Grateful together

Matthew 14:13-21

From her book, Grateful, Diana Butler Bass shares the moving experience of attending her daughter’s graduation from a high school in suburban Washington D.C. Unlike the somber and staid graduation ceremonies of her personal life and teaching career, this graduation was festive. It was loud, with huge roars emerging from the crowd. She attributed the celebrative mood of the families to the diverse student body, filled with families who spoke a variety of languages and came from a variety of other cultures and countries. She wondered whether this was more than a graduation for these families, and also a culmination of the sacrifices they took to reach this achievement, not just for the student, but for all of them.

She observes that many of the families ‘seemed wildly grateful for this single moment as an all-out celebration for a goal achieved, the fruit of a family sacrifice, the reward of a new life in a place of safety and success, the fulfillment of a dream. As I watched all these new Americans rejoice, my soul moved from discomfort to appreciation. I felt thankful for the school district and teachers who made this miracle happen, for this good use of our taxes, and for the neighborhood that is home for all of us. As more and more graduates came forward, the crowd got louder and louder. Eventually, a kind of uninhibited thankfulness swept everyone – including our small family – into its chorus. We were grateful together. I thought back to my graduation. We had waited for someone, a clergyperson, to lead us in gratitude. Here, there had been no religious professional to offer up thanksgiving. Instead, we had done it ourselves. It was not particularly reverent, but it was fun.’

The interesting thing about gratitude is that it seems to always comes with a preposition. We are grateful for something, to someone, or with others. It begins with the individual and moves to the community. I thought of that notion yesterday when we held the memorial service for Verlena Driver. We held our great affection for Verlena, sharing it in our stories, in our joyful moments, in the smiles that reflected hers in the pictures on the screen. As I watched that picture collage, the unfamiliar pictures were the older ones of Verlena, in formal or professional settings. At first, I couldn’t figure out what was strange, and then I realized, those were the pictures where Verlena wasn’t smiling. Her smile, full of radiance and joy, lit up a room. I am grateful for her smile.

Gratitude is like that. It allows us to feel together. We reach towards one another. We share stories that make us feel good. We are inspired to be generous and loving. There is a Sanskrit word that helps describe this positive sense of gratitude as a communal emotion – kama muta, which roughly translated means ‘moved by love.’ When we are touched deeply by others, when we feel deeply with others, we experience the oneness of love, belonging, and community, with one another and with God. One gift that Verlena gave us was the reminder to be moved by love. And we are grateful.

Author and professor Walter Bruggeman writes about the three great festivals of the Hebrew Bible – Passover, Pentecost, and Booths. They formed a liturgical triad of celebrating God’s gifts of freedom and abundance. In ancient Israel, Jews traveled to Jerusalem for each festival, leaving behind the work and responsibility of home and village. This physical separation created an alternate space for celebration, he notes. It creates a place at which they could arrive, so that God might fill their hands with gifts.

‘The festivals are designed as outpourings of gratitude by Israel,’ Bruggeman writes, ‘who live completely by the power and generosity of YHWH.’ These gatherings were intended to produce the emotions of humility, joy, and gratefulness to remind the Israelites that their community was grounded in generosity and gratitude, completely dependent upon the gifts of a good God. He also observes a profound difference between the festivals of ancient Israel and other ancient cultures. In other nations, the people gathered to give their gods gifts as a bribe of sorts, so their gods might respond with gratitude to the people’s praise and send them whatever they needed.

In Israel, gratitude worked differently. God sent gifts to the people, and the people responded with gratitude and with promises to live more deeply in love with God. Bruggeman notes, ‘Festival is the capacity for the Israelites to enter a way of life in which all other claims, pressures, and realities can be suspended. In short, these great communal celebrations of gratitude modeled an alternative community, one based in abundance and joy – a microcosm of how life should be.’

This last phrase provides a different framework for understanding our Gospel text for today. In this familiar text, Jesus is not in Jerusalem, nor any other city, but is presumably on a plain near the Sea of Galilee. Thousands have come to hear him speak. It is an unusual for such a gathering to happen outside of a temple or synagogue. It’s not the typical setting for either a festival or a worship service. Yet this time became a bit of both.

Often, we think of this gathering in a practical context – if the people came outside of the city to hear Jesus in a place where there was no food, surely he would have to provide some. Hence the miracle. While that is true, perhaps there is more to the story. More likely than not, we would see this text from the standpoint of a lesson, rather than a festival. But what if we did the opposite? Viewed through the lens of a festival, this text becomes a celebration of Jesus and of his teachings, and, in similar fashion as the festival triad, it becomes a celebration where Jesus offered gifts of food to the gathered body when it looked like there was would not be enough to feed them all. God provided, and the people responded with awe, wonder, and gratitude.

A year ago this month, our family dealt with a health scare, related to an impending surgery and possible cancer diagnosis for my wife Kimberly. As you know, the surgery was successful and the cyst was not cancerous. For both of these outcomes, we are grateful. And yet I am continually grateful for the response of this congregation, especially during the worship service when I tried to share the uncertain news of the ‘at the time upcoming’ surgery, and broke down in tears. In that moment, many of you immediately came forward to the front of the sanctuary to surround Kimberly and me with your physical presence, support and love. Even a year later, I cannot express my gratitude for that moment with words. It was a gift. It was a holy moment, a sacred moment, for which I will always be grateful, for which we will always be grateful. Thank you.

Over these three weeks, we have not talked about stewardship that much. Instead, we have talked about gratitude. Gratitude of the heart and spirit. Gratitude of the mind and body. Gratitude expressed in community together. Part of that choice was intentional – as we have talked about stewardship a lot over the years. But part of that choice recognizes the strong connection between the stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure with the depths of our gratitude and the emotions that fuel it. Gratitude is not a commodity we can market, sell or quantify. It is not something that we can use to attract newcomers to the church on a bumper sticker or the Facebook page. It is something more, something deeply connected to the core of our beings, the core of our faith, the core of our relationship with one another and with God. And we are grateful. Amen.

*Litany of Dedication

Leader: Grateful beyond words for all that the Beacon Heights community means to us,

All: we offer our 2020 pledges. We affirm our intention to uphold this community of faith with our prayers, with our presence, with our acts of witness, and with our financial commitment.

Leader: Grateful for the ways this community of faith lives our its commitment to justice, peace, and welcome for all, 

All: we pledge our willingness to participate in ministries of compassion, reconciliation, and hope. 

Leader: Grateful for our God whose grace and goodness ever surprises and astounds us,

All: we give thanks with grateful hearts.