As the Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowd sang a psalm of gratitude. They’d noticed and were grateful for who he was and what he’d done. On this last Sunday before Easter, we’ll look at the practice of gratitude, one of the eight Pillars of Joy listed by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy. We will also celebrate the Lord’s Supper in “virtual communion.” In this time of “shelter in place,” we’ll invite worshipers to partake of the bread and the cup in the safety of their own homes.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and God has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good,
for God’s steadfast love endures for ever.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Writer Damon Young confesses that it was his “thing” not to dance the Electric Slide. He wanted to die never having learned the Electric Slide, to be the guy at the party who always sits through it. But a few weeks ago, when he and his wife had spent another whole day with their small kids and his wife was desperate to wear them out before bedtime, he found himself doing the Electric Slide all through his living room. He goes on to say that a by-product of the coronavirus has been recognizing what matters, and what doesn’t; a shedding of habits, assumptions, and practices we thought were essential.[i] The palms for Palm Sunday weren’t delivered this week, and I think I speak for all of us when I say, “So what?” I read an article predicting all sorts of positive changes coming out of months of stay-at-home orders, including: the de-militarization of American patriotism, a decline in polarization, a return to having faith in serious experts, and the end of our romance with hyper-individualism.[ii]
For some folks, the coronavirus has spawned a renewal of gratitude. During Lent here at Calvary, along with Scripture we’re studying the Eight Pillars of Joy explored by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama in The Book of Joy.[iii] We’re learning about turning our mourning into dancing, to quote Psalm 30[iv]. The pillar we explore today is gratitude. I don’t believe any of the other pillars are as well researched and documented. Mountains of research show that practicing gratitude reduces heart disease, fights depression and anxiety, improves sleep, increases resilience, reduces stress, makes us more compassionate, and on and on.[v] Study after study show that people aren’t grateful because they’re joyful, but rather, they’re joyful because they’re grateful.[vi] Gratitude, it seems, is God’s wonder drug.
We sure could use a wonder drug about now, couldn’t we? You might be thinking, “Gratitude? Really? During the COVID-19 pandemic?” Being forced to stay at home? Rising infection and death rates? The economy in tatters? Insufficient if not incompetent governmental response? Yes. Believe it or not, yes. In the midst of these difficulties, millions of people are realizing just how much we have taken for granted: our health, travel, socializing and even trips to the grocery store. People notice what they miss, and according to Jesuit author Father James Martin, “Noticing is the beginning of gratitude.”
Noticing is the beginning of gratitude. We get a glimpse at how this works in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem during Passover. The crowd begins to sing Psalm 118, our psalm for today. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” They’d probably been singing it for a while, just as they did each Passover. Matthew makes it clear, however, that Jesus didn’t just happen to ride into Jerusalem when a crowd was standing by the road singing Psalm 118. The people were singing their thanksgiving for Jesus, because they’d seen what he’d done. Perhaps in that crowd was Zacchaeus who’d been forgiven his sins,[vii] or Bartimaeus who’d been given his sight.[viii] Maybe people in that crowd had seen Jesus stand up to the authorities and heal on the Sabbath.[ix] Maybe they’d heard him say, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,”[x] or, “Let those little children come to me, for of such is God’s kingdom.”[xi] Maybe they understood that when he described God’s kingdom, he was saying that life didn’t have to be as grim and oppressive as it was with Caesar’s foot on their necks, but rather, with God as the ruler of their hearts and minds, life could be free, expansive, abundant. Whatever they’d heard, they’d been paying attention. They’d noticed Jesus; they noticed what he’d said and done, and they were grateful.
You can’t be grateful for something that you don’t notice. Brother David Stendl-Rast writes that we all notice things that surprise us, like a rainbow, for instance. A complete stranger might pull your sleeve – well, before social distancing, anyway – and point to the sky, “Did you notice the rainbow?” There’s always something surprising about a rainbow; it feels like a gift.[xii] When something feels like a gift, it’s easy to notice and feel grateful. You know, like those, “Thank God!” moments: When someone recovers from a dire illness, or the police find your passport. When your child gets into the school she wanted, or the Giants make it into the playoffs.
And, as we’re learning, it certainly is easier to notice the things we miss; isn’t it? Maybe you miss going to your favorite restaurant, hanging out in person with friends, attending worship in the sanctuary, or hugs. I miss hugs. But if we want regular access – not just occasional but regular access to the wonder drug of gratitude, our challenge is to notice ordinary things and experiences, all the time.
How might we learn this? You know the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! That’s how we get to gratitude, too. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu treat gratitude as a practice, because practicing gratitude during ordinary times gives us the resilience and strength we need in the worst of times. And so some people keep a gratitude journal; some just include gratitude as part of their prayers. Anyone can spend a moment each day, maybe before you go to bed, asking, “What happened today that made me smile? What happened that touched my heart?” This trains your mind to notice. They might be small things: a conversation with a friend, the hummingbird you saw out the window, or the satisfaction of completing a task. When we’re busy, moments like these can slip by unnoticed. If we make a practice of noticing, it directs our gaze toward the good in the world and in other people.[xiii]
But … What if you don’t feel like practicing? What if it’s just all too much right now? As a child, I can remember looking at my plate just before my family said grace, and thinking I really wasn’t very grateful for what was there. Maybe it was lima beans, or creamed corn. My parents, like most people who grew up during the Depression, weren’t shy about telling me I should be grateful I had food at all. But the thing is, that didn’t make me feel more grateful. It made me feel more guilty, but not more grateful. You can’t force someone to feel gratitude, and I don’t think you can force yourself. So what do you do, then, if your life looks more like a plate of lima beans than a plate of coconut cream pie? I know people who are really struggling right now. Is it even possible in times of plague to feel or to practice gratitude?
We know it’s possible because of people like Martin Rinkart. In the 1600’s, Rinkart served as pastor to the people of Eilenburg, a walled city in the part of Germany known as Saxony. The 30 years of his pastorate coincided with the terrible Thirty Years’ War. Refugees from the surrounding countryside poured into Eilenburg for protection. It didn’t take long for famine and plague to set in. In 1637 alone, 8,000 people died of disease – including other clergy, most of the town council, and Rinkart’s own wife. Rinkart was left to minister to the entire city, sometimes preaching at burial services for as many as 200 dead in one week. He gave away everything he owned except for the barest essentials to care for his family. But in the heart of that darkness, he sat down and wrote this table grace for his children:
Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things had done
In whom His world rejoices…
Who, from our mother’s arms
Hath led us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.”
Later, the prayer was put to music, and we’ll sing it this morning.
Perhaps Rinkart arrived at this place of gratitude in the same way you get to Carnegie Hall. Practice, practice, practice. Or perhaps Rinkart noticed what he missed, and that made him grateful for what he had. Maybe the lessons of the plague stuck with Rinkart. Maybe the lessons from this virus will stick with us. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not grateful for the Coronavirus. Not at all. But I am grateful for the lessons it is teaching me. Suddenly, productivity is not the primary value, but connection, affection, love, and encouragement are. In this pause of sheltering in place, we are remembering neighbors and kindness, mutuality and empathy.[xiv] A man in Italy who actually had the virus reports, “It changed me. I understand the importance of things that used to seem insignificant. Things that signify living – breathing, a walk, a hug, a glass of wine – because this virus wants to take that away from you.”[xv]
It would be callous, cruel, even, to prescribe gratitude right now to those who are suffering deeply. I’m thinking about the folks who are sick or who have lost loved ones. I’m also thinking about those who, a few weeks ago, were going about their lives, bartending, cleaning, waiting tables, loading luggage and teaching yoga, and then suddenly they were in free fall – without work.[xvi] But gratitude is not a denial of harsh reality, nor is it complacence about injustice. Gratitude is not about pasting on a happy face or ignoring facts. In fact the research shows that grateful people don’t ignore or deny the negative; they just choose to appreciate what’s positive as well. Gratitude is actually motivating, because it keeps us from slipping into despair.[xvii]
Remember that Psalm 118 was sung at Passover, the holiday that celebrates that God freed the Hebrew people from slavery. In the Exodus, God miraculously changed the way things were. God overthrew the most powerful nation in the world to create hope for those who had no hope. So the Psalms don’t teach us simply to find some reason to give thanks while still being slaves. They don’t tell us to give thanks because things could always be worse. Instead, they call us to envision another way of life because, as Passover reminds us, God can change the way it is![xviii]
God can change the way it is! Gratitude helps us not only to recognize the blessings of God, but to proclaim a different way of life; a life of shalom, of well-being for all. Our gratitude refuses to let disappointments and injustice define us, or limit God’s power to act. We proclaim our faith in the God who can change the way it is, and who can motivate us to help that happen – when we insist along with the psalmist, “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.”[xix]
O Give thanks to the Lord, who loves us, who can change the way it is, and who can weave wonders of grace out of disaster. A Calvary member shared a poem by Kitty O’Meara that speaks to that, and I am deeply grateful. O’Meara writes:
And the people stayed home.
And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art,
and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.
And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed.
And, in the absence of people living in ignorant,
dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways,
the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed,
and the people joined together again,
they grieved their losses,
and made new choices,
and dreamed new images,
and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully,
as they had been healed.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2020 all rights reserved.