B Proper 16
August 22, 2021
I have been asked to speak this week about gratitude.
When asked, I immediately agreed. –After all, gratitude is at the heart of our Christian faith. Gratitude and generosity are core Gospel values. Our thankfulness is an instinctual response to God’s grace in all its forms. For example…
When the server at the Fire House Café refused my payment for my latte with the explanation that someone had already paid for it, my immediate reaction was astonishment. “I beg your pardon?….” “A person who came before you paid for your coffee. It’s all paid!” she told me.
Grace has been defined as “unmerited favor.” Well—I was the unexpected recipient of unmerited favor. An anonymous person prepaid my coffee. I was so taken aback– and so pleased– that I spontaneously offered a ten-dollar bill: “Here—take this. This is to pay for the coffee of whoever comes after me!”
When we get a favor, it seems natural to want to pay it forward.
“It happens all the time here,” the server commented. “One good deed prompts another.”
Although I agreed to speak today about gratitude, when I actually sat down this week to pray about our worship today and to get in touch with what is in my heart where God speaks, I found that I had a major obstacle: Reality—reality and the news cycle, and its impact on our psyches and our lives. Gratitude is not where the world is right now
When I listen to other people, I realize that I am not alone in reacting to the latest world news with horror, with sadness, and grief.
I hardly need to call up the images of the relentless news cycle for you. But I will:
- What we see in Afghanistan by the dawn’s early light is retreat and panicked flight from 20 years of a largely futile and costly war and attempts at noble so-called “nation-building.” All in ruins, despite great sacrifice and great cost to the Afghani people. God help the women!
- Haiti… that ill-starred nation, leaderless and devastated by yet another deadly earthquake.
- In Northern California, the shirtless man standing in the ashes of his trailer home: “This is all we had. It is all gone.”
- The report from our member who just returned from visiting her son who is a nurse in Florida, where his entire multi-wing floor of the hospital has been completely taken over by patients suffering with Covid, with deaths on every shift and insufficient, exhausted care-givers.
I know that you know what I am referring to. All this horror seeps into us and weighs down. “Lord, have mercy!”
However, as I was reflecting on this– and remembering my charge to speak about gratitude– I recalled an experience that a compassionate psychotherapist once shared with me about a turning point in the life of a woman who had long struggled with depression and hopelessness. Week after week this client recounted the tragedies and losses that haunted her. Hearing of some of her sufferings, I thought, “Well, I would be depressed too!’ This psychologist– who was trained in spiritual direction as well as psychotherapy– was prompted at last to give her client an assignment. “Make a list,” she instructed, “of what you are grateful for. Before you begin each day, take time to reflect on what you are thankful for, and write it down. You need only write down one item each day. And then next week, bring this list with you.”
The woman reported that at first she could not think of anything to be thankful for. All she could recall were her losses—not what she had, but rather what she no longer had. But she had grown up living in many different places around the world, and so suddenly it struck her: “Central heat!” “I am so grateful for central heat!” Having lived in damp, cold climates where it was impossible to keep the house warm, it suddenly came to her living in the home where she was living now; “Central heat!” Central heat—and pure potable water in the tap, and fresh vegetables that she did not need first to soak in bleach solution before she could put them in the salad.
Her list grew to contain many items. But it was “central heat” that was the breakthrough from her depression.
When I ask myself what I am grateful for, the first thing that comes to my mind is: being alive! Having recently survived a near-fatal car crash, I am freshly grateful to be alive—to have opened my eyes this morning to see the fog—and know the promise of sunshine—and to be here, in the Lord’s House with you today, to worship the Source of all our blessings.
Being alive is not to be taken for granted—I have learned this anew. We won’t always be alive in the way that we are now. Life comes with a “best if used before” date on it. Life is precious, limited and always best if used TODAY.
When the lectionary study group met this week—as we do each Wednesday, by Zoom, just click on the link on our parish homepage—I was surprised to find another occasion for gratitude. In today’s first reading, we overhear King Solomon entreating God regarding the extraordinary monumental temple that Solomon has built, with the Ark of the Covenant in its Holy of Holies from which billows the smoke of incense carrying the prayers of the faithful to the heavens. To Solomon’s petition “to hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray to this place,” a petition is added that “when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land … and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.”
If God is to be God, then She or He is too big for just one tradition.
When the lectionary study group was asked, after reading this passage together, “Do you have a “Holy Place”? — A temple where when you go there, you find it easier to pray, to feel God’s presence, — a liminal place when heaven and earth seem to be connected?
I was surprised when, with a smile, one participant reached up over her Zoom monitor to present to the camera a carved plaque with the likeness of what she said was her first church, that she entered when she went to college. This became for her a true sanctuary where she knew God’s presence. “This,” she recalled, “is where so many years ago, I became a person of prayer.” She keeps this souvenir of this special place close to her, as a token of that place in her self that she discovered there. It is not in the past, when she was in college; it is in the present, in her heart.
In response to this, another participant also reached up behind her zoom monitor and presented what was yet another image of a church building, “Not to out-do you,” she smiled as she showed us a framed likeness of the church where she too, previously innocent of worship, found a sacred space to regularly meet God, a refuge and a place to re-charge.
What special place do you have like this in your experience? Perhaps your temple is in the woods—like Cathedral Grove in Muir Woods—or in the mountains or at the seaside. Perhaps it is this very house of worship in which we are blessed to gather again today. I have been touched since coming to this parish to learn how many of you have deep roots in this church—even across generations. Baptisms, weddings, funerals. A place of solace in life’s storms and griefs, a place of celebration of life’s joys. A place to give thanks. Into these redwood beams have seeped the hymns and prayers, the laughter and tears of so many pilgrims before us. A place to give thanks…The meaning of the Greek New Testament word “Eucharist” is: thanks-giving.
A place to give thanks. Perhaps you would not be surprised if I were to propose to you an exercise this week of each day taking note of what it is for what you are truly thankful on that day. –Not what you have lost or what you are worried about or what gets under your skin, but just: what has God given you for which you are truly grateful. Stay with that feeling of gratitude. It will make you a happier person, and it will make you a more generous person—which will instill gratitude in other people as well.
Perhaps you would like to write a letter to someone in your life that you have not sufficiently thanked for way in which their life has touched yours.
An email message from one of you this week quoted the Sufi seer and poet Rumi to the effect that: “If today you can offer only one prayer, let it be ‘Thank you!”
But if we can offer more than one prayer, then let be for our neighbor. For from this place of gratitude in our hearts we may beseech God on behalf of those whose sufferings around the world come to our attention, asking God to show them mercy.
“Lo,” Jesus says, ‘I am with you always. To the end of the world.” This is good holding ground.
I have had the privilege recently of sailing on the coast of Maine. When evening comes and a sailor is looking for a secure place in which to anchor for the night, a wise seaman on an unfamiliar coast searches for a cove with good holding ground. Seaweed or too-hard bottom will leave no place the flukes of an anchor to penetrate, sink in and hold. A good sailor looks for good holding ground to set the anchor and hold through whatever storms may come
Jesus’ words “I am with you always—to the end of the world” are good holding ground for a Christian. They will not disappoint. They will outlast every news cycle.
When distressed and distracted we can still say with Peter:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”