Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church October 9, 2022
Texts: Psalm 111; Luke 17: 11-19
As thankful as he is to be alive, my friend Brian has mixed feelings. You see, when the suicide bomber penetrated the compound and the windows blew out, Brian only ended up with multiple fractures because of the air conditioner that literally landed in his lap. He told me that when he shuts his eyes, he still sees the body part that was on top of the unit. But because there were men and women screaming in their pain of dying, he didn’t have enough time to think about it. He just jumped up and began looking for survivors. He was just grateful to be alive.
When you first realize that you are alive, really alive, then you begin to feel grateful -- but grateful to what? Grateful that you were not just one foot closer or you, too, would be a bunch of body parts? As you work through the rubble of utter disaster, you begin to realize that merely being alive is not enough. Gratitude is more than an attitude; it is a relationship with others, with God. And so you begin to show gratitude.
Fortunately, most of us, indeed, the overwhelming number of us, do not need Brian’s experience to show the meaning of gratitude. For some of us, it is a happy discovery that the lump was benign, that our children will come home for a holiday, or just that the sun is shining. But, you see, gratitude is more than just a feeling of thankfulness. True gratitude is an attitude to be lived.
How does one live in gratitude? What does it mean to live in gratitude? Well, for one thing, it means acknowledging our utter dependence on God. Most people don’t like to depend on anything; most of us like to think of ourselves as independent, not needing to depend on something or somebody.
Dependence in our minds means having to acknowledge that we can’t go it alone. It’s one of the reasons why gratitude is such a difficult feeling or emotion for us. Gratitude is different than just being thankful for a favor or a compliment or a gift. Gratitude is far deeper, a total internalization of our acknowledgment of dependence in a relationship.
One could compare gratitude to a grammar. Just as the grammar of a language serves as the underlying structure of how we think, it also helps us construct and make sense out of our lives. The rules of this grammar cover all our activities. Its syntax reveals a system of relationships linking us to the holy and to every other part of the creation. However, the rules of the grammar of gratitude are not as simple as they seem at first glance. It’s like learning another language.
The old way of learning a language was to study grammatical rules and memorize vocabulary. Foreign languages seemed foreign to us because we really didn’t internalize them. Pedagogues, however, looked at how children learn languages and developed new ways to help us learn a new language. Children learn languages through speaking the language, through listening to others speak. In other words, a new language cannot be learned in isolation, even when one is using a computer generated program because the learner is working through the speakers of the language. We learn new languages best in community. The same is true of gratitude.
That’s why community is so important in our lives. People who live in isolation from others have a difficult time learning the grammar of gratitude because the process of internalization is not as simple as it first appears. Instead of being grateful for what we have, our isolation makes us greedy for something more, better, or different. We can’t be grateful because we are making comparisons and coveting other possibilities. Coveting is different than wanting. Coveting is wanting to have what the other person has by taking it away from that person. The grammar of gratitude is a language of boundless possibilities not a nine-inch pie.
Just as learning a new language takes practice to fully internalize it, it takes practice to internalize gratitude. Take grace or a short blessing before meals. Most of us eat without thinking. Not so in many immigrant cultures, whether they are Christian or practice another faith. In the Indonesian, Burmese, and Latino communities that I work with, grace or a moment of silence is the norm -- for all meals. When we eat together in community, whether at a large church or even in a restaurant, grace is normally said or some other sign of gratitude normally made. Maybe it’s because we have so much and people who are used to having so little are grateful to have anything at all.
Those ten lepers in our morning reading had nothing. In fact, they counted for less than nothing in their society. Given the gift of new life most of them, like most of us, went running on their way. One, the Samaritan, the foreigner, turned around and thanked Jesus. I was reminded vividly of that this week when an older woman passed her naturalization test. She walked back into the waiting room and broke down sobbing in gratitude; she tightly clasped the little red book -- not Mao’s, of course, but a book with the documents that established our Nation and serve as reminders of our historical traditions: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg address, and other great moments in our history.
The writer Mary Gordon discusses the importance of gratitude in her life after the death of her grandmother when she realized that memories may help to form the soul but that they cannot be captured and kept as possessions. She learns to be grateful for the memories that she has as she creates new spaces and experiences for herself. It is the same with gratitude.
As we are grateful for our memories, both good and bad, for we learned from the bad, we use those memories as part of our internalization of gratitude. Memories serve as the community of the past. We now have a community of the present where we can live together to continue our internalization of gratitude.
Gratitude is not something static as Mary Gordon writes, but a continuing and developing way of living. It’s like breathing. In a short poem, Rilke writes:
Breathing in: to praise/Breathing out: is the whole thing.
As we breathe in and out every second of every day, let us breathe gratitude for where we are, the bounty that God has given us, and the community around that sustains us.
Let us pray: Bountiful God, you have given us so much and we are so grateful for what we have: Life, our families, our friends, our community. Help us to live in gratitude for the gifts you have given us. Amen.