The Reality of Gratitude

The sermon from Sunday, August 27, 2017 on Psalm 138 – 

I had a message from Rev. Sonya Gravlee midday yesterday that said “bulletin?”

At the time, I was standing at a bus stop on the upper West Side of Manhattan, halfway along the journey from the North Bronx to LaGuardia Airport, after spending a couple of days at my mother-in-law’s immersed in the work of clearing out her apartment.

Truth is, it wasn’t that I had overlooked sending her the information for the bulletin, which she kindly agrees to assemble each week.

It’s that I was still mystified by the Spirit’s tug on my heart to preach on this Psalm and on gratitude – which had been clear to me as I read through the lectionary texts last Monday – and I kept delaying in hopes that perhaps I’d get a different answer.

It seems a strange time to talk about gratitude. I’m personally kind of grumpy right now. On both a personal and a communal level, we are rightly preoccupied with the problems of the world – the terrible flooding in Houston, the open abuses of power in our political leadership, locally all the way up to nationally, the pardon of Joe Arpiao – a man who has consistently brutalized and dehumanized vulnerable people, the efforts to lift protections on public lands that belong to us all in order to make profits for a few, the emboldening of public voices of white supremacy and xenophobia – and so on.

It’s hard to be grateful to God or to anyone when you’re outraged – sensibly outraged.

And it’s hard to be grateful when you’re grieving – and I know so many people who are dealing with immediate personal grief right now, including my own family.

This comes back to the question I raised last week, which I said we would be working on – how do we continually heal, individually and communally, in a world that continually wounds us?

I believe that we are talking about gratitude here today because gratitude is a part of the answer to that question.

There are three things we are NOT talking about here.

First, we are not talking about formulaic gratitude. Whether it’s gratitude journals or reminders to count your blessings (there’s nothing wrong with those things – I’m not knocking them – for our purposes, however, I’m talking about going deeper). This can’t be catch-phrase, Hallmark card, made-into-a-routine. If we’re talking about engaging this on a soul level, then it is going to come from places deep within us and it may come upon us when we don’t expect it.

Second, we are not talking about comparative gratitude.

You know this – we’ve all seen it. Oh God, thank you for sparing me – when the tornado took out the whole rest of your neighborhood. Oh God, I’m so grateful to have these things when so many people don’t. Somebody’s child or mother or friend dies and we’re told to hug our child or our mother or our friends because . . .   That’s fear talking, not gratitude.

May our response to other people’s troubles be true compassion, not relief for ourselves.

Finally, we are not talking about clueless gratitude, that is, thankfulness that is mindless of the suffering of the world around us. We are not talking about bopping along buried in how good things are for us and ours. We are not unaware of suffering.

What this moment calls for is for us to be able to hold our gratitude – our gratitude for what the poet Mary Oliver calls this ‘one wild and precious life’ – alongside our own pain and the world’s pain.

Because both are true. They come in different mixtures into any one given life and into any given moment in a given life, but in nearly every life, both are truth.  We have this one wild and precious life given to us by God and through which we give to others and back to God.

So the source of gratitude is often gratitude itself.  None of us will “make the most of it,” nor should we be driven by the consumerist impulse to buy the stuff and experiences that the world defines as “making the most of it.”  

But if you can accept the idea that God can work through you for the good, then you leave yourself open-hearted to reality of gratitude. You have been given this moment in this world and your own work to do, whatever that may be. You have to let gratitude into your bones. You have to let your spirit soak in it. It’s cleansing. It’s like taking a bath.

And here’s why I think this is especially important right now –

Someone texted me this week about events in the news and admitted to a struggle not to hate. We know what the Gospels say, right? Love your enemy. That’s straight from Jesus.

And yet today we confront the visibility of hatred and discrimination – and in fact it’s really nothing new, but we live in this moment so we face it in this moment – of people who are deeply hard to love. Who are, in fact, easy to hate.

I do believe we are allowed our emotions. We can’t help what we feel, but we can help what we do with it. However, we are given the choice of whether we feed the hatred and the anger that understandably come into the moment. In turn, we may give those unloveable, hateful people the power to make us hateful. We let them define the contours of the world that we experience.

There is no clarity in that place. If we manage to act constructively in those circumstances, it will be in spite of ourselves, not because of our truest gifts.

We let the sick sin of this world – its white supremacy and homophobia and ableism and patriarchy and transphobia and all of the other forms of oppression of the marginalized – have so much power over us that we are reduced to bitter, hopeless people, stripped of our faith, raw to our core, and empty.

You do what you have to do to survive. Moral outrage is indeed a powerful fuel – and it can serve a purpose. But the healthy nourishment of the soul cannot come ONLY through outrage.

If you’d rather be grateful than hateful, you have to feed your soul with gratitude and love and faith and beauty and joy and humor. These things are holy.

Don’t be insensitive and clueless about it, but you can’t get stuck in a state of overwhelmed.  We sing here regularly about laying your burdens down. At some point, if you want to live with faith, you have to be willing put your burdens down. Sometimes you can’t – and that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about how often don’t allow ourselves to feel gratitude and joy because somehow we don’t believe we deserve it. Or that we have to have just one more thing right before we can find it.

You can always pick those burdens back up later if you are determined to do so. Yet you can be willing to feel in your body the sweet relief of gratitude –  for this moment of breath and for your work in the ongoing struggle for a more just and merciful world.

Let’s come back directly to the text for a moment.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
  before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down towards your holy temple
  and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
  for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.

On the day I called, you answered me,
  you increased my strength of soul.
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
  for they have heard the words of your mouth.

They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
  for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
  but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
  you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
  and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me;
  your steadfast love, O Lord, endures for ever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.

This is a resource. The Psalms are prayers – they are sung prayers.

And they are here for us all when we get so bound up in our sorrows and the great and deep sorrows of the world that we don’t know what to do.

You make your way by walking it.

You find your faith by praying it. You understand the rich depths of gratitude by claiming it.

Like so many aspects of faith, this is a practice, not a belief.

It’s not an abstract thought tucked somewhere up in your brain, but a whole-hearted practice of body and the spirit.

This is life-giving in a world that is all too often death-dealing.  

And that is what God wishes for us all.





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