Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - The Gift of Gratitude

1 Samuel 2:1-11Top of Form
Luke 17:11-19

We looked at this gospel passage not all that long ago, but I think a revisiting of this passage is helpful as we honor and celebrate the gifts of those who give so much in this church community.  We have a group in the church that is focusing on Visioning or seeing where God is calling this church to be and to move.  And one of the things that has come up consistently is that we are called to be grateful, both to God for everything we have been given, but also to one another for everything that we do, for all that YOU do.  Today then I want to take a solid look at why we are called to that gratitude, what that is about for us and for you.
 “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”  Your faith has made you well.  He said this to the Samaritan, to the one person who returned to give thanks.  He said this after he had healed all of the ten.  So in that context what does it mean to you?
               The Samaritan’s faith had made him well, but in this context, it becomes clear that being made well was, for this Samaritan, different from the healing that all of them had received.  They all received physical healing.  All the lepers were made clean and they all went away cleansed.  All were healed from their physical illness.  But it is the one who had the faith to return and give thanks who was made well.
               Gratitude.  Gratitude.  Is it simply something we are “supposed’ to do?  I think that gratitude, just like forgiveness, repentance, compassion – all of the actions (and yes, these are all actions, not feelings – we give forgiveness, we change our behavior in repentance, and in compassion we act with care for those in need) – all of the actions that God calls us to serve a purpose in the world.  But more than that - they also heal us at a level that we can’t even begin to understand. 
               Studies have shown that telling people, expressing to people that you are grateful for what they have done helps you to feel better.  And the more depressed you are, the more down you are, the harder things are in your life, the more this is true.  There was a specific study done where people were brought in a tested on a depression scale.  Then they were invited to pick someone who had really impacted their lives in a positive way and write them a letter (not to be sent, just to be written) about what that person had meant to them.  Then they were invited to call that person and read them the letter and finally, they were given the depression test once more.  What they found was that everyone who did this activity had a large increase on the happiness scale after expressing this gratitude to the person who had given them so much.  What surprised them most about the study was that those who measured truly “depressed” on the original test were found to have made huge leaps upwards in terms of their level of happiness, in decreasing their depression after having done this exercise.  There is a reason why one of the therapy tools given to people who struggle with depression is for them to keep a gratitude journal and every single night to write down five things, very specific things, for which they are grateful.  Remembering the good that you have helps.  But what this study showed was that it makes even more difference to express that gratitude to others.  When you are in those bad places, taking time to think about the blessings you have and to give thanks, can make all the difference in the world. 
Personally, I, too, have found this to be absolutely true.  I know that a huge part of what got me through the hardest times for our family was thinking about and then expressing to people and even more for me, expressing to God, what I was and am so deeply, deeply grateful for.  Doing this has helped me focus on the good in my life, reminded me of the many, many blessings that surround me.  Naming them – thanking people simply for being there, or for listening, or for caring; thanking God for the lessons I have learned, for the opportunities to grow, for the chance to see things in a different way; thanking God for each beautiful sunshiny day and for the music of every thunder storm; thanking God for the gifts of laughter and hugs and music and poetry; for the people God placed in my life, the love that I experience daily and the opportunities to love others – that daily thanking people and God reminded and brought home to me how much I had, how many blessings continued to surround me every day even in the hardest times, even in the most difficult of times.  But more, experiencing other people’s reactions when I thank them and they can truly take that in lifted me up even more than just being aware of what it was I was grateful for.  When I say to you, as a congregation, and as individuals of this congregation “Thank you” for being the amazing church of people that you are, for your smiles and your kindness, for your commitment to doing the work of this church, for your dedication in caring for each other and for the needy beyond these walls, for coming together each week to sing and celebrate and share God’s love – when I say this to you, it is my heart that swells with joy.  Mine.  And for that, too, I am deeply, amazingly grateful.
In the book (and I think in the movie too), The Life of Pi, Pi was stranded on a lifeboat for a very long time, and sometimes there weren’t any fish to catch, and sometimes the sun was too hot and the despair was overwhelming and life was impossible.  And Pi said, “You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth.  Why?  Because at your feet you have a tiny … fish.” (217).   That morsel to eat, that smile from a stranger, that touch of the wind against your face as you walk on a warm day, that gentle hand touching your shoulder – when we take a moment to see these things, to be grateful for these things, when we take a moment to thank God our creator for everything God has given to us, and to name those specifics for which we are grateful, we find joy.  Not just happiness, but joy – real, true, deep.
The truth is that we have a hard time always finding gratitude.  And I believe a large part of that is a sense of entitlement that we have.  I wrote about this in our last newsletter, but I want to state some of what I shared with you again.  We feel entitled to happiness, to freedom, to comfort in this culture.  But the reality is we are not entitled.  We are not entitled to functional cars, to a care-free existence, to riches and comfort, or even to healthy and consistent food.  But our belief that we are entitled to everything good and that somehow it is not fair if we have less than everything we could want leads us, often, to become angry at a life that does not give everything for our ease and comfort.  We become frustrated and upset by the challenges in our life and focus on our “lack” rather than our abundance. My experience is that this is a cultural thing.  Part of the reason that the people I met in Central America were so much more generous than people here in the United States was because they saw, understood, experienced, and knew that everything they had was a gift of grace, given to be shared with others.  They get that they are graced so that they may grace others.  But from a place of believing that what we have is ours and that therefore we have a right to it, and that we don’t therefore need to share it, we find it hard to share, hard to let go, hard to give.  It is that sense of gratitude, a recognition that everything good in life is a gift of grace, one that should be valued and appreciated, without being anticipated, expected, or worse, assumed, these are the beliefs that lead one into a sense of gratitude, a love of life, a joy in life.  These are the feelings that lead us to be generous as well.  We have been graced, we are grateful and out of that gratitude we then give back, out of a sense of how deeply blessed we are in every moment of every day we are freed to share, to let go of the stuff that owns us, and to spread our wealth and our blessings to all we encounter.
The Samaritan who returned to Jesus to give thanks was made well.  This goes beyond physical healing.  All of the ten were healed.  But the Samaritan was made well.  In returning with faith and with gratitude, with eyes that saw the amazing blessing he had been given and being able to name it, to say “thank you” to the one who brought release and freedom – that made the Samaritan well.  And being well is more precious than even physical healing.  To say, “it is well with my soul”.  We will be singing this song in a minute, and I invite you to really listen to the words, to sing them with the gratitude that  life of abundance inspires.  I’m also giving you homework.  I’d like to invite you to try an exercise in expressing gratitude this week.  Find 1-3 people a day to whom you are grateful.  Call them.  Write them a note.  Send them a card.  Give them the flower that I gave you today. Let them know that you are thankful for what they have done or how they have touched you or who they are.  At the end of the week let me know how your expressions of gratitude have affected you. 
That wellness with our souls, that peace, that joy comes as another blessing from God…a blessing we gain simply by seeing, feeling, and giving thanks for the blessings that surround us each and every day.  Amen.