Sunday, October 10, 2010
Sermons from Last Year: #2 An Unreckonable Gratitude
An Unreckonable Gratitude
Delivered to UUSF 11.29.2009
For reasons that I know I am not even fully aware of (and can’t possibly be fully aware of), and from the bottom of my heart, the center of my heart, I am compelled to repeat, "Thank you!" (Simply for your presence, for your way of being in the world, and for something you’ve done already in this world that has improved it and probably worked its way into affecting my life and those of many others.)
And our seventh UU principle, which states our respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part tells me that I really don’t know who or what all to thank, so my thank you today is universal. To countless people who have come before and left traces of beauty in this life for me to enjoy, to those who have carried the Unitarian and Universalist banners, both preachers and practitioners, to those who have created vital institutions such as the SF Interfaith Council—people of faith coming together to work against homelessness and poverty in the bay area. And for the US system of government with all its checks and balances, I am grateful. And to all of the plants and animals, to the Earth, Sun, Moon and stars, and even to all the energy and matter in the universe that has come together to make this moment and every other moment, I just want to say, "Thank you!"
I say it because my list of blessings in this life has already been long. As our earlier reading from Forrest Church notes, the gift of life from our parents is something each of us were granted through no doing of our own, as far as we know or could attempt to prove. We just arrived here into life. I don't even know who all to be grateful to, for my invitation into this life. My parents were most directly responsible, but for all I know I might want to thank my father's employers for a recent pay raise, or my older sisters for both being female, or perhaps the quality control person at the condom factory for being lax in their duties because it was a Monday or a Friday.
It's not just the simple gift of life to be grateful for, but to be born into this time and this place. To have the privileges of a family with enough money, that values education; to be born into this world by chance male and white and "straight" in a time and place where those attributes often carry benefits.
And I'm grateful not just for the gift of life in the here-and-now, but also for the gifts that have sustained life across time. To be born on a planet with the right mix of molecules in the environment--where plants grow easily from seeds, and to be born into a time with domesticated livestock and an abundance of grains and vegetables. To be born on a planet with a star just the right size and distance and brightness to allow for such abundant life.
I'm grateful to those who have created social systems and technologies that have helped to boost my quality of living, even when those social systems and technologies have caused harm to our environment and to the quality of life for others. And I am grateful to the environment and to those suffering people for suffering through the damage caused by the inherent evils (or evil byproducts) of those same social systems and technologies.
So many blessings have come to me, and to many of us here, and I think it's of utmost importance that we acknowledge those blessings in all their fullness, even if that stings sometimes. Because by being in life, whatever lot we've received, we are each blessed in fundamental ways just to be alive and aware in the universe--as the universe experiencing itself!!
The acknowledgment of that blessing is essential for our grounded connection with the universe. The gratitude that we can offer is critical, because it changes our state of being. The existence of gratitude changes our attitude.
In Boy Scouts, in order to use a knife or saw or axe--anything with a blade--it was important to have your "Totin' Chip" card, which meant you'd passed basic safety training. One critical piece of knowledge I recall learning was how to safely pass a sharp item from one person to another. When the person receiving the bladed tool had safely gotten a grip on the item, they said "Thank you," as a sign to the giver that the transaction had successfully taken place.
The person who neglects saying "Thank you" in this case is dangerous, because the acknowledgment of an exchange becomes rather unclear. In a similar way, when we fail to acknowledge the benefits we have (or the detriments we avoid), our danger becomes one of ingratitude, of entitlement. Without changing to a state of gratitude, we may continue to expect that more benefits should be heaped upon us.
And this “thank you,”—this recognition of gratitude—is best when it comes from down deep. What follows are a couple examples of the shallow gratitude from dinner tables I have been at in the course of my life. At our Lutheran family dinners, the grace was “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. Amen.” Or perhaps this one that my friends’ families used to say might ring more bells: “Come lord Jesus be our guest, let this food to us be blessed. Amen.” I was asked to say grace one Thanksgiving over break from college. After a friend taught me “God’s neat, let’s eat.” I decided to impress my family by shortening it to the bare essentials: “Yay God.” “Impressed” they were, but not really in a positive sense. Admittedly, it’s really not about the content or length, but it is about taking the time to sincerely recognize the bounty we have received.
I imagine most of you here over the course of the last decade have noticed the patriotic phrase "God Bless America" in speeches or on bumper stickers? Well, I've always felt our nation was already richly blessed in so many ways. And yet the apparent attitude of our country has been one of ingratitude and entitlement, with expectations of greater wealth and economic growth, and little acknowledgment of the blessings thus far received. I can’t really put my finger on the root of the problem, but I can only imagine that the heads-down, overworked, exhausted, spoon-fed-by- television nature of life has certainly been an exacerbating factor.
Taking even a moment to recognize the inherent grace contained within the gift of being here in space and time can pull away a veil, for each of us as individuals as well as this country. As a nation—and equally as important, as individuals—our change to a state of gratitude has the potential to work miracles. When we realize all that we have been given, our modus operandi—our way of being in the world—changes. The recognition of our wealth turns us away from habits of acquiring and consuming, and away from resistive re-gifting of what we've received, and toward generosity. The fundamental gift of life calls us to give and to pass it on. I'm not talking about just bringing life to new human babies, but about spreading greater life, greater energy, and greater love to all the people and beings we have opportunities to connect with in life.
By acknowledging the privileges obtained by virtue of having a certain gender, race, class, sexual orientation, size, ability, or nationality ascribed to and attached to our bodies, we make way for an awareness of clear paths for re-gifting gifts that never ought to have been bestowed so arbitrarily in the first place. Our privileges can be powerful tools for creating equality. Whenever greater equality is achieved and recognized, the gratitude becomes a chain and the world around us becomes richer.
We each are given the gift of one life, and we each have whatever time, ability, and energy left to do what we will in the world. Some people have become great leaders and turned their lives into amazing works of justice—people like Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, MLK, Cesar Chavez, and Dorothy Day. But for every one of those well-known saints, there are thousands of people playing supporting roles in those movements. And for every preeminent social movement, there are thousands of unrecognized or anonymous movements that support the lives of smaller communities, families and individuals. I'm thinking here of people and movements like the ones you can read about on the wall just outside the Starr King room just down the hall in the center.
So...you may be blessed with the skills and opportunities to be a great leader. Or you may be blessed with money, energy or time to re-gift, thereby adding your power to projects and movements that matter. Or you may be blessed only with a mind, a heart, a voice, hands, and a body, each of which you can turn into gifts.
Whatever gifts you have been given, receive them and acknowledge them. And then let your life be a Thank You!
pax hominibus,agape to all,joel