Grateful Living

A Sermon for Sunday Nov. 7, Psalm 98, Psalm 145:8-12 and Luke 17:11-19 (Guest preaching at Norcross Presbyterian Church)

There once was a man who decided to skip worship at his family’s Presbyterian church one Sunday and head to the hills to do some bear hunting (as it had been his ritual for 15 years). As he rounded the corner on a perilous twist in the trail, he and a bear collided, sending him and his rifle tumbling down the mountainside. Before he knew it, his rifle went one way and he went the other, landing on a rock and breaking both his legs. That was the good news. The bad news was the ferocious bear charging at him from a distance, and he couldn’t move. “Oh, Lord,” the man prayed, “I’m so sorry for skipping worship today to come out here and hunt. I swear I will be a faithful church-goer if you could just forgive me and do something about this bear . . . Please make a Christian out of that bear that’s coming at me. I would be ever-grateful to you Lord! Please, Lord, help!” That very instant, the bear skidded to a halt, fell to its knees, clasped its paws together and began to pray aloud right at the man’s feet. “Dear God” the bear said, “Thank you for this food I am about to receive!”

Thank you: two short words that form a simple phrase which we’ve known and used all of our lives; a cherished sentiment that can be understood on a deeper level as thankfulness, thanksgiving, gratitude and grace. But like the hunter in the story, many people often take thank you for granted, promising to be thankful only after God has gotten them out of harm’s way.

Like the person, who after a wild Saturday night of drinking, tightly hugs the toilet early on a Sunday morning and cries: “Please God, don’t let me be sick anymore! Oh God please! I’ll go to church every Sunday if you’ll just let me feel better. I would be so grateful and I’ll do everything you want!” And when the urge to toss one’s cookies passes, that someone immediately stumbles off to the bedroom, and falls into bed saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll never drink like this again! ” Or the guy who after causing a minor traffic accident in which no one was hurt says “Thank you God, this could’ve been a lot worse! Thank you!”  Or the girl who after receiving a barely passing grade on a poorly prepared essay says, “Thank you God for letting Mrs. Needlemyer not flunk me. I didn’t put an effort into it like I should have, but thank you for not letting me fail.”

Sometimes, folks don’t wait till something bad happens to say thank you. Instead, a person might toss out the expression when they’re in a rush, never stopping to ponder why they should be thankful. Like the dude who is headed to an important interview in downtown Atlanta but gets lost walking around, and has to duck into a restaurant to ask for directions.  As soon as help is given, the guy, anxious to make the interview on time, rushes out the door with a quick and fleeting, “thanks.”

Even worse than these examples is the practice of skipping thankfulness all together.  Walk into any Walgreens, Publix, Kroger, and one will find Christmas products and decorations that have been on display since the week before Halloween. And a quick visit to the social networking site of Facebook reveals that there are a quite a few folks who proudly display as their status, “Skipping thanksgiving and going straight to Christmas preparations!”

It seems that in today’s busy technology-saturated and self-centered consumerist culture, the need to nurture authentic practices of thankfulness have never been greater. There’s probably not a more appropriate time than this first Sunday of November and this entire month to begin reflecting on the meaning of thank you—of being grateful to God in our living or to paraphrase a statement from the Westminster Catechism: glorifying God and enjoying him forever. In the devotional section of the November issue of Sojourner’s magazine, Old Testament scholar and author Walter Bruggemann reminds us that:

“During November we reach the conclusion of the church year. We remember our dead (All Saints Day) and ponder the God of life. We begin Advent and the season of alert waiting for the newness that God will give. Between, in American “civil religion,” is Thanksgiving. Perhaps thanksgiving is the right segue from old to new. It’s appropriate that the great festival of gratitude should provide the transition from old to new. Gratitude is, in the life of faith, for every season.

It is characteristic in American Thanksgiving that we look back and remember the pilgrims and God’s providential care for them. Lodged next to Advent, Thanksgiving is not only for remembering; it waits and it expects. Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give. While God’s gifts are welcome, in fact they do disrupt… God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference. God’s gift of justice exposes our systemic injustice. [1]

God’s gifts are abundant. Recognizing and responding to those gifts is what enables us to be in a truly thankful relationship with God and all of creation. The Rev. Lynne M. Baab, a Presbyterian minister in Seattle who wrote a denominational Bible study entitled Gratitude as a Spiritual Discipline observes that prayers of thankfulness“transform us because they help us develop habits of noticing God’s work in our lives.” She says further:

These prayers teach us to pay attention to the good gifts of God that surround us. We develop habits of gratitude, and these habits make our hearts more open to God’s presence in our lives…When we thank God, we acknowledge that we love God and that we are grateful for our relationship with God. Expressing our thanks to God also acknowledges our dependence on God.”

Babb says she and her husband turned to prayers of thankfulness when they discovered their regular prayers during times of stress were becoming meaningless. She explains:

We knew it was good to run to God with our needs, but often after praying together, we felt more depressed than we had when we started. Just focusing on all those needs, even in prayer, was overwhelming. We felt stuck in a rut of discouragement, negativity and powerlessness. We decided to try to make a small change. We began each prayer time with a few prayers of thankfulness. A first, the most we could come up with was prayers like, “Thanks for helping us make it through this day” or “Thanks for helping us survive that argument with our son.”…As the years went by, we began to notice even smaller things we were thankful for: a hug, a touch, a delicious meal, the wind in the trees, a break of sunshine after a long rainy spell.”[2]

In his book The Year of Living Biblically: One’s Mans Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, best-selling author AJ Jacobs, the editor-at-large of Esquire magazine and self-professed agnostic, recalls how prayers of thanksgiving changed his life. Two months into the process of trying to live out biblical principles, Jacobs writes:

“Today, before tasting my lunch of hummus and pita bread, I stand up from my seat at the kitchen table, close my eyes, and say in a hushed tone: ‘I’d like to thank God for the land that he provided so that this food might be grown.” Technically, that’s enough. That fulfills the Bible’s commandment. But while in thanksgiving mode, I decide to spread the gratitude around:

‘I’d like to thank the farmer who grew the chickpeas for this hummus. And the workers who picked the chickpeas. And the truckers who drove them to the store. And the old Italian lady who sold the hummus to me at Zingone’s deli and told me ‘Lots of love.’ Thank you.’

Now that I type it, it sounds like an overly earnest Oscar speech for best supporting Middle Eastern spread. But saying it feels good. …The prayers are helpful. They remind me that the food didn’t spontaneously generate in my fridge. They make me feel more connected, more grateful, more grounded, more aware of my place in this complicated hummus cycle. They remind me to taste the hummus instead of shoveling it into my maw like it’s a nutrition pill. And they remind me that I’m lucky to have food at all. Basically, they help me get outside of my self-obsessed cranium.

Six months later, Jacobs shares how his practice of thanksgiving has grown:

“I feel myself becoming an extremist—at least in some areas. Like my obsession with gratefulness. I can’t stop. Just now, I press the elevator button and am thankful that it arrives quickly. I get onto the elevator and am thankful that the elevator cable didn’t snap and plummet me to the basement. I go to the fifth floor and am thankful that I didn’t have to stop on the second or third or fourth floor. I get out and am thankful that Julie left the door unlocked so I don’t have to rummage for my King Kong key ring. I walk in, and am thankful that Jasper is home and healthy and stuffing his face with pineapple wedges. And on and on. I’m actually muttering to myself ‘Thank you…thank you…thank you.”[3]

Once we practice grateful living in every aspect of our daily routine, it’s hard to forget to be thankful for God’s gifts—from friends and family to the chirping birds and blue skies, to the farmers who grow our food and the check-out girl who rings up our groceries. I suspect that grateful living was the sole reason why the one leper returned to thank Jesus after being healed of his horrible disease. Unlike the other nine lepers whom Jesus also cured, this one dropped to his knees and gave thanks and praise to God in Christ because that is all he knew to do. The author of a commentary on today’s story from Luke’s gospel states:

“Gratitude may be the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition. The absence of the ability to be grateful reveals self-centeredness or the attitude that I deserve more than I ever get, so I do not need to be grateful…The grateful person reveals a humility of spirit and a sensitivity to love expressed by others. The grateful person, therefore, regards others’ acts of kindness and experiences of God’s grace with profound gratitude. Life itself is a gift. Health is a precious gift—the friendship of others and the love of family and special friends are an overwhelming grace to be treasured and guarded with gratitude.”[4]

The one leper didn’t promise to be more grateful if God healed him, nor did he suddenly realize he should be thankful once Jesus took away his leprosy. The leper gave thanks because even in the midst of pain and suffering, he lived a life of thankfulness. Every morning, every afternoon and every evening, the leper likely said a prayer of thanksgiving to God for being able to have one more moment to

smell the salty air near the sea of Galilee,

hear the crunch of rock and sand beneath his feet,

feel the warmth of the sun on his face,

see the beauty of the mountains,

to walk and talk and live another day in God’s creation.

Grateful living, which requires much faith and trust in the active presence of God, heals the leper and grateful living can bring healing and transformation in our lives. As Rev. Baab says:

“It is truly amazing how many blessings we can notice if we take the time to pay attention. It changes our heart over time if we try to notice all the ways God is already working, rather than focusing on the ways we want God to act. For example, imagine that a beloved friend or relative has cancer. Yes, we definitely need to pray for God’s healing in that person’s life. But we also need to notice the ways God is already acting. Perhaps we can thank God for good medical care, for relief from pain, for friends who are visiting. Perhaps God has answered some prayers related to the person’s treatment or health; we can notice those answers and express our thanks.”

There are many ways in which we can practice thankfulness in this month, on the Thanksgiving holiday and beyond.  Maybe you carve out some quiet time for yourself to listen to classical music, hymns or songs that lift you up spiritually and inspire you to give thanks and praise to God. Or whenever you are in the car, you might say a prayer of thanks for those in your vehicle and all the things you pass by—trees, clouds, rivers, schools, fire stations, people on the street, children on a playground.  Or you could try sharing various types of prayers every time you eat by yourself or with others in private and public, such as this traditional Samburu blessing from Kenya:

“Thank you very, very, much; My God, thank you. Give me food today. Food for my sustenance every day. Thank you very, very much.”[5]

Maybe you take five minutes once a day or week to list all the things you are thankful for in that moment.  I kept up with that particular practice for two years, posting a list of thanks on my blog Georgia Preach. I stopped because I got busy and felt I didn’t have the time to be thankful. Like Baab, my prayers of need—since the day I quit writing thankfulness lists—have been overwhelming, sticking me in “a rut of discouragement, negativity and powerlessness.” But today is the perfect opportunity to revive that list of thankfulness and begin grateful living again.

Thanks be to God to Matt Fry and the congregation of Norcross Presbyterian for allowing me to preach and lead in worship today. Thanks be to God for my wife and my daughter who light up my life with joy and love, and who never complain when I’m absent from their lives while I carry out pastoral responsibilities away from home—whether it be here or with the folks at Pleasant Hill Pres.  Thanks be to God for Pleasant Hill’s staff and congregation as well as minister colleagues and friends who nurture my gifts for ministry, strengthen my faith and affirm my call to serve Christ. Thanks be to God for the life I’ve been given. Thanks be to God for the people who make my favorite snack of oatmeal cream pies; for the creators of the TV show LOST which gave me a lot of spiritual insights over the course of six seasons; for my two cats whose daily antics keep me on my toes, and for the music of U2 who connect me to God in some mysterious ways. And thanks be to God for U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin and his poem Thanks, which gives us another glimpse of grateful living in the world[6]:

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Amen.


[1] “God’s Reign Cracks into Our World” by Walter Bruegemann, Sojourners magazine, November 2010.

[2] “Gratitude as a Spiritual Discipline” by Lynne M. Baab, The Thoughtful Christian: Faithful Living in a Complex World, www.thethoughtfulchristian.com, 2006

[3] The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally As Possible by AJ Jacobs, 2007

[4] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Commentary on Gospel of Luke by Alan R. Culpepper, 1995

[5] Saying Grace: Blessings for the Family Table, edited by Sarah McElwain, 2003.

[6] The Rain In The Trees by W.S. Merwin, 1988.

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