11.20.16 The Garden Church
Rev. Anna Woofenden
Scripture: Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 1:68-79
by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Fifth-century monk Nilus of Ancyra wrote, “We should remain within the limits imposed by our basic needs and strive with all our power not to exceed them. For once we are carried a little beyond these limits in our desire for the pleasures of life, there is no criterion by which to check our onward movement, since no bounds can be set to which exceeds the necessary.”
I think what he was really talking about here was Facebook ads. My nemesis. Here I am, just innocently trying to distract myself from the sermon I am trying to write with “just a quick scroll through the Facebook feed” when what do I see but this beautiful burgundy sweater, long and flowing, with these beautiful little knit patterns in it. “Ooo, I like that!” I think, and then I have to click on it, and start looking through the website… “That looks beautiful!” “And that.” “I need more winter sweaters.” “I don’t have something like that.”
I almost start to put something in the cart, when I remember. I’m supposed to be writing a sermon on revolutionary gratitude. I’m supposed to be articulating the ideas that have been present with me all week about how I believe gratitude can actually be the antidote to excessive consumerism, greed, and discontent. How I believe that taking on gratitude as a spiritual practice can actually change how we engage the world and change the world.
So I stopped. And went back to my Word document. And wrote this paragraph. And then I went to my bedroom and started folding laundry. And specifically noting all the sweaters I have. Not quite exactly that maroon flowery one, but plenty. And even one that IS maroon, and is pretty flowery. And they are warm and they are nice. And so I said, “Thank you for them.” And then I started to think about my friends and neighbors who don’t have sweaters. Or closets to put them in. And then I started making a pile, a stack of sweaters that I could pass on to others.
This time of Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to explore gratitude, and explore the words we use and the attitudes we have as we look at our own expressions of gratitude, and commit or recommit to a practice of gratitude.
Because we see, when we actively practice gratitude, things change in us, and around us. Our very orientation to the world—how we see people and situations—changes. I’m even told that our brain chemistry changes. As we actively practice a life of gratitude, we start to notice things differently; we connect with people and the world with more attentive and useful eyes.
Practicing gratitude actually replaces the “I want, I want, I want,” with, “I am grateful, I have enough.”
And then what if we made it a personal habit to replace anger and resentment with gratitude? Or replace disappointment and grumpiness with gratitude?
This week I had an interaction with a loved one and a conflict came up. Later that evening I was texting with a friend and sorting through my reactions and realizing why my buttons had been pushed. As my heart softened I found myself texting, “I am so grateful to have a person I love with whom I can work through these kinds of conflicts with.” The next day when the loved one and I had a further conversation, the whole tone had shifted. As we listened deeply, I found myself no longer wrapped up in getting my own specific needs fulfilled, but instead trying to understand my loved one and see how I could care for them, as a response to my gratitude for being in relationship together and be able to care for one another.
The practice of gratitude takes us out beyond ourselves, to look around at others and show us how to care for one another.
Every week at the Garden Church, right before we share together in our Community Meal, we sing our blessing song:
There is enough, there is enough, there is enough, enough and some to share.
My friend Kerri Meyer wrote this song and I asked her why she wrote it and she told me this: “I wrote ‘There is Enough’ out of my heart’s response to reading the works of Wendell Berry and out of my own craving for a theology of abundance. These are the words of Creation, of Elijah visiting the woman, of the loaves and fishes, of the community of Acts, and I think of the Kingdom of God.
I want to be generous, so I have to believe these words. I want to be able to receive generosity, so I have to believe these words. ‘There is enough and some to share’ is the opposite of what the idol of capitalism demands we believe. It’s the motto of another possible world.”
There is enough, gratitude for what is—it’s the motto of another possible world. It’s that kingdom of heaven. It’s that promise of the light to those who sit in darkness—the guidance of our feet in the way of peace.
In this possibility of another world, we don’t think of ourselves first and put all of our energy and resources into amassing wealth and fulfilling our own desires. Yes, we take care of our bodies and our minds, an essential foundation, and as we do, we practice gratitude.
Emanuel Swedenborg reminds us that yes,
“We need to provide food and clothing for our bodies. This is a first and primary goal. But we do this so that we may have sound minds in sound bodies. We need to provide food for the mind as well, such things as relate to intelligence and wisdom, so that our minds may be in a state to serve God. If we do these things, we provide for our own good to eternity. We must provide for ourselves, yet not for ourselves.”
Practicing gratitude does not take away the reality that every one of us needs basic care for our bodies and our minds. Practicing gratitude in fact, reminds all of us that we are responsible to and for each other to have those foundational needs met.
And as we practice gratitude, we find ourselves looking outward from our own fear and scarcity. We can begin to look out to the world around us and see the needs of others—see how we are all connected and intertwined with each other.
And we can see that God is always breaking through the cracks and raising us up, like that righteous branch, raising us up together, intertwined with each other.
The kingdom of heaven, that possibility of another world, is among us, and with us, and we have to work for where it is not. Because every human being created belongs to God and we belong to each other. And as God provides for us collectively, there always is enough—enough and some to share.
Jesus’ act in the paschal mystery was thanksgiving: Eucharist. Which literally means “thanksgiving.” When Jesus gathered his friends and followers around that table in the upper room, he took bread blessed it and broke it and gave thanks. And he took the cup and poured it and blessed and offered thanksgiving and passed it. And then said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Revolutionary gratitude isn’t the gratitude one practices or offers alone, but what one does with others. We can both remind each other of the power of gratitude and be lifted up, be fed when we share the Eucharist, the thanksgiving, together.
And so now, I want to invite us into a time of thanksgiving, of doing the spiritual practice of gratitude right here, right now together. Because what better way to start a habit than right here, right now?
Turn to your neighbor and take turns, back and forth, naming what you are grateful for. And we’re going to do this for a few minutes. Long enough that at some point you’re going to have to pause and really think about it for a moment. You might have to start looking past the obvious things and start finding gratitude in “the conflict I had with my loved one” or the struggle I’m having to keep showing up.
As you share, notice how your own experience of your life and things around you shift. And at the end, you’ll have an opportunity to share a bit with other neighbors around you about what the practice of gratitude felt like.
So this is a practice.
And when we are in this spiritual practice, and we all fall and get up again multiple times a day, we might notice that good is being brought out of the difficult things. We might notice that we stopped long enough to engage another person, and something beautiful came out of the connection. We might have a difficult situation come up in our lives, and rather than being sure that it’s all helpless, we might open up to there being redemption in it, through the neighbor who shows up to help change the tire, to the emotional muscles that are stretched and exercised when we’re dealing with an illness or the illness of a loved one.
Having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean that suddenly our lives are all peachy and we never have hard days. And having a practice of gratitude doesn’t mean we don’t pay attention to the pain and brokenness in the world.
No, I think having a practice of gratitude is having a practice of paying attention…paying attention to where love is breaking through, paying attention to where we are called to see differently, to be instruments of compassion, to be curious and to be the vessels by which God infuses more love into the world.
Edwin Arlington Robinson said, “There are two kinds of gratitude: The sudden kind we feel for what we take; the larger kind we feel for what we give.”
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we will see our own lives differently, we’ll see the gifts and how we’re being taken care of, in little ways and big. We’ll pause and notice the colors in the sky, the rich flavors of the food in our mouths and the light in each other’s eyes.
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the people around us differently, we see how we might have not noticed privilege and inequality that we’d been taking for granted, we’ll see the people in front of us, not as other or different, but as fellow-human-beings, all on the path together, hungry for some more love and compassion in the world.
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see the world differently. We see the world not as a place to fear or shirk from, but as a precious human family, with it’s deeply broken and cracked places, and always with flowers urging and pushing to grow out of the cracks.
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we may just find that we are noticing more, noticing the goodness, and noticing where we can be bearers of that goodness, compassion, and light.
When we take on gratitude as a spiritual practice, we see that by the tender mercy, dawn will break. And we will say thank you. Amen.