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Sermon for November 24, 2013

How Far Will Gratitude Go?

Molly Fumia is a grief expert who writes from the heart about the unique pain of miscarriage and stillborn birth. She finds that the grief associated with miscarriage is often underrated. Mothers are expected to get over their emotional and spiritual pain in a day or two. Well-intentioned family, friends — even counselors — tend to minimize the throbbing ache of grief and devalue the loss of the parents. After experiencing two miscarriages of her own, she knows that it’s an experience of deep longing and unbearable emptiness. That’s why I find her words so amazing. Listen to Molly’s words of healing:
To be joyful in the universe is a brave and reckless act. The courage for joy springs not from the certainty of human experience, but the surprise. Our astonishment at being loved, our bold willingness to love in return — these wonders promise the possibility of joyfulness, no matter how often and how harshly love seems to be lost. Therefore, despite the world’s sorrows, we give thanks for our loves, for our joys and for the continued courage to be happily surprised.
I want to be courageously joyful. But I have to tell you, its does not come naturally to me. I can be a cynic when I’m anxious. A worrier. A pessimist. As George Will once said, pessimism is as American as frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese. I hear ya’, George Will! I once read about an avid duck hunter who found a bird dog that could actually walk on water to retrieve a duck. Shocked by his find, he was sure none of his friends would ever believe him. He decided to try to break the news to a friend of his, a pessimist by nature. He invited the friend to hunt with him and his new dog. As they waited by the shore, a flock of ducks flew by. They fired and a duck fell. The dog responded and jumped into the water. The dog did not sink. Instead, she walked across the water to retrieve the bird, never getting more than her paws wet. This continued all day long. Each time a duck fell, the dog walked across the surface of the water to retrieve it. The pessimist watched carefully, saw everything, but did not say a single word. On the drive home, the hunter asked his friend, “Did you notice anything unusual about my new dog?” “I sure did,” responded the pessimist. “Your dog can’t swim!”

I am skeptical of the uninhibited optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking. From superstar mega-church pastors and their flawless smiles to an endless flow of self-help best sellers, we are told that if we just believe, we will get what we want. If we passionately concentrate on our deep desires, our dreams will come true. You will be able to pay that mortgage. A new car is yours for the visualizing. Send enough positive intentions into the universe and your skin will clear up, your diet will finally work, people will laugh at your jokes, you will get a raise at work and garner instant respect from your emotionally inept boss.

There is no escape from optimists. Pastor Gloria is an optimist. When I’m grumbling about some trifle, she is always smiling and challenging me to look on the bright side of life. It’s great to see someone offer a warm smile when life is tough. The world needs optimists! I read about a family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. One was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist. Just to see what would happen, on the twins’ birthday their father loaded the pessimist’s room with every imaginable toy and game. He loaded the optimist’s room with horse manure. That night the father passed by one of the rooms and found a son sitting amid his new gifts crying. “Why are you crying?” the father asked. “Because my friends will be jealous, I’ll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I’ll need new batteries all the time and my toys will eventually get broken.” Guess which child that was!

Then the father passed by the optimist twin’s room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure. “What are you so happy about?” he asked. The optimistic twin replied, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”

Americans did not start out as unbridled optimists. The fabled Pilgrims of our Thanksgiving lore eventually became part of what we now call The United Church of Christ. The original ethos of these Protestant settlers and their descendants was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings. Even then, there were no promises. You might work hard and still starve to death. They certainly did not survive by adjusting their attitudes or visualizing success.

Calvinists thought negatively about the world. They carried a weight of guilt and apprehension that sometimes broke their spirits. In response to this harsh attitude, positive thinking arose in the 19th century among mystics, healers and transcendentalists. A new crowd-pleasing message insisted that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.

Neither one of these emotional postures seems to be complete, especially when we think about how far our gratitude will go. Gratitude is a necessary corrective for world-weary pessimists who can forget to look for what is right around them. They need to be reminded that the world is not always a terrible place. The optimists among us must not ignore the pain of the world by straining to be thankful. I've been using a new phrase to strike the balance: Appreciative Realism. Appreciative Realism means that we see the risks, we have the courage to face bad news, we prepare ourselves for famine as well as plenty, and express gratitude for what we have.

In the Christian tradition, our Appreciative Realist is named Paul. When he writes his letter to the Philippians, Paul is in prison. His incarceration in Rome may have been more like house arrest where he awaited trail and possible execution. Tradition actually says that Paul was convicted and beheaded several miles outside the ancient city of Rome. In hindsight, I guess he did indeed have something to worry about. As a citizen of Rome, he could have easily changed his situation by promising the Roman authorities he would quit preaching about Jesus. Instead Paul decided it was more important to write some letters. He writes, “Rejoice in the Lord . . . be thankful . . . Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” What? Where’s the pessimistic introspection? Where’s the optimistic romanticism? Paul gives us a dose of Appreciative Realism: Times of ease will eventually get complicated. Crises will resolve over time. In the ebb and flow of life, be thankful.


Jesus gives a good dose of Appreciative Realism in the gospel text from John. He has just pulled off an incredible miracle, feeding thousands of hungry stomachs on a few fish and loaves of bread. Now he is exhausted. He wants some time to recover. He wants to be alone. He sails away, but the crowds follow him. Jesus is like a star trying to get away from paparazzi. There is no place to hide. The crowds want more. The crowd follows him; the crowd with all its suffering; the crowd with its insatiable appetites and hungers. The crowd is not bad. It’s just hungry. It is ill. It is scared. The crowd follows Jesus because Jesus is the last hope for healing hurting bodies and feeding empty stomachs. Jesus feeds a serving of appreciative realism. He says, “Don't spend all your time and energy on physical food that keeps you alive for now. You also need to spend some energy on spiritual food which will keep you alive forever."


They come for bread. Jesus invites them to believe.

They come for momentary relief from physical hunger. Jesus offers ceaseless fulfillment for their spiritual emptiness.

My fellow pessimists, optimists, realists: I think there is a lot of unnamed and underrated pain here today. We live in a fearful and anxious time. We grieve over the loss of jobs, the loss of money, and maybe even the loss of our sense of worth that was connected with these things. We are forced to face our weaknesses and our insecurities. We face difficult marriages and separations, loneliness, anxiety over our children and grandchildren. We hear bad news about health. We deal with the fresh pain of death and the reliable aches from timeworn grief. Our national political system is in shambles. The world is undergoing violent upheavals. The reality is that life is filled with happiness and life is filled with pain. What can we do but look for some relief? Some bread? Someone or something to help us find temporary relief from our suffering? What else can we do?

The Apostle Paul says, “Give thanks.” Give thanks boldly. Give thanks recklessly. To be joyful in the universe is a brave and reckless act. The courage for joy springs not from the certainty of human experience, but the surprise.

Jesus says [my paraphrase], “Life is hard. Come to me. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It’s an offer for connection. It’s a different understanding of suffering and pain. Appreciative Realism means that we are connected by our suffering and also transformed by our relationships.

There is a beautiful story from the Zen tradition. Behind a temple there was a field where there were many squashes growing on a vine. One day a fight broke out among them, and the squashes split up into two groups and made a big racket shouting at one another. The Zen master heard the uproar and, going out to see what was going on, found the squashes quarreling. In his booming voice the he scolded them. “Hey squashes! What are you doing out there fighting? Everyone do zazen [sit in meditation].” While the squashes were sitting zazen their anger subsided and they settled down. Then the teacher quietly said, “Everyone put your hand on top of your head.” When the squashes felt the top of their heads, they found some weird thing attached there. It turned out to be a vine that connected them all together. “This is really strange. Here we’ve been arguing when actually we’re all tied together and living just one life. What a mistake!” After that, the squashes all got along with each other quite well.

I know, squashes don’t have hands. Maybe zen squashes do. Like them, can you be thankful for your complete dependence on relationships for survival? When you can, you will flow naturally into an ethic of gratitude that demands that you nurture the same world that nurtures you in return.

Here is a bold and grateful prayer of an appreciative realist: a prayer from the African country of Ghana, as quoted by Desmond Tutu in An African Prayer Book:
Lord, my joy mounts as do the birds, heavenward. The night has taken wings and I rejoice in the light. What a day, Lord! What a day! Your sun has burned away the dew from the grass and from our hearts. What erupts from us, what encircles us is thanksgiving. Lord, we thank you for all and for everything. Lord, I thank you for what I am, for my body tall and broad, despite meager meals at school, and although Father has no world. This body grows and grows, even with malaria in my blood . . . Lord, I am happy. Birds and angels sing and I am exultant. The universe and our hearts are open to your grace. I feel my body and give thanks. The sun burns my skin, and I thank you. The breakers are rolling towards the seashore, the sea foam splashes our house. I give thanks. Lord, I rejoice in your creation, and that you are behind it, and before and next to it, and above — and within us.
Happy Thanksgiving. No matter what life brings, may you find a way to give thanks. Give thanks for your loves. Give thanks for your joys. Give thanks and for the continued courage to offer bold and reckless gratitude. It goes farther than we can even imagine!

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