“Gratitude: Thanksgiving in All Dimensions of Life” (4 of 4)
Matthew 5: 1-11 ~ Northwood United Church – Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook – October 13, 2019
Thanksgiving…what images do you find evoked in your mind? Roast turkey, pumpkin pie and all the fixings? Family dressed in their finest attire gathered around the table saying grace? Or perhaps a broader image might come to mind…North American settlers and First Nations people in historical attire gathered in harmony? These images, while certainly based in fantasy, I would still suggest are good ones to hold today. While our world has far to go in terms of food justice, it is good to gather at the table and be in thanksgiving considering how the bounty before us is to be shared. While our family may be missing special people around the table, may include outlaws and in-laws, it is good to gather and work at being family. While our country has far to go in our relationship with First Nation community, and indeed in seeking to be a true intercultural mosaic that celebrates our differences, it is good to hold this hopeful image of unity. In short, what we do today, as idealized as it may be, helps us to move towards the hopeful Kin-dom that God seeks to have unfold through all of us: a future with all gathered around the one table in the spirit of thanksgiving. And, to be sure, this will Kin-dom will not unfold without these essential components of gratitude and thanksgiving.
In this morning’s text, we hear a very familiar teaching of Jesus. It is often called Jesus’ longest sermon, certainly, the longest one ever recorded, the beatitudes. Blessed are…the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger, those who show mercy, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. One scholar, pondering why this teaching was so revolutionary, notes that Jesus is placing blessing on the last, on the least, on who we might traditionally call history’s losers in the game of power and dominance. This sermon could equally be recorded to be saying the blessed are: the women, those of colour, the uninsured, the immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and so on. In this sermon, Jesus is lifting up society’s neglected outcast and saying ‘they are the blessed ones of God’!
This, of course, was a complete reversal of the understanding of blessing predominant in the Roman-ruled culture of Jesus’ time. The Emperor was at the top of the pyramid, and he was supremely blessed over all others. All blessings were understood to flow through him; he was the one worthy to bless others. The richer and more powerful would be the first to receive blessing. They, in turn, would bless those below them. And so, the ladder of social blessings trickles down from top to bottom. What makes Jesus’ sermon so memorable is that, in his economy of blessing, this order is completely reversed.
The other unique aspect with Jesus’ perspective on blessing is that it is communal, rather than individual. While blessings might have been previously viewed as something the privileged would bestow upon those family or friends below them, Jesus gives a prescription of blessing that is communal. Did you notice that almost all of blessings were in the plural form? Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger, those who show mercy, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Jesus was more concerned with a blessed community, than he was with blessing people one by one. Jesus wants all to be in the blessed community of God!
As we have been discovering, that is the nature of gratitude as well. It is inherently social because it connects us as individuals and makes us kin…family. Gratitude allows for the unfolding of God’s kin-dom through this new way of viewing one another. True gratitude, then, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice. True gratitude is about extending care for the last, for the least, for the lost and the vulnerable. This is the way of God…and the way we are called to echo in our ways of care and compassion. We began our conversation four weeks ago, speaking about how gratitude had a functional place in society prior to the time of social rules and law. This ‘quid pro quo’ form of gratitude, doing something for someone in return, served the function in society to ensure debts were gratefully paid. Jesus’ teaching was trying to move the community into a new understanding of gratitude, a new way of living thanksgiving and the benevolent sharing of blessings with all. He was trying to move them from doing something for others, just in order to receive something in return. Instead, Jesus’ gospel was moving his followers towards a mentality of ‘pro bono’, which means doing something ‘for good’ or ‘for the sake of the greater good’. Pro bon is a deep call of living the way of gratitude that is found in the Christian life.
This way of being Jesus would later be taught in the Golden Rule; it is a teaching that would be shared among all World Religions. Gratitude is a call towards self-giving; a call to benevolent responsiveness. Gratitude is a rule that has no hierarchical structure; it is a teaching that reminds us that we are all human beings called to share in the suffering and want of the other. Gratitude is an acknowledgement of our interconnected nature. It is knowing that, sooner or later, everyone will be on the receiving end because of their time of need ~ be it physical, spiritual or emotional. We will all face times of plenty and we all face times of need. The call is to live in gratitude, sharing and receiving the gifts and blessings of God.
There is a wonderful Ted Talk by a Catholic Benedictine monk named Brother David Stendl-Rast A monk deeply committed to interfaith dialogue, who speaks about the interaction between spirituality and science also has wise words on gratitude: “If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid under which we live”.
Earlier in the service, we celebrated our ministry with the Hammoud family. What a long journey this has been for us…for them. And it all began as a call towards living a faith defined by gratitude. The words of appreciation from this wonderful family “thank you” touched us deeply this morning. And many of us have tears welling up from this powerful journey we have walked. We seem, somehow, stumped at the best way to respond to these words of appreciation. The words “thank you” typically elicit a polite response “you are welcome”. Yet this response seems glaringly inadequate in this occasion. So what shall we say? I wonder if the best response comes from deep faithfully spoken words of gratitude: “God is good”, “Thanks be to God”, “Hallelujah”. For we have been touched by the gratitude of God; we have witnessed it in action; we have experienced it; we have lived it out. And so the journey continues, the journey that calls us to a spiritual path of gratitude as we follow the Way of Christ.
I would like to leave you with a closing image of celebration, of wine and merriment for this Thanksgiving holiday. The wonderful Sufi writer Rumi prophetically wrote: “Gratitude is the wine of the soul. Go on. Get drunk”! May everyday be a day of Thanksgiving! Amen.