(This year’s Thanksgiving Eve service conducted jointly with the All Souls Waccamaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was very well-attended and it was an exhilarating experience for those who were there. The following is the sermon I delivered at the event.)
Occasionally, people will tell me that they don’t feel like celebrating Thanksgiving because they don’t feel there’s anything for which they are thankful. They may have lost a loved one. They may have declining health. They may have suffered other setbacks. So, they ask, “Why should I celebrate Thanksgiving when I don’t feel I have much for which to be thankful?”
I think there is one basic thing for which we should all be thankful. And that is the fact that we exist at all – the fact that we each have a self-identity, that we each have a consciousness, that we each have an awareness that we exist as a distinct being.
What right do we have to exist at all? Do we really have a right to exist? Existence is better than non-existence. But we each have no inherent right to exist. The fact that each of us exists with a consciousness, with a sense of awareness, with a sense of being, is really a gift.
The fact that we each exist with a consciousness, with a sense of self identity, is the result of an act of grace. None of us is entitled to exist. Our individual existence, our sense of self-identity as a specific being, our sense of consciousness, have been given to us as an act of grace. We may have differences of opinion as to the source of this grace which enabled us to exist as creatures with a sense of self-identity, with the ability to be conscious of our own individual identity, but none of us has a right to exist. Our individual existence was bestowed upon us as an act of grace. It was a gift. We didn’t do anything to earn the right to exist. The right to exist was given to each of us as a gift.
There are many things that we, as humans, are incapable of understanding. And this inability to understand everything should humble us. There are things going on which are beyond our ability to understand. It’s like a high pitched whistle. A dog can hear a high frequency whistle which human beings are incapable of hearing. But the fact that human beings can’t hear the high pitch of the whistle doesn’t mean that the whistle doesn’t exist. It just means that the pitch of the whistle is outside of the range of what humans have the capacity to hear. And I think the same principle applies to existence. There is an ultimate reality underlying existence which is beyond our capacity as human beings to comprehend. But the fact that we can’t understand it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
The bottom line is that regardless of what’s happening in our lives, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks – to be grateful – for the gift of life which has been bestowed upon each of us – for the precious gift of existing – for the act of grace which made it possible for each of us to exist with a sense of self-being. Without this act of grace, we would not exist. Without this act of grace, instead of our existence, there would be our non-existence. Instead of something, there would be nothing.
And we each have the free will to use this gift of existence which has been bestowed upon us primarily to advance our own selfish interests or to reach out to others – to show compassion and love to other human beings, to welcome the stranger, to help those who are less fortunate than we are – to show our gratitude for the grace which has been bestowed upon us by bestowing grace on others. And so the best way we can express our thanks – our thanksgiving – for the gift of existence – for the grace which has brought each of us into existence as distinct beings with consciousness, with the ability to think and to experience emotions, is to reach out beyond ourselves to others.
I’m reminded of the question asked by Shakespeare’s Hamlet: To be or not to be. That is the question. To exist or not to exist – that’s the question. I’m sure most of us would say that it is better to exist than not to exist. It is better to be alive than not to be alive. But to whom or to what do we owe our existence?
I believe that ultimately we owe our existence to a Creator whom we call God – and who is beyond human understanding – who out of unbounding love – out of unbounding grace – through means of the Creator’s own choosing- brought the world into existence and brought each of us into existence.
And we can show our own gratitude – our own thanks – for the grace which has been bestowed upon us by, in our own lives, creating rather than destroying, building rather than tearing down and performing acts of love rather than acts of hate.
A belief in a God who, in an act of grace and love, created the world and each individual requires a leap of faith. The atheist and the agnostic will say there is no empirical proof for such a belief. And that is true. But all the important decisions we make in life require a leap of faith. Someone who starts a business is acting on the faith that the business will succeed. Someone who accepts a new job is acting on the faith that he/she will be successful in the new job. Someone who moves to a new residence is acting on the faith that he/she will be happy in that residence. Someone who invests in a mutual fund is acting on the faith that the fund will increase in value. Someone who decides to marry is acting on the faith that the marriage will be successful. Someone who votes for a particular candidate for public office is acting on the faith that that candidate is the best person for the job.
Every important decision we make in life requires a leap of faith. It’s hard for me to accept that we just exist. So my leap of faith is in accepting the belief that we should be thankful to our Creator who, by means of the Creator’s own choosing, and not because of any merit on our part, but as a result of grace, caused us to come into existence. And we should grateful to the Creator for creating each of us and we should treat creation with respect and compassion.
Rabbi David Weissman