“Gratitude: More Than Just Me” (3 of 4)
John 6: 1-11 ~ Northwood United Church – Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook – October 6, 2019
If we were to pack up and go for lunch in the Downtown Eastside church of First United, what do you think it might be like? Hungry souls parking their shopping carts with all their worldly belongings at the church and coming in for the comfort of a warm meal. Many of them itching their clothing from the irritation of bedbugs, others plagued by mental illness, and still others dealing with the pains of addiction. All of them gathering together for lunch in need of community, of hope, of peace. What do you think lunchtime would look like? Would it be… a gathering of sadness…? A gathering gratitude…? How would you imagine lunch with the homeless? I vividly recall my first experience at First United as I was just settling into my new ministry there. The person orientating me to my new church said: ‘it will be lunchtime soon, we had better head over to the dining hall’. And as we entered the hall, I heard music playing: YMCA by the village people…classic music the 70’s and many of the diners had joined in dancing and singing…Y…M…C…A… They were making the letters with their bodies, as you do to that song, and they were smiling, and they were laughing. As the meal was about to be served, there was joy, there was grace, there was gratitude.
Mary Jo Leddy in her book “Radical Gratitude” uses the analogy of the pie chart to speak about how many in the world view power. She observes how many in our world think in terms of having more and the cost of others having less. One person’s gain is another’s loss and the scene is always set for conflict over who gets more and who get less of that limited pie In this dichotomy. As Leddy says “dissatisfaction always reigns supreme” with this way of thinking. We are taught to strive for more, and only the acquisition of the whole pie will suffice. Nothing else will satisfy. Yet what I witnessed that day in the lunch gathering, what I experienced in my brief time at First United, prior to coming here at Northwood, was a rare example of communal gratitude. It was a time of gratitude, of joy, of grace for the community gathering together. For scholars to observe that we live in a time when we are always striving for more and living in a ‘supersized’, ‘bigger is better’ culture is certainly overstating the obvious. Newer, bigger, faster, shinier is what we are taught to strive towards. And gratitude seems to be contingent upon us receiving what we want on a timeline that is pleasing. Then, and only then, gratitude seems to the appropriate response. One scholar challenges the daily gratitude practices we are encouraged to adopt as being merely a list of middle/upper class privileges enjoyed. A check-in to see how we are doing in acquiring more of that limited pie we all seek to acquire.
As we turn to the text, much like in our own world, there is an interesting scarcity mentality that we see represented in Jesus’ disciples. A large crowd is gathering before them and Jesus wonders about the best place to buy bread for the masses who want to gather. Philip’s response reflects the fear of scarcity: ‘even if we could find a bakery to supply what we need, it would take us six month’s wages in order to afford it all. In their midst, there was a boy a few loaves and fish. Once again, the pie seems inadequate and they grumble: ‘but what are these meager supplies among this massive crowd of men, women and children’? Again…the pie is not big enough to go around and ingratitude reigns supreme.
One of the interesting things to note about this miracle story of Jesus is the liturgical setting. The text tells us that it occurs just prior to Passover, one of the major festivals of the Jewish people. Passover was that time when the people remembered how God provided. They remembered how God provided liberation from Egyptian slavery, how God provided guidance through the wilderness, how God provided in times of struggle and hunger, how God provided the Promised Land. Prolific Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains how the key Jewish festivals of the Hebrew Bible – like Passover were times when people of faith offered gratitude for God’s freedom and abundance. It was an odd thing to be grateful for because they didn’t get what they ‘really’ wanted. Did they want to have a midnight escape, to later be pursued by warring Egyptians, to be wandering in the wilderness for 40 years scrounging for food and water? Yet, their spirit was one of gratitude for God’s whose way is liberation, provision, and grace. The festivals were designed to outpourings of gratitude as they live completely by the power and generosity of God. This story occurs in time when the festive community prepares to gather in one of their great communal celebrations of gratitude, as they model what it means to be an alternative community…a community based in abundance, joy and gratitude. This Passover gathering was meant to be a microcosm of how life should be lived in gratitude.
One of the strange things with gratitude is that is increasingly comes with a preposition in its usage today. We are grateful for something; we are grateful to someone; we are grateful with others. What this text is encouraging us to consider is the kind of gratitude that simply is. Gratitude should be more than just about each of us…gratitude should be more than just about me. When it comes to deep, faithful gratitude, it should always lead from an individual focus on “me” and towards a communal one of “we”. Robert Emmons, in his recent book “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier” notes how gratitude has the potential to take us outside of ourselves and see ourselves as part of a larger and intricate network of sustaining relationships…relationships that are mutually reciprocal. Gratitude, seen in this light, allows us to view ourselves as part of the intricate web of all creation ~ connected to others, connected to God ~ all part of the great unity of creation. It allows us to view ourselves as brothers and sisters…as ‘kin’….as we pray “thy kin-dom come” in Jesus’ great prayer for peace. Gratitude moves us beyond any islands of isolation and into a way of rich connection and deep community. In short, gratitude moves beyond ourselves and we begin to realize that the pie we are seeking is not mine alone, it is meant for sharing in the abundance that God offers to us, one and all.
To live this way of gratitude, will be a tremendous challenge based on our current culture. Linguists tell us that the use of the words “thanksgiving” and “gratitude” came to their peak in 1820 and have been on a rapid decline ever since. An all-time historical low was reached as Y2K moved us into the 21st Century. One scholar places this trend alongside the decline in social isolation that has now tripled since the last century. Did you know that we live in an era where 60% Europeans and North Americans live alone? A number which has tripled over the last century. One must wonder if social isolation is a factor that has caused an erosion of communal values and an a sense of public gratitude. I think this text offers a remedy to this modern day challenge in helping us be, not just grateful for things, but rather people of living gratitude. To be people of faith, knowing that when we unite together, God will provide enough. We don’t need to worry about how it will happen…we just need to have faith and know that God will make it happen when we are together. The disciples grumbled: ‘that would be at least six month’s wages to feed the crowds’. They grumbled: ‘those few loaves and fish, how can they possible feed the crowds?’ Jesus’ call in this text is to live a way of gratitude, to live in the spirit of Passover that gratefully celebrates God’s ways of liberation and provision. To live in ways of grace. To live in ways of faith.
And I think that this is why communal gatherings like church are so important. Because they serve to reconnect us to one another, reminding us that there is something more powerful than ‘just me’. Gatherings like this morning move us from a sense of ‘me to we’ and call us to a gratitude as we become deeply aware of God’s grace that is at the very heart of it all. We need to be in community, we need to share in one another’s lives, we need to hug our brothers and sisters, we need to be the body of Christ. I think that this is why ‘World Wide Communion’ is so very important. Because as we come together at the table, we are offered a remedy against the world’s teachings of individual strivings. When we gather at the one table, we are reminded how very large this table is! We gather and unite at a place where all are fed, where all are welcomed, where all are blessed. We come with a deep feeling of gratitude. We don’t use the term very often in the Protestant church, but one term for communion is ‘eucharist’ which means ‘Great Thanksgiving’. For, if anything, the church is called to be a place of ‘Great Thanksgiving’, a eucharistic community where gratitude is at the heart of our very identity and all of our responses ~ everything we do ~ arises from this powerful identity of God’s grateful people.
May we gather at Christ’s table dancing in gratitude for the God who lives, who loves and who liberates us all.