November 19, 2017 (Thanksgiving, Year A): The Bond Between Gratitude & Joy

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Text for Preaching: “Welcome Morning” by Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.”


The joy that isn’t shared, I heard
dies young.”

There is a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest
that leads from gratitude to joy.
That is what I invite us to ponder this morning.

We have a familiar place to begin,
almost proverbial if you have been subjected
to my preaching for six months or more.
In combination like they are today,
Deuteronomy and Luke make it crystal clear:
When we imagine we are self-made
the engine of gratitude runs on empty.

It is really pretty obvious,
and we hardly need an ancient Mesopotamian story
to explain it to us: if we are self-made,
who is it, we are we going to be grateful to?
Ourselves, right?
And what is the meaning of self-gratitude?
It is simply the fattening of Ego.

This story from Deuteronomy, thanks to the lectionary,
was the second or third sermon I ever preached here.
It is one that has come around again and again,
because it is so prototypical of Biblical Wisdom.
It will keep coming back too,
and I hope becomes like a song stuck in our head
or even a stone in our shoe.

The setting for this story from Deuteronomy is Moses’
Gettysburg Address to Israel’s future.

The story of the exodus of escaped slaves has arrived
at its spectacular crescendo.
As if the 10 Plagues against Pharaoh was not enough;
as if the parting of the Red Sea was not enough;
as if Manna in the wilderness was not enough;
as if a forty-year sojourn through the desert – in which
no one was lost – was not enough.
Now, just on the other side of the Jordan River,
awaits The Promised Land.

Forty years of walking,
two generations of birth and death,
and finally, there it is and all they have to do
is wade across the shallow Jordan River.

We all have a Promised Land
and we have all stood on such a moment,
when the thing we wanted most was right there
ready to be taken.
Those escaped slaves
could look across the narrow span of water
and smell it: the Promised Land.

For slaves, and any number of refugees or immigrants
of any country or generation,
property is the Promised Land.
The imagined security of not depending upon
other people for food or shelter.

Their Promised Land,
like ours, was flowing with milk and honey.
The good life after such a terrible life,
was the Promised Land.

Moses, that weary, battle-scarred,
and nearly dead leader
looks upon his community with a wizened eye
and insists they sit down.
Sit and listen, he orders, and they do.
Then he issues a stern warning.

When you have eaten your fill,
when you are fat and satiated and can’t hardly move
from the happiness of eating so many good things;
and when you have money in the bank,
and your 401K is better than you ever imagined;
and when your house is everything you had hoped for,
and it is clean, and pretty
and you are so pleased to show it off;
and when you have the car you always wanted,
and your kids are safe and happy and in a good school,
or finally off on their own, and doing well;
and when you get to travel
to those places you always dreamed about;
when nothing
could possibly be better than it is right now…
then, at that moment: remember.

that you are not self-made.
Remember that your abundance is a gift,
not an accomplishment – a gift, not only from God,
but from the lives of those who went before
and walked you into this very moment
even when you imagined you were walking alone.

Remember, Moses urges them,
desperate in the knowledge he will not go with them,
if you forget – if you forget –
and your Ego begins to play its slick and tricky games
to make you imagine that the goodness of your life
is all your own doing,
then…you will lose the goodness of your life.

That is what Moses promises
at the edge of the Promised Land.

In the excitement of getting what we want,
even when it is what we desperately need,
as in the story from Luke, remembering is key.

In the happiness and excitement of procurement,
or achievement –
in the excitement and happiness of “getting it”
and “having it” –
if we forget,
then the goodness of what we have received
will soon drain away like the gush
of a cow’s jugular at slaughter.

Empty of gratitude, is empty of joy.
“The joy that isn’t shared, (we’ve learned),
dies young.”

I for one, do not know why
joy and gratitude are inseparable, but I do know,
from my own descent into ego,
that gratitude and joy
are the Siamese twins of spiritual wellness.
Separate them, and there is a death waiting to happen.

Self-gratitude cannot spawn joy.
Rather, self-gratitude feeds self-aggrandizement,
and the ego’s happy delusion that life in the universe
orbits around me – or should.

Joy, on the other hand, cannot be created
or manufactured,
or in any way be purchased by our own efforts.
Joy is visited upon us, a gift that wells up within us,
and when we keep gratitude as a core element
within our heart, then
joy has fertile ground to host it.

We can make ourselves “happy”
by doing the things we know make us feel good.
But joy is a distinct and different experience,
not so much an emotion as an experiential moment.

But as I said, there is this inexplicable relationship
between gratitude and joy,
almost a physics that bonds them.

We do not know how or why they are that way,
but we do know that when we lose touch
with gratitude,
we lose capacity for joy.

I am going to suppose that all of us here
have a reoccurring bout or struggle in our lives,
something we contend with, that threatens
our happiness if not our well-being.

Perhaps you know that dark place of depression:
the long tunnel reappearing over and over again,
one that passes as mysteriously as it arrives,
or never completely disappears even.

Maybe you struggle with a compulsion,
obsession, or addiction.
Maybe it is an acute loneliness, anxiety,
deep mistrust,
or maybe prolonged periods of self-doubt.

Whatever it is, most of us experience some kind of confinement
at the hands of an on-going disability
or re-occurring tribulation.
Likewise, we have also experienced release from it,
a freeing emancipation
whether prolonged or momentary.
When we are released from our prison,
whichever prison that may be – and some of us
have done time in numerous prisons –
we will do well not to run helter-skelter
like delirious fans streaming onto a football field
in reckless abandon of our good fortune.

Instead, it is well for us to pause;
to actually stop in the midst of our relief
and excitement,
and to remember.
When we pause to remember
that we are not self-made
and that our recovery or release
is not the product of our own doing only,
the widow to our gratitude will fly open
and release its cleansing fragrance within us.

It is a strange undulation, this meandering
in and out of the happiness and sorrows of ego
back toward the waters of gratitude
in which joy becomes possible.

And it is difficult to remember
that the sources of happiness
are not the wellspring of joy.

We get tricked or lulled into imagining
that the Promised Land is the thing we want most.
Peace, love, money;
security and safety;
recognition, thinness, or beauty;
even a cure…
The thing we want most is probably not the
actual Promised Land to which God is inviting us.

The thing we want most is more likely
the acquisition or achievement or procurement
that the ego most desires.
It is tricky, because that thing we want most
may even seem like an altruistic goal –
something for someone else or even everyone else.

But here is the diagnostic tool to help us decipher
the source and the promise of our desire.
Does that thing we want most bring us
to the connection between gratitude and joy?

Does our desire for that thing we want most
evoke gratitude and joy,
or does it excite happiness,
and pleasure?

Now, don’t get me wrong.
I would be the last person in the world
to argue against happiness,
satiation, or pleasure.
But the Promised Land to which God is inviting us,
is not at all the same thing as that which we desire most,
and we need to be clear about the difference.
It is tricky and confusing.
The thing we desire most,
is often not the place to which God is calling us;
and one helpful means of knowing the difference,
has to do with whether or not
we are put in touch with our gratitude
to the extent that we also experience joy.

So this is Thanksgiving week,
instead of being mindful of what we have,
which is the typical cultural grace we are asked to offer,
I would invite us into a different meditation.
Where, within our own life,
where within our own heart,
do we experience joy?
Not happiness,
not self-satisfaction or pride,
not pleasure –
but joy.

If we can find that place,
then we will also get a clearer vision
of the Promised Land to which God is inviting us.
And one way to get there,
is to follow the breadcrumbs of gratitude
that mark the way we have gone before.

Follow gratitude and find your joy,
then share it, because
“the joy that isn’t shared, dies young.”