Simple Gifts


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

October 13, 2019

Texts: Job 3: 1-13; Luke 17: 11-19

       Like many of you, when I hear the phrase simple gifts, I think of the song written by Joseph Brackett, a Quaker Elder, in 1848, and the way it was orchestrated by Aaron Copeland in his composition “Appalachian Spring.”  “Simple Gifts” is a captivating tune and has been recast by folk singers and composers. In 1963, for example, the tune was adapted by Sydney Carter for the hymn “Lord of the Dance.” The idea of simple gifts has been embraced by what we can call the “living with less” advocates, who tell us about the ways to simplify our lives. God knows, in this age of over consump-tion, we certainly need to learn how to do that.

       But simple gifts is more than just knowing about how to get a hold on our consumer spending and reducing clutter. It is also about taking pleasure in the deepest and most pro-found things in life and about being thankful for them and learning the art of gratitude. It has become a buzz word today. New age gurus and television talk show hosts all tell us how we will be happier, better people if we learn the art of gratitude. And, sure enough, this simple gift has become the object of its own commercial culture with everything from garden stones to coffee mugs telling us to be grateful. 

        So, why isn’t the world a happier place? Why aren’t we happier? Possibly because we put our stock in things rather than in experience. The Finns, number one on the happiness scale, put their stock in experiencing nature and caring for each other. When the Star Ledger headlined this story, the photo was of people outside experiencing the world God gave us.

       John Milton said, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” In her book, The Language of Letting Go, Miriam Beattie looks at gratitude in the following way: It unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

       We are moving so fast in our society that we are propelled into the next day before we even have time to take stock of today. As we fall asleep and move into the next day, we forget the many little kindnesses we have enjoyed the day before and for which we never said the simple words, “Thank you.” Our normal morning routines are filled with the results of simple gifts that have made our lives easier from such seemingly mundane things as the coffeemaker to profound gifts that enlighten our spirit. 

        When I hear Job’s words of deep despair at the turn his life has taken, I think about how grateful I am for even the simplest things. I remember having heard an interview with a young man who as the result of a freak accident at the age of 13, ended up a paraplegic. It was amazing to listen to him talk about how grateful he was to learn yoga as a tool for bringing his body back to life and how he wanted to share that gratitude by establishing yoga classes for the physically disabled. 

       The tenth leper, the Samaritan, who came back to thank Jesus, had been doubly cursed, as it were. Not only was he excluded from the rest of society as a leper, but was also reviled as a Samaritan. In the beginning of the story, all ten kept their physical distance from Jesus as they were expected to do as lepers. When they were healed, they needed to go to the temple and have a rabbi declare that they were clean before they could return to normal society. 

        The Samaritan, of course, could not go to the temple to obtain the blessing of ritual purity. He was still excluded. He returns to Jesus, not only to give thanks, but to experience the result of his healing through lying down at Jesus’ feet. As one commentator noted, perhaps his act exemplifies that faith is more than rituals and practices but rather a deep dependence on and intimacy with God. In looking at this passage, one preacher wrote: 

         Part of the illness of life today and part of what leads to the sense of distance and isolation so many feel is a deeply ingrained feeling of entitlement, the notion that I am some-how entitled to things, that I owe no one anything and have no responsibility for anyone. It is a deep self-centeredness that assumes everything is my right, my due, an attitude that replaces concern for the community with a preoccupation with my own needs. It enables me to maintain my distance in the illusion of absolute independence. Healed of illness, we wander off like the nine because, after all, we're entitled to health.

        The Gospel writer tells us, "Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back." The Samaritan, the outsider turned back from going his own way, from self-justification, from the protection of distance, and lay at Jesus' feet proclaiming his ultimate dependence on God. 

          Gratitude is an expression of our need for others, of our need for God. Healing requires intimacy—with others and with God. Just as Jesus reached out and healed the Samar-itan, we need to learn how to reach out and be healed of our isolation from others that we have created. 

       The Roman orator Cicero said that gratitude is the chief of all virtues because it makes the other virtues possible. That is because it forces us into an intimacy with the cause of our gratitude. We and everyone else in this world are embraced by a God who reaches beyond our artificial boundaries of race and class, and gender and of ethnic group, of immigration status and nationality. Gratitude is what teaches us the truth about our lives. 

        Gratitude does not just drop into our lives like Athena from the head of Zeus. It must be learned from an early age. Our office keeps containers of Trader Joe’s chocolate cat cookies and small pretzels for the many children who accom-pany their parents at appointments. When I give a child a cookie or pretzel, invariably the parent tells the child “digale, gracias,” or “tell her, thank you,” just as probably our parents told us to say “Thank you” when receiving something. 

       Disappointment in expectations often cause us not to be thankful for what it is that we have received from someone or even a planned event. Just this past week, the 2,000 plus passengers on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship broke into a near riot when they were told that they could not dock at their expected port because of bad weather. Now, to be fair, the ship had made four changes in its itinerary because of the weather, something clearly out of the ship’s control, and the passengers had all paid lots of dollars for their luxury trip. 

This example may seem ridiculous but we need to ask our-selves how we deal with disappointments in our expectations. It’s more than a question of how a child gets upset at Christmas because the one thing that child wanted was not there. 

       Remember the "Tickle Me Elmo" craze of 1996? This was a doll that when hugged would vibrate and chuckle. Over 400,000 dolls were made by Tyco but they sold out so quickly that by the Christmas season, people were jostling to get an Elmo doll. We see the same behavior in the Black Friday sales after Thanksgiving and we become upset when we don’t get what we want—or expect to get. 

         Misplaced expectations lead to frustration and the lack of gratitude for what we do have. And our expectations have grown to be sure. The historian R. R. Palmer pointed out that revolutions occur when there is a crisis in rising expectations more than in the depths of despair. 

         Job expected that he would be rewarded for his good life, which consisted in following all the rules. And then the LORD says to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and up-right man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Sure, replies Satan, but look what you have given him. Take those things away and we will see how he acts. Because he’s followed the rules, so to speak, he expects to have all these good things. This lesson in theodicy speaks much to our lives today. 

        Apart from the folk tale of Satan tempting the LORD and the LORD giving in to the temptation, Job’s response is deeply human, much like our response when we have all our expectations dashed: “Let the day perish in which I was born.” There are other responses, of course: resentment, anger, resulting in hate.

         The displacement of white ethnics as masters and leaders is a good lesson in how people respond to losses in their expectations. And we can’t forget the growth of the so-called “incels,” men who think they deserve to have women at their feet, is also a response to misplaced expectations. Part of me asks who raised these self-centered idiots? There really is no other word for them.

         When we say, "Thank you," we show more than civility and good manners. We show a recognition that we live in a world that is profoundly interdependent and that the strength of our communities and the health of our souls comes not as entitlement or right, but as gift.

         Let us pray: Gracious God, who gives us so much, move us beyond our self-centeredness, beyond our pre-occupation with ourselves and into the life that recognizes you as the center. May your Holy Spirit enable us to be gracious to others as you have been to us. Amen.