Sermon: Spiritual Practices: Gratitude

“Spiritual Practices: Gratitude”

Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church
October 1, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

In honor of the Red Sox clinching the division last night, I’d like to start with a baseball analogy. In today’s Gospel passage, we might say Jesus’ batting average is pretty great – 10 out of 10 people suffering from leprosy are cured – but the runs batted in, the conversion on those hits, is abysmal: only 1 out of the 10 comes back to thank Jesus for his life-changing act.

At first glance, this is puzzling. Leprosy, after all, was a disfiguring, debilitating skin disease, and it carried a social stigma that, in Jesus’ time, meant you lived as a complete outcast, utterly cut off from your family, friends, and the community. Those with leprosy had to live outside the town walls – literally beyond the protection of the community, forbidden from coming in to worship or even speaking to those unaffected.

Imagine what living with such a disease, in such a society, would be like, and how you would feel if you were suddenly healed and restored to the community, to family, to friends, to church, to life! Most of us would be ecstatic and would express our heartfelt thanks to the one who had cured us, maybe even throwing ourselves at their feet, as the Samaritan does.

Or would we?

Have you ever prayed or hoped for something to happen, for some situation to resolve itself or some illness to pass, and then, when the desired end comes about, you forget to be grateful?  I catch this happening in myself all the time – I pray for someone’s surgery to go well, or to feel God’s presence in a new situation, or for Davie to finally go to sleep – and when it happens, instead of remembering to be grateful, I just breathe a sigh of relief and move on.

Though this healing was a momentous turning point in the lives of the 9 locals, they were soon given the priestly “okay” to return to normalcy, to people and routines they had longed to be able to consider “ordinary” again. Maybe they even felt entitled, that they were owed this re-integration and so they didn’t need to appreciate it. But the Samaritan, whose people worshipped differently and lived elsewhere, had no immediate “ordinary” to return to, had no right to expect anything among foreigners. Perhaps this dislocation helped him escape what writer Cynthia Ozick calls “the bad fix” of the ordinary.

“The Extraordinary,” she writes, “does not let you walk away and shrug your shoulders. But the Ordinary is a much harder case. In the first place…it is around us all the time – …we hardly ever notice it. The Ordinary, simply by being so ordinary, tends to make us ignorant or neglectful; when something does not insist on being noticed, when we’re not grabbed by the collar or struck on the skull by a presence or an event, we take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”

We’ve all experienced this – we’re not grateful for health until someone in our family falls ill, or we aren’t thankful for gainful employment until layoffs loom, or we take for granted food and electricity until a major blizzard cuts off the power and empties the grocery store shelves.

Clean water is one of those ordinary things we take for granted, one that was highlighted in this morning’s Neighbors in Need offering. Yesterday I went with Kate Lindheim and some of our youth to Central and Harvard Squares to hand out lunches and drinks to people living in homelessness. After we had distributed all our hot dogs and bottled water, talking and laughing with the people we met, one of the youth reflected on how easy it is to focus on our relatively minor complaints instead of being grateful for the necessities we often ignore. Things like turning on the faucet in our kitchens to drink clean water whenever we want instead of having to ask a stranger for water and then carrying a heavy bottle with us as we walk the streets. Or having a place to stay dry in the rain. The ordinary hit us square in the face yesterday.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, talks about returning from an extended trip to Africa where his Austrian immune system couldn’t handle the water. As the miracle of clean water running from the taps in his kitchen and bathroom began to fade, he put sticky notes near the faucets to remind himself of the extraordinariness of potable, accessible water.

On the more lighthearted side, you may have heard on the news earlier this year about the I-85 bridge collapse in Atlanta. Did you take a moment to feel bad for the poor schmucks whose commute time suddenly tripled?  Well – practicing gratitude here – let me say thank you, because I was one of those people. I can tell you that before the collapse, I used to tolerate my commute, at best; Atlanta rivals Boston for traffic congestion. But when that bridge reopened after 6 weeks of bumper-to-bumper commutes with my child whining in the backseat about why we still weren’t home yet, I was thrilled to be able to navigate an overcrowded interstate twice a day.

External circumstances that spotlight the ordinary can help us remember to be grateful for it. But gratitude doesn’t have to be a spontaneous emotion that comes upon us, outside of our own power, when we least expect it. No, it can be a practice, an attitude or orientation that we consistently access as a way to better ourselves and our world.

You’ve probably read about some of the scientific studies in the last 5 to 10 years extolling the physiological and psychological benefits of gratitude. The intentional practice of gratitude has been linked to greater happiness, improved health, better sleep, more exercise, less depression, and a greater willingness to help others. It can improve your marriage and strengthen your relationship with your kids. I’ve even read that gratitude can improve your sex drive! To put it in Br. David’s words, people who practice gratitude come more alive.  

Gratitude also connects us to our Maker, the One from whose “abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another,” to quote the Gospel of John. (John 1:16) As people of faith we believe that “every good and perfect gift comes from above.” (James 1:17)  And when we recognize those gifts, we see beyond them to the Giver. Gratitude reorients our lives away from stress, worry, and the never-satisfied desire for more, pointing us instead toward the One in whose abundant love and care we can feel both security and freedom.

For me, gratitude is one of the simplest ways to reconnect with God when I’ve been feeling distant, or, if I’m already feeling connected, to deepen my appreciation for and my relationship with the Divine. Gratitude practices are my spiritual vitamins, guaranteed to inject a little pep into my faith life.

This gratitude thing might be starting to sound pretty good – you might be wondering how you can get some of this all-around superfood. Well, good news – it’s a simple, two-step process. And the key to both steps is found in Psalm 100, the Psalm from which our Call to Worship this morning was adapted.

First comes yadā. Yadā is usually translated as “give thanks” – the Psalm verses “enter into God’s courts with thanksgiving” and “give thanks to God” both feature forms of “yadā.”  But the root meaning of this verb is not “to thank,” exactly, but “to acknowledge,” or “to recognize.”

Recognition of what we’ve been given. That’s the first step. What “good and perfect” things are right in front of us that we normally ignore? What do we see as our due, instead of recognizing it as a gift? How might we see past what we have earned or made or built or bought to the gift of the abilities, opportunities, privilege, and support that have made it possible for us to be where we are?

I’ve found that meals are a great place to practice this recognition. Each night before dinner, we pray as a family. We ask Davie what she wants to thank God for today, and while Chris and I often expect that she’ll name what we thought were the highlights of the day – a fun experience at school, or good weather, or the fantastic trip we took to the beach – we should know by now that she is a master at recognizing the gifts right in front of her:  “Thank you God for broccoli, and fish, and water, and wine” (ours, not hers!) “and this plate, and this fork. Ah-men.”

I used to roll my eyes at this rather obvious laundry list until I tried actually being grateful for what she was naming. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by sheer thankfulness: for having enough food to eat; for a partner who lovingly prepared our meal; for the pleasure of having a variety of delicious flavors on my plate; for the privilege of having available at the grocery store fresh food; for the labor of those who grew and harvested the food, those who processed, packed, shipped, and sold it; for modern conveniences that make the food easy to prepare and easy to eat.  For clean water to drink, for wine to enjoy – ah! I may fool myself into thinking that the fact that I earned the money to purchase this meal means it’s not a gift, but I only have to scratch the surface of gratitude to reveal just how flimsy that illusion is.

There is an alchemy in recognizing the gifts all around us, in practicing gratitude. As author Melody Beattie notes, gratitude “turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Gratitude is a key that “unlocks the fullness of life.”

So step one is yadā – to recognize. But if we stop simply at recognizing, our gratitude can fizzle and die. We must also – step two – express our gratitude, as the Psalmist describes making a joyful noise and singing praise to God.

I was talking with a friend about this recently. In his experience, simply feeling grateful isn’t enough. He considers himself a pretty grateful person – he feels grateful often – but he noticed that when he shared his thankful feelings with the person to whom he felt grateful, they blossomed and grew into something else entirely. They took on a life of their own, making his own appreciation more profound while simultaneously enriching the life of the one he had thanked. For just one example, in recently sharing thanks to someone for a kindness rendered decades ago, he found that he had reached out to the one who had helped him at the very moment when that person was feeling low and alone. In moving beyond merely grateful feelings, his expression of gratitude brought solace and solidarity to someone in need. Once he unstopped the vessel, so to speak, and got the gratitude flowing, God, he felt – and I agree! – got to work through him.

Br. David describes it this way: Gratitude felt but unexpressed is “like the bowl of a fountain when it fills up, and it’s very quiet, and still, and then when it overflows” – when we share or express our gratitude – “it starts to make noise, and it sparkles, and it ripples down” into the lives of others.

Those are two very different images – water that is still, maybe even stagnant, versus water that moves and shimmers and sings, water that overflows and quenches the dry ground around it.

Recognize, and express. Notice, and share.  Acknowledge, and exclaim. A simple, sustainable rhythm, that anyone can practice.

But what happens when we are in circumstances that inspire no gratitude? When there is little to feel thankful for? I strive to write daily in a gratitude journal, and I am often surprised that on days I am feeling lackluster or put out, or even downright dismal, I can still manage to fill up the allotted space with things for which I am grateful. Perhaps just the breath in my body or the fact that the sun shone. On those days, leftovers that require no cooking get big gratitude points from me!

Sometimes, though, things are worse than just a bad day. Maybe we are miserably ill, maybe a loved one is dying, maybe we have lost a job or are struggling under the weight of depression, or maybe we are simply drowning in a torrent of bad news. What then?

Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “In all circumstances, give thanks.”  Friends, there are days and seasons when that verse might make us want to smack Paul.  But if we are attentive, we will notice that Paul says “in all circumstances,” not “for all circumstances.”  Give thanks in all circumstances, but not necessarily for all circumstances.

Coming back to Br. David Steindl-Rust, whom you may have gathered is somewhat of a gratitude expert: he grew up in Austria under the Third Reich, when the barbarity of Nazism was de rigueur. He contends that there are actually “many things for which you cannot be grateful,” for which we should not be grateful.  “You can’t be grateful for war,” he says, “or violence, or domestic violence, or sickness. But,” he continues, “in every moment, you can be grateful. For instance,” we can be grateful for “the opportunity to learn something from a very difficult experience, to grow by it, or even to protest, to…take a stand” against it. He wisely observes that “That is a wonderful gift in a situation in which things are not the way they ought to be.” This is a powerful observation in our current context.

My friend and colleague David Bartlett is dying from complications following a stroke. The world is losing one of its most gifted, most articulate, most joyfully mischievous theologians; but David’s wife Carol is also losing her beloved. Through an online journal, she has shared publicly and candidly about his decline and her feelings of helplessness, frustration, and anger – her fist-shaking at God that she should lose this wonderful man in such a heart-rendingly piecemeal manner, even as she faithfully looks for moments in which she can give thanks.  I’d like to read a small snippet of her latest journal entry:

“The realities associated with David’s condition are painful but the time to just lay together, hold each other, and kiss have been a remarkable gift that has come at the very time we both needed to just be. I still have a hard time getting my mind around the fact that soon David will be gone, while at the same time naming the losses I am grieving and the losses I will be grieving for some time to come. Today as we laid in the bed I realized that for the first time in our married lives I did not mind his snoring, in fact it was music to my ears. It is those little things, sometimes annoying, others enjoyed that I will have the most difficult time with losing.

There have been no miracles of healing,” she continues, “but we have shared one miracle – our never-ending love for one another.”

Carol’s willingness to give thanks in the very worst situation has given her a great gift: an anchor in a sea of painful brokenness; a miracle in the midst of profound loss.

Gratitude is an orientation, a practice, an alchemy that, when felt and expressed – through journaling, prayer, a dinner table ritual, a thank you card – bubbles over in sweet music. It connects us with God; it changes our perspective and reminds us of our interconnectedness with those on whom we depend. It paints the ordinary in tones of Technicolor delight. It grounds us and lets us see miracles in the worst circumstances. And as the Samaritan cured of leprosy discovered, it will even, if we let it, make us whole.

I suspect that if we practiced it often enough, it might make the world whole too.