The Difficult Art of Gratitude: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 10 October, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9. John 6:25-35

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. (Deuteronomy 26:11)

Gratitude is a difficult art to practice. Take the thank you card, for example. My father always preached the value of the thank you note or, if I had been a guest somewhere, then he called it the “bread and butter letter” . Dad believed that a thank you note was an appropriate response to an act of kindness or hospitality. As he liked to say, gratitude was a sign of civilization, and being civilized was always better than being a savage. Last week Kay and I had a houseguest over for a very pleasant evening, and the next day we received a warm and thoughtful handwritten thank you card. It wasn’t strictly necessary of him to write and send the card, because we’d shaken hands and as he said goodbye he had thanked us warmly. The card said more than thank you. It was, I suppose, a way of saying “I’m glad we spent time together, let’s continue this relationship and let’s grow this friendship.” The card was especially meaningful because even though our friend was getting ready to fly home, he had taken time out of a busy day to buy a card, write some thoughtful words, and get it to us. I know there have been times were I’ve received kindness and hospitality, and yet have found the art of gratitude too difficult to practice. I got busy, I was lazy, I forgot, and the opportunity was lost. Gratitude is a difficult art to practice. Like anything else of value, it takes intentionality and effort.

If gratitude is social art, gratitude can also be a spiritual art, and like the social art of gratitude, spiritual gratitude can also be difficult art to practice. Sure, we know how to be spiritually grateful. As someone once said, all prayers can be boiled down to two types. The first type of prayer is “please, please, please”, and the second type is “thank you, thank you, thank you”. We’re quite good at saying these kind of things when adrenaline is involved. It might be a few seconds of bad driving in winter, or some very long hours waiting for the doctor to return with the test results. When we need something badly, or when we feel that we’ve received some incredible moment of grace, prayers of please, please, please or thank you, thank you, thank you come easily enough, even to people who aren’t really sure who they’re praying to. As my father also liked to say, “there are no atheists in foxholes”. It’s the moments when the adrenaline fades away and life goes back to normal that many people lose the need to pray. It’s not that they’re bad people, but rather that the need to pray recedes into the background, and so the idea of prayer as a practice or a discipline, as something that we have to persist at to get good, becomes so difficult for most people, even for most Christians.

Thanksgiving Sunday reminds us of the importance of gratitude as a spiritual art. Also known as Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday, it is a holdover of a time when most people’s lives were closely tied to the earth. In Christian history, the Sixth Sunday after Easter was known as Rogation Sunday, the time of planting. That was the “please, please, please” prayer, when churches would ask God to bless the crops and the weather so that people would not go hungry. Harvest Thanksgiving was the “thank you, thank you, thank you” time, when as the old hymn puts it, “all is safely gathered in, ‘ere the winter storms begin”. Because prayers of please and thank you can be selfish because they tend to be about us and about our needs, the church chooses scripture readings for Thanksgiving that remind us to think about others and about our relationship to them. In our first lesson, from Deuteronomy, God’s chosen people are reminded that they have more to be thankful for than just a good harvest. Israel is reminded that it is a chosen people, a nation created by God out of the family of Abraham, “a wandering Aramean”, protected by God when slaves in Egypt and “few in number”, and then brought out of slavery into a promised land. As it does over and over again, the Old Testament reminds God’s people that God has been faithful to them step by step, generation by generation, and this year’s harvest is just another sign of that faithfulness. To remind them of that faithfulness, the people are to give some of that harvest back to God through the priests (the “Levites”) and they are to share it with the non-Jews (the”resident aliens”) living with them. The “resident aliens” are important because God intended his chosen people to be a blessing to the world and not just a tiny, holier than thou, minority. As St. Paul reminds us in Romans and elsewhere, we are all God’s chosen people by adoption through God’s son Jesus Christ. Just as Israel was meant to share God’s blessing with the people around it, so are we called to be God’s partners in sharing the grace given to us.

Often in Anglican churches you will find a poster or a bulletin insert which says something like “Giving begets Grace begets Gratitude begets Giving begets …”. Sometimes the words are arranged in a circle which suggests the idea of a cycle that feeds and grows off of itself. I’m not sure where this slogan comes from (it may be an echo of a saying by St. Basil –“gratitude begets reward” ) but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the idea that the “thank yous”, the moments of gratitude which follow our “please please please” requests for grace, should not be selfish. Instead, by cultivating an attitude of gratitude and sharing it with others, we can create a climate which promotes favourable conditions for more grace. The Christian writer Nancy Leigh Moss calls this “going gratitudinal”, which means finding ways to express our gratitude in ways which grace those around us and, in doing so, give witness to God as the author of all grace.

What might “going gratitudinal” mean for you this Thanksgiving? If you’ve been graced with a talent, will your gratitude help nurture talents in others? If you’ve been blessed with an act of kindness, will your gratitude express itself in kindness to others? Here’s a hard one. If it doesn’t seem to you that your “please please please” moment has yet been answered, can you still find gratitude for the faithfulness and promise of God’s son? In our Gospel reading from St. John today, we heard Jesus challenge his followers to believe even in those times when they do not see miracles like gifts of bread. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). This Sunday isn’t just about giving thanks for tables covered with good things like turkey and stuffing. This Sunday, like every Sunday and every day of our baptized lives, is about our giving thanks for the good news that God has chosen us, has called us, has loved us, loves us, and will love us, has forgiven us, forgives us, and will forgive us, and will receive us as his own. That is a gift worthy of our “thank yous”, and a grace worth sharing with others.

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