Thanksgiving – Sunday October 7th, 2018
“Don’t worry. Seek God’s kingdom first.”
This may be one of the hardest instructions Jesus ever gave, and the one we fail most: not worrying, and setting God’s kingdom, God’s way of living, as our first priority.
And yet it lies at the heart of thanksgiving – this weekend, this eucharist – because you can’t be grateful if you’re worrying, and your gratitude is in danger of being smug and self-serving unless it’s connected to wanting to share, to reach out to others and create a little more of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Gratitude has the power, when you practise it, to do more than just make you feel good and happy. It can change the way you see the world and live in it.
Let me give you some examples from a thoughtful book I’ve been reading lately called Grateful, by Diana Butler Bass.
Here are some words on gratitude from someone you might not guess:
“To this day, the words that come most frequently from my lips are, “Thank you.” When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing from his or her humanity. For me, every hour is grace.” [Quoted in Grateful, p44]
“For me, every hour is grace.” That was spoken by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. Despite all the tragedy and cruelty he witnessed in the Nazi death camps where he was imprisoned, he was able afterwards to live with gratitude for the goodness in humanity.
You don’t have to live a charmed, perfect life of sunshine and happiness to experience gratitude. In fact sometimes the ability to practise gratitude can be an antidote to resentment and despair when life is painful.
Here’s what the Buddha said once:
“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.”
That’s pretty pragmatic.
I once heard of a woman who was trying to practise gratefulness by writing in a daily gratitude journal, but couldn’t think of anything in her life that she was grateful for. Finally, pushed to find something, she wrote, “I’m grateful that at least I’m not on fire.”
Gratitude takes practice but it can shift your outlook on life. It can shift your focus from what’s lacking to what’s present; from an uncertain future to an actual present; from complaining about the bad things to noticing and cherishing the good things.
“Consider the lilies of the field,” said Jesus, “how beautiful they are.”
But being grateful for the good things in our lives can and should take us further. Especially, gratitude should move us from Me to We. This is what Butler Bass writes:
“Gratitude is joy, and gratitude is justice. True gratitude, real gratefulness, the kind of transformative thanksgiving that makes all things new, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice. If we embrace the sort of gratitude that changes our individual lives, it will revolutionize our political lives, as well. We move from a personal ethic of gratefulness toward a public one. The “me” of gratitude must extend to the “we” of gratitude as an ethic, a vision of community based on habits and practices of grace and gifts, of cultivating a wide field of vision and deepening our awareness of humility and blessing, of setting tables and sharing food for all.” [p139-140]
She points out that God gives blessings with indiscriminate abundance, and wants those blessings to be shared. The blessings we often list around a Thanksgiving table of family, food, a safe country, a warm home, peace, security, and all the rest – these aren’t meant just for us; we’re not special. They’re meant for all of God’s people. And in fact our gratitude rings hollow if we’re keeping it to ourselves, or allowing the systems that benefit us to deprive others. Gratitude should always move us outwards, beyond ourselves.
Which brings us back to Jesus’ words about seeking God’s kingdom, God’s way, first. Not living with worry and anxiety that corrode us. Not seeing scarcity all around and trying to hang onto “Me and my family/tribe/country first.” Not running after material things in the hope that they’ll bring us satisfaction.
No, we’re invited to admire the flowers, watch the birds, feed the hungry, visit the sick, get out of our small circle of worries, give up our privilege, and generally practise living as though this is God’s world here and now – which it is.
Thanks be to God! Amen.