At the opening prologue of her book ‘Grateful,’ Diana Butler Bass offers this anecdote. “I pulled the card from the envelope, appreciatively fingering its velvety thickness. It was formal and traditional, the sort one rarely sees anymore, with a single word embossed on the front: ‘Grateful.’ I opened and read it, ‘Thank you for the lovely thank you note!’
I read it again, just to be sure. It was a thank you note for a thank you note. Now what? Do you send a thank you note for the thank you note received for sending a thank you note? Was there a rule for this? Writing the original note was hard enough; I considered it a mannerly triumph. But what happens when someone thanks you for saying thanks? Should you return thanks again? When does the cycle end? I held the kind note in my hand, not knowing what was right or proper. Saying thank you can be so complicated.”
Our Stewardship series these three weeks is based on the concept of gratitude. Gratitude itself holds contradictions in tension. Gratitude emerges from our internal feelings, but is often demonstrated with external acts. Gratitude should simply be, but often carries with it expectations of etiquette and guilt to express it correctly. Gratitude is rooted in love, but our expressions of it often move quickly to obligation and duty.
In 2014, the Pew Research center released a survey that examined American religion and spirituality. A question from the survey was this: ‘How often do you feel a strong sense of gratitude or thankfulness? Would you say at least once a week, once or twice a month, several times a year, seldom, or never?’ What percentage of people do you think felt gratitude within the past week? Any guesses? The number is 78%, or nearly 4 out of 5 people. In response to the survey, Butler Bass asked a sociologist friend about this gratitude finding, and the sociologist chalked the high number up to ‘social desirability bias,’ or the notion of feeling pressured to answer or to want to answer a question in a certain way to make oneself feel better.
Social desirability bias makes sense if we put it in context with the anxiety and polarization of our culture. It seems contradictory for us to be exceedingly thankful and exceedingly hostile towards others of differing views. Or as Butler Bass notes, do we really ‘divide our lives into personal thanks and public rage?’ She begins to frame the notion of gratitude as both a ‘me’ and ‘we’ exercise. Perhaps we do a better job of personal gratitude, but have missed the mark on being a thankful society. This leads to other questions. Why is it hard to practice gratitude in meaningful and sustained ways? How can we know the difference between real and ‘scratch the surface’ gratitude? From where does our gratitude come and how can it best be expressed?
Gratitude is best expressed from the heart. Winnie the Pooh author A. A. Milne once wrote, ‘Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.’ Gratitude is unique among the emotions that we feel in that the experiences leading up to our gratitude moments are almost entirely unique. Butler Bass notes that ‘it is rarely the same from one incident to another, and few experiences of gratitude are exactly like other experiences.’
For example, our moments of feeling gratitude can be fed by fear, anxiety, grief, hope, relief, wonder, surprise, delight, appreciation, encouragement, joy, peace, and love. Ponder the moments of gratitude that you remember in the past day, week, or weeks. You could feel gratitude for a beautiful sunrise or an unexpected rainbow, both of which we had in Fort Wayne this week. You could feel gratitude for sharing cups of coffee or tea at a staff meeting. You could feel gratitude while taking a walk or riding a bike or watching the creative wonder of children or enjoying a Sunday afternoon nap. You could feel gratitude upon receiving an unexpected card or email from a friend or relative. You could feel gratitude finding a treasured keepsake that was thought to be lost or by making it to a rushed travel connection in time. You could feel gratitude upon receiving a health diagnosis, whether good or bad.
You could also feel gratitude for what I call ‘heart moments.’ I think we all have our own versions of these moments, even if we call them by different names or don’t name them at all. Heart moments are simple, powerful, unpredictable, ‘perfect’ moments where we experience the presence of God and our gratitude is centered in our awareness of acknowledgement of them.
For me, several of my heart moments in recent years happened during travel experiences, but not in places you might expect. Four years ago during my Sabbath rest, our family saw and experienced many amazing places. But my heart moment took place at a small village in Italy called Bagno Vignoni. This town is built upon a natural hot spring, at the top of a hill. The primary spring is too hot to bathe in, but there are natural canals created by the water where townspeople and travelers can stick their feet in and the water has cooled enough for it to be comfortable. One afternoon, Kimberly, Maya, and I spent an hour sitting and soaking our feet, laughing, talking, exploring the ‘best’ place to sit, and simply enjoying life and each other.
I have experienced similar heart moments with my family on a speed boat here in northern IN, as we watched the water and land meet, while the exhilaration and wind blew their our hair, some of us more than others. Or at the Seven Sisters white chalk cliffs this summer where we experienced God in the grandeur of the cliffs and their sheer drop to the ocean, as well as the tidal eddys and the small creatures that lived in them. Enjoying God’s creation with my family is clearly a catalyst for my heart moments.
Heart matters and gratitude for them is a regular and important part of the biblical narratives. From the very beginning, God’s relationship with God’s people is centered on gratitude. We witness gratitude in Genesis and Exodus, in the Psalms of praise, in certain texts of the prophets, in the teachings and actions of Jesus, and in the letters of Paul and others to the early church. It is important to note that while the church and American theology often makes biblical gratitude a transactional relationship – we give our thanks to God and gifts to others because God first blessed us – the biblical narrative contains a different take on how gratitude works.
For example, in James 1:17, we read ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the divine of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.’ Similarly, earlier in Matthew’s sermon on the mount from today’s text, we hear Jesus say, ‘the sun rises and the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.’ While there are exceptions, the vast majority of God’s love and blessing is expressed as wildly expansive and inclusive, not focused and limited. In Jesus’ parables, Butler Bass observes, ‘we witness a dinner host, representing God, who lavishes wedding guests with even more and finer wine, who throws seed around with abandon, who issues invitations to the unnamed poor to dine, who throws a party for a prodigal son, and who multiplies fish and bread so that thousands might not eat once, but twice.
God does not offer generous and extravagant love with an expectation of gratitude. This love and these gifts simply are. That gives us a valuable lesson on God’s love and our abilities to be grateful. God’s love is there. Any expression of gratitude we feel or experience or wish to share pleases God, not for God’s benefit, but for our own. God does not require our gratitude. God inspires our gratitude. Not with the intention for God to receive it, but with the hope that the gratitude heart moments we experience lead to deeper faith moments in our relationship with God.
Today’s scripture text ties our heart moments to our finances. This text is often misunderstood and misused. In it, Jesus is not telling his disciples about how the relationship between our heart moments and our money should be. He’s naming how the relationship for much of humanity already is. Where we spend, invest, and give our money is frequently tied to the passions of our hearts. And conversely, what we use our money for frequently deepens and inspires our hearts and spirits.
In our church, the gratitude we feel for our faith community is ideally not reflected by obligation, duty, or what we hope to get out of it, but instead a faithful hope and expression of what we are willing to put into it – into the relationships we build with one another, the heart moments we share, the support we offer, the faith we encourage. Our gratitude is not transactional – it simply exists, both in the faith and heart moments we experience and in the value we witness in this place, among these people, that we wish to see thrive.
I have not only encountered heart moments with my family in travel experiences. I have encountered heart moments here, whether marching with you in the pride parade or getting goose bumps during a choral anthem or prelude or song in worship or being moved by a faith sharing moment or sitting beside many of you in my office, in your homes, or at a hospital bed, and reflecting on the struggles, joys, and vulnerabilities of our lives. These moments are simply a few of the many that fill my heart and for which I am grateful. We are grateful.
We each have these heart moments. We may not call them by that name or by any name. But we each experience them. They fill us with joy, peace, relief, and many other emotions. But ultimately, they fill us with gratitude. Amen.