24 November, 2013

The Practice of Gratitude, a sermon

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Things I’m grateful for, on this the 22nd of November, 2013.

Grateful, for the first time in a long time, that I don’t have to make a list to be grateful.
Friends around the world.
My family. 
And the love that we share.
That my friend Sohini’s son, Ethan, asks when I’m coming home.
That I have something like 47 amazing plants in my yard.
That one of those plants is mother in law’s tongue–a plant that is a houseplant at home.
That my floor tiles are pink, my favorite color.
That I love every person I have met here at Gateway Community Church. Even you.
That my friend Shelley felt so loved here.
Books to read.
Television to watch.
Taxis to call.
Sweet little children to get to know.
For preaching.
For thoughts of home of people who I love, who got me here.
For work that I love.
For a lovely helper who cooks me delicious food.
For the beauty that is Bali.
For watermelon juice.
For geckos.
Hmm. For geckos who eat the mosquitos in my house.
That I haven’t seen a snake yet!

And that’s just the start of the list. It could go on and on, with specificity—for the friends and mentors who got me to the point where I am today, I could make a list of at least 100 people. For the moments of my life that have taught me what I know today, I could make a list of 1,000 things. For the feelings that I’ve had that have made me who I am today, I could make a list of 2,000 things.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. Annie Lamott, an American Christian humorist and writer used to say that there were only two kinds of prayer: Help me, help me, help me and Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

I am most grateful for that first one on the list. The one that says, “for the first time in a long time, that I am grateful without having to make myself list the things I am grateful for.” 

Sometimes I make thank yous to readjust myself. To have a better attitude. I’m good right now.

Let’s look at the Deuteronomy text. What do you know about the book of Deuteronomy? First, time-wise, it’s a post Exodus book (you know, the Hebrew people were in Egypt in Pharoah’s land and Moses led them out of captivity, through the desert for 40 years, through the people turning away from God, to turning back to God, and for the second generation of the freed Hebrew people, who were able to go into the land). Second, it’s the second book of the Law (Leviticus is the first), and it’s a recounting of the Law prior to this second generation entering the land. Coming up after today’s chapter, Moses will pronounce the curses that will happen if the people do not keep the Law, and the blessings that will happen if they do.

And then Moses goes up to the top of the mountain to look into the land, and dies.

So the text tells us this:

You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Do you see what they did there? They brought their offering, and then remembered their story. THen kthey shared it.That’s what gratitude is doing–offering thanks for the good things that have happened.

Like many of God’s commandments, there’s a good reason to practice gratitude. It’s not just what it does for our relationship with God. It’s also about what it does for our relationship with ourselves. 

I read a book this week by Joan Didion. She’s an American writer who has written several novels. and as few non-fiction books. A few years back, her daughter Quintana had a massive stroke, then not a few weeks later, her husband John fell dead from a massive heart attack. Quintana lived another couple of years, but died, too.The book is called Blue Nights and starts with her telling the story of her daughter’s wedding. Then moments of her childhood. And her strengths. 

At one point in the book, Didion begins to talk about the mementos she has. She writes:

In fact I no longer value this kind of memento.

I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.

There was a period, a long period, dating from my childhood until quite recently, when I thought I did.

A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their “things,” their totems.

She lists many of those objects and continues:

The jet beads.

The ivory rosaries. 

The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.

In the third of the boxes I find skein after skein of needlepoint yard, saved in the eventuality that remedial stitches might ever be required on a canvas completed and given away in 2001. In the chest of drawers I find papers written by Quintana when she was still at the Westlake School for Girls; the research study on stress, the analysis of Angel Clare’s role in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I find her Westlake summer uniforms, I find her navy-blue gym shorts. I find the blue-and-white pinafore she wore for volunteering at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. I find the black wool challis dress I bought her when she was four at Bendel’s on West Fifty-seventh Street…

Other objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution…

I find many engraved invitations to the weddings of people who are no longer married.

I find many Mass cards from the funerals of people whose faces I no longer remember.

In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment.

In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.

Moses wants the people to appreciate, in fact God wants us to appreciate the moment when it is here.

There are a few ways to be grateful in the moment. The first is to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

The second is to bring an offering to God. We commonly call it our tithe, but it’s a thank offering of 10% of what God has given us. This is the offering we bring on Sunday mornings. 

And finally, our thanks are shown through what we share. 

Anne Lamott recently changed her mind about the two kinds of prayer. She says that there’s another one, similar to the Thank you, thank you thank you. And it’s Wow, wow, wow. Since being here in Bali, I have had these moments of Wow, wow, wow. Just looking out in the yard, or out on the beach, or out at all of you. It’s beyond gratitude, to simple amazement that I’m here.

Let’s take a look at our Gospel text this morning, only let’s back up a few verses. Let me set the context. Jesus fed the 5,000, then wants to get away for a bit. He heads out on a boat, and the disciples follow him. A gale comes up, and Jesus walks on the water to calm the water and the disciples.

The next morning, the people who were fed came looking for Jesus. They went to a couple of places to find him. And Jesus says, “The truth is, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you saw the miraculous sign. But you shouldn’t be concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that I, the Son of Man, can give you…the story goes on, and Jesus continues, “The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I am the bread of life.”

The people came to hear Jesus speak because Jesus had fed them fully the day before. When we share our thank offering, and the basic needs of life are met, then, and generally only then, can we share the Bread of Life. And the Bread of Life? That’s a Wow, wow, wow. It comes from saying Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And we share our thank offering so that others can share in the love of the Bread of Life, too. 

May we pray:

Loving God, you are the Bread of Life. Our lives overflow with your love and your goodness. We are grateful for all you have given in our lives. Allow us and help us to always show that Wow, wow, wow that you have shared with us.

Amen.

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