I graduated from high school, one of the things I remember happening first was feeling a sense of wonder. Because out of nowhere, people who I did not know started sending me money. I was amazed.
that was followed shortly by prodding from my mother: “have you written your thank you notes yet?” And the answer was, “No, I have not.”
did not want to write thank you notes. I did not know who many of these people were, distant relatives and friends of the family. I did not know what to say. I was embarrassed I would say the wrong thing. I was shy and worried they would think poorly of
me for whatever I said– it didn’t occur to me until many years later that they would probably think more poorly of me for not writing at all. In many ways, I think it made me feel insufficient to have people I did not know pour out lavish gifts upon me without
doing anything for them– to receive these gifts without being able to do anything in return, and I wasn’t sure how to respond.
son, on the other hand, when he graduated, had the opposite experience. When the gifts came in, I explained the need to write thank you notes in order for people to be appreciated, and he gladly obliged. The proud dad part of me wanted to believe it was
because I had done such a good job of instilling gratitude. But I am still not sure if it may have been because I also said, “and they may be less likely to give gifts again if you don’t say thank you properly.”
you ever had an experience like my high school graduation experience? One where you knew that giving thanks was appropriate but felt so indebted by the gift it was hard to express appreciation? Another example of this is the ridiculous thing where we receive
a thank you card and and feel like somehow the balance is off so then we feel like we have to send a thank you card in response to the thank you card.
have somehow gotten inculturated to think of gratitude as some kind of system of keeping things even; a way of leveling the playing field in a transactional system. In some ways, saying thank you can feel at times like trying to fulfill a duty more than expressing
Kreder and I have been reading Diana Butler Bass’ latest book, entitled Grateful:
the Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks.
In the book, she outlines the history of gratitude. It is no coincidence that at times we feel that gratitude is a duty or obligation, or that it is a kind of transactional system. We carry the vestiges of a benefactor and beneficiary system that started
at the top in the Roman Empire. The emperor gave gifts to his beneficiaries in that society. And they in return gave gratitude back to the emperor with taxes and tributes and return favors and loyalty. This system trickled down to the lowest class of society,
with benefits flowing down and mandatory gratitude flowing up in higher proportion. By the time you got to the bottom of society, the benefits received were thin, and the gratitude exacted was the highest on the poor. One historian writes, “Gratitude was
not merely warm feeling toward the benefactor… Benefits imposed a debt on the recipient that had to be discharged through a return service or [obligation].”
carry millenia of baggage of duty and debt associated with gratitude. Today we don’t have to look far for benefactors who expect gratitude for their benefits. The transactional system is alive and well: the powerful leader bestows benefit upon the less powerful,
and the less powerful provides gratitude in return, whether they acknowledge quid pro quo or not.
recent psychological study found a corollary to be true. We have become an entitled society. When one feels entitled to what one has received, it does not feel like a gift. Expressing appreciation is a far more challenging task when we feel like consumers
who should get what we pay for, or that we have earned the right to live a good life, while others who have worked just as hard or harder go without.
appears I wasn’t alone when I didn’t want to write the darn thank you notes, which I ended up writing by the way.
what if there was a different way?
gospel today is all about gifts and gratitude. Jesus runs into ten lepers in a village. They simply ask for mercy, and they all receive it. All of them receive a gift; their leprosy is removed. All of them. Jesus sends them to the priest for ritual purification,
as was customary for observant Jews like Jesus. All the lepers go.
one of them turns back, praises God with a loud voice, prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet, and says thank you. All of them received the gift of healing. Only one of them turns back and expresses deep and profound gratitude at the gift that was given. Jesus
tells him that at some level it is the very expression of gratitude that has made him well. All ten were given the gift of physical healing, but the one that gave thanks is healed at a deeper level, in a different way, than the other nine. There is a lot of
scholarship on the words Jesus uses and their translations, but that is the essence of the contrast he makes.
is no transaction in this story. There is no benefactor and beneficiary. There is no quid pro quo. All ten were healed. The gift of healing was given freely, with nothing received or expected in return. But one gave thanks. And something profound happened,
something different for that one as a result. Jesus, the giver of the gift doesn’t seem to get anything out of it, but giving thanks changes the recipient of the gift completely.
if we let go of gratitude as a transaction?
if gratitude, instead of being duty and indebtedness, was about grace and humility?
Bass says, “What if everything around us could be seen as gift, instead of a constant struggle to earn, get ahead, and fight for more? The universe– its a gift. Life– its a gift. Air, light, soil, and water… are gifts Friendship, love, … and family are
gifts. We live on a gifted planet. Everything we need is here, with us. We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.”
then– and then– if we can see all of that as gifts then we have a choice to make. Are we entitled? Are the gifts due to us because we are so wonderful? I don’t know about you but I am not wonderful enough to be entitled to those wonderful gifts.
we indebted? Do we owe reciprocity out of obligation? I don’t know about you, but I cannot possibly restore the balance if everything is gift. I am completely indebted. Acknowledging that requires my humility. It is the opposite of believing I have earned
what I have.
invitation is instead to receive. To become attuned to the gifts we are given, without merit, cause, or justification. To notice what that does to our own hearts, to those around us, and to all whom we share this existence with. If you believe you have
to give in order to receive, perhaps one lesson of the lepers is that you first have to know what you have received in order to experience the joy of giving. True gratitude allows us to love generously, to care openly, and to share because all is a gift.
are here today primarily to celebrate the eucharist. Eucharist means “to give thanks.” Did you know that? The whole nature of the space we enter here each week is a gratitude-feast for the gifts we have been given! If you look closely you will see in a few
moments we will enter a section of the service called the Great Thanksgiving,
and it begins with these words: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God; It is right to give him thanks and praise… It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty Creator of heaven and earth. Giver
gratitude not as a transaction but as a response to the grace of God, is life changing. Our whole liturgical practice is based around it.
known for a thousand years in the church about the power of true gratitude. Science is catching up. There are medical and psychological studies on the benefits of gratitude increasing every year. One of those studies I mentioned about countering entitlement
found that people’s lives changed when expressing thanks about life in general, but changed even more when they were intentional about expressing thanks towards other people. Who has done something for you recently that was meaningful? It could be large or
small. Have you expressed your appreciation?
week in the forum, Claudia Dixon shared an experience of gratitude. She said she didn’t mind if I shared it with you here. She shared that she and her husband had been fighting, and she went outside full of anger. Suddenly and out of nowhere, a hawk swooped
down and entered her garden– even entering her personal space. It lingered for a moment. And then it was gone.
just like that, her anger was gone, too.
was a gift. It was grace. Noticing it changed her that day; it healed her.
we all find unexpected gifts on this day. And may we have the humility to let them change us deeply.
The Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk
Proper 23C, October 13, 2019
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
on the Word, Year C, Vol.4.
Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.
Bass, Diana. Grateful:
The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks.
New York: Harper Collins, 2018.