stewardship 2019

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.

Heart Matters

Matthew 6:21

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.