Gratitude and the Path to God’s Realm on Earth
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 18, 2018
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Thanksgiving Sunday
Psalm 95; Matthew 6:19-33
You have been given a miraculous gift. It is called you: your mind with all it is able to think and understand and do; your body with its incredible thumbs and retinas and taste buds and fabulously complex systems that have served you so well from birth, still performing miracles every day; your heart with all it loves, with all it feels as it encounters beauty or kindness or loss or injustice. And at the heart’s core, that most mysterious and miraculous gift, the spirit that connects you to the universe, to the force of love and life and light that created the stars and earth and you that we call God for lack of a better name.
We get distracted from our spiritual connection, but through contemplative prayer or through a birth or death or transcendent moment in nature or with another person we can feel an overwhelming power of love and oneness and we know this is what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount when he said “treasures in heaven…. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This spiritual vision is what it means to have our eye be healthy, so that our whole body becomes full of light. To make this treasure the meaning of our life is to serve God and not wealth or mammon. To seek what makes us most deeply grateful is to strive first for the realm of God and the sacred way and find that all other things fall into place. Gratitude is a path that leads us to God’s realm on earth.
What a miraculous gift it is to be given these treasures, and all we have to do to receive them is be born. True gratitude begins by being thankful for what you call you. This is not about pride at how perfect we are, it is about recognizing what Rabbi Abraham Heschel said so beautifully: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
We may hate ourselves or our life or the world at times, but if we can feel thankful for anything, gratitude takes away our hate at least momentarily. Brother David Stendl-Rast is a contemporary spiritual teacher who has made gratefulness the core of his life.
He points out that gratitude takes away our fear, gives us courage and peace, and gives our life a purpose and meaning because we instinctively want to preserve and nurture what we are grateful for and therefore value. Our spirit catches a glimpse of God’s light in what we love and value. We follow the path of gratitude and find we are living in God’s realm on earth.
Of course, sometimes our lives fall apart. A terrible loss devastates us and takes away our ability to be and do what we dream of being and doing. Or our compulsive or addictive behaviors lead us into such deep trouble that life becomes a huge mess and descends into darkness. We stop taking care of ourselves, we don’t care how we treat our bodies, we don’t care whether we live or die. If you have not been in such an abyss, I am sure you know someone who has.
But then we receive a gift for which we feel grateful—it can be something as simple as a dog or cat, or a new friend, or a neighbor’s need that we feel inspired to serve, or a caring, supportive community like a 12 Step Group or church, and the gratitude we feel begins to bring us back to life. We start to value ourselves and others, we improve our diet, we reengage. We undergo a spiritual awakening. The spirit in us reconnects to the spirit in the world. We experience an expansion of our self-focused self, a growing sense of oneness.
We are reminded of the truth that the you that you call you is not really you. You are much more. We see that we are one with all who have received this amazing gift of life. The spirit opens our eyes to the amazing, miraculous bundles of gifts in the lives that surround us and in the earth itself, and we see that their gifts are gifts to us, too.
The spirit is capable of feeling gratitude for it all—not just the gifts of every single person around us, which are truly beautiful and miraculous—I mean look, really look at the people here who are using their gifts in such positive ways… But the spirit is also capable of feeling gratitude for chickadees, and the moss that is so vibrantly green peeking through the snow, and the whole Milky Way spilling across the sky. The spirit in us can see the spirit in all else and feel connected, and so we come to see that what we call our self is way too limited. You are a miracle even in your smallness, but you are far more than just you.
As we mature developmentally into new levels of consciousness, the spirit leads us to see as Jesus did that our neighbor really is our self, that all parts of creation are our self, and our gratitude can expand to include all the universe.
This is an all-important development, because what we feel grateful for, we value, and what we value we want to preserve and nurture. Our gratitude opens us to compassion and empathy, it moves us to treat what we value with love and care, so if we identify ourselves as one with the universe and feel grateful for it, we will have compassion for all those parts of the earth that are hurting.
Loving our neighbor as our self leads to self-giving and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. We are about to go into a hunger banquet where some of us will win the lottery and be able to eat all the delicious food we want, while our neighbors get almost nothing. The part of you that thinks you are just your self-contained body may feel grateful if you get the full plate, but the true you, the you that the spirit in your heart’s core knows is connected to all other people, will not be satisfied until everyone has as much reason to feel grateful as you. True gratitude leads to peace, but it also can feel restless, not because we want to get more for ourselves, but because we want to make sure everyone has a sufficiency to feel grateful themselves.
I have never been to a hunger banquet, but I remember hearing about the ones this church had in the past. I have always wanted to experience it, yet I have also lived in dread of getting a rich person’s ticket and eating a full meal while others eat practically nothing at my feet. If you see that I get that ticket today, you can know that my nightmare is coming true. [Update: Guess which ticket I got, of course!!! And it was just as painful as I anticipated.]
And yet the truth is that I have a full refrigerator and kitchen shelves at home, and while I contribute to the food shelf, I do not feel guilty filling my belly morning, noon and night. I am absolutely horrified by how we are destroying our own precious habitat on earth, and yet I drive my car almost every day, and keep my heat up at a comfortable level. Guilt is not a life transforming force, it is too easy to self-justify, forget or evade.
Gratitude, though, is more transformative. Gratitude is a path we step on that leads us beyond ourselves. Gratitude teaches us what the universe wants of us, what our purpose is in life. We understand how God wants to care for all creation and we join in that work, not out of duty, not out of wanting to get into heaven, but because we value what we feel grateful for and we want to preserve and nurture it. Gratitude gives our lives this meaning and purpose, it inspires us to give our gifts and lay down our lives for love in whatever way we can.
When Abraham Heschel said “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy,” he did not stop there. He went on, “And yet being alive is no answer to the problems of living. To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be and how not to be? The tendency to forget this vital question is the tragic disease of contemporary [humanity], a disease that may prove fatal, that may end in disaster. To pray is to recollect passionately the perpetual urgency of this vital question.” (from No Religion Is an Island, p. 264)
So the question for us each today is, how? How is our gratitude calling us to respond to this world’s pain and urgent need? What does your gratitude move you to contribute to the worldwide movement of people who are ready to give their all to save the earth and its creatures? What do you feel moved to do as an individual, and what is the Spirit calling us to do as a church?
Let us follow where those questions lead and be grateful that we are not alone, we have one another to walk with, we have the model and teachings of Jesus Christ and wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, we have God’s universe-creating force of love and life and light on our side, available to help us. Gratitude is a path that leads to God’s realm on earth because gratitude inspires and guides and empowers us to build God’s realm with every act of nurture and love. For that let us be truly, deeply grateful.
Let us pray together in silence…