1 Lent C, 2019: Gratitude is Prime

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I wish I could show you the photograph I took
of my dog, Rabia,
positioned like the Great Sphinx
in front of the fireplace
on a ten-degree morning.
Behind her the gas fire roasting
her backside, in front,
streaming through the windows,
bright, radiant sunshine
washing her face and shoulders.

The look on her face…
that is what I wish I could capture in words.
It was as pleased and satisfied an expression
as I have ever witnessed.
But she also had – unless I was merely projecting –
an air of gratitude about her.

If I had to put words
to what I witnessed, it would be:
“Thank you for this lovely warmth
and for being a dog capable of enjoying it.”

Shortly after that, she flopped down on her side,
closed her eyes, and went to sleep.
Now there is a lifestyle I could get grateful about.

This is a weird First Sunday of Lent.

We have Moses,
in what is actually one of my favorite scenes
in all the Bible,
directing a rehearsal
of the first Thanksgiving
in the Promise Land.
We have Mary Oliver,
our featured poet for Lent 2019,
declaring herself a messenger of love
for a world so impossibly splendid
it seems to her impossible
not to burst with gratitude.

And, bringing up the rear,
we have Jesus battling Satan in the desert
in a scene suitable for a violent video game.

On the face of it, Luke’s story is an outlier
to the theme of gratitude,
but scratch the surface
and that Devil-wears-Prada scene
has gratitude rivering through it also.

I want to briefly, point to what is happening
in each of these readings
and allow them then,
to shed their grace on us.

That piece from Deuteronomy
is the tail end of a twenty-one-chapter sermon
Moses preached to the masses of ex-slaves
as they are primed to cross over the Jordan River
into the Promised Land for the first time.
I have belabored the scene before
so I won’t do it this time.
Suffice it to say, the rag-tag thousands
are gathered on the floodplain of the river
waiting to enter the Land of Milk & Honey
after forty years of looking for it.
It must have been like children
on Christmas morning
waiting to descend the stairs,
but after a 21 chapter sermon
they were probably morose on their haunches
waiting for Moses to shut up.

But this is Moses’ last day on earth
and he is not going quietly into the night.

Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. last speech,
because he references Moses
about not going with his compatriots
into the Promised Land:
he can see it,
and he knows they will get there,
but he also knows
he is not going.

One of the last things Moses has to say
is what we heard this morning:
an outline of a Thanksgiving liturgy.
His whole speech in one way or another,
is Moses pleading with the ex-slaves
not to forget
who they are
and whose they are.
“Don’t forget where you came from,”
he urges them –
slaves from Egypt who had nothing
and suffered greatly.
“And don’t forget how you got here,”
he begs them –
by the hand of God
rather than from their own doing.

do not forget…because
if you forget, it will go badly for you.”
That is what he tells them
over and over and over again.
And he finally gives them a ritual practice,
a liturgy, to remind them,
so that if they rehearse it enough,
they will never forget.

Moses knows that gratitude
is both powerful medicine
and an elusive,
even vulnerable
state of heart.

Practice and rehearse your gratitude,
he tells them, and if you do,
the prosperity you are about to experience
will not ruin you.
But if you forget,
your prosperity will destroy you.

That is Moses’ message
and it is one we need to hear.
and one we can read the truth of
in our own lost horizons.
Remember whowe are
and whosewe are,
and open our hearts to gratitude.

Now Mary Oliver.

This is such a powerful, if humbling
and challenging story.
Mary Oliver had a horrendously painful
Being a very private person
she did not speak at length publicly
about it, but it is clear
her father abused her
and her siblings.
She had no love for him
and even in old age
bore the scars of those terrible years
in rural Northern Ohio.
Even to the end
she did not like being indoors,
inside of walled rooms.
Her love of nature
was both a welcome embrace
of sublime beauty,
and also an escape
driven by the ghosts of memory.

And yet…
her poetry.

“My work is loving the world…
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam, telling
them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.”
(From “Messenger” by Mary Oliver)

So, this is just one poem,
and we know there are so many more.
She was a modern-day Psalmist
that voiced the love of God
and God’s love of Creation
in as many different ways
as there are birds and trees and waterways
and skies.

Across her own kind of wilderness,
making an escape from her suffering,
like Moses and Israel,
the wings of her salvation
was gratitude.
mysterious and renewable,

Then comes the gospel story.

There is so much we could say,
so many directions to walk in
with this story.
There are so many things
I want to talk about,
but almost all of them
have nothing to do with this moment
stacked up alongside
Deuteronomy and Mary Oliver.

So, allow me to distill Luke.

Much is made by preachers and theologians
about the three temptations of Jesus
and they get allegorized into all kinds of desires,
lust, and allegiances.
But boil it down
and it is just our simple,
every day, human lament,
shriek, bellow,
blubber, yelp
or whine, that we want more.
There is never enough for us.
No matter how muchwe get
and no matter whatwe get
and no matter howwe get it –
it is just never enough.

We might be satiated for a moment,
for a while even,
but sooner or later
that worm starts to turn in our gut
and slither and slime its way up.
We always want more
of whatever it is we get.
And when we do not have something
we want, that little lust
or whimper
can become a rage
and a scream.

fear of punishment,
can set boundaries on our hunger for more
and our agitation that we never have enough,
but there is only one thing
that actually heals it.
Yep, you guessed it: gratitude.

Like a prime number,
gratitude doesn’t have any factors
other than being what it is – a form of joy –
and what it does – heal us.

That story in Luke,
if we dig around in it
from the wisdom of our own experience,
instead of being distracted by the glitter or
scratch of the supernatural,
is about gratitude.

What gave Jesus the capacity
to resist some pretty powerful temptations,
is gratitude for being “Beloved.”
Remember, that is the scene just
before the one we read in Luke today.
God tells Jesus he is “beloved.”

“You are loved,” God says to Jesus.
“You are my beloved.”

Like my dog in front of the fire,
Jesus was completely wrapped
in the arms of God’s love
and there was nothing to do or be
but just plain grateful.

Remember, gratitude is prime,
and has no factors
other than being what it is – a form of joy –
and what it does – heal us.

Moses knew it
and tried to arm his generation with it.
Mary Oliver became a servant of it,
and found healing on its wings.
Jesus was bathed in it
as the beloved of God,
and it gave him what he needed
when he needed it.

I am thinking that gratitude
and the practice of gratitude
is not exactly what we think of
when we think of Lent.
But it seems to me, that’s what
is right in front of us
that we ought to be gawking at today.
a form of joy
that also heals.

Welcome to Lent.