“To Gratitude and Beyond”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 20, 2016

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 1:68-79

 

According to the etiquette experts, there is a six-point formula to writing a proper thank you note.

Step one:  greeting.  Dear Uncle Marcus…

Step two:  gratitude.  Thank you so much for the breadbox…

Step three:  use.  You know how much my husband loves to bake, so your gift is sure to go to good use… 

Step four:  ongoing relationship.  I look forward to seeing you at Grandma’s birthday party next week… 

Step five:  grace.  Thanks again… 

Step six:  regards.  Your nephew, John…

Greeting, gratitude, use, relationship, grace, and regards.  My grandmother taught me this formula, and my mother reinforced it.  Writing thank you notes was simply what we did—it was not an option, but a requirement after birthdays, Christmas, and other gift-giving occasions.  Of course, for a while, I resented it.  “I’m too busy reading my new book to write a thank you note for it.”  “They were here when I opened the present, and I said thank you then.  Why do I have to write and say it again?”  “They’re just going to recycle the note after they read it.  Isn’t this a waste of paper?”

But over time, I have come to love the practice of thank you notes.  It is so important for people to know that they are noticed and appreciated.  And even more than that, the practice of writing thank yous keeps me attentive to people’s generosity and to the many gifts and blessings that surround me.

The practice of gratitude has been a hot topic in the last couple of decades.  If you google “gratitude,” you will find nearly 87 million results.  The science behind gratitude…  How to practice gratitude…  Quotes about gratitude…  The 31 benefits of gratitude you didn’t know about…  Choose to be grateful; it will make you happier…

Practitioners of a wide variety of world religions point to sacred texts and practices of faith that invite their adherents into a posture of gratitude.  Medical professionals conduct studies to measure the physical and mental health effects of simple practices like writing a thank you note or listing three things for which you are grateful each day.

When people take on such a practice, they often find that there is a positive spiral.  A practice of gratitude leads to feelings of gratitude.  A focus on noticing the positives in one’s life leads to a more positive outlook overall.  Like anything else, the places where we devote our time and energy and resources are the places where we grow.

Later this week, Americans across the country and around the world will celebrate one of our major national holidays, a holiday that is (at least in theory) all about gratitude.  Gathered around tables groaning with turkey and stuffing and squash and potatoes and cranberry sauce and pie and all the favorite delectables of the family in question, folks will pause—some as they do at every meal, and others, perhaps, for the first time since last year’s holiday feast—to reflect on the blessings in their lives, the things for which they are grateful.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday.  Giving thanks is a wonderful thing.  But as Christians, we can’t stop there.  As Christians, self-satisfied gratitude alone is not enough.  Our gratitude must grow into empathy, and our empathy must grow into action.

In our reading from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are instructed in a rite of thanksgiving, offering the first fruits of their harvest to God in celebration of the land’s abundance.  Sounds like a gratitude practice if ever there was one (even if it doesn’t follow the six-point thank you note formula exactly).  But if you listened closely, you may have noticed that it doesn’t stop with gratitude alone.  Did you catch the empathy and the action?

The one bringing the offering is instructed to recite her heritage, to remember that she is descended from Abraham, a starving Aramean—a stranger in a foreign land, a refugee seeking shelter.  In that acknowledgement, she viscerally recalls what it feels like to be a hungry person seeking food, to be an oppressed person treated terribly by those who are in power.  And in that visceral remembering, she builds her capacity for empathy with people who still find themselves in such situations.

Then comes the action.  After making the offering, she is instructed, “Then celebrate all the good things the Lord your God has done for you and your family—each one of you along with the Levites and the immigrants who are among you.”  Celebrate all those good gifts of God along with the immigrants who are among you.  As in, don’t leave them out in the cold to suffer as your ancestors suffered!  You know what that feels like.  Do something about it!

So as you gather on Thursday, or whenever your family celebrates the holiday, if you are seated before a table-groaningly extravagant spread, pause for a moment to remember what it feels like to go to bed hungry, or to wake up without knowing where your next meal will come from.  If this has been your experience at some point in time, then you know that feeling in your bones.  If this is not part of your own personal experience, then take the time and make the effort to seek out the story of someone who is experiencing food insecurity.  Let your gratitude grow into empathy, into compassion for the experiences of our sisters and brothers whose bellies groan with hunger as they sit before empty tables.

As you gather on Thursday, or whenever your family celebrates the holiday, if you are surrounded by loved ones, whether reveling in one another’s company or stumbling through awkward conversations about the election, pause for a moment to remember what it feels like to be alone.  If this has been your experience at some point in time, then you know that feeling in your bones.  If this is not part of your own personal experience, then take the time and make the effort to seek out the story of someone who has been rejected by their family because of who they are, or who is grieving the death of someone who once sat at that table with them, or who is alone because the suffocating fog of depression makes it almost impossible to get out of bed, let alone leave the house.  Let your gratitude grow into empathy, into compassion for the experiences of our sisters and brothers whose hearts ache with loneliness while laughter echoes from the house next door.

As you gather on Thursday, or whenever your family celebrates the holiday, if you are filled with gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy, pause for a moment to remember what it feels like to be persecuted and afraid.  If this has been your experience at some point in time, then you know that feeling in your bones.  If this is not part of your own personal experience, then take the time and make the effort to seek out the story of someone who has fled their homeland as a refugee because it was not safe for them to stay, or who has been targeted by hate speech or violence because of their hijab or yarmulke, their brown skin or female body.  Let your gratitude grow into empathy, into compassion for the experiences of our sisters and brothers who are afraid for their own safety or the safety of their children.

Listen closely:  this is not about feeling guilty about what you have.  This is about celebrating the abundance you enjoy, whatever that may be—and letting that joy move you to share it.  Feel your gratitude.  Really feel it.  Write God a thank you note with that six-step formula!  Get all those good mental and physical health benefits!  But don’t stop there.  Let your gratitude grow into empathy, and let your empathy grow into action.

Action might be small or great, local or global, immediate or long-term.  I’m not asking you solve every one of the world’s problems before we come back together next Sunday.  But I am asking you to do something.

And here’s why:  because you, Christians, are followers of the One who has always been about showing up with those who are afraid, with those who are lonely, with those who are hungry, with those who are on the margins.  Because you, Christians, are loved by the One who always comes when you call, bringing mercy and healing and hope.  Because you, Christians, are disciples of the One who has promised a world without fear, without pain, without weeping, without hunger.

Because you, Christians, are bound inextricably to the One whose word is trustworthy and true.  Because God always keeps God’s promises.  And here’s how:  through you.  Through the words and actions of God’s faithful people everywhere.  You, Christians, have the capacity to help make God’s promises come true, because God has called you to precisely this work, in precisely this place, at precisely such a time as this.

If you’re ready to take up that mantle, but perhaps aren’t quite sure how, there is good news:  you’re not in it alone.  You are surrounded by sisters and brothers who will figure it out alongside you.  You are part of a community that just reconstituted itself this very morning, a member of a body that just recommitted itself to following in the way of the Prince of Peace.

And so, I invite you now to turn to a neighbor—like last week, preferably not someone you came to church with this morning, but rather someone else—and share three things.  Start with something for which you’re grateful.  Then share where you feel empathy and compassion related to that gratitude.  And finally, perhaps with your partner’s help, think of some way you can let that empathy grow into action.

In this way, together, in the words of Luke’s gospel:

Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.

Gratitude; empathy; action.  Here we go.

 


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