A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 13, 2013 (Proper 23, Year C)
Forced gratitude. When my boys were younger, that’s what I used to call that moment at the end of every play date when I’d pick them up following an afternoon of dump trucks and swings sets and chicken fingers with perhaps a hint of Sponge Bob thrown in to give the other parent a break. As they were putting on their shoes by the back door I’d let that inevitable question hang in the air: “What do you say?” “Thank you,” they’d mutter. And the moment of forced gratitude would be complete.
It wasn’t that they weren’t grateful — they’d had a good time with their friend. They just didn’t know how to express it or even that they needed to. In one sense this is part of a larger ongoing conversation with children to teach them basic manners. Hang around parents of young children for any length of time and you hear a litany of “Say please; say thank you; say you’re sorry” and even at the communion rail “say amen.”
But true gratitude transcends manners. It’s easy to say thank you; it’s a different thing altogether to really mean it and then take that next step to show thankfulness through our actions. As with children, the attitude of gratitude is a habit. As adults the challenge isn’t remembering to say thank you — manners are pretty well ingrained in us by now. The spiritual danger is taking life itself for granted — our health, our loved ones, the things that delight us, the communities that help form us, the natural world that surrounds us. Life comes at us with such a frenzied pace and volume, it’s easy to forget to be thankful for all of this.
This morning we encounter nine poster children for ingratitude. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus yet only one returns to say thank you. The other nine vanish into the woodwork of daily life, never to be seen or heard from again. Now, I’m sure they were equally thrilled to be healed. Who wouldn’t leap for joy after losing the hideous and painful sores that overtook the leprous body? They simply never got around to saying thank you. Maybe they had intended to. Maybe they made a half-hearted attempt but couldn’t find Jesus. Maybe they were just too busy. Maybe their mothers didn’t insist they say thank you. But for whatever reason, they never did thank Jesus; they never expressed their gratitude for the miraculous healing that transformed their lives.
Of course Jesus didn’t come into this world to be thanked. This story isn’t a commentary on a minor social slight: “Say thank you…or else.” It’s much deeper than surface politeness or social norms. It gets to the heart of our own hearts and invites us to think about the ways we show gratitude to God for all the blessings of this life.
But before we indignantly condemn those nine lepers, it’s important to recognize ourselves in their behavior. We, like the nine, have a tendency to take God’s grace for granted. It’s easy to do. We, too, are busy and self-absorbed. And as much as God desires our thankfulness, God doesn’t nag us or hold his love hostage until we reach a certain threshold of gratitude. Thankfulness isn’t a requirement or a prerequisite to God’s grace. But a lack of gratitude can be a stumbling block in our own relationship with God. A lack of gratitude on our part prevents us from keeping our relationship with God in its proper perspective. And that proper perspective is that we are utterly dependent upon God for all that we are and all that we have.
My mother recently sent me a copy of the new Anne Lamott book “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” She does this sometimes — sends along books she’s read that she thinks I’ll like (I really do need to thank her, by the way). The parish book group just read this one actually. As I thought about this topic of gratitude, which can be summed up in the word “thanks,” I picked up the book and glanced through it. Basically, I skipped the “help” and the “wow” and made a beeline for the “thanks.” One quote that resonated was that “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior (56).” That is so true. Authentic gratitude can’t help but be turned into action.
So what is this behavior that gratitude can dovetail into? One very tangible way we express our gratitude is simply by coming to church week after week after week. Expressing our gratitude to God isn’t the only reason we worship — we also come to be inspired and transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ. We come to pray for ourselves and others, and to be part of a community of faith. In other words “help” and “wow” are a big part of this. But expressing gratitude is an important piece of our life together at this parish and one of the main reasons we gather.
Another way of offering gratitude is by pledging to St. John’s. Yes, bills have to be paid to keep this place open and staffed. But offering our financial resources back to God is first and foremost an act of spiritual gratitude. It’s a way of driving a stake into the ground and proclaiming that this community not only matters and makes a difference in my own life, but that life itself is a gift from God. Our own need to give trumps the church’s need for money every single time.
Prayer is another ancient and well-practiced form of gratitude. “Thanks” truly is one of the three essential prayers. Thanksgiving must be a vital piece of our individual and communal life of prayer. Praising the God from whom all blessings flow is an act of gratitude. Heck, the Communion rite is known in its entirety as the Great Thanksgiving — the word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” In other words, gratitude is central to what we do as a community of faith.
I also love this quote from Anne Lamott: “Gratitude, not understanding, is the secret to joy.” So it’s this discipline of the heart rather than an exercise of the mind that leads to joy and fulfillment and peace. And isn’t that what we’re all really seeking? Joy, fulfillment, and peace. Sometimes they can be so elusive. But the good news is that the key resides deep within your own heart; and it all begins with being grateful for the rich blessings bestowed upon you by God.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013