Rev. Danielle K. Bartz November 19, 2023
Luke 17:11-19 “The Power of Thanksgiving”
A quick internet search looking for the positive effects of gratitude will result in millions of hits – everything from articles in Vogue, to TED Talks, from pseudo-science, to actual science – there is an undeniable reality – focusing on gratitude in our lives has positive effects on our mental and physical well-being. A regular practice of giving thanks has been proven – in real scientific studies – to improve blood pressure, reduce doctor’s visits, improve sleep quality, strengthen relationships, increase patience, and all around improve our lives. Further, it has become a social media trend for people to post something they are grateful for every day in November. If you are looking for a fall decoration, chances are it will say ‘give thanks’ on it. Even though I have ambivalent feelings about the commercialization of the gratitude, I am grateful that it has become something that is placed in front of us. There is no doubt in my mind that cultivating a regular practice of gratitude is something we should all strive to do.
I read recently that a gratitude practice should be incorporated into our lives as a daily task – in line with brushing our teeth. The article commented that we all know and agree it is a healthy thing, so it should become part of our routines, something to check off our to-do list each and every day. And I don’t disagree with that on a fundamental level, but I am troubled by the idea that gratitude can be reduced to a chore, a necessary one, but still a chore. Because I believe that the power of gratitude is much more than that. And for those of us who seek a connection with the divine, and turn to that connection to endure for today and help us to work for a better tomorrow – then reducing gratitude to an item on a to-do list is a missed opportunity. Because I believe that living a life rooted in gratitude, deep gratitude not just for the simple things of life but for the empowerment it gives us, is a key. A key that unlocks the possibilities that God has for us, the possibilities we were created for. Gratitude is a connection to God.
Jesus told the man that was healed in today’s scripture, the one who turned back to give thanks for that healing, that it was his faith that made him well. And I cannot help but wonder: how was that faith expressed? Yes, the man fell at Jesus’ feet and praised God with a loud voice. Yes, he referred to Jesus as Master, the same word in Greek that the disciples used to refer to Christ. Yes, he worshipped the power of the incarnate God. And, he gave thanks. He gave thanks for the miracle of health, a miracle that would ensure his full inclusion into the community once again. He gave thanks – an act of faith that not only healed his body but healed his spirit. It was his faith, a faith expressed through gratitude that made him well, blessed by Christ for the journey ahead. Gratitude was not a chore, or a task to be accomplished. Gratitude was a key that unlocked the power of God’s blessing for whatever was to come next.
So, my question for us today is this: How can we move beyond the performative nature of gratitude, or the obligatory aspects of giving thanks, and instead embrace the power of gratitude to bless us for today and carry us through tomorrow? To consider this question, there are four suggestions I have: to let thanksgiving enhance the joys we experience; let thanksgiving transcend the pains we suffer; let thanksgiving underpin the griefs we must endure; and let thanksgiving sweeten the duties we must perform. How that is done will be as unique as each of you, but to get us all thinking, I have four short stories to share.
A couple of years ago, on a warm fall day, my clergy colleagues and I were sitting outside a downtown coffee shop for our weekly gathering. This was before we finally had to admit to ourselves that our regular gatherings had become too…rowdy…to remain in public spaces. So that day we had pulled a few tables together and were animatedly discussing whatever it was we were discussing – maybe the scripture text for the upcoming Sunday, but probably not. An older gentleman walked by the table, and without prompting or explanation, placed on it two gold-colored angels, lawn-ornament style. And remarkably gaudy. While we are not entirely sure, we think he had just walked out of Grace Place and had purchased them, though quickly realizing he had no need for them, gave them to us. Now, none of us knew him – and it is not like we looked like a group of clergy. So, for reasons only that man and God know, he left those two hideous angels on the table and walked off. Not willing to leave them there, one of our group said he would take them and get rid of them. But when we gathered for a birthday party a week later, guess what the birthday person received as a present – yes, the two gold angels. Ever polite, she accepted them graciously and even sent a thank you note. But then those angels started to pop up everywhere. On front steps, or tucked into a bush in a yard. If one of us was on vacation, we would inevitably come back to find a gold angel in our office, even if those offices had been left locked. I was once watering the house plants for one of my colleagues while he was on vacation, and he came home to find a gold angel in his tub. But, that wasn’t the end of it – after each appearance of an angel, the recipient would immediately send out a group text with an elaborate thank you to whomever had anonymously left them the angel. The thank you became a part of the joke. But, even though we laugh about it and are getting more and more clever about hiding angels, the thank you has become something much more. It is a reminder to each of us to give thanks for a group of colleagues who do profound, and yes silly, things to remind one another how much we care. It is a way to give thanks for the laughter and the joy, and a sense of grounding that we get by remembering we are not alone. The angels are silly, but the thanks are real. The thanksgiving enhances the joy we experience, ensuring that the joy endures long after the angel has moved on.
And just as thanksgiving enhances joy it also helps us to transcend the pain we inevitably all suffer. As many of you know a dear friend of mine – Rebecca, a UCC clergy living in the Cities, was in a horrible car accident, resulting in significant injuries. Her wife has been diligent in updating friends near and far of the progress Rebecca is making. But the updates do not just include a breakdown of what has happened that day. Instead the updates are wrapped up in thanksgiving – thanksgiving for the new day that at one point felt unlikely. Thanksgiving for the surprise of a friend showing up to clean the house. Thanksgiving for a faith community that says fervent prayers for healing. Thanksgiving for a normal, quiet day at home. I am not exaggerating when I say that reading the daily updates posted by Rebecca’s wife is like reading a devotional. Their family has dedicated their healing journey to be one of giving thanks – and giving thanks is transcending the pain of healing and adjusting to a new life. I have never believed in the power of God more than while watching this family in awe as they give thanks.
In the same way, thanksgiving can underpin the griefs we endure, allowing us to not be held down by grief but, in our own time and with the help of God, move through it. I am on the Board of Directors of THEE Alliance, a MN based organization that is connected to the national organization RIP Medical Debt, which purchases and then forgives medical debt anonymously. THEE Alliance is a collection of faith communities across MN that is collectively working to forgive $100 million of medical debt in our state. THEE Alliance, by the way, was inspired by what we did here in Winona with four other faith communities in 2020. We received a note this last week from a gentleman who had heard of our work. His daughter-in-law had just died from an untreatable cancer that was discovered while she was pregnant. Choosing to carry her pregnancy to term, she died when her baby was less than six months old. The family was overwhelmed by medical bills, which continue to come in. And, while they are privileged enough to be able to endure the outrageous cost of medical care in this country, they are very aware many are not. At the funeral for the young woman, whose name was Dani – which incidentally most of my family call me – they used the opportunity to not only celebrate her life, but to raise awareness about the possibilities of lessening the burden of medical debt for others. They asked everyone to give thanks for the life of Dani, and for the life of the baby she chose to bring into the world as her dying act, by supporting the work of THEE Alliance. The money is still coming in, but to date it is the largest gift we have received and it is already being used to purchase and forgive debts for thousands across the state. This act of thanksgiving does not remove the grief Dani’s family is feeling, but it does give them a gate to walk through when they are ready. And the thousands of families whose lives will forever be changed by this act of thanksgiving, will in turn give great thanks themselves. They will never know Dani or her story, but they will forever know the ripple of thanks she started.
And finally, thanksgiving can sweeten the duties that we must perform – duties both mundane and extraordinary. This is a gift of thanksgiving that I experience the most and that is because of the privilege of my position as your pastor. I am uniquely positioned to see the myriad ways you all serve this church, the Winona community, and God. I see what you do, the big and the small, and I am so overwhelmingly grateful for it. And it is this gratitude that makes my duty so sweet. Because while my duty as clergy is a sacred one, it is usually not a glamorous one. My duties extend from prayer in crisis, all the way to trying to figure out how to turn the water off of a running toilet. In the case of this week, I spent a lot of my time creating spreadsheets and formatting documents – which is, quite frankly, a mind-numbing, but never bitter task. Because I do it strengthened by the thanks I have for you, for the thanks I have in the ways you have opened yourselves to the Holy Spirit and for the thanks I have for your relentless drive to serve God.
Giving thanks, gratitude, is not merely a chore to be done to ensure our own well-being, though we all know how beneficial it is and should be something on our minds daily. Giving thanks, gratitude, is a key to tapping into the power of God. It is a way to enhance joy, transcend pain, underpin grief, and sweeten duties to perform. Giving thanks, gratitude, is how our faith makes us well. And giving thanks, gratitude, is how the world is made well. Amen.
Great and Good God, you have created each of us with the powerful gift of being thankful for all that you have given us and the entirety of creation. For this gift and they way it connects us to you, we give you great thanks, and it is in this spirit of gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
We know, God, that for many in this world, gratitude is something that feels out of reach. For those stuck in cycles of poverty, addiction, fear, war, and loneliness we offer our prayers, prayers that turn to you to give them comfort in ways that we cannot. And it is this comfort that we rely on for ourselves when our own thanks giving seems beyond reach.
We open ourselves to you now in prayer, releasing all of those things that we are burdening our spirits, and as act of thanksgiving of your presence, we turn them over to you embraced in these moments of silence…
Good and loving God – we experience you must when we are grateful for all of the blessings of this life. We offer this gratitude in the name of Jesus Christ, who reminds us that it is our faith that makes us well. And we pray now in the way he taught…Our Father…