Rev. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
This morning, I want to share a memory with you, a personal memory from my childhood and invite you to think about a similar story from your own life. This is one of those sermons where I’m going to tell a story, not because it is the be-all and end all of stories, it’s probably not even a very good story, but I’m going to tell it because it’s a part of my story about gratitude, that I hope will get you to thinking about a grateful part of your story.
My great-grandmother was born shortly after the Civil War. Her father had been in the Union Army in an Ohio Regiment, and she spent her girlhood in a small Ohio town. She married my great-grandfather and moved to his family’s farm. When I came along, she was a woman in her ninety’s with glasses as thick as coke bottles and skin as tough as leather and hands gnarled from milking too many cows for too many years. She was a brilliant farm manager, a tough business woman and a sharp tongued judge of morality. She had no patience for most lesser mortals and would, I am told, pronounce her opinions on almost any topic. She was far from a perfect person. She had flaws which made some of the family dislike her intensely—particularly her six daughters-in-law, other family members fear her, and more than a few of her seven children and dozens of grandchildren uncomfortable in her presence. But I knew none of that at the time.
I only knew that she loved little children and I was a child, just one of her seventy or eighty great-grand children and despite learning later in life of her imperfections, I loved her and thought she was amazing. My clearest memory of her was from when I was about six or seven and she would sit in her rocking chair clutching her worn leather Bible in one hand and her oversized magnifying glass in the other. She would sit for hours rocking and reading that book. And I remember pulling out a kitchen chair from the table to over near where she rocked and sitting down next to her. And if you did that, she would read out loud with a strong voice as clear to me now as my own: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters….” or “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help, my help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” And she would keep reading as long as one of the little ones sat beside her, and then after a time, she would take our hand and tell us how important it was to pray and to thank God and be grateful. And then, she would pray with us. And that’s what she did. That’s what she did, day in and day out until her eyesight failed and her cataracts brought her reading to an end.
And the doctor said that her heart could not stand cataract surgery, which at that time—over sixty years ago, was a terrible ordeal, but she insisted. She told that doctor that unless she could read her Bible, it didn’t matter if she survived or not. So she had that surgery and for the next several years, she kept on rocking and reading that Bible and praying and giving thanks because that was how she had decided to spend the remainder of the days God gave her.
Now somewhere in your life there is, I hope, a story like that one. A story about a person who refused to lose heart. A story about a person whose faith was the center of their life. A story of gratitude. It could be a story about a person who gave you some extraordinary gift or who you saw giving to another. It might be the memory of someone who appeared in your life in a special way at a time of crisis and who helped you make it through. What I am asking you to do is to think about someone you loved or who you respected who taught you what it meant to live the words of Jesus about giving or about praying always and never losing heart.
That’s thought I want to share today. Be grateful and don’t lose heart. There are so many things we can loose and so many of us have lost so much, but if you don’t lose heart and if you are grateful, I believe everything that looks like an end is only a beginning.
But that’s not easy, is it? We do lose heart; we do lose heart, don’t we? We get worried about some thing, or someone says something that upsets us or we get wound up about something that is happening in the news or in the neighborhood or to someone we love. Sometimes, we lose heart when our jobs get us down.
For me it sometimes doesn’t take too much and I get down on myself and start doubting and twisting in the wind of my own fears. And forget all about being grateful for my blessings. Does that ever happen to you?
Well, I think Jesus knew that about us, he knew that we have this chronic tendency to lose heart and so he told the story we heard this morning of the unjust judge and the persistent widow who kept pestering that judge with her complaints, day and night, until finally the unjust judge gave the woman what she wanted. And then Jesus says, think about it, if a dishonest judge can finally do the right thing, what about God who loves everyone of us as if we are the only one in the universe to love, won’t God listen to our prayers and take care of us? Be grateful and don’t lose heart!
Several years ago, I started a little activity based on absolute frustration. Part of my job when I served in New York City was to take phone calls that the switchboard at Marble Collegiate Church didn’t know what to do with. Often they were calls from people with problems that were so severe that I found myself just sitting there with my mouth open wondering what on earth I could possibly do to help.
Well I learned a long time ago, painfully and slowly, that advice is cheap and that giving advice, giving your answers to your problems to another person for their problems rarely works. That advice is often not the best thing you can give another person. Think about the ministry of Jesus. What did he do when someone came to him with a problem? What did he do? Did he give advice? Did he have a quick and ready answer? Not usually. Not usually.
He almost never told people what do to. What he did was offer himself. What he did was listen and invite the person looking for help to see themselves as a child of God. What he did was to invite people into a relationship with him and with God. Because he knew that if we were in relationship, if we were connected to the source of power, to the source of life, then we would find the strength to face the problem and never lose heart.
So after a very long learning curve, before I took one of those phone calls, I would take a moment and offer a simple prayer: “Lord, help me listen, help me understand, and help me accept whatever it is I am about to hear and then give it to you. And then I would listen to the person and then I would listen some more and I remember one day I was listening to a woman who had called from England. It was very late at night there and I could tell she was exhausted and at the end of her rope. She had some tremendous family problems, she was going through a divorce, she had a son who was an absolute nightmare to her and her mother was dying and I was three thousand miles away from her pain and tempted all the while to start giving her advice, but I just kept listening and suddenly, something prompted me to pick up a post-it note—you know, one of those little yellow slips of gummed paper and I wrote her first name on that piece of paper for some reason.
Then I said to her, you know, your problems are so immense, but my faith says to me that they are not larger than God’s love for you. I can’t make your problems go away, but I want to ask your permission to do something. I have written your first name on a slip of paper. Chances are we are never going to meet in this life, but I am going to tape that slip of paper onto the screen of my computer terminal and every time I look at my computer, dozens of time every day, I am going to repeat your name and ask God to give you the strength you need not to lose heart and to be grateful.
To this day, I don’t know where that idea came from, but every time I run into a situation which pushes me to the edge or which exhausts the possibilities of the gifts God has given me and I feel like losing heart myself or am with someone else in that same fix, I reach for a post-it note and put that name somewhere I can see it as a reminder that I need to keep praying and never lose heart and be grateful for God’s love.
Now, somewhere in your life there is the story of someone who touched your life and tried to teach you the power of never giving up and never losing heart. Cherish that memory and take their story as your marching orders for the days you have left. As I see it, there is no better way and no deeper purpose for your life and mine than to live those memories and to share them.
One other thing: somewhere there is someone who needs to learn that same message from us. Perhaps it’s the person sitting next to you this morning or one of your neighbors or someone you have not met. Maybe it’s this troubled world of ours and some of the hate blinded and hurt burdened individuals running around spreading discord or killing people. You may never meet a person like that face to face, but they need your prayers. Maybe it’s some of those folks so convinced that their opinions are right that they figure there’s not enough room on this good earth for the rest of us. Well, they need our prayers too, and whether they know it or not, a group of good people, people of faith and courage in this nation and in our faith tradition and in every nation and every faith tradition, may be the ones who will keep this good earth of ours from self-destructing.
Our reading for this morning ends on that note. It talks about that day when Jesus will come again. It ends with the question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And the answer is a resounding “yes,” if we keep praying, if we keep being grateful, and never, never, never lose heart!
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.