Some of the most authentic and important stuff of relationships, like apologies or confessions or thanks, can come deeply truly from the heart, or they can be manipulation, or forced or coerced, from a sense of decorum or obligation.
In our house it often goes like this.
Me: “Here’s your toast honey.”
Long pause while they walk away with the plate in one hand, nibbling pieces off the edge with the other.
Me, with high voice: “Wow! Great looking piece of toast! Thank you, Mom!”
Them, monotone: "thank you mom."
And then it's a lesson in politeness that doesn’t really allow for real gratitude to emerge.
But gratitude is core to being human, which is to say, being spiritual as well, because it pulls us out of ourselves to see and recognize others, to pay attention to our lives with wonder and reverence. It connects us to the God who made us. When we give thanks we acknowledge our interdependence, and we seek to live fully in the lives we have been given.
It stills and quiets us to receive what we already have.
Gratitude is important in every religion, and at the basis of every virtue.
Our text today is the law of Moses to the people of Israel who’ve been slaves in Egypt for generations, now learning what life is to look like and function like in the Promised Land. And gratitude, giving Thanks to God, is central to this life, together. So essential that it needs tending. It doesn’t seem to just happen spontaneously all the time. It takes some practice, some learning. It sometimes needs structure. So this part of the law sets up opportunities and structures, reminding the people that this is part of the deal, giving thanks, that it is part of life to notice and acknowledge what God has done, and to recognize how our lives are part of the story that started way before us and continues on after us.
But it’s tricky. Because often our religion is like parent politeness training.
Apologize for hitting your brother.
Tell your sister you forgive her.
Say Thank you to Grandma for the present.
Give praise to God.
Tonight we are going to spend some time with gratitude. Some time in gratitude.
But I don’t want to talk to you tonight about gratitude. I don’t want to prompt you to say thank you or tell you why it’s important or give you pressure about how thankful we should all be. We already know it’s important, and we already know we should be thankful. Gratitude should not become another thing we feel guilty about not doing well enough. That defeats the purpose altogether.
The goal of our time in worship tonight is NOT to be polite to God, or have a dress rehearsal for the “What are you thankful for?” conversations around the table on Thursday.
The truth is, while we need reminders sometimes, and structure too, we don’t have to work that hard at it, actually. Because we’re hardwired for this.
Gratitude is a basic human need, a natural human and deeply spiritual response that arises, unprompted, when we pay attention.
So, tonight, we are simply going to pay attention.
Tonight instead of discussing gratitude, we are going to experience it.
I want you to let yourself feel, to notice what arises in you.
Let yourself be surprised. Let emotions come.
Notice what happens in your body as we proceed – a warming of the chest and an openness in the belly and heart.
Pay attention even to what happens when we pay attention.
For the next ten minutes I want you to simply be present here, be willing to notice. I am going to say a word or phrase and I invite you to write down the first things that come to mind. Don’t edit or force or direct – just let whatever bubbles up spill out in words on paper.
And dear reader, if you are coming across this online, instead of gathered with us this night in the sanctuary, please find some notebook paper and a pencil or pen. Turn off your phone and find a quiet spot. This isn't something to read about, it's something to do. Read each statement and spend one minute - no more - on each of one. This won't take all day, just ten minutes, but you will be so glad you did this.
We will start with a moment of silence.
- For my faith community, I am thankful for…
- For my spouse, partner, or the person closest to me, I am thankful for…
- For my children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews, (or if you are a kid, for my parents), I am thankful for…
- For God, I am thankful for…
- For my home, I am thankful for…
- For my body, I am thankful for…
- For the last year of my life, I am thankful for…
- For experiences of challenge, struggle or growth, I am thankful for…
- For this world, I am thankful for…
- Is there a category you wished would’ve been mentioned? Something that you felt gratitude for during this time? Take a moment now to jot down anything else you would like to express thanks for…
Now I want to take a minute and give you a chance to read back over your list. Let yourself pay attention to the beauty, the wonder, the gratitude. Let yourself feel what you’ve written down.
Prayer- Gracious and loving God, we hold these gifts of life together with your Spirit. We acknowledge your presence in everything. We thank you God, that there is so much to be thankful for. Amen.
I want to invite you to take a pile of stars, and looking over what you’ve written, choose a few things you’d like to publicly acknowledge in gratitude, and write a word or phrase on a star to represent each of those. For our prayer time, we are going to come to the table with our thanks, and these will become part of our Advent Wondering.
As the instructions in Deuteronomy say, (paraphrased),
God has brought us through great struggles, and has blessed us with great joys, all of this is part of God’s wonder. So now, in response, we bring our gratitude and thanks to you, O God.
And you shall set it down, and bow before the Lord your God.
And so, that is what we will do.
(Shared with gratitude for my colleague, Rev. Phil GebbenGreen, from whom this exercise was adopted and adapted. Thanks, Phil!)