Wandering in the Wilderness with Jesus as Gratitude...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Lent Three, Sunday, March 27th 2011.  I am just back from visiting my father and sister in the nursing home in Maryland.  There is much to say about their well-being but that is for another time.  For now, I have to get ready for worship and also a jazz gig tonight at 6:30 pm.  So, if you are in town, stop by for jazz at Baba Louie's in Pittsfield at 6:30 pm or worship this Sunday at 10:30 am.  Thank you, too, for your loving thoughts and prayers.  I am grateful for the writing of Ernest Kurtz in A Spirituality of Imperfection for some of the insights in this message.

I am a grateful man:

• I am grateful for the love of God

• I am grateful for a precious wife and healthy, loving children

• I am grateful for a creative and compassionate congregation with whom to serve the Lord our God

• I am grateful for the gift of music and the chance to play it with talented and open-hearted friends

• I am grateful for growing up in this era as an American with all the challenges and fears that includes

• I am grateful for relatively good health – and a warm house in the winter – and poetry to read at night and so very much more

A song by the Irish musician, Luka Bloom, puts it like this in “Holy Ground.”
I think by nature I am inclined towards gratitude – as Fr. Richard Rohr has noted most of us are a combination of one third conditioning, one third genetics and one third choice – and left to my own devices I tend to choose being grateful.

• But that hasn’t always been true – there was a time when I tended towards sarcasm in humor and cynicism in personal and political affairs – and left to those choices I know I would be a very, very different man today.

• And that is what I want to talk about with you today for the third Sunday of Lent: how I have experienced being set free from my fears and wounds by the grace of God – and why that matters.

• Why that has led me to embrace and seek out the gift of gratitude as a default setting in my heart – and why you might want to explore it, too.

In his book, A Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz has written that… “Gratitude is our response to a gift – the gift of release from bondage or oppression – that is reality and blessing that is never earned or merited.” Gratitude, therefore, is our response to God’s gift – a vision of life and way of seeing everything around us – as connected to God’s gift.

• Does that make sense? Do you know what I’m trying to say?

• I’ll share with you a few amplifications in a moment but let’s start with the foundation of gratitude being a way of seeing reality born of God’s gifts to us. What do you think of that?

Let me tell you why I believe that gratitude is born of experiencing relief and release from inward and outward oppression – a vision of life that springs from God’s gift of grace – as both lessons from scripture today suggest.

• In the story of Moses in the desert, what else can you say about being given water from a rock? It is a bold and beautiful gift to a hurting and thirsting people – a gift that evoked prayer and gratitude from Moses – because it was generous and healing and holy.
• Same thing is going on in the gospel of St. John when Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman: he is starting to offer her a gift – you know that Samaritans were despised as infidels by the Jews and a rabbi would NEVER strike up a conversation with an infidel woman in public – so that’s how this all starts. But then he goes on to forgive this forsaken outsider a lifetime of brokenness and confusion – and her response is so beautiful – she tells others how Jesus has set her free.

And how does the scripture end? Others were moved to faith and freedom by her story – she became an evangelist by gratitude – because gratitude is all about experiencing God’s grace and responding with joy.

Now some of you may recall that I have a special relationship to this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman, right? Over the years I’ve told you my experience with it in the context of confession and Lent and my dear spiritual director, Fr. Jim O’Donnell, in Cleveland.

• Well, I’m going to tell this story again both because it is a good story that warrants repeating AND because it highlights a few key insights about gratitude in the Christians tradition.

• Tell story of it being Lent – and Fr. Jim asking me to make a confession – my resistance and protest that even though Fr. Jim embraced me as a beloved son of God while not Catholic – and his insistence that confession would cure the ills that hurt me - and my avoidance and eventual surrender - and ecstatic release upon the proclamation of absolution – and then his penance of living like the woman at the well after being forgiven by Jesus.  (sorry I am not writing the story out here...)

Now there are four insights I’ve gathered from this experience:

First, much in our lives works against an attitude of gratitude. I believe that God seeks to share release and renewal with us all, but God’s way is often hidden, obscure or the minority report in a culture built on rights and obligations. There is a story about a husband/wife and gift…

It seems that after attending a conference in a far away city, a man walked down the streets until he came upon a shop with an attractive cashmere sweater in the window. Thinking of his loving wife - who loved cashmere - he went into the store, purchased the sweater as a gift and asked for it to be gift wrapped. When he arrived home, he gave the gift to his wife who first looked at him in surprise - and then something of suspicion. Opening the gift, she exclaimed it was beautiful and then turned to ask:  "And what is THIS for?"  (Kurtz, p. 176)

As a culture we more often than not emphasize entitlement – demands – my rights rather than a sense of gift: and this deadens us to naming and claiming the gifts that are always around us in abundance.  What's more, we also have nourished a deep sense of suspicion which makes being open to God's gifts complicated.

Second, gratitude is more than a feeling – it is an experience that is real – but bigger than feelings that are often transient and ephemeral. (Kurtz, p. 177)

• Feelings come and go, right? They are fleeting while gratitude is a vision and a mind-set. One scholar put it like this:

Gratitude is grounded in remembrance – the remembrance of what life was like before the gift – so it is no accident that the words “think” and “thank” are from kindred roots… So to think – and thank – and remember are part of gratitude for they ground us in the truth of life without God’s gifts.

What do you think of these two insights: that much in our world deadens us to God’s gift – and – true gratitude cuts deeper than feelings and includes remembrance?

One of the early theologians of New England, Jonathan Edwards, who once led the church in Northampton and later in Stockbridge put it like this: “Those who have experienced God’s love and grace – the saints – have a new and inward perception or sensation of their minds, an entirely different sense of who they are since their sanctification.” (p. 177)

• That is, those who are grateful see life – and themselves – differently.

• In fact, they see what is available for everyone to see because they are actively searching for the heart of grace in everything.

This leads me to the third insight I want to share with you about gratitude: you cannot be grateful if you are stubborn about your pain or your sense of how God works in the world. If you aren’t willing to receive – if you insist on controlling everything – if you choose to avoid being surprised by God’s amazing grace…

• Well, let’s just say that God will let you have what you ask for: if you ask for nothing, like a wise and loving parent God will let you experience nothing.

• You want to do it your way? Ok… try it and see how you like it!

And fourth gratitude demands that we own and embrace the joy and the sorrow of real life: gratitude is NOT about always being happy – or seeing only the blessings – that is not only too hard and exhausting, it is also unreal.

• There is pain and there is sorrow – there is darkness and there is light – there is a time for war and for peace as the Bible tells us – and to see and cherish it all is part of being grateful. Anything less is false and sentimental…

• Noble Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, put it like this upon receiving the award for his writing on his experience of the Jewish Holocaust.

No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Those of us who have been touched by God’s grace – released from the darkness and opened to the fullness of joy and sorrow in everyday life – have been called to Christ to tell our stories.

• Your words matter: they are one of the ways the miracle of God’s grace is multiplied – so keep telling them, ok? Tell them with words – or song – or art or deeds.

• Tell them so that you combat cynicism and all that deadens us to the gift. Tell them so that you remember and live beyond just feelings. Tell them to climb out of your stubbornness. And tell them to give voice to the wounded and alone.

All by themselves, your words and stories will not end suffering – but they will become part of a sacred chorus of hope - and in this you will be a part of God’s healing of the world – and that IS the good news for today.


See the power of positive thinking within you. God bless you.

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