A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Thanksgiving Sunday, November 22, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Psalm 126 and Matthew 6:25-33
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“The two biggest sellers in any bookstore, according to Andy Rooney, are the cookbooks and the diet books. The cookbooks tell you how to prepare the food and the diet books tell you how not to eat any of it.

“Orson Welles once said [or so I’m told], ‘My doctor has advised me to give up those intimate little dinners for four, unless, of course, there are three other people eating with me.’

“… [A] scientist has computed that the average human being eats 16 times his or her own weight in an average year, while a horse eats only eight times its weight. This all seems to prove that if you want to lose weight, you should eat like a horse.”[1]

I bring this up because I know I’m going to over-eat this Thursday.

One of the things I really like about Thanksgiving is that it is the least commercialized of American holidays. I know we’ve lost ground recently, and the day after Thanksgiving is one of the most commercial days of the year, but on Thanksgiving itself, there is no pressure to give material gifts, and Thanksgiving decorations are simple, often earthly and natural. While I suppose some competition can happen in the kitchen, and there is certainly plenty of competition on the football field on Thanksgiving, I don’t sense interpersonal competition on Thanksgiving they way I do at other holidays – everything from how one is dressed on Easter to who give the ‘best’ present at Christmas.

The focus on Thanksgiving is the family, gathering around the dining room table and eating together. And Thanksgiving, as its name implies, is about giving thanks. The Thanksgiving holiday is about gratitude.

This is a good thing. “Gratitude, it turns out, makes you happier and healthier. If … you can find any authentic reason to give thanks, anything that is going right with the world or your life, and put your attention there, then statistics say you’re going to be better off.

dreamstimefree_520068“In one study on gratitude, conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another recorded five hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more.

“In a later study by Emmons, people were asked to write every day about things for which they were grateful. Not surprisingly, this daily practice led to greater increases in gratitude than did the weekly journaling in the first study. But the results showed another benefit: Participants in the gratitude group also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others, or more technically, their ‘pro-social’ motivation.

“Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude group reported more hours of sleep each night, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening. The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control group.

“Perhaps most tellingly, the positive changes were markedly noticeable to others. According to the researchers, ‘Spouses of the participants in the gratitude (group) reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control (group).’”[2]

saint-ignatius-loyolaWhile Christians have not approached the practice of gratitude so scientifically, we’ve known for hundreds of years (and probably thousands, and the Jews for thousands of years before that) the value of giving thanks. Ignatius of Loyola, a Catholic who lived in early years of the Reformation, is perhaps the one of the best-known Christian spiritual teachers to codify a method of giving thanks as part of a spiritual discipline. Known as “the Daily Examen,”[3] he created a five-step prayer form that is still used (often in a modified way) today.

 

The second step involves reviewing the day and giving thanks for your experiences of the day – everything from the smell of coffee brewing (if that’s your thing), to support offered by a friend, to the resources you benefit from, to your abilities to help in some way. Another of the five steps in the Daily Examen as Ignatius created it is confession. I find it interesting that all of the modifications I’m familiar with have dropped or softened this step, but the focus on giving thanks remains strong.[4]

Today’s Psalm comes from a place of gratitude. Psalm 126 is thought most likely to be a song sung by pilgrims as they climbed the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Probably written after the Babylonia exile, the Psalm rejoices in the restoration of Israel. “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

Surprisingly, the response to this restoration by other nations – that is of people who worshipped other gods – is a recognition of the work of Yahweh: “The Lord [that is Yahweh] has done great things for them.” And the song responds that Yahweh has done great things for us, and we rejoice. It is a verse of thanksgiving.

The second verse of the Psalm turns to petition. “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” There is a hope of transformation in this petition. Just as Israel’s mourning turned into dancing with the transformation from exile to return, there is a hope that God will transform the lives of those who mourn into joy as well.

In the midst of the news from the past 10 days, I find comfort in this prayer. From the suicide bombing in Beirut to the terror attacks in Paris to the hotel siege in Mali, it seems as if the past ten days have been filled with violence. And now there are people mourning, grieving the deaths of loved ones at the hands of brutal extremists. Just as Israel’s mourning turned to dancing, I pray that God will heal the hearts of those now heavy with sorrow.

However, my prayer for transformation does not end with those who are mourning. My prayer includes the rest of the world. My prayer is that we don’t get sucked into obsessing about the horror and the terror. My prayer is that we don’t succumb to fear.

In a column in The New York Times, Paul Krugman accurately identified was going on here.  The attack in Paris and the other attacks are “an organized attempt to sow panic, which isn’t at all the same thing [as ‘an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization,’ as Jeb Bush put it]. And remarks like that, which blur that distinction and make terrorists seem more powerful than they are, just help the jihadists’ cause.

“Think, for a moment, about what France is and what it represents. It has its problems — what nation doesn’t? — but it’s a robust democracy with a deep well of popular legitimacy. Its defense budget is small compared with ours, but it nonetheless retains a powerful military, and has the resources to make that military much stronger if it chooses. (France’s economy is around 20 times the size of Syria’s.) France is not going to be conquered by ISIS, now or ever. Destroy Western civilization? Not a chance.

“So what was Friday’s attack about? Killing random people in restaurants and at concerts is a strategy that reflects its perpetrators’ fundamental weakness. It isn’t going to establish a caliphate in Paris. What it can do, however, is inspire fear — which is why we call it terrorism, and shouldn’t dignify it with the name of war.”[5]

Krugman goes on to analyze the politics of possible responses to this latest round of terrorism, which aren’t important for this sermon. He concludes with these words, “Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.”[6]

stop-terror-turn-off-tvSo, how do we do that? How do we refuse to give in to fear? I believe that one of the ways to do that is with gratitude.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about worrying – and basically he says, “Don’t.” God values you more than the birds, and God provides for them, so don’t worry. God clothes the flowers with splendor and God values you more than flowers, so don’t worry. Don’t worry about the trappings of success that your culture values, but value the things that God values. Today has enough troubles of its own, who why borrow problems from tomorrow?

A wise woman who referred to herself as “a little old lady” from a church I served early in my career used to tell me, “Worry is the interest you pay on borrowed trouble.” Bessie came of age during the depression, so she had an anti-debt philosophy. Don’t buy on credit. You save money and then you buy it, that way you’re not wasting your money on interest. Worry, she was saying, is wasted emotion, interest paid on troubles borrowed from tomorrow. When you worry, all you’re doing is borrowing trouble from the future and paying extra for it now.

Bessie’s point is very practical (though not the easiest thing to do). It is practical, but doesn’t reach the spiritual depth that I think Jesus was making here in this passage. Jesus was saying more than, “Don’t worry.” He was saying, “Trust God.”

The first step to move from anxiety to trust, from fear to faith, is to acknowledge how much God loves you. And for me, the best way to do it, to move that acknowledgement from a thought to a belief is through the practice of thanksgiving. When I truly offer God my thanks for some reason – like the fact that God loves me – I integrate that reason into my being, I claim it as a reality. It becomes a part of my worldview.

Gratitude is the foundation of my relationship with God.

Anne Lamott says that the three essential prayers are “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” If she’s right (and I think she probably is), I think she has them in the wrong order. One of the things I’ve noticed about the spiritual lives of kids is that the first of their authentic personal prayers is, “Thanks.” At camps with grade schoolers, when we have prayer time, that is what they have to say: “Thank you, God.” It is only later that they start praying, “Help, God.” “Help my friend with their problem.” “Help me with my problem.” “Wow” happens early, too, but it’s typically not understood to be a prayer until later.

Gratitude is foundational to a life of prayer. Gratitude is foundational to our relationship with God. And gratitude is foundational to a life of trust, a life of faith, a life that can resist the powers of anxiety and fear. So keep building your foundation.

Amen.

[1] King Duncan, “Collected Sermons,” quoted in an email from sermons.com dated 18 November 2015.

[2] Ocean Robbins, “The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier,” Daily Good, http://www.dailygood.org/story/578/the-neuroscience-of-why-gratitude-makes-us-healthier-ocean-robbins/ (posted 30 October 2013; accessed 18 November 2015). Several corrections made for grammar and clarity.

[3] See, for instance, “Prayerfully Reviewing Your Day: The Daily Examen,” http://www.loyolapress.com/prayerfully-reviewing-your-day-daily-examen.htm.

[4] See, for instance, “How Can I Pray,” http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray and “The Daily Examen,” http://jesuits.org/spirituality?PAGE=DTN-20130520125910, and “The Examen: A Daily Prayer,” http://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/jesuit-a-z/daily-examen.cfm.

[5] Paul Krugman, “Fearing Fear Itself,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/16/opinion/fearing-fear-itself.html (posted and accessed 16 November 2015).

[6] Ibid.

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