Be Happy. Practice Gratitude! (final sermon in series, “Don’t Worry. Be Happy!”–with necessary apologies to Mr. Bobby McFerrin)

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I.

Maybe for Thanksgiving this year, we could focus our active expressions of gratitude on all those people and experiences and opportunities that we’d like to have enjoyed more of, but for all sorts of reasons could not.  “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”; that kind of thing.

I’d like to have had many more years with my Dad than I did.  Losing him when he was only 70 years old was way too soon—and quite unnecessary.  Instead of focussing on how slighted he felt in those final, fleeting hours, if he had any flashes of rationality, and how slighted I feel to have lost him at such a young age for this day and time, the more valuable emotional expression from me is to be grateful for the years we did have together and for the lasting contributions he made to my life during those years.  Understatement.

I found myself wondering this past Friday what might have happened if President Kennedy had not been assassinated and if, instead, he had lived a full life during which he might have had more time to try to make his dreams for our country—indeed, our world—come true.  Perhaps these were most clearly articulated in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September of 1961:

Terror is not a new weapon. Throughout history it has been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or example. But inevitably they fail, either because [people] are not afraid to die for a life worth living, or because the terrorists themselves came to realize that free [people] cannot be frightened by threats, and that aggression would meet its own response….I come here today to look across this world of threats to a world of peace. In that search we cannot expect any final triumph—for new problems will always arise. We cannot expect that all nations will adopt like systems–for conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. Nor can we expect to reach our goal by contrivance, by fiat or even by the wishes of all. But however close we sometimes seem to that dark and final abyss, let no  [person] of peace and freedom despair. For [that person] does not stand alone. If we all can persevere, if we can in every land and office look beyond our own shores and ambitions, then surely the age will dawn in which the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved….Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames. Save it we can–and save it we must–and then shall we earn the eternal thanks of [humankind] and, as peacemakers, the eternal blessing of God.

 

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I am grateful that he rose to leadership when he did and for as long as he was able.  Detesting that his life ended as young as he was and in the manner it was taken from him, I can yet be grateful that we benefited from his leadership for the years that we did.

Rosalind Franklin was a teenager in the 1930s; she attended one of the only girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry.  She told her father that she wanted to be a scientist; he said, “No way.  No how.”  Eventually he gave in to Rosalind’s persistence and gave her his fatherly blessing when she enrolled at Cambridge where she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry. Afterward the conferring of that degree, she studied in Paris where she learned techniques for X-ray crystallography.  Returning to England, she worked in the chemistry lab at London’s King College.  While in that role, she made X-ray images of DNA and was about to determine the structure of a DNA molecule when a couple of male coworkers pretty much stole her work, published it, and took credit for it.  The truth eventually came out but not before, Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958—having not reached her fortieth birthday.   And if she had lived longer?  Who knows how far her discoveries would have taken her, and others.  An early death doesn’t negate powerful contributions.  

 

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One wonders how the Jesus Movement might have evolved if Jesus had had more time to guide it first hand.  Surely, it would have been stronger, no thanks to Rome; and, thus, surely it would not have succumbed to institutional self-centeredness and other weaknesses common to human power groups.  I occasionally mention, because it astounds me, that we have no more reference to a life than lasted roughly thirty-three years than, perhaps, thirty-three days.  It cannot be denied that the teachings of Jesus—whether remembered and recorded verbatim or in summary fashion—changed the world and, apparently, continue to do so.  His vicious and paranoid enemies brought his brief life to an abrupt end, and those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus could become caught up in that tragedy, but his contribution is better utilized if we take what we have, relish it, and run with it in gratitude.

 

II.

I’m a great fan of a modern martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a brilliant theologian, ethicist, and pastor who openly opposed Hitler and eventually was sent to a concentration camp for his lack of patriotism and his companion opposition to the movement to create Hitler’s “super race.”  Just a handful of days before the Allies won the war and began freeing captives as quickly as they could, Bonhoeffer—another young one who died way before his body was worn out—was executed by hanging in the camp where he’d been imprisoned.  He, nonetheless, left us many powerful lessons about values and how to live.  In relationship to our subject today, he said, “In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”  One compound sentence, two powerful life-changers.

 

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We most of us hurry through life, and if we are givers at all, we casually assume that we are giving more than others; the truth, most often, however, is that we are gifted more often than we gift.  That fact should alter our attitudes and our appointment books.  His second eye-opener, already alluded to in ways today, reminds us to take in the reality that no one who lives without gratitude is really wealthy in this world, and there are surprisingly large numbers of people who, for all sorts of reasons, lack the capacity to be grateful about anything or anyone.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, admonished:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus, the Anointed One.

With thanksgiving.  

At the heart of communing with God is thanksgiving, at the heart of affirming life is thanksgiving, and at the heart of contentment is thanksgiving.  Without some sense of gratitude embedded in our depths, there is no possibility for enjoying and embracing life.  Here’s one example from Eleonora Duse:  “If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice for your soul is alive.” 

 

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For Thanksgiving this year, let’s give thanks for opportunities we have to make a difference to someone or some group through our efforts and/or through our financial investment.  So often Thanksgiving becomes for the “haves” in our nation a kind of gloating holiday.  I am thankful for the finest foods on my table each day, for my fab wardrobe that looks amazing and keeps me warm or cool as the need may be, for my successful facelift or tummy tuck, etc., etc.—you know, the very things for which the Pilgrims were grateful at the food sharing event, thanks to Indigenous American, that led to the annual remembrance of an embellished event that never actually took place.  

I hope you give thanks for the opportunity to support this unique community, your church.  There aren’t many Silversides in the world, my dear friends.  Many of you give faithfully year after year; some of you give sacrificially so that your church, your spiritual community, can breath on its own rather than requiring a respirator.   It’s somewhat self-serving for me to say thank-you since when you give you are contributing to the payment of my income.  Even so, I will say thank-you, and I hope you will be thankful as you count your blessings for your opportunity to support financially this polite but rabble-rousing community built on the foundations laid by rabble rousers before your time.

We have been around for 178ish years because and only because you and your forebears have believed that a place for open theological investigation and spiritual seeking that lead to ministry to the strugglers is of utmost importance.  Churches in the Free Church tradition get no financial assistance from any religious hierarchy the way some churches may receive regularly or on occasion.  

Some people who don’t know about the inner workings of a church like ours must think we get grants to keep going or that since we try to do good in God’s name that God fills our Financial Secretary’s mail slot with cash and checks enough to pay all the bills.  Neither is the case.  Only you keep us going.

 

III.

Our world does not push us to live with thankful hearts; it would have me focussing on what I don’t have rather than what I do have, and I’m not speaking exclusively about materialism though that is the first love of modern First World societies across the globe.  Sometimes, the world gets the upper hand, and I’m caught up in a preoccupation with what I don’t have, leaving no energy for pondering what I do have–again, not speaking exclusively from a materialistic point of view.  I understand why many people, all over the world, can’t find a reason when they awaken day after day to give thanks for the danger or the hunger or the emotional pain through which they will have to live until the next round of sleep gives them a slight reprieve.

My materially poor material great-grandmother, Granny Ingle, used to say to me when I was a little boy, “Ain’t God good, honey?  The Bible says that all the good gifts and all perfect gifts come from God.  Don’t ever forget that.”  She had in mind a specific Bible verse from the King James Version of the book of James; this is how the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translate James chapter 1, verse 17 today:  “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the God of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  

I believe that the loving force to which we refer as God is in or behind all good in some kind of way.  Whether or not we recognize or acknowledge it, I believe it is nonetheless true.  By no means am I diminishing the place of humanity in bringing good to fruition, but I am persuaded that Living Love lures us toward what is good–whether that is going on in a scientific research lab or in a seriously broken relationship that, against all the odds, gets mended.  Keep in mind that I believe God is the Life-force and the Life-source, not your fairy godmother.

Counting our many blessings, as a hymn writer urged us to do, does not or should not mean loving a fat bank account, vast real estate holdings, multiple residences, and a fleet of automobiles.  We should be able to count blessings and give thanks without any thought of material advantage.  Shame on the growing number of prosperity gospel preachers around the world who try to convince their hearers that divine rewards are tangible rewards, and shame on those hearers who have the sense to know better than to believe what their prosperity pastor is preaching to them but who let themselves believe it anyway.  The prosperity gospel preachers wouldn’t still be around if they had any difficulty building followings.

My all-time favorite person from the Enlightenment era is Voltaire who detested religious intolerance more than anything in the world and who believed that anyone, however highly or widely regarded, attributing tragedy to God was an idiot if not a spokesperson for evil.  This brilliant playwright, historian, poet, essayist, and activist said of gratitude:  “Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”

 

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Most of us who care about giving gifts when we can and doing things that help others don’t do either because we expect any expression of gratitude in return.  We do what we do out of love and/or concern—nothing more, but if there is to be an expression of gratitude in response, let it come when I can still remember whatever it was that I gave you or did for you.  For most of us, as we age, that means a month after the fact is much better than two years after the fact.

A so-called Humanist proverb says this:  “Gratitude soon grows old and dies.”  To me this means gratitude that was real gratitude when it was new and fresh goes unexpressed long enough, gets stale, then old, and finally dies.  Not only did the person who did something kind for me never know that I, at first, felt tremendous gratitude for the kindness, but also if I don’t express it in a timely manner the gratitude dies within me.  The effect is the same as if I never felt any gratitude at all.

  I have received a few notes through the years from former parishioners or former students or former contributors to one of the magazines I edited.  Parishioners I have rarely forgotten, but a student who studied with me in one course or a contributor who contributed two pieces to Pulpit Digest in my 18-year run as editor, I have often forgotten.  The notes will be too general for me to be able to piece the details together or, as I said, even the persons who wrote the very thoughtful notes.  

It’s nice to think for a few minutes now and then that I must be, or at least was at some point—according to these notes, a really wonderful guy!  What in the world did I do?  Of course, I’d never write back and ask so I put the note in my rainy day box where I put communications from folks who thought I did something that helped them along the way.  I like to be reminded privately now and then that, probably without going out of my way in the least, I made a little difference in someone’s life, and someday I want my children and grandchildren to read those notes too so that they might understand why I spend my time the way I do.

The gratitude that others express to me–though never required or expected if I am where I should be emotionally and spiritually–pleases me, surprises me, lifts me up, but the gratitude I feel toward other people, toward God who is love, toward the Universe is what truly enriches my life.  Why, then, would I be careless enough to let such gratitude die?

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