Of all prayers, “thank you” is the most sufficient. Gratitude opens us up and invites us to a higher energy–a life grounded in joy. Rev. Victor and the Chancel Choir will lead us in a service of praise and thanks.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Praying at the Piano
In Luke 17, there are 10 lepers in a town that Jesus visited. He instructs them to show themselves to the priest, and they were healed, all 10 of them. Only one of them came to Jesus, prostrating himself at Jesus feet, and said “Thank you, Lord, I just want to thank you for all you’ve done for me.” Amen.
What are you grateful for?
There used to be restaurants in San Francisco and Berkeley called Cafe Gratitude. They became a sort of New Age tourist attraction, at least they were for us when we had visitors from Georgia. They loved it. The menu named Cafe Gratitude’s dishes with affirmations. To order, you have to say something like: “I’ll have the I Am Dazzling with a side of I Am Intuitive.” When the waiters brought the food, they placed it in front of you with an affirmation: “You are dazzling! You are intuitive.” To be clear, I had ordered a Caesar salad and side of fries.
The slogan on Cafe Gratitude’s bumper stickers read: “What are you grateful for?” That’s my question to you today. What are you grateful for? Gratitude is essential food for our souls. I know someone who has come through unspeakable pain and grief, the death of her father, the suicide of her daughter. She credits her faith in Jesus and her morning gratitude list. She gets up and asks herself, “What am I grateful for?” She lists five things, and then she spends time with them, prays over them. Gratitude grounds the start of her day.
Perhaps she is intuitively reacting to what science is beginning to prove: that our human brains are wired to glom onto negativity. Cynicism is like velcro. It taunts us in 24-hour news cycle. It’s easy to pine for the good old days, when we were all younger. Negativity is the ultimate clickbait. So, what are you grateful for? I am grateful that, around the world, the number of people living in abject poverty is declining dramatically. Thank you, God. I am grateful that, because of the international cooperation that started in 1978, our planet’s ozone layer is actually healing itself. You can witness the earth healing itself in the pictures online. Thank you, God. I am grateful that, six weeks ago, the front page of the Chronicle reported that violent crime in San Francisco is at a 50-year low. Thank you, SFPD. Thank you, violent people, for dialing it down. And thank you, God! I am grateful that Calvary member, deacon Wayne Boatwright is freed from a seven-year-long incarceration, that he has found a place to stay, that he played basketball with his son last week, and he is here this morning. Welcome home, Wayne. Thank you, God.
Homeless By the Bay
About ten days ago, I received a text message from Kelley Cutler at the Coalition on Homelessness saying that she could not locate Charles Davis, who sells Street Sheets at coffee hour. Kelley doesn’t get worried easily, but this time she was. The weather, cold and soaking, combined with the exhaustion of looking for shelter, dealing with people, asking for help—it had became too much. Charles did what any of us would do, he stayed to himself. He did not want to be around people. Being a person of immaculate compassion, Kelley texted me again last Tuesday saying: “I’ll call the hospitals and then the coroner.” That’s the reality of being homeless in one of the richest cities of the richest country that has ever stood on the face of this earth—the struggle to survive. Survival should not be a serious topic here. Survival concern is not limited to Charles. Many of our seniors and young families struggle with basic needs. I and other Calvary staff have felt the same foreboding when others in our congregation who live in isolation become unreachable. After consulting with Kelley, I posted a picture of Charles on Facebook and asked for help finding him. Twenty-two people, mostly Calvary people, shared that post. Within hours, a woman named Maureen, a member of Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, my former congregation, posted a video to let us know that Charles was okay. So, maybe Facebook is actually a force for good! From all over the country, people wrote of their concern and, then, their joy. Kamaria George, who was in the first class of high school students I taught at North Atlanta School of the Arts thirty years ago, wrote: I’m so glad you found him! I’m sending love and joy from Atlanta, and thanking God for his goodness!! Thank you, God. Of course, being alive and found is a big deal, but Charles needs shelter from storms and the constant assaults on his dignity. We know that help for Charles resides somewhere in this city, perhaps in this congregation. It will come.
Thank You, God.
If you’ve been to this church more than a few times, you probably know Freida Badal. Freida suffered a stroke decades ago. Her thinking is as clear as anyone’s, but words just won’t come: aphasia. Sometimes when I ask Freida how she’s doing, she will describe a concern like safety in her building or not being able to speak on an important phone call. Then she pauses and reflects, “But, thank you. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.”
Old Time Religion: Syncretistic, Pluralistic, Intolerant & Tolerant
The Hebrew word todah means thanks, thank you. Psalm 138 is an ancient song of thanks, todah, derived from the verb yadah, which means “to praise.” Psalm 138 is a ancient song of thanks and praise.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
The gods? As in the older parts of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), the writer does not assume the reader practices monotheism. On the contrary, verse one all but admits the existence of other gods—lower case g—and acknowledges the practice of worshiping gods. Psalm 138 shares this worldview with the ancient song and dance of Exodus 15, where Miriam and Moses sing rhetorically: Among all the other gods, who is as great and wonderful as our God?
The older the biblical writing, the more committed the writer to promoting God’s reputation. God had more competition back then. Jeremiah, the great complaining prophet, railed against the Canaanite goddess known in English as the queen of heaven. (And we thought Mary was the queen of heaven. The Catholic church has syncretized the Queen of Heaven, remaking her into the Virgin Mary. There’s an older, perhaps original, queen of heaven in Jeremiah 44.) Eventually, Jeremiah throws his hands up and tells the people to worship her— at their own peril.
Hints of religious pluralism survive even in the first verse of today’s reading. Due to human proclivity toward cynicism, our fears easily replace our curiosity and gratitude. Our inner Eeyore easily replaces our inner Piglet. To choose “thank you” is to defy the culture of insecurity and fear, greed and abuse, the culture of me, me, me. So, that’s it for verse one. Now, on to verse two!
The quality of gratitude in Psalm 138 includes submission. The great literary biblical scholar, Robert Alter, translates verses 2 through 4:
I bow down toward your holy temple and I acclaim Your name,
for Your kindness and Your steadfast truth,
for You have made Your word great across all Your heavens.
On the day I called You answered me,
You made strength well up within me.
All the kings of the earth will acclaim You,
for they have heard the words of Your mouth.
And they will sing for the ways of the Lord
for great is the Lord’s glory.
I bow down is about more than kneeling. It means to fall on one’s face, a ritualistic act of submission. The rulers of the earth will join us, falling prostrate to God in submission, praise and a resounding thank you. As we sang in our opening hymn:
Let every kindred, every tribe
on this terrestrial ball,
to Him all majesty ascribe,
and crown Him Lord of all.
Guided Imagery: Pale Blue Dot
Can you imagine, with eyes closed, traveling up over this church, over the Bay Area, up, up so that the country comes into view, up so that now the clouds cover the earth? There’s the moon. We’re going further. Now, jump with me, we’ll be together, three and a half billion miles away, in space. Can you see Earth? Now hear these words of Carl Sagan:
…you see a [pale blue] dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there — on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent [our] misunderstandings, how eager [we] are to kill one another, how fervent [our] hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light…the folly of human conceits…our tiny world…underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Thank you, God, for loving us into being, for giving us minds to contemplate our place in your universe. Thank you, God, for Wayne’s freedom. Thank you for Freida’s love for her church. Thank you for Charles’ safety. Thank you, God, for the healing love of Jesus, a love that will not let us go. Thank you, God, for all you’ve done for us.
 Although the Cafe Gratitude chain still flourishes in Southern California, in San Francisco, there is only one “sister restaurant” which serves vegan Mexican food, muy sabroso: Gracias Madre, 2211 Mission Street. <http://gracias-madre.com>
 French fries
 Cafe Gratitude still exists in Southern California, the menu is accessible online at <https://cafegratitude.com/menus/cafe-gratitude-arts-district/> (February 7, 2019)
 Kenneth D. Chestek, “Of Reptiles and Velcro” Nevada Law Journal, June 24, 2014, accessed online at <https://scholars.law.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1591&context=nlj> (February 8, 2019)
 Larry Lyke, “Psalm 138 Exegetical Perspective” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1 (Kindle Locations 11271-11273). Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
 Exodus 15:11, accessible online at < http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=416842830 > (February 9, 2019)
 Robert Alter’s new translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is a once-in-a-generation translation and commentary, well worth your time. Read about it at <https://www.jta.org/2018/11/21/culture/robert-alter-completes-monumental-translation-hebrew-bible> (February 1, 2019)
 “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” by Edward Perronet, 1779, accessed online at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Hail_the_Power_of_Jesus%27_Name> (February 4, 2019)
 This kind of communal guided imagery, or prayer, was described to my 2009 graduating class, Pacific School of Religion, by Rabbi Michael Lerner as a rabbinic practice, grounded in tradition: to locate oneself somewhere amongst the starry firmament.
 Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994, accessed online at <http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html> (February 2, 2019)