Sermon from November 24, 2019

Gratitude and Hope
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 24, 2019
Twenty-fourth and Last Sunday after Pentecost,
Reign of Christ Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday
Psalm 95, Philippians 4:4-9; Matthew 6:19-33

The Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, says, “It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”  The Psalm we read today sings a joyful song of thanksgiving, grateful that “we are the people of God’s pasture, and the sheep of God’s hand.”

This is the primal gratitude that every living being shares.  God formed us out of the dust of the stars and the earth, we are the people of God’s pasture.  We can find an abundance to be grateful for if we have basic necessities and someone to love and serve.  We can be grateful for what we make of this opportunity that has been given us by the spirit of life and evolution that we call God.

Psychologist Robert Emmons defines gratitude as “A felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.”  Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone comment on this:

“If you’re feeling low, it might seem like a stretch to focus on something so positive.  Yet recognizing the gifts in your life is profoundly strengthening. By savoring these gifts, you add to your psychological buoyancy, which helps you maintain your balance and poise when entering rougher waters…Gratitude enhances our resilience, strengthening us to face disturbing information…. While gratitude leads to increased happiness and life satisfaction, materialism… has the opposite effect.”  (from Active Hope pp 43, 46)

Macy and Johnstone’s book, Active Hope, is subtitled, How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.  They look squarely at the suffering and existential threats in our world today, and they find a path through.  They find a hope strong enough to carry us into the world to make it better.  The path leads through the pain we feel and into a new way of seeing the world and our place in it.  That new vision energizes us to go into the world and make a difference for the better.

Facing the pain, seeing with new eyes and going forth are the last three steps of Active Hope’s path.  The first step is gratitude.  Everything else grows out of that. Gratitude enables us to live in a world we know is in dire condition and still feel meaning, purpose and joy rather than despair.

Today is both Thanksgiving Sunday and Reign of Christ Sunday.  The one looks back with gratitude, the other looks forward with hope.  The one assesses the world as it is, the other reminds us of the ideal world we are working to reach.  This church has a Future Directions Vision statement that describes the ideal church we are working to build.  As I said at the start of the service, we have fulfilled it in many ways over the past year, and we can give thanks for that.

“We want to be a place of faithful Christ-like love to which anyone who needs spiritual, personal or material support can turn, a beloved community connecting deeply and sharing honestly our joys and concerns.”  We can be grateful for every time in the past year that the Deacons counseled someone who was struggling through hard times, or used the Deacons Fund to help a person pay a crucial bill.  We can be thankful for every time someone stood during Joys and Concerns and moved us to tears with a sorrow or a joy.

Our Future Directions Vision says ‘We want to honor and celebrate the experience of our elders.’  I see honor, celebration and so much love in our faces when one of our elders comes through the door or takes the microphone.

“We want to help raise the children of the town.”  Last pageant I think half the cast was from outside the church.  It is beautiful to see how people surround new child care providers with encouraging support, and how much delight we take in the children every week.

“We want this church to be a warm nest for us to land in when we are new to the church that becomes in time our spiritual home and extended family.” Think of when the volume of our warmth in the Parish Hall has been so enthusiastic we can barely hear one another.

“We want to be a congregation that has vital involvement in everyday life in the community and that reaches out to help those in need.”  Last Sunday we celebrated one of many ways we are involved in the life of this community, feeding the hungry.  Our communication workshops were another example.

“We intend to be a force, not just a presence, responding to wrongs, threats and destructive forces in the world and effecting positive social change, connecting religion to issues of peace, justice and the care of God’s creation.”

We have so much of this to be thankful for—the pews were full for the Rev. Jim Antal’s William Sloane Coffin address and again the next morning for our joint service with the Universalist Society where we heard a recorded Coffin sermon.  Twenty-five leaders from local churches gathered here with Jim Antal after his address to talk about how we can change the consciousness of society in order to solve all that is threatening our existence.

We had over twenty people study Jim’s book for several weeks and out of that came ongoing climate action including the Climate Emergency Resolution for Town Meeting.

I could go on and on.  Our Vision says “We want to offer training in contemplative practice ….

“We want to create a safe forum where we can consider big questions and controversial issues, sharing with healthy communication, where we can disagree and still get along, listening humbly, openly and with fairness and compassion to others with differing views.

“We want this congregation to be a sanctuary in the midst of a complex world where we come to be renewed to go out and serve again….

“We appreciate the old feeling and simplicity of the spirit-filled place in which we worship. It was built with love and we want to continue to love and care for it.  We also appreciate the beauty of what takes place within it…the music in worship and concerts that is so important to us, and all our acts of creativity, compassion and love.”

Think of the Heartfulness Contemplative Training Circle every Thursday and the gifts of Mark Kutolowski and give thanks.  Think of the communication workshops where even just practicing the techniques made for some life-changing experiences, and give thanks.  Think of all the Sundays we came here with a heavy heart and left lightened and shining again, and give thanks.

Think of Bill Burden, John Echeverria and Kerry Claffey taking care of this old beloved building and stewarding our budget.  Think of Ken Bushnell, Kevin Plunkett and John Hawkins managing our investments brilliantly and meeting on the 4th of July to divest our church from fossil fuels.  Think of the music of Annemieke and the choir, the haiku of Mel and Jane, the yummy culinary creativity of refreshments and Lord’s Acre and Easter Sunrise pancakes.  Think how many acts of compassion have happened here every Sunday morning this year—how many individual acts of love among us every time we gather.

We have a beautiful vision of the church we want to be, and we have taken many beautiful steps to fulfill it. Our gratitude makes us value this loving community enough to keep coming and serving and taking more steps.  It may not seem like much on a global scale, but think of all that happened here this year.  We have no idea how far our love and actions rippled out to change the world.

We are just one church, roughly one hundred people.  There are thousands of churches rising to respond to the world crisis, and hundreds of millions of people of all faiths and no faith who are working to bring about what Joanna Macy calls “The Great Turning,” the global change of consciousness and culture that we need for life to be sustainable.

We have a vision here in the church for that global future direction, too.  It’s called the Sermon on the Mount.  We heard some of it today.  Jesus teaches us to dream of a world that has the wisdom to serve God and not wealth, a society that rules material goods with spiritual values.  In this “future direction vision” humanity turns from the anxiety, depression and destruction that materialism has caused and learns that only when we strive to establish the realm of God on earth does the material realm work out for the best.  In this vision we follow the Golden Rule and love of neighbor as our self and compassion for the oppressed, we are as generous-hearted as the one who created us, and as a result the human-made problems that threaten our existence quickly disappear.

This vision sees the White House, Congress, the fossil fuel industry and every corporation, city and village around the world waking up to the highest level of consciousness, the heart and mind of Christ. We have a dream of all people rejoicing in the justice, peace and environmental health that would result from that ideal, Christ-like way of living.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?  And yet everything we have done to fulfill this congregation’s future directions vision has also been working toward establishing the reign of Christ’s love on earth.  Billions of people do acts of lovingkindness every day at home, at school, at work, at the store.  The majority of humanity has not forgotten or given up on these ideals, and the greatest power in the universe, the force of love and life and light that created us, is flowing through us, guiding and empowering us, working small miracles whenever we step onto its ideal path.

Who are we to say that the Spirit that created life on earth cannot bring about the next step in human evolution today, lifting us to the level of Christ’s consciousness?  Who are we to say that this vision of enlightened human consciousness that the earth has been moving toward for three billion years will not be fulfilled?  Our job is not to doubt, but to dream, and feel grateful for every small step toward fulfilling that dream, and feel joy to be alive right now to help establish the realm of God on earth in our time.

Let us pray in silence, asking the Holy Spirit to show us the vision for our lives, our church and our world that it needs us to fulfill in the year ahead…

Below is a photograph of one of the many times we gathered in a circle to learn and grow and move forward together this year–this time was discussing the Rev. Jim Antal’s book, Climate Church, Climate World.

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