A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: Grace & Gratitude

Grace & Gratitude

August 15, 2021

come-share-in-god's-joy

“Always give thanks to God for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There was a point earlier in the month, when I was contemplating the fires out West and the increasing cases of the Delta variant, that I felt simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems facing us.  The consequences for all of us of the lack of wisdom, short-sightedness, ego-centrism and divisiveness of many in our country can really get me down.  Can you relate?

Today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is a spiritual shot in the arm. It is a reminder of the truth that we already know, seem to easily forget, and must remember and embrace if we are going to find a way forward. Be careful how you live. Be wise. Always give thanks to God for everything. 

Gratitude is the foundation of the spiritual life. It is the core spiritual practice at the heart of all the world’s religious traditions. It is the portal through which we can see beyond the challenges we are facing, to recognize the activity of God in our lives. 

“The word gratitude comes from the Latin root gratus, meaning “pleasing; welcome; agreeable.”  It signifies positive moods, ideas, and actions. Gratus is also the root of the word grace. The words grace and gratitude share a Proto-Indo-European root, gwere (gweer), meaning “to praise, to celebrate; to be in contact with the Divine.” 

In other words, being grateful opens us to being in and feeling the presence of the Divine in our lives. It allows us to see the value, virtue and benefit in any experience. Though sometimes we need to take the long view to do this. Gratefulness is a path that embraces and accepts the fullness of life — the entirety of our human experience. As we deal with the  epidemics of foolishness, disunity, disease, climate destruction and despair, gratitude is an antidote to our feelings of pessimism, hopelessness, and fear.

When I was a hospice chaplain, I often met with people who were struggling with physical pain, sometimes anxiety, frequently disappointment and grief from knowing that they would be dying soon; folks whose sadness was often palpable. When they would respond to my question, “What are you grateful for?,” I was frequently amazed at their shift in consciousness, which often helped them feel better – mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. 

Although sometimes hard pressed to find an easy answer to the question, I can not remember a single time when any of the thousands of people I visited responded, “Nothing” or “No one.” More often than not, what people were most grateful for wasn’t their personal achievements or adventures – it was their relationships: feeling loved and being able to love others. 

For a number of weeks this summer, the most frequently read story in the Boston Globe was by Jack Thomas, a longtime journalist, entitled “I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say.” Did any of you read it? If you haven’t, look it up. It is luminous.

The heart of his essay overflows with gratitude – for the blessing of his wife, his three children, his 60 year career and life adventures. He asks  “Does the intensity of a fatal illness clarify anything? Every day, I look at my wife’s beautiful face more admiringly, and in the garden, I do stare at the long row of blue hydrangeas with more appreciation than before. And the hundreds and hundreds of roses that bloomed this year were a greater joy than usual, not merely in their massive sprays of color, but also in their deep green foliage, the soft petals, the deep colors and the aromas that remind me of boyhood.” 

Can you hear, see, smell, and feel his gratitude?

I also want to tell you the story of Paul Russo…we first met five years ago, as he at the age of 25 was recovering from cancer.  Things were looking up for him when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  He underwent lengthy brain surgery and lengthy radiation and chemo therapy.  He nearly died more than few times. Throughout all of this, his family and the friends that he grew up with here in Gloucester, including his fiance – and now wife, Leah – stayed by his side. 

Yesterday I got to see him again.  He was one of the groomsmen at the wedding here.  Because they arrived quite early, I had a chance to catch up with Paul.  He was eager to show me two photos – one of where the cancer had been in his brain and one where now there is simply space.  Speaking in a halting way, he earnestly said to me, “I’m glad I got this. I’m thankful.”  I was heading in the wrong direction and now I see everything so clearly.” He is only 30 years old.  He can no longer drive.  He relies on his wife, mother, and friends to take him to his many doctor’s appointments. He no longer works at the job he loved. Yet he is deeply grateful. Now he starts his day with an hour of prayer and meditation. He says without it, he probably wouldn’t be alive. (I’m hoping he will speak to us sometime this fall.)

It is easy to be grateful when things are going smoothly or the way we want them to go.  But, let’s face it, little to nothing has gone the way any of us would have wanted over these last 18 months.  And, eventually, we all will die. Yet, God’s grace has not abandoned us.  No matter what, we still have so much to be grateful for. 

To live wisely is to not allow the troubles of the day to determine or define us. Paul encourages us to live wisely and thoughtfully.  Implied is an invitation to pause and reflect. To look beyond the headlines and surface of things.  This can’t happen if we are “doom scrolling.” This can’t happen if all we do is complain and point our fingers.  This can’t happen unless we consciously choose to reflect on our lives in the light of grace, in the light of gratitude. 

It is of deep concern that many of our young people are so tied to their devices, so locked in the isolation of their screens. A certain myopia inevitably results, often leading  to anxiety and depression. Should we be surprised by the epic numbers of our youth in mental distress? 

There is another way.  And it is a way that can create incredibly powerful energy, hopeful energy, especially when we do it with other people.  When we do it in community. We can pause and simply reflect on what we have to be grateful for… Then we can listen to what others are grateful for, too.  As we do this, we find that we have created space for God’s grace to enter and become more active in our lives! 

Then, our own spiritual vision widens; our energy lightens; our light joins the light of others – creating a brighter light that might even call to and attract others mired in darkness.  “When life feels too uncertain or too big to handle, or – conversely – too predictable or too small, this is when we need gratefulness most…Gratitude may not be a panacea; it may not cure our anxiety or solve our concerns, but it can cultivate ease, connection, kindness, and well-being.” (gratefulness.org)

So, this is what we are going to do… During our time of silent contemplation (you will have four minutes), we will pause to write prayers of gratitude.  If you are on Zoom, you are invited to write your prayer in the chat.  If you are in person, you can use the paper that has been provided for you in the order of worship.  Simply start with “Thank you God…”

You can either write anonymously or put your name on what you have written.  Sarah and Elizabeth will collect the prayers in person; Debra will collect the prayers in the chat. Once the prayers are collected, Debra will share the prayers of those on Zoom and Elizabeth and I will share the prayers of those who are in person. 

Expressing our gratitude helps us to see how God is active in our lives and in the world. Expressing our gratitude brings joy to our hearts and is pleasing to God. In another Letter, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Let’s begin.  Amen.