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Sermon: Beyond Gratitude

Good morning. With great respect and immense love, I welcome you all to this service of giving thanks.

Do you remember reading the book Candide by Voltaire? I probably read it in high school or college but it made a deep impression on me. I’m embarrassed to say, but I doubt when I first read it that I knew it was satire. The refrain that Professor Pangloss repeats, that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” was what I thought I was supposed to believe. Like Candide at the beginning of the novel, I accepted the philosophy, even though he begins to doubt its veracity as he experiences the horrors of war, poverty, the maliciousness of humans, and the hypocrisy of the church of his day.

I think many people have this same simplistic attitude when it comes to gratitude. There’s an underlying belief that we should be grateful for whatever happens, for whatever happens is for the best, even if we can’t see it at the time. Just the other day, I was speaking with someone about the fires and asked, rather rhetorically, why we needed so much suffering in the world. “So we can learn,” came the swift reply.

Her answer may sound like a “new age” response, but this thinking has a long precedent in the Christian church. There is a strain of theodicy – the philosophical explanations for why evil exists in the world – that says that we can never know how blessed we are until we have felt damned. That it is only through our suffering that we turn our face to God.

So it’s possible to lay the concept of gratitude on top of whatever happens in our life and then, when we have a hard time feeling authentic gratitude for something unpleasant, we can feel guilty about our inability to see things ‘the right way.’ It’s an example of how we can make anything, even gratitude, into dogma.

Jesus didn’t give us dogma; he didn’t give us anything we had to believe. Rather, he gave us instructions for how to live an ethical life; a holy and whole life. He offered us a spirituality of actions and attributes: gratitude, yes… and love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, a sense of faith in something. When these emotions arise unbidden, we are expressing our pure nature, our Christ Consciousness. In this way, the light within is not a metaphor, it’s an embodied spirituality.

Worry is just about the opposite of gratitude. “Don’t worry!” friends tell us. Such advice, similar to the counsel of Job’s friends, is not really all that helpful. It’s not helpful because we are actually programmed for worry as a means of self-protection. It’s not a character flaw but it is part of our in-born survival mechanism. We’re rewarded by evolution for remembering the bad experiences more than the good experiences. In our distant past, we probably worried about those large paw prints on the path we walked. Today, we worry about the economy and politics and the value of our investments. We worry about what will happen to our health down the road. Basically, we worry so well because we practice it all the time.

Brother Stendhal Rast, whom I quote pretty much every year on Thanksgiving, is a  Catholic Benedictine monk. He is notable for his active participation in interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science. He has also dedicated most of his life to what he calls “the anatomy of gratitude. He write:

If you are mindful during the day, noticing the smell of flowers or the smile of a stranger or a moment of deep interaction with someone, you can feel your nervous system calm down. If you hang with it for 10-20 seconds, you will actually rewire your neural networks. Any time during the day, you can have a moment of presence.

During this moment of presence, we are actually installing the good into our nervous system, laying the groundwork for a grateful life.

At the end of Candide, our protagonist, beaten down by circumstance, proclaims  the only recourse left: “we must cultivate our garden.”  Tending our own garden, in a way, is good beginning for “installing the good.” But remember, Candide is a satire, so when he says “we must cultivate our garden,” he is suggesting that we close ourselves off from the wider world, claiming responsibility for ourselves alone.

I believe that in our famous gospel passage today, “Look at the birds of the air… consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus is not saying that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. And he’s not saying to only tend our own garden. He is saying something much more basic. He is saying, “NOTICE.” He’s asking us to put down our worry long enough to notice how vast and beautiful our garden is. Look at the birds. Consider the flowers. Strive first for the full kin-dom of God and we will find our rightful place within it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. It’s effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

The other part of this, that Jesus and his culture knew, and that Voltaire and his culture knew, is that we are all connected in a very literal way. Before the Industrial Revolution, everyone knew which crops helped each other grow, which birds seeded which trees. Humans were a part of the natural cycle, and most times, not the most powerful agent. Only in the past 150 years or so have industrialized nations forgotten this connection. There is now research showing that underground fungi relay chemical signals and nutrients between trees, sometimes hundreds of miles away. That trees warn each other of parasites or diseases and that different species of trees coexist in a helpful relationship to each other. So a modern interpretation of this passage could remind us that we are not different from other life forms on this planet and that when we clear cut forests or plant miles of only one crop, we are actually killing ourselves as we kill the planet. When we recognize the sacred, holy nature of our lives, we are able to be more deliberate and faithful; more generous and sacrificial; more thankful and grateful for the ways in which we are in relationship with the whole of God’s creation.

Julian of Norwich, another of my oft-quoted sources, was a 12th century English anchoress and an important Christian mystic and theologian. The most familiar saying from Julian that has come down to us is “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Does this sound a bit like Professor Pangloss? If the words sound familiar, the difference between the two is significant. For rather than layering a feel good message on top of an experience, Julian was speaking from inside of her experience.

A clue to this quality comes from an even more controversial saying attributed to Julian: We are not simply made by God, we are made of God. This is the deepest sort of noticing, of paying attention. The consequence of this kind of attention, this kind of noticing, is radical amazement. Gratitude that wells up from the inside, not layered on top like a blanket. Then the quote “All is well and all shall be well” becomes our living truth, not just our hope and prayer.

If, as Maya Angelou says “Gratitude is the pillow on which we kneel,” then it is awe – radical amazement – that brings us to our knees. And the awe comes when we notice. This is what Jesus is telling us. SEE the lilies, notice the birds. Look beyond your own garden until you can see that the entire world is your garden. This will bring you to awe, and bring you far beyond the practice of gratitude to the joy of a grateful life.

We are used to naming our emotions like a digital radio. You push a button and we’re sad or angry or happy or grateful. I think of gratitude more like an old fashioned radio; at first, as you turn the dial, what you get is a lot of static, obscuring any one station. As the radio waves shift on air currents, we needed to regularly adjust the dial to stay on the program we want: gratitude, love, compassion, forgiveness.

To extend the metaphor, God’s grace, which we experience as awe or joy, is the air itself on which all the other stations – our emotions and feelings and moods – arrive and dissolve, come into focus and disappear again. We are the radio.  Practicing gratitude is learning to keep the dial tuned to that station in our lives. But living a grateful life, experiencing the joy in all of God’s creation, is about noticing what the stations are moving through… the air itself. Of course we don’t notice this all the time; that’s why a gratitude practice is so important. But the more we practice gratitude, love, compassion, etc., the more we become aware of God’s grace that infuses all of our emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant.

In Philippians, Paul instructs the believers to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” As we walk the path of faith, we realize that we are not at the center of the universe, but a humble learner in it. We see that God can indeed speak to us through the lilies and the birds, through dragonflies that dance near the water source.

From looking for things for which to be grateful, we can move from practicing gratitude to living a grateful life, where we effortlessly abide in the quiet joy of God’s grace, no matter our current circumstance.  Where rejoicing rather than worry becomes our character, not just our practice.

May we learn to notice God’s love and God’s grace everywhere. Amen.

Review & Commentary