Sermon preached Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011
Texts: Philippians 4:4-7; I Thessalonians 5:15-24
Poetry is not always the best way to begin a sermon. I know some, in fact, who would prefer never to hear it here or anywhere else – unless maybe the poem begins: “There once was a man from Niagara, who took too much Viagra.” Of course the rest of that poem may not be suitable for a sermon. I really wouldn’t know because I never finished writing it.
Now that I have your attention, I do want to share only a small part of a poem, the poem “Praying” by Mary Oliver (Thirst, 37) “this isn’t/a contest but the doorway/into thanks, and a silence in which/another voice may speak.” I deeply appreciate these compact words on prayer – the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.
I also appreciate another writer’s brief words on prayer. Here are the two best prayers I know: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 82)
Over the past six weeks we have been focusing on prayer. This is the final in a series of six sermons on prayer. Some have been reading Marjorie Suchocki’s book on prayer, In God’s Presence. During the sermon series I have said over and over again that the heart of prayer is relationship and transformation - a deepening relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, and being transformed by God’s love. In the series we have discussed meditative and silent prayer, prayer as asking, prayer as complaint and lament – and today we are going to walk through the doorway into thanks. We are focusing on prayer as gratitude and thanksgiving.
Prayer is a doorway into thanks. It is a doorway, an invitation, not an imperative. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say Rejoice.” “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” These are words of encouragement, invitation, exhortation – not so much words of command. Invitations to prayer as rejoicing and giving thanks are invitations to a deeper and richer relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Marjorie Suchocki: “a prayer of pure thanksgiving creates an even more deeply personal dynamic between ourselves and God” (In God’s Presence, 116).
Prayers of gratitude deepen relationship, and they transform us. In his book How To Want What You Have, Timothy Miller talks about how gratitude changes us. Gratitude, he says “is always a could, never a should” (165). He distinguishes between feelings of gratitude and the practice of gratitude, which is what prayers of gratitude are, the practice of gratitude. The practice of Gratitude is the intention to think and behave in such a way that welcomes the experience of Gratitude, regardless of your circumstances or previous experiences. Then he goes on to say how this practice can change us. The feeling of Gratitude is a shy bird…. You practice Gratitude by carefully building a home in your heart to accommodate it. The bird does not always come, but if you make a home for it, it comes often enough (169).
If the heart of prayer is relationship and transformation, prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving have a vital place in our praying. It is important to remember that the invitation to this kind of praying comes to us regardless of our circumstances, and I have come to think of prayers of gratitude as part of a journey. Praying is a doorway into thanks, but there can be a long hallway from the open door to the bright light of thanks. I want to illustrate this with two stories.
Marjorie Suchocki tells a moving story about getting to gratitude in her book on prayer. I remember a night during a time in my life when all seemed like despair. My whole world had fallen apart, and the pain seemed almost beyond endurance. Marjorie is invited to go sledding with some friends on a bright, crisp winter night. Breaking through the woods into the clearing, I suddenly saw the sky filled with subtle changing lights. It was one of those rare occasions when the northern lights could be seen even as far south as Ohio, where I lived at the time. I could not move from the wonder of the scene – so much unexpected beauty! And it seemed to me then that there is a joy of beauty deeper than any pain, and a glory to living and experiencing beauty, no matter what the hardships. And just as my pain and despair had been experienced by God, even so my joy was experienced by God. (122-123) Because of her practice of prayer, Marjorie was open to new experiences of gratitude and thanksgiving, even when life was painful and difficult, and experiencing beauty, she rejoices with God – shares her joy with God.
I was in high school when I first encountered Max Ehrmann’s prose poem, Desiderata which contains these words: With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world. My own journey with prayer as gratitude is a journey in which I seek to be reminded that it is still a beautiful world, that God still works to create beauty in the world – where the beauty is sometimes named love, sometimes named compassion, sometimes named peace, sometimes named justice. Some days that is easy because I know I have so much to be thankful for: basic necessities, living in a country where I can express opinions freely, a marriage that continues to grow after almost twenty-nine years, children who create such pride and joy, a caring church community, music which makes me smile or sing or dance, books whose words are beautiful and/or whose ideas spark my imagination, and the list goes on. Gratitude comes easy sometimes. I am also aware of the challenges in our world – economic, social, environmental, political. Economic insecurity looms heavily. War and violence continue across the globe. We seem unwilling or unable to really grapple with some of our deep economic and environmental issues – and they are intertwined. But the pain of the world is not just out there. I feel it acutely inside myself, too. There are scars etched by the cut glass of broken dreams, pains carried from wounds of the past, sometimes haunting self-doubt, worries about my children and their hopes and dreams. There are those days when one problem barely gets managed before another one rears its head. Prayer is a doorway into thanks, but there are times when the hallway from the door to the place of gratitude seems long and dark. There are times when we move from joy to pain to joy – like Palm Sunday to Good Firday to Easter.
Joan Chittister, in one of her books writes, It’s not always possible to rejoice in our struggles. But it is always possible to trust them. Then, we may surely give thanks, not for the blessing we have, but for the blessings we cannot see. In every struggle there is a hidden blessing. (Becoming Fully Human, 106) My journey with prayers of gratitude is a journey to get to that place of trust, and not just about what’s happening, but also about what has happened. Henri Nouwen once wrote, “It is a difficult discipline to constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way in which God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future” (in Melanie Svoboda, Traits of a Healthy Spirituality, 102). To be able to give thanks for all that has led me to this place, to be able to express gratitude for all that is happening, at least at some level, that is where I am going in my own journey with prayer as thanksgiving and gratitude. Rejoice in the Lord always. Give thanks in all circumstances. Remember it is still a beautiful world.
A final story. Huston Smith is a highly regarded scholar, writer and teacher in the field of religion. Our First and Ten men’s group read his book, The World’s Religions. A community interfaith book group which I convene just read his memoir, Tales of Wonder. As he ends his memoir, Huston Smith recalls the story of St. John Chrysostom. John had gotten cross-wise with the Czarena of Russia for criticizing her for neglecting the poor, and he was ordered to be executed – drawn and quartered. John’s last overheard words were: “Praise, praise for everything. Thanks, thanks for it all.” And Huston Smith, now ninty and recently moved into a care facility echoes these words about his own life – praise, praise for everything. Thanks, thanks for it all. He shares these words even as he has shared the death of a daughter to cancer when she was fifty and the murder of a granddaughter. Still he wants to offer thanks and praise for life.
I want to get to that place too, and offering prayers of gratitude opens me to the beauty and wonder of life and to the mystery of God’s love. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Rejoice always; give thanks in all circumstances – prayer is the doorway into thanks, and I am walking through it again and again and again. Amen.
If we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice.
If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
In the deepest sense, all prayers are prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 115
Our thanksgiving to God moves from thanks for God’s gifts to thanks for God’s self; it is as if we touch God back, and experience a sense of God’s self as an overwhelming presence of love. Our thanksgiving then become swallowed up in joy, which is itself the praise of God…. In all our praying, then, there is a thanksgiving for the gift of prayer itself. Through prayer, we know ourselves as we truly are: in God’s presence.
Marjorie Suchocki, In God’s Presence, 124
We grow in love when we grow in gratefulness. And we grow in gratefulness when we grow in love.
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: the heart of prayer, 176
This is how God prays: by dancing.
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: the heart of prayer, 189
Praying is the verb that goes with religion. Praying (in the widest sense) is what keeps religious experience from drying up into nothing but religious structures.
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: the heart of prayer, 213