- Rev. Sarina Odden Meyer
Lent 3 - Gratitude
Luke 15:11-32, Proverbs 17:22, Psalm 136:1-9,26
We are in the third week of our Lenten sermon series. Lent is the time of year when we prepare ourselves to go to the cross with Jesus on Good Friday, and experience the renewal of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is an opportunity for us to examine ourselves in order to deepen our relationship with God. During Lent we are talking about deepening our roots in Jesus and looking at different spiritual disciplines that can help us do that.
Often, we participate in a fast during Lent. This can be an opportunity to add a spiritual discipline to our lives. A fast is sacrifice and blessing. We might sacrifice something from our lives in order to add something. Or we might add something to our lives and need to sacrifice something to make space for it. As I said last week, this year, I am adding sabbath rest to my life. We talked about the blessings of a sabbath rest last week. This week, I want to talk about gratitude.
Some of us might think it is odd to talk about gratitude as a spiritual discipline, but it takes discipline to live a life of gratitude. During Lent, we could intentionally add gratitude to our lives by keeping a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, we write what we were thankful for that day and that’s it. Or we could approach a Lenten fast by deciding to sacrifice negative thoughts and replace them with thankfulness. In that case, whenever we catch ourselves thinking negatively, we stop and try to think of something to be thankful for in the situation instead.
But before I go on about this, I want to be clear that I am not talking about situations where someone is depressed or grieving. Sometimes we suffer from mental illness that makes us depressed. Depression itself is one such illness, but there are a lot of other mental illnesses that cause depression. When we are experiencing that, it is important to see a doctor and take medicine to help our brains get better. The other case that I am not talking about is when we are grieving. Grief can make us depressed, too. Sometimes we need medicine to help us. When we are grieving we are carrying so much pain and that is normal. We need time and support. Gratitude as a spiritual discipline will not fix depression and it will not fix grief. What I am talking about is the negative thinking that can take over our lives even when we are otherwise healthy and in a good place.
Let’s look at the parable of the prodigal son and see what difference gratitude can make in our lives. In this parable, both sons sin. The younger son’s sins are easier to identify. In Luke 15:12, He asks for his share of the property. It is significant that he does not ask for his share of the inheritance. If he had asked for that, he would have kept his role in the family and his responsibilities. Instead his request is essentially for the money. Remember, the wealth of the family would have been in possessions, like animals, land, houses. But it says in verse 13 that a few days later he left. That means that he sold everything as quickly as possible and left with the money. Doing this in that culture meant that he just wanted his father to die and wanted nothing to do with the family anymore. It was the most insulting thing to do. It is easy to see his sin because of what he does.
What is not as easy to see is the sin of older son. That’s because his sin is defined by what he does not do, and his inaction is lost on us because we are not familiar with that culture. The older son’s role in this conflict between his father and his brother was to act as a mediator. It was his job to go to both parties and negotiate a compromise that was acceptable to each. But he didn’t do that. Moreover, when the younger brother left, it was the older brother’s responsibility to bid him farewell and offer him blessings on behalf of the family. He didn’t do that either. By not doing those things, the older brother was basically saying that he wanted his brother to leave and never return. This was also insulting and sinful.
At the end of the story, the younger son realizes his sin. He sees that his sin was in breaking his relationship with his father. He returns to his father and repents. The older son, the one who stayed, who seemed to live by the rules, continued to reject his brother. When his father celebrated his brother’s return, he complained. This attitude damaged his relationship with his father. So we see in these two brothers, the sin of the lawbreaker, the younger brother, and the sin of the lawkeeper, the older brother. (All information about the brothers is taken from The Cross and the Prodigal by Kenneth E. Bailey (IVP: 2005)).
But what about the father? The father normally is understood to be God, but if we are supposed to be like God in the world then it is also helpful to see the father as a human in this parable. The father chooses gratitude, and because of that he is able to respond to sin with compassion, grace, and mercy. In that culture, the father would not have divided his property. The patriarch would have refused and then punished the younger son. Instead, the father grants his request. When the younger son returns empty-handed the father has a choice. He could have responded with bitterness and anger, and would have been justified in it. But he chose gratitude. He was profoundly grateful for his son’s return. It was this attitude of gratitude that opened up the possibility for reconciliation within the family. If the father rejected his younger son, the possibility for reconciliation could never take place.
We see his gratitude extend even to his older son. He is grateful to have both sons in his life. He wanted to celebrate all together. When his older son responded with scorn and complaints about his younger brother’s reception, the father did not reject him either. Instead he pleaded with him to come and celebrate, to be grateful for his brother’s return. The gratitude of the father leads him to think and act with compassion, grace, and mercy. This is how God acts towards us. God responds to our sin with compassion, grace and mercy. And we are called to be like God in the world. An attitude of gratitude enables us to respond to sin with compassion, grace, and mercy.
In addition to enabling us to reflect God’s character in the world, gratitude is good for our souls. Proverbs 17:22 says this, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” This is indeed a good proverb, it is a good wisdom saying. The root of cheerfulness is gratitude. Gratitude can be healing. It can be a good medicine. Sometimes we get stuck in the habit of thinking about the bad things that happen in a day. When we change that and instead focus on the good things, it changes us. When we start the day with a negative outlook, it shows even in our bodies. Our shoulders are slumped, our brows furrow, our teeth clench and we frown. But, if we switch our thinking and focus instead on what we are thankful for, our shoulders relax and we stand up straighter, our eyes brighten, and our jaws relax and we smile more. We can see these physical signs, but it also affects us inside as well.
When we are negative, we close ourselves off from others. Our personality does not come through, and we often wound other people without even realizing it, just like the older brother wounded his father without even realizing what he was doing (he was so focused on the negative). But when we are grateful, we open ourselves up to be in relationship with other people, just like the father did not cut off his relationships with his sons. Our personality comes out and instead of wounding people, we uplift others. This proverb is indeed true: A cheerful [or a grateful] heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.
Some of us have a brain that is wired to think negatively. This might come as a surprise to you, but I am one of those people who assumes the worst and interprets things negatively. God has been working on me over the years and I have observed how a change in attitude can change my entire day. If I have a day where I focus on the negative, that’s all I see, and I miss all the good things that happen. In fact, a negative attitude can prevent me from receiving the blessings God is giving me that day. I want to share some examples of things that happened this week that were blessings from God. The reason why I was able to receive these blessings was because I chose gratitude in those moments.
The first one happened on Monday night. Brett sings in Spectrum so he was at rehearsal. We had had fish for dinner and nothing had been cleaned up. There were still baskets of laundry needing to be folded. But, the kids grabbed a package of watermelon bubble gum and said, “Mommy! Do you want to blow bubbles?” I had a choice in that moment. I could either do what seemed like the responsible thing and get started on those chores, or I could blow bubbles. Thanks be to God I chose to blow bubbles. My kids and I had a blast on the couch. We laughed and laughed as I would blow bubbles as big as my face and have them pop all over me. All that laughter was medicine to my soul. I realized that I had prayed a few days earlier for a moment like that with my kids. And I almost missed it. But thanks be to God, I received the invitation to blow bubble gum bubbles with gratitude.
Another moment like that happened the very next morning. I was in bed with my prayer book, stealing a few quiet moments with God before the day began and Junia climbed in bed with me. She normally lies there and touches my hair, but that day she took my prayer book out of my hands and started trying to read it out loud: Lis-ten, O Lord, to my pray-ers. In that moment I had a choice. I could either take Jesus’ words to heart, that where two or three are gathered together there He is with us. Or I could feel pressed for time and insist that she give me my prayer book back. Thanks be to God I chose to take Jesus’ words to heart and decided to feel grateful that my daughter was learning to pray by joining in my prayer time with me. She successfully read outloud 4 paragraphs by Henri Nouwen, which deeply touched my heart that morning and set the stage for the rest of my week. I felt so grateful that in that moment I chose to respond with thankfulness to, what honestly felt like the hijacking of my prayer time. My gratitude opened me up to receive the blessing that God gave me through my six-year-old reading Henri Nouwen to me. Gratitude is a medicine to our souls.
To be honest, the best lesson in gratitude that I have received has been from you, especially from our older members. I have been struck by the gratitude with which many older folks live their lives. In my newsletter article, I asked you to tell me how you stay connected with God. Margaret L. told me that she connects with God through gratitude. This struck me this week especially as I saw God’s blessings come to life in moments when I chose gratitude. Gratitude is an important spiritual discipline that helps us to stay connected with God. I see so many people living lives of gratitude in our congregation, if I named you all we would be here all day and never have a chance to eat lunch. But Ken H. is another one of those people. Every week he tells me that he is great because there is no other way to be. What strikes me about Margaret and Ken and others is that they don’t ignore the challenges that they face in life. They acknowledge them, but they don’t want those challenges to define who they are. Instead, they choose to make gratitude define who they are. There are a lot of people like that here at Briarwood. Being around you has changed me. Inspired by you, I live with more gratitude in my life.
Speaking of gratitude, the annual report was so full of blessings from God that I couldn’t help but be filled with gratitude. I am really looking forward to our meeting so that we can reflect on all of the wonderful things that God has done and continues to do here at Briarwood. Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God and King, for His steadfast love endures forever! Amen.