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The Grace of Gratitude

Psalm 66: 1 – 12   Luke 17: 11 – 19
Rev. Dr John Bodycomb
Pentecost 21
13 October 2013

I want to start in a way that may seem a bit odd, given that we’re looking this morning at gratitude. But the fact is there have been times for most of us when we've been as ready to bless God's holy name as to go bungee jumping. It’s been one of those weeks (or maybe even years) when all we wanted to say to God was, "This has been a real stinker! And where were you when I needed you? On the celestial golf course with legions of angels? Or just taking a nap like the bible says you did on the seventh day? Don't expect me to be grateful today. I don't feel like thanking and praising!"

If you think there's something inappropriate or irreverent about speaking this way, I suggest you re-read some of the psalms. There is a great tradition in scripture of lament, complaint – and even criticism of the Eternal, when people of faith feel fed up, fed up, fed up! Christians somehow got the idea that this was prohibited; that they should always be positive, grateful and happy, and that even when they weren't, they should try to kid themselves and others that they were! That sure isn't biblical. So, I'm not about to say "Thou shalt be a thankful kind of person, right now!" It may not be at all how you’re feeling. And if that’s the case, God understands.

But having said that, I want to explore why gratitude is such a strong theme in scripture. The psalmist says, "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord." Maybe there is magic in the 'grace of gratitude'. I want to suggest five reasons why it is good to be a thankful kind of person, and tell some stories to illustrate.

I

First, we bring what I’d call ‘a sweet fragrance’ into others' lives. William Stidger was one-time professor of preaching at Boston University. During the depression of the 1930's, Stidger had been talking late into the night with friends, lamenting the banks closing, the loss of jobs and the spreading misery. One of the friends said, "There sure isn't much to be thankful for right now, is there, Bill."

To this man's surprise, Stidger said after a pause, "Oh yes, there is." "Like what?" "For one thing, I'm grateful for Mrs Wendt." "And who might she be?" Stidger told his friends that Mrs Wendt had taught him in school, and among other things had introduced him to the writings of Tennyson. "Have you ever thanked her?" He had to admit that he'd never thought about it. But that night he wrote to Mrs Wendt. A few weeks later he received this reply:

"My dear Willie, I want you to know what your note meant to me. I am an old lady. Living in a small room, cooking my own meals, and seeming like the last leaf on the tree. You will be interested to know, Willie, that I taught school for fifty years, and in all that time yours is the first letter of appreciation I have ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered my lonely old heart as nothing has cheered me in many years!"

First reason it's good to be a thankful kind of person is that you bring a fragrance into others' lives!

II

Second, as a thankful kind of person you help generate the best in others. To thank the other is very affirming of that person; not to do so can be quite ‘disconfirming’, as they say. Most parents are aware that their progeny respond better to commendation than to condemnation. This I want to illustrate not by reference to child rearing, but with a story some older folks may remember from their childhood. I refer to Eleanor Porter's little girl "Pollyanna".

Walking in the woods, Pollyanna came on her friend Mr Ford, the local minister. He was lying face down on the ground, obviously far from happy. In fact, he had gone there in great distress, because everything in his congregation seemed to be going sour. Two of the elders were squabbling, three of the most energetic women had quit the guild, there was feuding in the choir, and children's work was in disarray following the loss of some key people. The whole outfit looked like it was coming apart – rent by ill-feeling, rivalry, gossip and so on.

Mr Ford was getting himself psyched up to hit them hard the next Sunday. The sermon would begin "Woe unto you!" Pollyanna asked if he liked being a minister: a rather awkward question for him right then! Then she went on to tell him how her own father had been a minister, and that he had a secret. He used to say he couldn't go on being a minister if it weren't for what he called the 'rejoicing texts'. "The what?" "The rejoicing texts." "Well, that's what my father called them. Of course, the bible doesn't call them that. But it's all those that go 'be glad in the Lord' or 'rejoice greatly' or 'shout for joy'. Once, when my father felt specially bad, he counted them. There were eight hundred."

Mr Ford looked at the sermon jottings, full of blistering criticism, and at this little girl. He decided this was no message to bring a people already unhappy. When he got home, he scrapped the lot, and set about preparing a great word of appreciation and affirmation for his people.

III

Third reason to be a thankful kind of person is that gratitude is the antidote to greed. What I mean by this is that we can't have existing side-by- side gratitude for what we have and are, and greed for what we don't have. They simply don't go together. They're mutually exclusive, if you like.

This truth was brought home to me many years ago, when we lived in the US. Someone told me about a postal worker who studied the mail that ended in the dead letter office in Washington, the US national capital. He probably shouldn’t have done so, but he was curious. There were thousands and thousands of letters to the old gent with the white beard, the silly red suit and the sleigh outside. All of them listed demands. "Here is what I want this year." Then followed a great list of goodies. Another one: "You sure goofed last Christmas! Just try to get it right this time. Here's what I asked for!" The employee was curious to know how many 'thank you' letters were sent after Christmas to Santa. There was one!

Lack of gratitude is nothing new. That reading we heard from Luke 17 recounts Jesus' healing of ten men with some kind of dreaded skin disease. It says only one took the trouble to come back and say 'thank you'. There are many layers of meaning in that little story, as you would realise. The grateful chap was a Samaritan and those who took their good fortune for granted were Jews. A bit like another twist on Jesus parable of the good Samaritan.

IV

Fourth reason why it's good to be a thankful kind of person: gratitude is a principle of personal wholeness. I want to illustrate this with the story of Irving Jones, or as he preferred to be known, 'Pop' Jones.

I met Pop Jones when he was vacationing with relatives in the parish where I worked back in the 70s. He came from California, where he had retired. He was seventy-eight years old. He was a striking figure – with Colonel Sanders beard, shoulder-length white hair, a gold ear-ring, and shirt generally unbuttoned to the waist. He had that characteristic west coast tan, from living in a consistently warm and sunny climate. And he came to church barefoot!

One day I ran into him in the main shopping mall. "Hi, Pop, how are doing today?" "I'm fine, son. It's my birthday." I said, "Hey, that's great. How old are you?" "Seventy-eight, son." At the service next Sunday, I met him at the door. "Hi, Pop. How are you today?" "Just fine, son. It's my birthday." I was a bit nonplussed. He wasn't showing signs of memory loss, but I didn't pursue the matter. Later that week I was visiting. He was out in the garden, clad only in shorts, and using a tomahawk to carve a totem pole out of a great log. "Hi, Pop. How are you doing today?" "I'm just fine, son. It's my birthday."

This time I challenged him. "Didn't you tell me down in the mall last week that it was your birthday? And didn't you tell me on Sunday that it was your birthday? What's the truth?" "Son, every day is my birthday!" Pop Jones was an object lesson in how to live creatively at seventy-eight. For him, every day was a new beginning. There were no regrets; only gratitude for being alive. Each day was the beginning of the rest of his life. He was a wonderfully integrated older person.

V

This brings me to my last point; namely that gratitude is the heartbeat of faith. There can be no faith without this basic disposition of thankfulness to God. I want to illustrate this by recalling for you the story of a great hymn.

During the Thirty Years War in Europe (around 1620-1648) one of the towns worst hit was Eilenberg in Saxony. It was sacked twice by Austria, and twice by Sweden. Overcrowding from a flood of refugees brought disease; four times during the war, the death toll surged to plague-like proportions. There was only one pastor in Eilenberg to speak a word of faith and hope in the midst of this; his name was Martin Rinkart. Some days he had as many as fifty funerals. At the end of the Thirty Years War, of Eilenberg's original two thousand homes, only two hundred were left standing.

Finally word came that the Peace of Westphalia had been signed. The Elector of Saxony instructed that thanksgiving services were to be held in every church. Martin Rinkart felt the occasion called for a new hymn. Now, how do you write a hymn of thanksgiving after your town and most of its people have been wiped out in a thirty year conflict? You can do it only if you are somehow convinced that nothing can separate you from the loving ground of all being; neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come. And so, Martin Rinkart wrote,

"Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom his world rejoices;
Who from our mothers' arms hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today!"

Sing it! And mean it!



An address given at Toorak Uniting Church Sunday, 13th Oct. 2013 by the Rev Dr John Bodycomb
IT MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT


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