Sermon: “Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7; Psalm 66.1-11; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19
How does one cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Most of us find ourselves in circumstances that do not readily promote an attitude of gratitude. If one is on a limited budget, it seems as if something is always happening to put further strain on one’s finances – sickness, car repairs, the traffic ticket you receive while hurrying to work when late, an unanticipated visit to the vet, etc. Midst of all these pressures, how does one cultivate a sense of gratitude?
Today’s lectionary readings offer a few hints. A couple of weeks ago, we noticed how the Babylonian captives were filled with lament and cursed their captors – “Happy they shall be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock” (Psalm 137.9; NRSV). They were hardly filled with gratitude. King Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 3, reminds us everything has its time – “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . . a time for war, and a time for peace” (Vss. 4, 8; NRSV). Might there be a time for gratitude?
In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah sends a letter to the Babylonian captives which tells them to prepare for a long period of captivity. False prophets had advised the captives their captivity would only last two years. In contrast, Jeremiah is saying, “Take stock of your situation, then make the most of it.” Jeremiah proclaims the word of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29.5-6; NRSV). In other words, you are here for an extended time; get on with living your lives as you normally would; make the best of the situation you are in.
Then Jeremiah adds something that would have seemed preposterous: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29.7; NRSV). Wait a minute, God, you mean we are to pray and to work for the success of our enemies? Do we have to go that far to cultivate an attitude of gratitude?
If one reads a few more verses, one finds, “Thus says the LORD; Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope . . . if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me . . . and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you . . . and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29.13b-14; NRSV).
Lesson #1: Take stock of your situation, make the most of it, and know that God has plans for your welfare and longs to give you a future with hope.
We also find several expressions of thankfulness, of gratitude, in the appointed Psalm: “Be joyful in God, all you lands; sing the glory of God’s name; sing the glory of God’s praise” (Psalm 66.1; NRSV) Such joyful songs are expressions of gratitude! In the final verses, we find an expression of gratitude for what has been suffered: “For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried. You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens on our backs. You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a place of refreshment” (Psalm 66.9-11; NRSV). Lesson #2: In the midst of adversity, it is difficult to express our gratitude, but as we look back on adversity, we often find God at work in our lives.
In the lesson from 2 Timothy, we also find expressions of gratitude under adverse circumstances. Paul is imprisoned in Rome – his execution impending – yet he writes to Timothy urging him to remember and to remind. Paul urges Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead” (2 Timothy 2.8; NRSV). Paul says this is his gospel for which he is chained like a common criminal – yet the word of God is not chained! Paul says this with a note of triumph! And in words of gratitude, Paul says, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2.10; NRSV). In the words that follow, there is a note of rejoicing and of warning:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful-- for he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2.11-13; NRSV).
Paul writes to Timothy. “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening” (Vs. 1; NRSV). Paul words to the Church of Corinth may come to mind: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (! Corinthians 13.1; NRSV).
Lesson #3: Remember the source of our gratitude -- Jesus Christ, raised from the dead – and remind others that when we die with Christ, we will also live with Christ, when we endure, we will also reign with Christ. Our assurance of these is cause for praise and rejoicing – expressions of gratitude.
In our lesson from Luke, we encounter the story of the ten lepers who call out to Jesus, as he is going up to Jerusalem to face his trial and crucifixion, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17.13; NRSV). Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests, and as they went, they were made clean. When one of them, a Samaritan saw that he was healed, he turned back, praising God, fell before Jesus feet and thanked him. Then Jesus said, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Only one in ten expressed gratitude – a Samaritan leper. Lepers were required to remain apart from everyone else – they were unclean, the lowest of the low, and this Samaritan leper was undoubtedly deemed even lower by the other nine lepers. Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17.17-19; NRSV). “Made you well” implies that more took place than being made clean; the Samaritan’s gratitude was an expression of worship. His praise of God placed him in a righteous relationship with God; he was not only physically redeemed, he was also spiritually redeemed.
Lesson #4: Expressing our gratitude to God reflects a deep spiritual relationship to God; such expressions help to make us whole.
How do we cultivate an attitude of gratitude? We take stock of the situation, we realize that God may be at work in the adversities we experience, we remember the source of our gratitude, and we realize the expression of gratitude places us in the proper relationship with God, our creator and redeemer. That is well and good, but rather complex.
Gratitude is a virtue. According to the ancient philosophers, we acquire the virtues by practicing them until such time as they become habitual – we make them part of our character. So how does one practice gratitude? By taking stock of our situation and identifying things for which we can be thankful – that, one might say, is assuming a proper attitude. We can express gratitude for simple things – the beauty of a flower, a wren’s song, the feeling of a gentle breeze, a glass of ice-cold water when one is hot and thirsty, a kind word, a gentle embrace. We practice gratitude by taking a moment to offer grace before a meal. We practice gratitude by meeting with other Christians and partaking of the Eucharist. We practice gratitude by giving God a portion of what God has given us. We practice gratitude by extending the mercy God has shown us to others. True gratitude comes when we take the time to recognize the gifts of God’s grace in our lives. Our gratitude is worship. May we be like the Samaritan leper and recognize what God has done for us!