Small Hearts enlarged by Gratitude

The featured image above shows AA Milne’s Pooh Bear with his friend Piglet sitting side by side on a log. Piglet is gazing up at Pooh as he observes that he’s noticed that even though he has a very small heart – it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.

I struggle with gratitude – it’s a difficult word. I hate being reminded that I should be more grateful. The moment I hear the word grateful old memories arise of parental figures wagging their fingers at me – telling me I should be more grateful.

What is gratitude? Well, it’s an impulse – a response to the experience of generosity. But generosity is also a difficult word. How many times is our seeming ingratitude a response to another tagging conditions onto their generosity. See all the things I’ve done for you – you should be more grateful. Conditional generosity is no generosity at all.

The story of the cleansing of the 10 lepers in Luke 17 offers a window on gratitude. Like all Jesus stories its more complex than it at first appears. This is a story about gratitude, but with a subtext. As usual with Jesus it’s the subtext that carries the punch. At this juncture I will simply say that gratitude touches the most unexpected of people.

Jesus feigns surprise that gratitude should touch the most unexpected of people. He asks:

Were not 10 made clean? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner. 

Remember only the despised Samaritan leper returns to give praise to God. The symbolism of this would not be lost on Jesus’ xenophobic audience. Gratitude affects the most unexpected of people.

It’s a well observed phenomenon that when we have little else in life, in a world of scarcity, generosity and gratitude become tools for survival. Genuine scarcity compels people to rely on one another.  That reliance takes the form of gratitude and generosity. We find an echo of this in the final collect for Compline or night prayer where we pray:

that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil.

Insecurity deepens our encounter with gratitude. I remember having this experience after arriving in this country. Married for many years to an American, I nevertheless arrived at a time when same gender marriage afforded me no immigration rights.  I entered the US in 2008 on an 18-month professional development visa – wondering how Al’s and my dream of being a meaningful part of our 3-year-old granddaughter’s life would be realized. Looking back, I’m astonished by the audacity of my trust in the generosity of God during this period of my life.

I’m now a citizen with a purposeful and comfortable life having realized not only the dream of being part of our granddaughter’s life – but so much more than – at the time of arrival – I was even capable of imagining. It’s odd to me now looking back how deeply I trusted God’s generosity with an intensity of gratitude that – now I am comfortable and secure – I struggle to reconnect with.

Now the temptation for me is to fall into the illusion that the building of a new life of security and success has been all my own doing. This illusion of self-sufficiency everyday threatens to insulate me from my encounter with gratitude. I mention this only because I know the temptation of viewing all the goodness in my life as only the fruits of my own skill and labor and not God’s freely given gift.

In contrast to communities of scarcity, in communities of abundance – self-sufficiency – the illusion of autonomous independence – is the curse of the comfortable. For those of us who fall into this category the question we might ask is do we feel grateful to God for all that we have been given to enjoy in life – or does our comfortableness make us more anxious about holding onto what we have as if all we enjoy is ours by right and not gift?

I believe this question lies at the heart of our Christian responsibility to live lives of good stewardship – the exercise of tender competence in service to the world.

I’m brought up short by the line in today’s epistle from Second Timothy.  Without getting into the controversy over whether this letter was penned by Paul or not – the Pauline author builds a rhetorical crescendo with:

if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will deny us 

if we are faithless ....  

We might reasonably expect the next words to be:

he will be faithless. 

We get the reciprocal picture. But then we read: But no! We are stunned to read:

for if we are faithless, he will be faithful

breaking the rhetorical pattern.

It seems God cannot deny God’s own nature – which is fundamentally to be loving, faithful, and generous.

We in the parish’s leadership are beginning the budget the planning cycle for next year. There are stages that will mark this process over the next three months. Today, I’m launching the annual renewal process and in two weeks or so you will receive the wardens’ annual stewardship letter along with the estimate of giving card (EGC)- unfortunately known as the pledge card. At this stage we will ask you to complete and return your EGC’s at the latest by November 13th which appropriately is two Sundays before Thanksgiving.

With the EGC we are not asking you to pledge -as in- sign in blood on the dotted line. We are seeking from you information about your anticipated level of financial support for St Martin’s in a coming year in order for us to complete the 2023 budget process. We all know that this next year is going to test our courage, faith, and resolve to the maximum. In the mailing you will also receive additional information designed to inform and help you assess the appropriate level of your financial support.

The financial backbone of our community has been our older pledging generation who are now passing on to greater glory. Theirs has been a generation who experienced the local church as one of the foundation stones of community life. We who come after them have different expectations for organized church life and among our younger generations there will be many who may well view church as an institution, with a more skeptical eye. Because of this generational shift our pledging numbers are falling. The immediate challenge is not simply to raise the dollar amount of pledges but to increase the overall size of the pledging base.

As your rector my primary message is not to up our giving, although I do hope many of us in a position to – will do so – as we face into the winds of what by all accounts will be a more difficult year in every sense. We are fortunate to welcome new members into the community – some of whom may not yet have become pledging members. As a response to this year’s renewal campaign, I do hope you will consider becoming one.

No, my primary message is to ask us to take an honest look at the role of gratitude in our lives; to conduct a spiritual inventory – as a response to the generosity of God. My message is to remind us to review the good things we value and enjoy in life and celebrate them not as a sign of personal success – something that’s ours alone – but as the fruits of God’s generosity and faithfulness – gifts entrusted to us to enjoy through the responsibility to likewise – live generously.

I am inviting all of us to consider once again the quality and nature of our gratitude in considering the fruits of God’s generosity in our lives with reawakened eyes – reconnecting or strengthening our connection with a deep and abiding sense of gratitude – recognizing the signs of God’s generosity – like living water flowing through us – irrigating a barren and thirsty world .

If we are faithless God will be faithful. Among the 10 only one of them gave praise to God – and this man – a foreigner, a despised stranger. God’s nature is to be generous, and the divine generosity invites our response to – in turn – live lives marked by generous impulse – so like Piglet we can say:  although our heart maybe small it holds a rather large amount of gratitude.

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