• Lance Hurst

When Gratitude is a Gift

Updated: Aug 6

This sermon was delivered on January 26, 2020 At Common Ground Church In New York, New York As part of a sermon series called ‘Gifts of Community.’ Text: Psalm 13


Last week, our organizing pastor started our conversation on gratitude by exploring what it looks like when gratitude goes wrong. When we’re told to be grateful and not given space to express legitimate concerns, it’s probably an indicator that something has gone wrong. Gratitude can often feel like it’s just a tool for silencing cries for change and justice. So why does it even matter?


The good news is that’s what today is for! We are going to explore how gratitude is a gift. We’ll talk about what gratitude actually is and how it can actually shape us–not just as individuals but also as a community.


First, our ancient reading comes from the Hebrew Scriptures: Psalm 13.


David Steindl-Rast, a Jesuit priest who has spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about gratitude says, “It’s not joy that makes us grateful, it’s gratitude that makes us joyful.”


Monica Coleman, a womanist theologian who explores the intersection of mental health and faith writes, “People who live with depressive conditions live closer to death and dismay than most people outside our internal thoughts could ever know. It’s not a daily threat most of the time, but it is a reality, and for many of us, it’s recurrent. For this reason, we are deeply grateful that the next day has come and we can start over again. We are thankful that we lived through the last bout. We appreciate that we have outlasted this thing within and outside of us that sometimes threatens our very existence. At least, this is the case for me and some of my friends.”


Finally, Diana Butler Bass in her book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks writes, “As a personal practice, gratitude helps us navigate challenges and be more content with our lives, but if we fail to understand the larger social consequences of gratitude, then it is little more. Indeed, if we still carry around inside a deep structure of gratitude as debt, obligation, and payback, it serves to reinforce hierarchical structures of injustice and spiritualizes gifts and blessings while offering only heavenly rewards to those lower down in the system.”


Do you remember the first time that you were told to be grateful when you weren’t feeling grateful?

What was it like?

Was it your parent whispering in your ear after someone gave you a gift?

You know, you really wanted the Pixar movie A Bug’s Life but instead your aunt and uncle got you the Dreamworks movie, Antz (ants with a “Z”). You know, they tried. They really did. They heard you talk about a movie about bugs. But they just missed it. And now what? You’re supposed to be grateful that you got something that you didn’t really want?


Perhaps now those memories seem trivial. We did survive and our friend got A Bug’s Life for their birthday so we could go over to their house and watch it anyway. But what about more recently? Have you recently heard someone suggest that you should be grateful? Maybe it’s your boss at work: “You shouldn’t be asking for a raise. You should be grateful you even have a job.” Or maybe it’s a family member responding to your Facebook post: “If you don’t like America, maybe you should just leave. If you can’t be grateful, then maybe this isn’t for you.” 


Just as Chris named last week, gratitude so often becomes a weapon. We get told when we should be grateful, why we should be grateful, and to whom we should be grateful. And usually, underneath these instructions is a looming threat: if you’re not grateful, there will be consequences. You might lose your job. You might become a target for more unjust treatment. In our society, gratitude often gets treated as a litmus test for who is following the rules and who isn’t. 


When we think about this, it’s not hard to join the author of our ancient reading. The Psalmist’s cries can become our own: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? Will I be stuck in this place forever? Will I have to always wait until the benefactor decides to throw me a bone? How long, O Lord?”


These questions are real. Our experiences of disorientation are real. Our experiences of injustice and power differences are real. So what do we do with this?


There’s obviously multiple ways that we could respond–some more helpful than others. But what if we took our cue from the Psalmist again. They pray, “Give light to my eyes.” Isn’t it true that disorienting experiences often lead us into the darkness. It is difficult to see what is happening and where we move forward.


I believe that when we are in the darkness, gratitude is like a light for our eyes. But what is gratitude? Although we are often told what to be grateful for, I believe that gratitude is only authentic when it emerges from our own agency. Gratitude is sometimes a feeling, sometimes a practice that we choose where we turn our eyes to see goodness. This is not a goodness that comes from material things (although that could be the case). But before that ever is the case, there is a goodness that is inherent in the universe. There is goodness that God has given us to all people indiscriminately. This is the goodness of the earth, sunsets, rain, the fruit of the earth. It is abundance that lies all around us.


Yet, because of the ways that we have structured our societies, we find it hard to remember that abundance is real. We have built empires that privilege some and not others. We hoard resources that make it difficult for some to have any resources. It is our systems that have created scarcity for others. The truth is that there is abundance.

We need light for our eyes to remember this abundance. It can be so difficult to see. The longer things are dark, the harder it becomes to remember what we saw in the light. So we go on this journey of gratitude. For those of us who wrestle with depression and anxiety, Monica Coleman reminds us that our practice of gratitude may only begin as an intellectual pursuit. It may not be easy to experience gratitude as a feeling. Yet, the practice of gratitude begins with an intention to acknowledge goodness. Where have you overcome before? Where have you found life when you thought there was none? When were you surprised before? Could this happen again?


Our prayer must move from “give light to my eyes” to “give light to our eyes.” Diana Butler Bass writes, “Gratitude is not merely resilience. Gratitude is resistance too. It is time for all of us to join the resistance.” All of us need light to see the goodness. But what happens when we see goodness?


We move beyond the cycle of benefactor-beneficiary circle of gratitude. This is the cycle that our society embodies so well. It is the quid pro quo model. I give you something and in return, you do something for me. This for that. Someone has the power and the resources. Someone else has time. The powerful share their resources with those who have time and those who have time must be grateful to those with power. In this model we are all left with the need to become the benefactors. We are all hoping that we will become the ones with power someday so we can be free of our obligation to our benefactors. We are searching for freedom from this slavery.


Yet, when we collectively practice gratitude and see goodness around us, we also see the ways that goodness was given to all by God. It was not the powerful who created goodness. The powerful are at the mercy of God sending the rain on those with power and those without power. The powerful cannot do anything without the gifts already inherent in the earth.


So in this collective gratitude, those with power and those without power recognize that we are all benefactors and beneficiaries. Goodness is always flowing and we are all recipients and sharers of it. We are not bound to give thanks by returning service to our benefactor. Instead, we can express gratitude by giving goodness where it is needed. We share the resources that come our way with those who need it. And when we are in need, those who have to share can share with us.


This is a move from a hierarchy to a table. We all come to the table as people who have been given life by God. We can share what we have to share in that space and we can take what is shared at the table. Gratitude becomes a flow of equality and generosity. We learn to receive goodness and give goodness. We are beholden to goodness and no longer the powerful.


So, Common Ground, can we join the Psalmist today? Can we hold space for our “How long, O Lord?” Can we own our pain and the injustice in the world? And at the same time, can we lean into the goodness that exists in the universe? Can we allow gratitude to be a light for us in our darkness? And can we not just do it alone in our gratitude journals and our prayers of thanksgiving, but also together at the table?


Common Ground, will you join me in committing to exploring what it means for us to be a community of gratitude this year? Let’s commit to being a community that looks for the goodness that is around us and names it together. Together, let us resist oppressive structures. Let us be a people who receive goodness with open hands and share that goodness, because the Lord has dealt bountifully with us. Amen.


Benediction

May you find that goodness and mercy have been following you all the days of your life. And together, may we share that goodness and mercy at this table of love.

May God bless you and keep you,

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you,

May God’s countenance be lifted upon you and give you peace.

Now go in peace.

This sermon was delivered on January 26, 2020 At Common Ground Church In New York, New York As part of a sermon series called ‘Gifts of Community.’ Text: Psalm 13

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