why she wanted the end cut off. She replied that her mother had always done it that way and that was reason enough for her. Since the wife's mother was visiting, they asked her why she always cut off the end of the ham. Mother replied that this was the way her mother did it; Finally, the whole group of them decided to call the ancient grandmother and solve this three-generation mystery. Grandmother laughed. When she could catch her breath she explained that she cut the end of the ham because her roaster was too small to cook it in one piece.
This is exactly what can and does happen to religion and to ceremonial events in particular. Sometime in the past, there was a deeply felt occurrence – something so powerful and important and significant that it had to be commemorated regularly. And then, with time, all that was left was the action and the words. The substance was gone but the form lived on.
Today, we celebrate the Harvest Festival – a common occurrence in religious institutions throughout the country. It is very easy to look at a bunch of fruits and vegetables, say some words, and have that be that. It is harder to feel into the meaning and depth behind what has tended to become a cultural tradition where we simply tend to go through the motions.
I know - and you know - how easy it is to say words like harvest or “thank you” and have those words remain as superficial to your self as as a drop of water on an iceberg. It has little relation to what lies within.
Harvest festivals began at a time when harvest was not simply an occurrence that went more or less the same each year. Harvest could be abundant or it could be meagre. The quality of the harvest could mean the difference between ease and suffering. It could mean hunger or comfort. It could mean life or death.
A rich harvest was a true cause for gratitude. Not just thanks but “OH MY GOD, I AM SO HAPPY, THE WORLD IS GOOD, I AM SAVED, MY FAMILY WILL SURVIVE” kind of thanks.
Today, most of us here are inundated with goods of all kinds. Our harvest is distant from us. It is not about life and death. It is about entertainment, variety, and luxury…
Consider this true story told by Rachel Naomi Remen:
A couple took a long planned holiday trip to Hawaii. The husband, an organized and frugal man, had reserved compact rental cars on each of the four Hawaiian islands months in advance. On arriving on the first island and presenting their reservation to the car rental desk, the couple were told that the economy car they had reserved was not available.
The wife watched her husband's face redden as he prepared to do battle. The clerk did not seem to notice. "I am so sorry, sir," he said. "Will you accept a substitute for the same price? We have a Mustang convertible." Barely mollified, the husband put their bags in the beautiful white sports car and they drove off. The same thing happened throughout their holiday. … After the Mustang, they had been given a Mazda MR-10, a Lincoln Town Car, and finally, a Mercedes, all with the most sincere apologies.
The vacation was absolutely wonderful and on the plane back, the wife turned to her husband, thanking him for all he had done to arrange such a memorable time. "Yes," he said, pleased, "it was really nice. Too bad they never had the right car for us."
What is gratitude? It is a way of being where we notice and greet with appreciation every bit of joy and goodness that comes our way.
All too often, the call to gratitude is mixed with guilt. “You should appreciate what you have” we are told when we are young “children in Biafra are startving.” Yes, gratitude comes more easily when we recognize that things could be much worse. If the alternative to a good harvest is another winter of suffering, you can be sure you will feel gratitude for a good harvest.
But, despite the ample charm and wisdom of Dr. Seuss, focusing on how bad things could be in order to feel grateful is not the path I would want to take. It might be effective, but it means immersing ourselves in the negative all the time.
It has been said that "Gratitude is like a flashlight. If you go out into your yard at night and turn on a flashlight, you suddenly can see what's there. It was always there, but you couldn't see it in the dark."
Well, you don’t need to first put your hand on a porcupine hidden in the dark to appreciate the feel of a silky soft puppy when you come upon that. You simply need to notice and appreciate.
Notice and appreciate… Two very simple keys to living happily. Notice everything that comes to you and then appreciate, cherish, rejoice in any goodness that is present.
Noticing and appreciating is simple, but for most of us, this is not a way of being that comes naturally. Instead, we are always looking for more. It is as if we had climbed an enormous staircase and never looked back to celebrate how far we had come – but only focused on those awful steps ahead.
This is not something we can alter easily. If we could, we would all be walking around all day with smiles on our faces reflecting the deep satisfaction within. Being satisfied – quieting that grasping reaching tendency – requires practice. It takes work. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Because there are things we can do together that we cannot do alone.
In a moment we will have a chance to do some of that work, but first, let’s sing… and as we sing of our gratitude, let’s do all we can to allow those words to enter deeply within.
It is not enough simply to read and speak and listen and think. We bring new dimensions to our lives and our intentions when we “do.”
In a moment, I will invite you to come up one by one. Please light a candle for a big gratitude in your life. You may speak briefly or light the candle in silence. I also want you to take some rice. How much? One grain for each thing you feel you can be grateful for in your life! We will use those in a few minutes too.
So please come forward now when you are ready to light a candle and take some rice.
You are holding grains of rice in your hand. I asked you to take some amount equal to your gratitude. There is no way to know how many that is, of course… but I would like you to begin to tally the small gratitudes of your life with these grains of rice.
Transfer a grain of rice from the full hand to the empty one for each gratitude you can name. You can name them in silence, but I would encourage you to mention them aloud in a soft voice. Let us all speak our gratitude together. Let a murmuring of gratitude arise from the soul of this community.
We have begun to speak our many gratitudes – a practice that never ends. May this work seep into the fabric of our daily lives and bring greater meaning and joy to our lives and all those we touch.