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Deuteronomy 26:1-11 & Philippians 4:1-13
This is a story from the poet, Naomi Shihab Nye:
After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.
Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
she stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her—Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African-American, one Mexican-American—ran around serving us all apple juice and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.
And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
with green furry leaves.
Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant.
Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
this is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.
Welcome to the week of gratitude. We’re meant to squeeze it all into one far too large meal on Thursday, though there are plenty of suggestions, both is scripture and beyond, that we might ought to seek the path of gratitude as a regular habit, even as faithful practice. Gratitude can be a very powerful mood altering drug. It can be a paradigm-shifter, a worldview-altering game changer. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s just take the last week and do some reframing. Doesn’t it help, after all, that in the midst of some incredibly draconian immigration policies that we can still be grateful for people willing to help, and for a court system that refuses to punish someone for giving hungry people food? Doesn’t it help, as the iron grip of racism on our nation’s history gets exposed again and again, to be thankful for those doing the exposing and the myriad of small signs – in books and media representation and voices being raised — that people’s vision is changing? Doesn’t it help, as we all wrestle with the heavy weight of an impeachment investigation, to gratefully witness the testimony of courageous women and men – particularly women – who place country over party, and virtue over politics?
Gratitude shapes us. Gratitude does not ever ask us to ignore injustice or to numb pain or suffering, rather it allows us to work within those oppressions, things that can easily shut us down and imprison us. Being grateful for what we can, where we are, can help us not only see what is right around us, and appreciate the tools and gifts we have at hand, it opens up the world of possibility, allowing us a chance to see that in the worst of times, it’s not all bad. The practice of looking for something to be grateful for builds in us a capacity, it generates memories that we can take with us into the next challenges we might face.
But the reason I really want to suggest the power of gratitude to you today is not because it’s topical, or “’tis the season,” or because I’m going to, at any point EVER, say “attitude of gratitude.” It’s because gratitude is subversive. And, especially right now, the church ought to be all about being subversive…which we can do, I’m sad to report, by simply being the church.
Paul’s words to a small church community in modern day Greece, a place called Philippi, ought to echo in our ears – “…beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” There’s clearly some conflict in this little church, something that has to do with leadership and maybe some miscommunication. I know, hard to imagine in church, but I guess it did happen before we solved all of that. What is compelling is that Paul doesn’t shy away from the conflict, nor does he gloss it over. He mentions it openly, because it involves two human beings and Paul seems to think that love has to be more than a tag line. Paul reminds this church that when things seem complicated and ambivalent that they should seek the truth, which always takes humility, to focus on the just, which requires some gratitude, to look on that which is honorable and worthy, on things that are authentic and compelling. Though he meant it for a community long ago in a very different place, we can be grateful for these words, for they lift up values that are just as crucial for us today…they stand in stark contrast to the cultural values we see around us, values like “might makes right,” “anything is OK as long as it makes money,” or “that’s just boys being boys.”
Paul rounds this claim of values out with a portion of his own story – a story of being content with what he has, of knowing what it is to have little and what it is to have plenty. In other words, a story of gratitude that he offers to a church that is worried, perhaps about a perceived lack, for this is often the cause of conflict and fear. Paul counters that with gratitude, because gratitude, I think Paul knows, leans into abundance, even in the appearance of scarcity. Gratitude helps us to seek out the places in our lives where there is something, even the smallest of things, because sometimes that is exactly where God resides – in the smallest, quietest thing. And, we ought to notice, it feeds our sense of humility, perhaps one of the most important spiritual attributes. For it is hard to be grateful if you feel entitled, and hard not to feel entitled if you cannot see how very little we create for ourselves. We are interconnected, all of us dependent on one another and God’s Grace to guide us through a world full of challenges.
Practicing gratitude develops in us a memory for such spiritual effort. It helps us to remember, in the tough times, previous tough times that we are now past. Such memory helps not only us to get through the new stuff, but also, hopefully, grants us some sympathy for others who are having tough times. The Deuteronomy passage is exactly this kind of work, instructing faithful Hebrews to remember this story – “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” This is a story of gratitude for God’s work in the world, a story of faith in the longer arc of the universe which we affirm is bending towards justice, even when we can’t see the curvature at all.
This is what we faithfully reproduce when we come to the table to share the tiny morsel that paradoxically signals God’s abundance…it’s what we nurture when we light a candle at the beginning of each service, bringing the light of Christ in with us and then taking it back out into the world at the end of service…it’s why we come to service at all, I think, which is more than just holy habit, but rather a chance to encounter one another again, to hear words spoken and sung that lift up new possibilities and to have a moment, just a moment, where the life of the kin-dom is set before us, wrapped in the stories from our past…stories of hope, of justice and of peace.
Gratitude is why we come to hear these same stories again and again and again. We’ll start Advent next Sunday as we work our way towards Christmas and we’ll hear again the story of a baby born, a story with absolutely ZERO surprises…and a story we need to hear again. For each time we hear our stories, the stories that give us identity, there is a chance to embrace them with humility and gratitude, listening for unheard voices and different angles, for we never have the complete story…there’s ALWAYS something more to be told, always another voice to add to the narrative, shaping how we hear and who we are because of it.
As we celebrate this week of Thanksgiving, it is a special time for us to remember our own past and the stories that inform it. For many of us, those stories must be re-told, mixed with courageous honesty and some contrition, but we ought to endeavor in that work nonetheless, for deep, sincere soul-searching is critically needed…especially during the times in which we might honestly and profoundly wonder – who are we?
This is a very good time – through story and tradition – to remember that we have much to be grateful for, most of all God’s abundant Love. But here’s a warning for your Thanksgiving gratitude: The counting of your blessings has the chance to disrupt a narrative of individualism… it might possibly interrupt a carefully constructed sense of isolation…it could turn us from selfishness, whose opposite is not selflessness, but rather is compassion, connection and mutuality, which would build an entirely different kind of world, right? Wouldn’t that be something to be grateful for?