Living Gratitude

First United Methodist Church — Omaha
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence
November 19, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 65
Sermon: “Living Gratitude”

This Thursday we pause for a national holiday of Thanksgiving. As much as I love the name, I now pause with Thanksgiving Day just like Columbus Day. When I look at the narrative we tell of these holidays, our amnesia and reconstruction of history is blatantly astonishing. We tell fanciful stories while ignoring the sordid truths. Thanksgiving day can be honoring the European colonization which means the subsequent genocide of native peoples by giving thanks for the taking of their sacred lands and extinction of native people and their path to God.

I don’t want to eliminate Thanksgiving from our holiday calendar though; I do want it to be more than trying to have our turkey and eat it too without gluttony or guilt. That is especially challenging, when the National Day of Gratitude reaches its crescendo at midnight when Black Friday begins the National Day of Greed. Maybe that’s a bit strong, how about, the national day of envious coveting for the best buy of the year and hope that I get it before you.

Although this year seems different. I remember that Thanksgiving weekend was when we put up our Christmas decor. After the turkey coma lifted, while the football still streamed, Christmas lights and holly moved from our attic to the living room. On Friday or Saturday, the tree was placed and trimmed waiting to be lit December 1. Back then, if we did go into a shopping venue on Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas seemed to have magically appeared the day after the Thanksgiving company departed. Things are different this year. The first day of November, Halloween spiders and orange lights trimming my neighbor’s house, turned into Rudolph, candy canes and red and green flashers. We have no need to wait for Black Friday sales this year, for they have begun already. I’m not the only one who noticed November holiday’s disappearance. I saw at least one post on Facebook showing Santa saying, “Let’s eat the turkey first, people.” Thanksgiving Day seems to have lost its space while Christmas commercials now rise from the Great Pumpkin’s hallowed patch.

How would you like a:
• Stronger immune system
• Fewer aches and pains
• Lower blood pressure
• Increased energy and vitality – Improved quality and duration of sleep?

How much would you give for:
• Increased positive emotions • Improved overall mental health
• Greater ability to manage stress and reduce anxiety • Higher sense of self worth
• More joy and pleasure • More optimism, happiness and life satisfaction
• Increased ability to maintain an exercise routine ?

Would you value :
• Stronger interpersonal relationships
• Increased feelings of connectedness with others
• A more forgiving, generous and compassionate nature – a more outgoing personality?

If this were an infomercial, this is where I would bring out the product promising all these amazing results and conclude, “this amazing offer can be yours, but wait, there’s more! Say What?”

Now, let’s be honest. All this does sound too good to be true. If you did see a commercial to give you all these things, how many may just dial that number on your screen or at least go to their website to find out more? Better physical, psychological, and social health, improved sleep alone or less anxiety, just two of these promisings would be worth the call. The thing is multiple research studies do affirm these results are possible.1 What does it cost? What is this miracle product? and can we get a great Black Friday deal on it?

It may surprise you to find that these results are free; they come at no cost, no shipping or handling fees required and no waiting for a particular holiday. These are not shipped do your doorstep in a brown box with a smiley face. A happier life, better relationships, less anxiety, lower blood pressure, fewer aches and pains result from cultivating a spiritual practice of gratitude.

The spiritual principle of thanksgiving is simple to whatever we give our attention, which becomes our experience. We find what it is we are looking for, be that everything wrong in our life, or everything right. Living in a state of gratitude instead of complaint and worry, brings all these additional blessings to our life.

Is that disappointing? Would you rather just pay $19.95 and get a pill or gadget delivered to your door? Does it sound easier to retrieve the brown box with the smiley face instead of starting a gratitude journal and a mindfulness practice? Maybe so, but just by changing our focus, by adjusting our perspective, we can generate these results without spending a penny. It’s a matter of paying attention. Instead of constantly noticing what we do not have, we name all that we do have. Instead of focusing on the aches that are annoying, we give thanks for all the body parts that are working well. Instead of fretting over all the challenges and inconveniences that are just part of life, we learn to reframe them as opportunities to grow our character and learn. Living in Gratitude turns our perspective inside out and upside down. Thanksgiving turns our attention to what is positive in our lives. By looking at all the good, we experience the good twice, we magnify the pleasure we experience in life.

Gratitude is a choice we can learn to make. We can choose to be grateful- by noticing our blessings, or we can choose to be ungrateful—by taking our blessings for granted. As writer Alexis de Tocqueville once described it, gratitude becomes “a habit of the heart.”2 Sounds like a pep talk, a hallmark card or kind Facebook post, but the benefits of spiritual practices of gratitude really are research confirmed in multiple studies.3

While the research may be new, the wisdom of living in an increased awareness of blessings is not. Giving thanks for all that is good is a practice woven throughout our sacred texts.

Ancient Hebrews paused along their nomadic wanderings to set stone upon stone, making small pillars where they poured oils and gave thanks. These icons of gratitude dotted wilderness places as markers of God encounters and God blessings. The places bore the name of God and served as gratitude reminders to all generations. The psalmist added liturgy, prayers, songs as communal gratitude practices grounding Hebrew worship.

At the rise of each morning, and as the sun sets at night, your people bow their heads in reverent gratitude. O God.

What if we did the same? At the rise of each morning, our first thought in the mornings, when our eyes open to a new day, can be gratitude for the gift of another day of life before us? We can delight in anticipating another day of God’s blessing, then our first word of each day speaks “thank you.”

What if at the end of the day, as our weary feet finally swing from floor into bed, our thought was gratitude for having safely enjoyed another day of life? Then our last words of each day shall be “thank you.”

What if, as we go about the hours between dawn and nightfall, the eyes of our hearts saw and brought to our mind’s awareness the gifts in each moment: ears to hear the sounds of honking geese high overhead, the laughter of children, and gentle rustle of autumn leaves, the appreciation to taste the crunch of a crisp apple, and eyes to see the colors feet to carry us through the day, lungs to breathe, kidneys and liver and spleen all doing their appointed work.

What if we place markers of gratitude around us, symbols to remind us, God is present and blessing us in each moment.
Our psalmist sings:
Praise belongs to you, O God, our Beloved,
Happy are those who draw near to you, those who dwell in your Heart!
Awaken us to your kindness, enter into your Holy Temple, our heart!

The ancients might not have had statistical research studies on the medical, psychological, and physical benefits of living in thanksgiving, but they recognized that our hearts join to God’s presence when we enter into thankful awareness and awaken to God in us and around us and through us.

It might not surprise you to know that the chief assailants of gratitude are envy, greed, pride, and narcissism. That list is basically found in scriptures as well under warnings of how NOT to live.

Jesus spoke about living life abundantly and he taught and upside down, inside out value system that exalted the poor, the sick and marginalized. He pointed people to notice the flowers of the field adorned in God’s beauty and the birds of the air cared for by God, the harvest of the field as God’s bountiful provision, the yeast in the bread is the tiniest agent bringing change into the world. He directed life to an orientation of God and promised fulfillment when that is what we seek. He rose early in the mornings and strolled under starlit velvet darkness to commune with God. He warned against envy, greed, and pride, which steals our gratitude and hardens the arteries of life.

Instead of an excuse to over eat and set our heart on acquiring, Thanksgiving Day can begin a new lifestyle of gratitude and awareness of God’s abundant blessings every day. We can cultivate gratitude practices.

Keep a daily gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down three different things you are thankful for each day.

Express appreciation. Tell a spouse, partner, family member, or friend something you appreciate about him or her every day.

Don’t forget to Acknowledge yourself in the practice of gratitude. Look in the mirror and think about something you have done well or something you like about yourself and say it aloud – so your ears and heart can hear your blessing each day.

Write a thank-you note. Let someone know how much you enjoy and appreciate their impact on your life.

True thanksgiving has been called the soul’s recognition of its relation to God. When we cultivate thanksgiving, we are participating in God’s powerful force already active in our life. Thanksgiving need not be a one-day event but an everyday habit of our heart and eyes to the world that lifts us into a higher state of union with God.

What would you give for better physical, psychological, and social health? A better night’s sleep, less anxiety? Your soul’s recognition of God in all?

Our faith is not about abstract doctrine and dry ancient bones, it’s about life, life abundant, this day and all days, Happy Thanksgivings.

2 John Templeton. Wisdom from World Religions: Pathways toward Heaven on Earth.
3 Angeles Arrien, Living in Gratitude:A Journey that will Change Your life.