Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-24
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
In this sermon series on spiritual resilience, I saved gratitude for last, because, honestly, I expected it would be the easiest.
Partly that is because I stand before you full of gratitude this morning, and I knew that was likely to be the case. I just got married. I just got a week off—highly recommended, by the way. I get to come back to work I love, with people I love. I have lots of shiny new kitchen appliances, that I am super excited to use—well, for Erron to use, anyway. It’s finally fall, my favorite season, and I turn 30 in just a few weeks. Personally, I have so much to be grateful for.
But beyond my own life, just in general, gratitude is a pretty easy sell. In fact, if you’ve been in target lately, they are selling it, with “thankful” stitched on pillows and “count your blessings” etched on wood signs. Very few of us would argue that gratitude is not a value worth holding.
After all, studies have shown that practicing gratitude is good for our mental strength, our psychological resilience. According to researchers, gratitude helps us form and cement relationships, improves our physical and mental health, enhances our ability to empathize and reduces our aggressive reactions, reduces jealousy and improves self-esteem, and even helps us sleep better. Remember Bing Crosby crooning out “if you’re worried and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep” in White Christmas? It turns out he was on to something.
To be fair, though, Paul got there before him. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Sometimes I think that’s my favorite verse in all of scripture. And sometimes—sometimes it makes me want to throw the whole darn book out the window.
Give thanks in all circumstances. Really?
It’s easy for me to be grateful today, but boy howdy, has it been hard this year. With the pummeling we have all taken from COVID and its consequences, with the losses, the challenges, the disruptions, the tensions. It has been hard to be grateful, and words like Paul’s have felt dismissive at best and cruel at worst.
How do we give thanks when the world seems like it’s burning down around us? Isn’t it irresponsible to walk around proclaiming we’re “too blessed to be stressed” when those stresses are literally killing our neighbors? At some point, aren’t we kidding ourselves?
How can we live a grateful life when there are so many things we simply cannot be grateful for—pandemics, racism, hatred, cancer, mosquitoes?
I was helped immensely this week by a quote from Francis Weller. I’d never heard of him before, but he is a counselor who works not in the area of gratitude, but the area of grief. But in one interview, he said something about the intersection of grief and gratitude that stopped me cold.
“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.
I have struggled in my life with people who insist on gratitude, and often a forced cheeriness that goes with it, to the exclusion of all else. Have you ever had gratitude weaponized against you, as a way of dismissing your pain. It usually starts with the words, “at least.” “At least be grateful he’s not suffering anymore.” “At least you still have a job.” “At least it wasn’t worse.” It stings, and unless the person is very, very gentle, and very, very trustworthy, we’re rarely redirected towards gratitude. More often, we just shut down.
But when we are allowed to hold onto our grief, or anger, or pain, with one hand, but also invited to grab hold of gratitude with the other, that’s when transformation can happen. When we are free to acknowledge all that is wrong in the world—and there is so, so much wrong in this world—yet also empowered to claim all that is good and beautiful and just—that’s when we gain strength to walk through the storms.
We began this sermon series with the story of Peter walking on the water. Just a few steps before he sank, but he did it. And so we have been talking about spiritual practices to help us get a little further, a few steps more through the winds and waves that batter us.
Karl Barth was a twentieth century German theologian who liked to write in very long sentences that I have never liked to read. I honestly can’t get through much of his stuff. But in the middle of these very long, very German essays, he makes a stunning poetic statement, about why our gratitude comes not from psychology’s reassurance that it will help us, but directly from God:
Grace always demands the answer of gratitude.
Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth.
Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo.
Gratitude follows grace like thunder follows lightning.
Barth knew deeply the truth of God’s grace, God’s grace poured into our lives, choosing us, saving us, loving us before we could ever attempt to earn such a gift. In the face of such enormous, unearned love, the only response, Barth says, is gratitude. Grace is like a lightening strike, full of power, illuminating the world in stark beauty, if only for a second. Grace strikes us and shows us, if only for a second, that God thinks we are beautiful too. And so we rumble back our slower gratitude, in awe of what God has already done.
To practice gratitude is to be a witness for Christ. In a world that feeds off our anger, our spite, our sarcasm, our discontent, our want, our fear, saying “I am grateful” points to a deeper truth. That in God, we have enough, and we are enough. Advertisers need you to be ungrateful for your home, your belongs, your body, so that they can sell you things to bring you up to code: saying “I’m grateful” takes you out of their power.” Politicians need you to be afraid, of your neighbors, of the future, of your own perceived helplessness: saying “I’m grateful” takes you out of their power. Bots on social media need you to rant, to be shocked, to be seduced by outrage and extreme headlines: saying “I’m grateful” takes you out of their power.
Saying “I’m grateful” puts you into the power of God.
Over the past eight weeks we have laid out seven spiritual practices for walking through the storms: body care, lament, forgiveness, anger, connection, grace, and gratitude. There are days—moments—where we will need to practice them all at once. But I urge you, and encourage you, to focus this week on practicing gratitude.
Gratitude for the beauty you see in nature, and the miracles you see in science. Gratitude for people trying their best. Gratitude for the love of family and friends. Gratitude for good mattresses and strong coffee. Gratitude for God, for God, for God.
Sometimes life is so good, so joyously good, that gratitude comes spilling out of us whether we choose it or not. But most days the good is mixed in with the pain, and choosing gratitude is like climbing a mountain with our fingernails. But friends, it is worth it. Do not let the terrors of the world strip you of your gratitude—or, as Paul would say, do not quench the Spirit. In these difficult days, you will need to your connection to God free and clear—and as grace flows down into you, let your gratitude flow up into God, and out into the world.
Greif in one hand. Gratitude in the other. It will keep us balanced in these storms.
 Amy Morin. “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round.” Forbes. Nov 23 2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/#28eccedb183c
 Tim McKee. “The Geography Of Sorrow: Francis Weller On Navigating Our Losses.” The Sun. October 2015. https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the-geography-of-sorrow
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 41.