Grateful Hearts

Sermon for November 26, 2023

I hope you were able to take part in a Thanksgiving feast this past Thursday. And wherever you were and whoever you were with, I hope you had the opportunity to give thanks. Maybe some of you went around the table and named what you were thankful for this year. Maybe there was a single prayer of thanksgiving. Or maybe you observed some other ritual. But I hope your thanks was expressed on our annual Day of Thanksgiving. You’re now off the hook until next year—and Thanksgiving will be on the latest possible date in 2024: November 28—so (if you count February 29), you’ve got 53 full weeks before you have to do it again.

That sounds kind of crass, I suppose. But it really does reflect our view of thanksgiving (or Thanksgiving) most of the time. We usually keep the giving of thanks short and sweet. It’s either a brief list of acknowledgments, about as important as saying “thank you” when somebody passes us the rolls. Or we limit it to one day a year—a holiday set aside for thanking God for the things we can think of off the top of our heads. I’m sure this doesn’t describe any of you. But I think it does describe the majority people who even believe in the idea of God at all.

This isn’t the kind of thanksgiving we find in the Bible, of course. Take our call to worship, or example—which was taken from the beginning of the 92nd Psalm. When he wrote about it, Eugene Peterson said that giving thanks to God is not a grudging act of courtesy, but an exuberant explosion of delight. It is not the polite exchange of amenities, but the songburst of joy. Every day provides new opportunities and fresh forms in which to proclaim praise [Praying with the Psalms, 1993].

I’m pretty sure this is what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he told the Colossians to let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill their lives; and to teach and counsel one another with all the wisdom that Christ gives. This would either empower them to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts [3:16], or the singing with thankful hearts would empower them to share the wisdom of Christ with each other. I suspect it’s a bit like the chicken and the egg: we don’t know which comes first, we only know that they’re in a cycle—not a vicious cycle, but a virtuous cycle of joy and thankfulness and sharing.

This is one of those things we might turn into a New Year’s resolution, to start out 2024 by being more thankful. But really, now’s the time we should begin the move from giving thanks with our words to giving thanks in our hearts. And to give thanks in our hearts is to practice something called gratitude.

Gratitude is more than just something we give. It’s what we should be filled with. And if you’re not already filled with gratitude, rest assured, you can be. Because it’s something we can cultivate—in fact, it’s something we need to cultivate in our lives if we want to practice basic Christianity.

For us, I believe it should begin with our prayer life. If we don’t have a prayer life, it will probably be more difficult to live lives of gratitude. Because when we are grateful, it is God that we acknowledge as the source of our blessings. And just as we say thank you (once again) when somebody passes us the rolls, we say thank you to God for the good things in our lives that we realize came from God.

One of the simplest ways we can do this is in our evening prayers. We may not realize it, but if we would pause at the end of the day and find three, two, or even a single thing that we’re grateful for, it could turn our lives around. And I’m not talking here about a simple list of things that we feel like we’re obligated to say thank you for. I’m talking about truly pondering these things: meditating on them and wondering what a proper response might be to receiving such a blessing.

To practice gratitude is to embrace life. To practice gratitude is to acknowledge that we are not the source of all we have. And to practice true gratitude is to realize that the blessings we have received should not stop with us—they’re not ours to keep, but ours to share. I like to put gratitude in the context of the 23rd Psalm. When we pray this psalm, we are content with the blessings God has given us: sustenance and guidance and protection. If we truly think about our lives, we can honestly say that our cup overflows with blessings. And one other thing I often mention: When the psalm says that God prepares a feast for us in the presence of our enemies, it should be pointed out that nothing is stopping us from inviting our enemies to the table. Perhaps we should think of this God-given feast as a way to make friends of those who we might think of as our enemies, or a way to break down the barriers that the world has erected between us and other people whom we don’t yet understand.

And of course one of those things that often separates people in our world is religion. Atheists love to point out that people of faith often persecute those who don’t share their particular faith. And I won’t deny it. In the history of the world, people have separated themselves from others based on the gods they do or don’t believe in. And they’ve separated themselves from others based on how they worship the same God that they share with their neighbors. But I would also like to point out that the greatest atrocities of the last century have been carried out by those who claim no faith—in fact, it was often people of faith that these non-believers often persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot of Cambodia, the Kim dynasty of North Korea—none of these people claimed to believe in God, and yet they’re responsible for more violence than all the religions of the world combined.

People of faith shouldn’t consider themselves blameless, though, for indeed, we seem to hold our differences very dear. But a great way to get past that is to think about gratitude, for it’s something that all people of faith can (and should!) practice. When we encounter someone from a different church or a different religion, we can find common ground with them through the simple practice of being grateful. What am I grateful for? What are you grateful for? What are they grateful for? We can express this without even mentioning our unique religion. Or, if trust already exists between us and the person (or people) from another group, we can actually talk about how our religion encourages us to be grateful, and how we practice that gratitude in our worship or in the practice of our faith.

I noticed this interreligious idea of gratitude just this week when I read a story on the BBC news site. It was about a woman from Morocco who is a rapper. Her name is Houda Abouz, and one of the things she took note of was how men in her culture would demean each other by calling one another ختك, which means your sister in their dialect of Arabic. And so she adopted that as her artistic name: ختك or Your Sister. I admit I can’t really appreciate her music, but she said something about herself that I thought was really important. You see, she has bipolar disorder, for which she takes medication. Regarding how this impacts her music, she said, “A lot of times I talk about being sad, about having suicidal thoughts, about being manic, about all the times that I think I'm going crazy, so it inspires my work and makes me an artist with a story to tell, so I'm really grateful for having bipolar disorder, as weird as it can seem.”

Which helps us see how practicing gratitude can change our lives. What if we don’t just dwell on the obviously positive things in our lives to thank God for. What if we explore the things that might seem to be negative. I read about a Moroccan rapper who is grateful for what many call an illness. What if I look at my own problems and find something in them to be grateful for? What if I look at difficult people and, instead of cursing them in my heart, stop and find something about them that is helpful—or even something about them that teaches me something? What if I find ways that my lack of something makes me more dependent on God?

To practice gratitude on a daily basis—to ponder the ways I’m grateful as the last thing I do in the evening—will change my outlook. But it won’t happen overnight. I can’t do this for a week or two, realize I’m the same jerk I’ve always been, then forget about it. Gratitude takes time. The longer we practice, the more we change and the more our lives are transformed. As I said earlier when I quoted what Paul said to the Colossians, sharing Christ leads to thankful hearts. And true gratitude leads us to share the gifts we have received from God. It’s a never-ending cycle as dependable as the seasons, as the phases of the moon, as earth’s rotation on its axis or its orbit around the sun.

So gratitude works on a personal level, and it helps us direct our faith outwards. We can’t help but share what excites us. And we can also use our gratitude as a way to connect with people of other churches, of other religions, or of no religion at all. We can all discover and explore the gifts we’ve received. And we can all find ways to share what we’ve got with those who don’t have enough. Or even find ways to work together to protect the blessings of the earth, regardless of our differences.

When we come to church and sing “our hymn[s] of grateful praise”—hymns that help us “join with all nature in manifold witness to [God’s] great faithfulness, mercy, and love—let’s take that feeling out into the world in the way we live with others and the way we treat the earth. Thanksgiving isn’t just a day, it’s a way of life.
—©2023 Sam Greening