November 24, 2019 142nd Anniversary: Gratitude, by Reverend David Tatgenhorst
Acts 4: 32-35 The community of believers was of one mind and one heart. None of them claimed anything as their own; rather, everything was held in common. The apostles continued to testify with great power to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they were all given great respect; nor was anyone needy among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them and give the money to the apostles. It was then distributed to any members who might be in need.
As we reflect for a moment, let’s sit in gratitude. Maybe give thanks for the person in front of you or behind you, and a person who used to sit in these pews and still nourishes the life of this church. Let’s sit in gratitude for the children and youth in our families and our communities and those who help them grow.
142nd Anniversary: It’s a Wonder-Full Life
Gratitude multiplies the gifts of our lives as we notice the gifts and as we allow those gifts to flow through us. Gratitude acknowledges and creates abundance. During this week of giving thanks, we pay special attention to this spiritual discipline that makes our lives richer throughout the year.
My mother generally didn’t hold a grudge or get angry, but I tell you what, if she did not receive a thank you note for a gift, she noticed and she could hang on to that for a while. I think she considered it a sign that she had failed as a parent if I did not send a thank you note for a gift. Gratitude for her was of absolute importance. She might not even say anything, but eventually she got the message through in no uncertain terms. And conversely, she practiced what she preached. She would always let people know how thankful she was for their gifts and generosity. She’s send cards, write little poems, call, and then thank you again. She was like that.
Today, we conclude our three part sermon series on meaning and money, “It’s a Wonder-Full Life.” The first Sunday the sermon challenged us a congregation to think about how we use our financial resources to further our values – our values of equality, integrity, simplicity, community, stewardship and peace. Last Sunday, I told a story about a baby blanket and a worldwide community of caring that showed how what we really value is more meaningful than any amount of money. And we talked about our heart follows where our treasure goes.
In this time today, I want to wrap it up by noticing in a deeper way how gratitude informs our lives – helps us to notice the generous force that is behind creation and helps us to live also with a generosity that enriches the world and our own lives at the same time. This perspective can be difficult to hang onto because of our fear of the future and our fear of not having enough. Those fears get exploited by a confused culture that advertises that the value of monetary wealth lies in the power to accumulate possessions rather than to enable generosity.
Those fears are stoked by a society of outrageous inequality where some people are in deep need and others are hoarding the wealth and try to protect it at all costs. Diana Butler Bass wrote a book about Gratitude in which she points out how “Our fears and disappointments mount, merging with those of our neighbors, and become the seedbed for politics of protection, limits, and rage. This is not a vision of a community of gratitude. We are a society of ingrates.” (xviii)
The early Christian community expected Jesus’ return was immanent and so their communal practices of selling everything and sharing everything may have actually led to some hardship down the road. But I am inspired by the courageous vision of that community and I don’t want to dismiss their vision out of hand. They had a vision of communal living where no one is left out, no one in their community is hungry or alone, where everyone is cared for on all levels. As we talk about a wonder-full life – a life full of wonder, what better vision is there than that – an investment in beloved community?
Living in a bigger world with a longer horizon, we won’t sell everything we have or give away everything we have, but we still want to live in a different world than the pseudo-reality hawked on TV commercials and even in prosperity gospel churches. Those prosperity gospel churches and TV evangelists encourage us to think that wealth is a reward deserved by the privileged, and that that wealth is what makes us happy. That kind of mentality leads to an impoverished kind of gratitude that is just about owing. If someone does us a favor, we owe them something nice back. We scratch each others’ backs as we rise up a ladder.
A deeper generosity leads to a deeper gratitude. If we cultivate connection with other people, a more profound compassion, an awareness of the sacred, and a commitment to justice, we live a different kind of life – less isolated, with the kind of courageous vision the early disciples we’re going for. We take more risks in our life, because we have a deeper resilience and sense that the generous force behind all of creation has our back. We understand that we’re all in this together. We live with a sense of wonder.
Let’s think for a minute about what it would mean to put a practice of gratitude into our lives as a spiritual discipline. I don’t know if you are the kind of person who goes shopping when you get down, but what if instead of making a shopping list, you made gratitude list? The idea is to bring our money practices in line with our spiritual practices – to realize that they are connected.
I know when I’m paying monthly bills and I see how much I pay to Verizon and ATT, there’s a kind of fear and anger that grabs me. The book that inspired this sermon series suggests stopping at a time like that and instead of being worried about money or mad at the world, trying a spiritual practice. The suggestion is to start the next sentence with “I wonder” and try out curiosity instead of fear. Saying something like “I wonder how I will make my money work for my courageous vision this month” or just “I wonder how I’m going to creatively solve the increased demands on my salary this month.” We try to put ourselves in a state of imagining instead of dreading, shifting our attitude toward bill-paying and thinking about money creatively.
In the end gratitude is more than sending a thank you card when you receive a gift. I think my mother knew that. The thank you card was just the least you could do to foster that sense of gratitude. To expand that sense of gratitude we can ask ourselves when we give to something, is it out of obligation or because that act serves our courageous vision? How can we focus and increase our support for our courageous vision in this church and in our broader community? Can we give freely instead of with a kind of hesitance or trepidation, or with some kind of strings attached?
Today is a day of giving for this church and for our community. At the luncheon after church, we get to give away about $3,000 to 6 groups that serve children and youth in our area. This money is not from our church. It’s money we raised through the Main Line Children’s Festival that we give away every year that historically connected the churches ecumenically in our neighborhood. We honor that commitment as we give to a variety of denominational efforts for children and youth.
It’s fun though to give, isn’t it? in line with a vision for our community. As we exercise our gratitude muscles and celebrate another year of God’s faithfulness to this sweet church in Bryn Mawr, I expect our commitment to our courageous vision will strengthen and we will find more ways to live into that vision. As we grow in gratitude, we live in line with that generous force of abundance that undergirds all of creation, that force we pray to, that we count on, that we thank with every breath.
This is God’s good news.
Responsive hymn: Come, Build a Church