“Perfecting Thanks”

“Perfecting Thanks”
A Service of Thanksgiving
With a Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
And a Prayer by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on November 24, 2013
At the First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

“The Membership” is the term by which Berry and his characters convey the bonds of a community within its given geographical location. The “membership” consists of any person who recognizes his or her place among—and responsibility to the well-being of—the land, animals, and people of the place.

In the story “The Wild Birds,” the character Burley Coulter explains what he means by ‘membership,’

“The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.”

This concept is drawn from St. Paul’s understanding, “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12.12) Concerning Burley’s “Everything,” Berry has said that it may be that “Burley improved on St. Paul … by telling a more comprehensive truth.”

—Wikipedia entry for “The Membership of Port William, by Wendell Berry”

Opening Words


When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.  And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.  For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
-Wendell Berry


“To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain.”

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow 



“Perfecting Thanks”
Rev. John Gibbons

I’ll tell you right now that, for my part, I’m not going to do much up here but read to you some quotations from the author Wendell Berry.  Megan’s going to follow me with a prayer of some sort and that’s likely to be original but I’m just going to quote, quote, quote and quote.

The good news, though, is that if you don’t know Wendell Berry, well, you should…and you’re about to.  The truth is that I haven’t read all that much of his stuff…some essays and a few of his novels…but for a study group I’m in that meets just after Thanksgiving, I’ve read Wendell Berry’s novel titled Hannah Coulter.

Like other things of his I’ve read, Hannah Coulter is quite wonderful and, well, my head is full of Wendell Berry’s words.  Plus, I think I can tie together the welcoming of new members and Thanksgiving.  We’ll see.

Very briefly, born in 1934, Wendell Berry is an American poet, novelist, essayist, philosopher and farmer.

Born in Harlan County, Kentucky, he still lives and farms on the family farm at Port Kentucky, alongside the Kentucky River, not far from where it flows into the Ohio. He’s also professor of English at Kentucky State University, where he himself once studied.

He’s a traditionalist, an environmentalist, a deeply humane and wise man, funny sometimes, always poignant, heart-warming, and a clear elegant writer.  Sometime, look in the back of the hymnal where there are numerous readings from him.  I don’t memorize much but at almost every wedding I officiate, just before the couple exchanges vows, I quote him, “To join ourselves to another we must give our word.  We cannot join ourselves to another without giving our word.  And this must be an unconditional giving, for in giving ourselves to another we give ourselves to the unknown.”

A little earlier in the ceremony I also tell couples they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into but Berry says the same thing more solemnly.

I just learned that Berry first came to public attention as a poet with a poem titled November 26, 1963.  Later illustrated and published by the artist Ben Shahn, it was of course written on the day of JFK’s funeral.

As has recently been demonstrated those events and emotions of 50 years ago are still with us.  One of the themes Berry returns to is the endurance of grief.  (Just by the way, that’s also a recent theme for Annie Lamott).

Wendell Berry writes:

“I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.”

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

That’s from his novel Jayber Crow which is set in mythical small town of Port William, Kentucky.  Jayber Crow is the town barber, and Berry has written a series of novels written over the generations from the perspective of different men and women in what he calls the Port William membershipHannah Coulter is the one my study group is reading and I recommend Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter and any of the Port William books.

In a dialogue in Jayber Crow, Berry writes,

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.’

And how long is that going to take?’

I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’

That could be a long time.’

I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.”

And there’s this:

“You don’t need to be told some things. You can sometimes tell more by a man’s silence and the set of his head than by what he says.”

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Berry writes about grief and the passing of time and the loss of traditions and community but his writing is not at all morose but unexpectedly hopeful.

He says,

“The mercy of the world is you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

That’s the one-sentence summary of my entire ministry!

He has a way of circling back and returning to themes.


“The mercy of the world is time. Time does not stop for love, but it does not stop for death and grief, either.”

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

“The living,” he says,  “can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.”

That’s a great phrase, “the great room.”  That’s life, the whole world, here-and-now…”The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life.  It calls them back again into the great room.”

Maybe that’s my Christmas Eve homily.

Berry has a deep but unorthodox spirituality; and he’s not especially churchy.  Here he is on the topic of sermons:

“In general, I weathered even the worst sermons pretty well. They had the great virtue of causing my mind to wander.  Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons. Or I would look out the windows. In winter, when the windows were closed, the church seemed to admit the light strictly on its own terms, as if uneasy about the frank sunshine of this benighted world. In summer, when the sashes were raised, I watched with a great, eager pleasure the town and the fields beyond, the clouds, the trees, the movements of the air—but then the sermons would seem more improbable. I have always loved a window, especially an open one.”

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

So don’t worry if you nod off while I’m preaching.  I’ll consider it a success.

And here he is about the church:

“As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.”

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Here’s more…and I think he’s talking about us:

“My vision of the gathered church that had come to me… had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection…. It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. “  That’s us, people; you know what I mean?

“I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth….  And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

When we welcome new members I sometimes say, Shop around.  Visit all the churches you can find.  And when you find the perfect church, join it.  And at that very moment know that it’s a little less perfect that you imagined it to be!

Once again, I think that’s what Wendell Berry is saying, though much more elegantly.

So he returns again and again to the membership of Port William.

There’s a character named Burley Coulter who lives life large and is a story-teller and prankster and Burley parodies a minister’s sermon but tells the truth at the same time:

“Oh yes, brothers and sisters, we are members one of another.  The difference, beloved, ain’t in who is in and who’s not, but in who knows it and who don’t. Oh, my friends, there ain’t no nonmembers, living nor dead nor yet to come. Do you know it? Or do you don’t? A man is a member of a woman and a worm. A woman is a member of a man and a mole. Oh, beloved, it’s all one piece of work.”  – from Hannah Coulter

Read that Wikipedia piece about membership:  The membership consists of any person who recognizes his or her place among—and responsibility to the well-being of — the land, animals, and people of the place.

Berry worries about the loss of membership in our modern age – people leave the small towns and they move to the bigger towns and they lose their self-reliance and go to work for anonymous companies.  Membership, Berry says, is being replaced by organization and he thinks that’s a shame.

In Hannah Coulter, there’s a character named Andy Catlett who says this:

Andy said, “You’re worried because they’ve left the membership,” and he smiled, knowing we both knew whose word that was. “They’ve gone over from the world of membership to the world of organization. Nathan would say the world of employment.

And I said, “Yes. That’s the trouble I have in mind.”

And he goes on…

“One of the attractions of moving away into the life of employment, I think, is being disconnected and free, unbothered by membership. It is a life of beginnings without memories, but it is a life too that ends without being remembered. The life of membership with all it cumbers is traded away for the life of employment that makes itself free by forgetting you clean as a whistle when you are not of any more use. When they get to retirement age, Margaret and Mattie and Caleb will be cast out of place and out of mind like worn-out replaceable parts, to be alone at the last maybe and soon forgotten.”

“But the membership,” Andy said, “keeps the memories even of horses and mules and milk cows and dogs.” (Hannah Coulter 133-34)

Now it’s at this point that I want to say that those of you who have signed our membership book have not, by any stretch of the imagination, joined up with any sort of organized religion. You’ve entered into the membership of First Parish.

And, if it’s worth anything, it will be a bother.

But you also have to remember: The difference, beloved, ain’t in who is in and who’s not, but in who knows it and who don’t. Oh, my friends, there ain’t no nonmembers, living nor dead nor yet to come. Do you know it? Or do you don’t? A man is a member of a woman and a worm. A woman is a member of a man and a mole. Oh, beloved, it’s all one piece of work. 

There used to be a hymn titled “O What a Piece of Work is Man.”  The cowardly weasels who edit our hymnals have expunged that but no truer words were ever sung, O what a piece of work we are!

But around here, really there ain’t no nonmembers, living or dead or yet to come.  Do you know it or do you don’t?

I’ve just wanted to give your ears a taste of Wendell Berry, but here’s where I’ll end.  As an elderly woman, Hannah Coulter remembers  that fellow named Andy Catlett, younger than she, but someone who had been attracted to her when she was younger and who has always been part of the landscape of her life.  Andy had lost a hand in a farm accident.  Hannah says,

He is not “in love” with me now.  He is an aging man with grandchildren.  But I know he loves me.  He loves us all, the whole membership, living and dead.  He has listened to us all, and has stayed with us, farming in his one-handed fashion over there on Hartford Run.  We are in each other’s minds.  I perfect these thanks by telling them to him.

And that’s the one sentence I want you to remember from this sermon today, “I perfect these thanks by telling them to him.”

There’s something old and elegant and true in those words, “I perfect these thanks by telling them to him.”

We perfect our thanks by telling them.

Here in the membership of First Parish we perfect our thanks by keeping the memories of horses and mules and milk cows and dogs….and every last one of you. There ain’t no nonmembers, living nor dead nor yet to come.

We perfect our thanks by telling them.

This week, amidst the membership of your life, I hope you are able to perfect your thanks by telling them.

Sisters, brothers and cousins:  I love you.  I really do.


Concluding Prayer of Thanksgiving
by Rev. Megan Lynes

For the dusting of frost and the early nightfall,

For the crunch of leaves and the barn owl’s call.

For the patient hills and the furious winds,

For the torrent of anger that time can rescind…

We give thanks for quiet, and rustle and rain,

We give thanks for forests, the sun and the plains.

For the kindness of strangers whose gifts come for free,

And how in just noticing that, we can be –

More open to others, both living and gone,

More grateful to everyone hither and yon.


The times we are living in can be so stark,

We stumble around in the cold and the dark.

The bills pile up, the chores need to get done,

The news of the world makes all of us numb.

Yet we cannot pretend it’s not happening now,

In Gaza, the Philippines, here in our town,

The ones who suffer feel empty and small,

Their voices are whispers behind a thick wall,

And we who are able to listen or act,

Must vow to reach out when faced with the fact –

That time does not stop for Love nor for Grief;

It rambles along like a mischievous thief.


All humans and creatures live under one sky;

We live in the beauty of this world so fine.

So though days are short and nights are so long,

And though time is fleeting like notes in a song,

The thing to remember this month of the year,

Is to sidle right up to the ones you hold dear.

Think long on the things that give you great stir,

Perfecting these thanks, then telling that sir, –

or madame or youth, all you want to convey.

Wait not for tomorrow, when subtle thoughts fade.

Tell them specifics, how it felt when you knew,

That they could be trusted; you could tell them the truth.

Tell them you love them, say you won’t shy away,

From caring or solving our fears of the day.

Speak of your love with your whimsey and wit.

Speak of it softly or tell it in bits,

‘Round a fireplace, cuddled up, in a child’s


Tell them you love them, say you won’t shy away,

From caring or solving our fears of the day.

Speak of your love with your whimsey and wit.

Speak of it softly or tell it in bits,

‘Round a fireplace, cuddled up, in a child’s ear,

Out on a walk, or maybe right here.

We are grateful together this Thanksgiving time,

For the kindness of strangers, and old friends divine.

For spiced apples, and muffins and tea in a cup,

And the windy cold weather that makes us zip up.

We give thanks this morning for all that will come,


Since time stops for no one, not mother or son.

We turn to each other through thick and through thin,

Thanks be for this life, this “Great Room” that we’re in.


Closing Words

“You mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this:

“Rejoice evermore.

Pray without ceasing.

In everything give thanks.”

I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter