The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I open today with the words of Diana Butler Bass, from her book, Gratitude:
“About two hours outside of Lexington, Kentucky, on a narrow country road sits a small Baptist church. It embodies the spirit of rural America as much as a church can — a white clapboard building surrounded by fields and woods, with mountains in the hazy distance. A cemetery sits on the property, too, holding saints in the peaceful earth as they away resurrection.
“I have been to all fifty states in America, including Kentucky, but I have never been to this particular church. I have seen it online, but I do not ever want to visit in person. Somewhere in that graveyard, resting among the Baptist faithful, lay the remains of the uncle who abused me when I was fourteen years old. When my mother sent me an email in January 2007 telling me he was dead, I replied, ‘Thank God.’ It was the first time that any mention of my uncle and any word of gratitude were ever combined in a sentence. Once in a while, I look at the graveyard from the safe distance of the Google cam — wanting, I think, to reassure myself that he remains in the dirt.”
In these days when violence against women and girls is in the forefront of our minds, these words resonate with women and men who have endured abuse, and it is important to note that nobody is telling you to be grateful for your abuse or abuser. “Gratitude may work miracles,” Bass writes, “but sometimes the miracle comes from just being able to feel anything but pain.” “Gratitude is no panacea against violence and injustice. Yet my soul suspected there might be a path beyond rage — a way for gratitude to enfold the pain in a greater good.”
I can only imagine that those who have survived abuse wonder where to find that path. I imagine there are times when they wish they could feel anything but pain.
Often, I experience gratitude for something good (like a new church sign) or a happy event (like a trip or a birthday). My gratitude in those cases is part of a transaction: I receive x, so I am grateful for it. But there is another type of gratitude, a more basic, elemental type of gratitude that moves beyond the transactional “if-then” sense of the experience.
Hanging onto transactional gratitude makes it difficult to be grateful when things are not going your way. Are you experiencing gratitude for the way our national political life has deteriorated into fear-mongering, partisan vitriol, and winner-take-all politics? I’m certainly not. In fact, I find it appalling. The politics of avarice and power reflect a very deep-seated sense of fear…the fear of not having enough money, enough power, enough influence. In spite of all the crap I read in the news, I am still trying to live with gratitude for the big stuff: life, faith, love.
And if we all were better at being grateful, at being thankful, at letting go of our fear of not having enough, we’d have a very different kind of political environment.
One of the refrains in the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that you heard this morning is a steady drumbeat to stop worrying…stop sweating the small stuff…let go of your fear…release your attachments to material objects and material wealth.
“Do not worry about … what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” It’s one thing to say to us, “Don’t worry about having Louis Vuitton bags or Patagonia jackets.” But if the only clothing you have is what’s on your back, it’s hard not to worry about what happens when your sweatshirt gets soaked in a rainstorm and it’s 35° outside. It’s one thing to say to us “Don’t worry about whether you’re drinking a Keystone Light or the latest seasonal microbrew from Odell’s.” Or “Don’t worry about whether you’re eating a hamburger at Good Times or a pan-seared halibut at the Kitchen in Old Town,” but it’s another thing to say that to someone who is just hoping to make it to the Mission for a hot meal. And I think what Jesus is saying is “Don’t freak out over having what you want, because through Creation and God’s people, you will get what you need.” And the way that works is through the everyday miracle of people like us sharing what we have and working for the kingdom of God here and now.
But Jesus goes even further than telling us to chill out. “Look at the birds of the air; they don’t work at all, and yet God feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? And can you add a single hour to your lifespan by working harder? And stop worrying if you look good in your new clothes. Think about the lilies of the field and the miracle of the way they grow. They don’t work at all, and even so, King Solomon clothed in all his regalia couldn’t hold a candle to the beauty of these flowers.”
I think what Jesus is talking about is toning down our striving and even our reliance the stuff we can buy, and instead turning the tables to look and really appreciate what God has done and is doing for us. I think Jesus is asking us to become aware of God’s grace: what God gives to us unconditionally as a gift. We did nothing to earn or deserve life itself. We did nothing to earn or deserve the beauty of lilies growing in a field. We did nothing to earn or deserve the taste of apple pie or the delight of a lover’s kiss or seeing a yellow aspen stand on a Colorado mountainside. But we can observe and be grateful for them.
Last week, Jake and I had the gift of leading Geri Stutheit’s memorial service, and one of the things Geri said was that “life isn’t about how much we have…it’s about how much we give.” I think that is how we emulate God…in the giving.
I said earlier that there was a more basic, elemental type of gratitude that goes beyond transactional gratitude (which is simply being thankful that we have stuff that we’ve accumulated or even the good things that happen to us). I think that deep gratitude happens when we slow down, pause, and start to notice that everything around us as a gift.
When I’m at my best, I can capture a sense of wonder and awe when I look out of our kitchen window as the sun rises over the meadow along the Spring Creek Bike Trail. I am grateful when I look up at the stars when I go to the pool at 6:00 a.m. I am grateful when I think about my sons. I am grateful when I think about how we have grown together as this local church over the years, and grateful for all those who came before us to pave the way. These are not experiences of transactional gratitude…I think they comprise a sense of spiritual awareness that beckons me to respond, whether in feeling or action. That is deep gratitude.
David Steindl-Rast, a wise Benedictine monk, writes that “Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.” Sometimes I’m pretty good at that kind of authentic, existential, deep gratitude.
But at other times, I’m not great at seeing things as a gift, and I’m not good at being grateful for some of life’s rougher experiences. I’m not grateful for having had cancer…I’m just grateful that it’s gone! I know that we are all supposed to learn from the unearned suffering in our lives, but I’m still trying to find the big silver lining of that one.
I am deeply grateful to be alive, to have great healthcare, to experience the support and prayers of our congregation, and to be more empathic with others who have cancer…but I’m not grateful for having had cancer or for its after-effects. Like all of us, I still have some growing to do…maybe as I mature I’ll understand it differently and become grateful.
As we enter this stewardship season, I would encourage you to do a little writing…just a few notes if you wish. If you want to take out a pencil, here are some questions for you to consider in your prayers during the coming week:
As we move into this season of thanks, of gratitude, of generosity, may you be blessed, and may you be aware of all that God has done and is doing for you and with you and through you. And may we — all of us — strive first for the Kingdom of God.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Diana Butler Bass, Gratitude. (SF: HarperOne, 2018), pp. 25-26.
 Ibid., p. 38
 Ibid., p. 39
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
October 15, 2017
Rev. Ron Patterson
This morning I think most of you know that I am supposed to talk about money. I think most of you know that we have this wonderful Board of Stewardship that does a great deal of planning and thinking and then sends out a letter and makes some phone calls and then asks the preacher on this Sunday to talk about money. And if you are a visitor this morning, you have wandered in here on the very day when this annual ritual of talking about money is supposed to happen. And I would be tempted to apologize to you visitors because I am tempted to believe that my talking about money might make you uncomfortable, but I know that you know that this beautiful building and this wonderful congregation and these preachers and this music program and what you may have heard about the mission of this congregation did not just happen here on Prospect Avenue by accident--that we were not just hatched from some cosmic egg or that somehow we all fell from the sky fully formed, we are here because for the last 100 years or so, someone talked about money and a lot of great people listened and God blessed and multiplied.
For many years in other congregations, despite being asked to talk about money I have often made a game of explaining that I really don’t like to talk about money because I grew up in a family that even used a different tone of voice when they referred to money—they whispered the word in a rather shameful raspy voice. We had an aunt who had “money” and neighbors who had “money” and there were people in our church who had “money,” but we never talked about it unless the word “money” was mentioned in that tone of voice. A few years ago, I decided that I have this congenital disease known as “financiaphobia”—the fear that since “money” is supposed to be the root of all evil, if I talk about “money,” you will not like me because I might make you uncomfortable while I am making myself uncomfortable talking about “money.”
And of course that is silly. And of course you already know that the church needs money and that the only way for that to happen is for all of us to do our part, by making an annual pledge and then doing as well in our giving as we are able. It’s called proportional giving—giving that reflects our blessings—some give lots and some give less, but all give proportionally.
Many of us have discovered the miracle of tithing. Some of us set aside five or ten percent of our incomes each year to give to others through the church or through hundreds of other caring institutions. Some of us have figured out that the more we are able to give of ourselves, the more we have—not only in dollars, but in joy, because there is a real happiness to be had when we give our time and our dollars. A few of us even believe that the many good things happening around this place have something to do with the blessings our dollars and our volunteer efforts are having in places like Angola or with the dreamers. A lot of us have the idea that our family is a whole lot bigger than the faces on our refrigerators and that God wants us to see the whole world as family. But I think you know most of that.
You know also that there are real expenses and real challenges. You know that there are mission partners locally and around the world who count on our caring as a congregation. You know that there is insurance and lighting and salaries and maintenance. You know that there is a carefully managed budget and hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours that multiply our giving and touch this community in beautiful ways.
You know all of that because you give with a beautiful generosity that has overflowed the budget the last several years in a row and you care and you are here and the last time I checked, you did not fall off a turnip truck or belong to that very tiny group of people who someone once described as “the takers”—you are the givers and the sharers and the thinkers and the carers and the ones who know that when good things happen it is because good people get together to make them happen and that you know; you already know.
And you also know, or I believe that you know, that God gives first and God gives strength and God gives wisdom and when we give we are giving back and giving forward and investing a part of what we have been given because God first loved us. And so, while I may make a joke about not wanting to talk about money, or asking you to fill out your pledge card and turn it in today or next Sunday, the best thing is that I really don’t need to, because you already know.
And so let me say something else that underlies the money talk that’s really faith talk and provides the foundation for what I believe we do in this place and in our lives. It might even be the foundation of civilization, because wherever people are not being civil to one another—wherever there is injustice or hate or bigotry or even war, this quality seems to be in short supply.
Let me talk about giving as gratitude. There are lots of beautiful emotions. There are many positive attitudes of heart and mind that can build up a life and build a community and make our lives more meaningful and touch the world in positive ways, but I can think of none more powerful or more life changing or world impacting than simple gratitude. The medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said once that if the only prayer you ever said in an entire lifetime was the single word “thank you” that would be enough. (Quoted in Spiritual Literacy by Brussat)
Let me attempt a tongue twister: Gratitude as a life attitude is the foundation of happiness. Do you remember when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—those words simply translated could be: “How happy we are when we know that we can’t make it on our own and that we don’t have to.” I have noticed that happy people are grateful people. I have noticed that successful people are grateful people. I have noticed that people who spend their time rocking the boat are not grateful people. I have noticed that the ones who row the boat on any project or who get behind good ideas to make them happen are grateful people. I have noticed that if you look closely at anything that is growing, at its very center you will find gratitude. Gratitude is like sunshine and fertilizer in the garden. Gratitude is what makes the flowers grow and when that attitude is missing, nothing good grows.
I once had a friend who said to me that if worrying was an Olympic event she would be a medal contender. Did you ever notice that worry is not a team sport? Jesus talked about his eternal presence wherever two or three of us were gathered together. Maybe another understanding of his words about the “poor in spirit” would be that true happiness is to know that no matter what, we’re in this thing called life together and that’s all about gratitude. Gratitude as a life attitude is the foundation of happiness.
Let me try another tongue twister: Gratitude as a life attitude is the foundation of healthy relationship. Or as Jesus said it: love your neighbor, love your enemy, and love yourself. Some years ago a major study was undertaken to figure out if there was a way to predict whether a relationship would be successful or not; whether a marriage or a committed relationship would be long term. And they filmed and studied couples interacting with one another and they recorded what they said to one another early in their relationship and they followed them for years and years and years. And the strangest thing emerged. Maybe you read this report. The researchers discovered that the single biggest negative predictor was whether they rolled their eyes in one another’s presence.
You know: (demonstrate an eye roll). Rolling the eyes was a sign that deep down, one or the other of them disrespected the other—was not grateful to the other, was not truly thankful for the person they were with---did not see the other as bearing the image of the Holy—that the other was not really worthy and the relationships failed on that basis. It was simply a failure of gratitude.
And does that say anything to us about the family of nations on this good earth? Does that say anything about why it is so easy to trash-talk people who follow different religions or people who look different or think differently or are stuck in a political rut different than the one we’re stuck in? If I am grateful to God for you, if we are truly grateful for one another and for this amazing human family, then so much that leads to strife and disharmony and even war is placed in the light of God’s love. One of you said it so well: we can never make our own candle any brighter by attempting to blow out the candle of another. Gratitude as a life attitude is the foundation of healthy relationship.
Here’s another tongue twister: Gratitude as a life attitude is the foundation of healing. Now I know that all of you have read about the correlation between stress and illness. People under stress get sicker quicker and stay sicker longer or so I have heard.
Now I have to be very careful here. I am not a scientist and I am not that kind of doctor, but I do know that lots of illnesses are organic or just happen because these wonderful bodies of ours wear out or have genetic imperfections. Little bugs doing wicked things cause lots of illness, but a failure of gratitude is like offering those little critters a red carpet and an engraved invitation to take up residence; failing to be grateful feeds whatever ails us with its favorite food.
Jesus was a healer because Jesus sought to put harmony in our hearts and peace in our minds. Stress causes distress and distress takes away our ease and when the ease is gone, the dis-ease takes its place.
Gratitude, being thankful, thankful for others, for care givers and friends, for life and for this world is a way of throwing the entire power of the creator God into the battle with whatever it is that robs us of our ease.
Gratitude as a life attitude is the foundation of healing.
One last thing: Gratitude as a life attitude is the best hope we have for the future. I don’t have a crystal ball and I was absent the day they talked about prognostication in the seminary I attended so I missed out on that too. Please, I beg you, don’t ask me what the stock market is about to do or what tweet or trick might appear in the night, but I do know that if you and I understand our life journey as a pilgrimage of gratitude from God to God, hand in hand with God-giving as God gives, the future is taken care of. In the future that we might doubt or worry about, nothing that can hurt us or surprise us or offend us or confuse us, because we belong and are safe and loved and accepted, by the one who will never let us go. Gratitude as a life attitude is the best hope we have for the future.
Now, this was supposed to be a sermon asking you for money, but it has degenerated into a discussion of gratitude. May I be so bold as to suggest, my beloved friends, that if you and I get the attitude of gratitude, the money around this place will take care of itself?
Thank you, thank you all and thank God! Amen.
The Rev. Ron Patterson came to Plymouth as our interim for the fall of 2017 during the Rev. Hal Chorpenning’s 2017 sabbatical. Ron has served many churches from Ohio to New York City and Naples UCC in Florida, where he was the Senior Minister for many years before retiring. Ron’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren attend Plymouth.
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