Sunday, October 27, 2013
All Saints Parish
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I want to thank the Stewardship Committee and Sarah for asking me to talk to you this morning (at least I think I do…)
We’re at the end of a month in which we’ve focused on stewardship, our annual reminder that all of us need to offer our abilities, our energy, our time, and, of course, our money, to sustain this church, this holy place where we seek – and often find – the kingdom of God.
This year, the theme for the month in which we think about stewardship has been Gratitude. Gratefulness for all the blessings of this life, which are ours through God’s love for us.
It’s not hard to think of reasons to be grateful this lovely October – for the gorgeous blaze of trees that we get here in New England, for the crunch of apples and the sweetness of pears, for the Red Sox in the World Series…
And perhaps most of all, for the astonishing and joyful news of our new rector, Richard Burden, who with his wife and two young children will be here, with us, in a little over two months. It’s been a long time, but during it, we have been more than sustained by the calm and loving presence of Sarah – for whom we are also very grateful.
In thinking about gratitude, however, I decided I ought to make sure I had all I needed to know about it. So, I googled it. And I got many, many screenfuls of links.
For instance: gratitude and indebtedness, two possible responses to help or kindness, are quite different. Indebtedness makes you feel that you are obliged to repay or compensate for the help in some way, and therefore can lead you to avoid whoever helped you. Gratitude, however, can motivate you to seek out your benefactor and improve your relationship with them. (Think about that a minute.)
I also discovered that gratitude has become the hot area for study in psychology – after years of examining our fears and neuroses, psychologists are turning to look at why we are well. Their work suggests that grateful people have a stronger sense of well-being; they are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives.
There’s even a Gratitude Quiz you can take online, thanks to the University of California at Berkeley. I got 75 – or a C – on this quiz. But I think I did because I didn’t know how to respond to a couple of the statements –the kind where you rate yourself on a scale of one to ten (you know – Strongly Agree down to Strongly Disagree):
“I think of people less fortunate than I am to help me feel more satisfied with my circumstances.” Agree?
And another one:
“I remind myself how fortunate I am to have the privileges and opportunities I have encountered in life.” Agree?
Then, because I have also been thinking about today’s Gospel, my mind suddenly leapt to
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people:”
Whoa. I’m a Pharisee?
The problem with the Gratitude Quiz is that it leaves out the spiritual dimension. For us, as Christians, the ultimate focus of our gratitude is God.
So in this parable of Jesus read today, the model is not the one who fasts twice a week and tithes his income. It’s the guy who beats his breast and calls on God to be merciful to him, even though he is a sinner. But the Pharisee’s problem is not that he scrupulously observes the Mosaic Law – it is that by doing so, he believes he is better than others – and he thanks God for making him so terrific. But what he has offered, of course, is not gratitude but a transaction – God, you give me this, and so I will give you what I think you require – you pay me, I pay you back.
We don’t know if the tax collector – whom his society despises because he works for the Romans – we don’t know if he tithes or not. What we do know is that he throws himself entirely on God, not thinking of anything else, but needing and trusting wholly in God’s love and mercy. And God accepts him.
Defining, understanding – even FEELING – gratitude isn’t always easy. In the other readings today, we have the prophet Joel urging the people of Judah to rejoice and thank God for rain and bountiful harvests – but this gratitude is set between a period of devastating drought and plagues of locusts, and a terrible apocalypse when only the faithful will be saved. And Paul, near the end of his life, writes to Timothy, seeing his coming martyrdom as a victor’s crown, in spite of the suffering, loneliness and imprisonment he has endured for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel. Trust sustains them.
We undoubtedly have times when, weighed down by the circumstances of our lives, we don’t feel very grateful. Droughts, locusts (or their metaphorical equivalent), pain, sickness, loss, loneliness – all this is part of the journey we each take. Yet gratitude lurks in the heart of even bad times, if like the tax collector, we take them to God.
As Christians, we believe that God is the selfless giver, the source and model for all giving. This is grace, the free, unconditional giving of love (no transaction – no strings – no conditions). Hard as that is to comprehend, often as we forget about it, it remains there for us to have.
In just a little while, we have the opportunity to come forward and place our pledge cards on the altar. If you haven’t filled one out, you still have time. A pledge does, of course, make it easier for the Vestry to do an annual budget with some sort of real hope that that’s the income All Saints will have in the coming year. But it is more than that for each of us. Pledging is a different kind of commitment from just putting money in the plate when you’re here – it means that you are willing to make a long-term commitment to be part of this extraordinary family that is God’s people at All Saints. And it doesn’t have to be a lot of money that you pledge – every pledge counts, no matter how small (just like the folks in Whoville). Furthermore, it’s not just about the money you pledge, but also about the time you can give, the abilities you can share, the duties you can take on in gratitude for what we all receive here.
The act of pledging makes me think about why I come to church – why I’m not at home with a nice cup of tea and the Sunday New York Times. And why I come to this church, when I live 7 miles away in Arlington. The answer is that I need to be here. Nowhere else do I find a community so wonderfully diverse, where I can meet people at every stage of life, from the children over there on the carpet to people even as old as I am – and many friends in between. Here, we all come together week after week to pool our collective yearning for healing, for peace, for beauty, for calm, order, for moments of transcendence when the light comes through the stained glass and the tree outside the rose window casts flickering shadows or the sun suddenly illuminates the central figure of Jesus. I come here to nourish my soul. I come here for the bread and wine I receive, kneeling beside my son. I come for the constant support of this blessed community – especially remembering the help given to me and my family as we coped with illness and death.
I also come here because I can give of myself, and that is very healing for me – I receive much more than I can give. And I reach through it all to understand, however imperfectly, something of the unconditional love that God has showed us through Jesus. For that I can only respond with complete and utter gratitude.