Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gratitude and Giving Back

I preached this sermon on Sunday Nov. 27.  It was an all ages service and our start for Guest at Your Table to benefit the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.   The sermon was preached in two parts.


Gratitude, to give thanks, an attitude of gratitude. There is no shortage of discussion about gratitude, counting our blessings, particularly during November.  It is a foundational spiritual practice to first be aware of the blessings of our lives and then to take the time to give thanks for them.

Throughout the month of November a number of friends on Facebook posted things they were grateful for.  Some missed a few days and then would catch up.  Each day I have read posts of gratitude – for family, work, friends, colleagues.   For many it was a spiritual discipline, each day reflecting on their blessings and posting them on-line.  It is not as easy a spiritual discipline as one might think, once one has given thanks for family, friends, food etc.  After a few days, it requires digging deeper, reflecting longer and getting creative.  Yesterday one person posted “thankful for the practice of patience.”

Harder still is giving thanks for things that are hard, illness, death, loss.  Finding blessings in the midst of loss maintains hope, hope that not all is lost, that the wheel will turn again, that life truly does go on. In the midst of despair, giving thanks can keep hope alive.  Giving thanks for the illness, loss, suffering takes time, self-reflection and an acceptance that loss and grief are parts of life. That loss and suffering are not strange, alien states that one should seek to avoid at all costs but rather that loss is woven into the very fabric of life.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew about loss and suffering.  He was born at home because his mother refused to have her children born in a segregated hospital.   He lived in a segregated neighborhood.  He attended segregated schools.  He knew the pain of racism.

This is not to promote a “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” superficial coating over suffering. Rather, it is seeing hope in the midst of despair, the small speck of light in the darkness, cultivating the trust that whatever it is that we are enduring now is a part of life and that life will endure.

The practice of gratitude, particularly if we are to practice gratitude even when we are hurting, when there is loss and grief, will require discipline.  It is easy to stop the practice of gratitude when things get busy, when things get hard.   So begin a year-round practice of gratitude. If you do not already have a practice of grace or blessing before meals, begin one.  Take the practice of going around the table to say what we are grateful and make it a daily practice.

In fact let us begin right now. Please take just a moment to reflect on one thing that you are grateful for … we will pause for just one moment of silence. Then when I ring the bell, please turn to one person and tell that person what you are thankful for in this moment.

Let us begin….

Giving Back

Beginning a regular practice of gratitude is a core spiritual practice.  Reflecting on what we have been given, sustains hope and faith through hard times and loss.  Yet stopping with being grateful without giving back is insufficient.   Sometimes it takes an encounter with scarcity to appreciate what we have. Yet if all we do is say, “I am so glad that is not me and I am so grateful for all I have” and the suffering of others does not move us to act then it is empty and insufficient. It is just a platitude.

Gratitude is the first step to moving beyond ourselves and living life with the knowledge that our lives are bound up together.  Gratitude for what we have that we did not earn, that we did not make, that we could not have imagined – like sunsets, the colors of leaves in fall, like our very bodies and the air we breathe.  All of these things we have been given … they are gifts freely given.

As Unitarian Universalists we begin by affirming that each has inherent and worth and dignity and end by recognizing that we are bound together in creation.  What affects one of us, affects all of us.

In the midst of suffering, loss, gross inequality, hunger, war, poverty, it is not enough to say “thank you for my blessings.”  Our gratitude must be the starting point for service.  

Martin Luther King Jr. says it this way “Everybody can be great.  Because anybody can serve.  … You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

You only need a heart full of grace to serve.  Each of us can serve and each of us can make a difference in the lives of others.  Each of us, young, old, child, adult can serve. Each of us has gifts to share.  We serve each other by offering a smile, a hug or simply asking the question “how are you” and really stopping to hear the answer.  Serving each other is not just about serving those people out there somewhere.  Serving each other begins with the care we give each other.

We as a faith community practice service.  Each week the FISH wagon sits in the entry way of this building and each week we are invited to bring food for our neighbors in need.  In addition to our collecting food for FISH, one month each year, members give their time sorting and repairing clothes.  Each December we collect socks and underwear.  As a community we serve together.  FISH is just one example of how this faith community seeks to make a difference and there are many ways we can give back, to serve, to make the world a better place.

There is another way that we as a faith community, reach out in giving to others.  Each year, we here at WUU and many other Unitarian Universalist congregations participate in Guest at Your Table.  Nan and I are going to tell you about Guest at Your Table

Nan:  What is Guest at Your Table?

Margaret:  Hold up the box

Nan: That is a box not a guest.

Margaret:  Yes this is the Guest at Your Table box.  I invite each family, to take the box home.  I invite you to put the box at a place where you will see it every day – like your dining room table.  When you eat at the table you can look at the pictures and learn about the people on the box.

Nan:  Where do I find the stories of the people?

Margaret:   I also invite you to take this book home, called Stories of Hope.  The stories go with the pictures on the box.  I invite you to the practice of reading a story from the book and putting some money in the box.

Nan:  Money in the box?  Why do I put money in the box?

Margaret: The money in the box will be used to help the people on the box and others in their communities.

Nan:  How?

Margaret:  The money will go to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. They work in our country and all around the world helping people have clean water, good food.  They help people who have had a terrible disaster where they live – like an earthquake or flood and the Service Committee helps those communities recover.  They also work on things like a right to clean water, dignified work, education, shelter.

Nan:  So how is the money going to get from the box on my table to the Service Committee?

Margaret:  You will bring the box back to WUU on January 8. We will collect everyone’s boxes.  Then all the money will be counted and sent to the UU Service Committee. Our money will be combined with the money from all the other UU Congregations to help around the world.

Nan:  So let me make sure I get this. I take the box home.  I put it on my table.  I learn about the people on the box.  I put my money in the box.  Then I bring the box back here on January 8. Then all the money from all of us goes to the Service Committee.

Margaret:  Exactly.  And that is another way that each of us can give back. We can give what we have and that gets combined with what others give and we can make the world a more just place.

"Everybody can be great.  Because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace.”

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