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Praise and Thanks ~ Psalm 148

Let’s start by turning to one another and saying “Thank you for being here.” I’m going to keep it simple today (and I am sure I will be thanked and praised for that!) . . . The heart of Christian faith is praise, which I believe is the natural expression of gratitude, of thanksgiving. When you are grounded in gratitude or as some people say when we have the “attitude of gratitude,” praise comes easily.

How can I thank you all enough for the outpouring of your generosity for our building campaign? I will never be able to adequately thank the leadership of the project enough. How can I thank Clover, Anne, Liz, everyone on staff enough for the energy and love they bring to their work? It is awesome. I can’t thank God enough for you.

I was struck by all this when I heard Jean Reinhold’s beautiful prayer last Sunday (Thank you Jean!). It does something to our spirits, I believe, when we thank God and when we appreciate each other. It is powerful to be part of a community of thanksgiving and praise even when I, as an individual, may be carrying burdens that keeps me from feeling much of anything.

The Bible begins and ends with praise and thanksgiving. And throughout the Bible there is always this current of thanks. The people always return from the exile of isolation into the homecoming of praise and thanksgiving. Even when so much of life is hard and the historical narrative of faith is less than praiseworthy.

Being thankful has the power to transform life and give hope and build up and restore.

As Gabriel Rossetti, once said: “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful, and has nobody to thank.”

Thanks require a recipient, an “other.” It requires a relationship. There are reasons why your Mother always reminded you to say “Please” and “Thank you.” Yes, civility and politeness are important for the sake of being civil and polite but in these words there is recognition of another person. The world is not just about you and what you can achieve, or acquire – it is about you finding your own self-interest among others, seeing your life in community as a thankful expression to a God who created you: you who are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 139:14 In praise and thanksgiving we build the beloved community, which is nothing less than the kingdom of God among us. There are others with whom you are connected, other for whom you must take account.

You and I need to be trained in gratitude and practice praise, or it will atrophy and we will be left cynical and suspicious.

I know that it must be really difficult for some of you at times, when the darkness is closing in and the pain is bitter to bear, to hear the rest of us praising God, and offering our thanks. To give thanks for a new birth when perhaps you have just experienced a new death, to recognize and appreciate the gifts of a new leader when you might feel so unappreciated and unrecognized. Mother taught me to say “I’m sorry” too and we need to practice that art as well.

And yet this is the great power of community, no? Even if you are not feeling very faithful, you are part of a community, a tradition that claims a faith – and at times that can be empowering; you don’t need to know because others do. Even if you are not feeling particularly connected, you are in the midst of 250 other parts of this body. Even if you are not feeling especially thankful you are lifted on the larger wave of praise and I think there is something transformative about that. It sure saves you from being all alone.

I remember a good friend of this congregation, Jim Wagner, telling me: “People are at their best when they are generous.” Likewise, and I think it is connected to generosity, we are at our best when we are thankful, appreciative, full of praise – so grounded how can we not share?

I am currently in spiritual direction. I meet monthly with Paul, a Roman Catholic Priest whose job it is, is to ask me two questions, just two questions, to hold me accountable to my spiritual discipline. The first question is “John, are you praying?” And the second is “John, what are you hearing?”

He has challenged me with a prayer discipline of thanksgiving. Each morning he wants me to give thanks as I put my feet on the floor and each evening he agitates me to review my day and give thanks for each piece of it, even the hard pieces. I don’t always remember to do this. Sometimes I fall asleep before I complete the review – it is why I am thankful for a spiritual director! But I rather like the thought of falling asleep with thanksgiving on my mind – it certainly guards against nightmares!

I like this simple disciple of thanksgiving and gratitude: it is powerful to begin and end each day in thanks. I am beginning to think it is a very radical way to live – because being thankful drives me into the world of hurt with a larger sense of hope.

Being thankful agitates me towards involvement and commitment and justice so that others may be thankful too. How can I be thankful that I have “made it” (whatever that means) and not want others to “make it” too? Being thankful orientates me to what is really real. There is a larger marvelous narrative of grace and hospitality for which I am thankful and to which I am committed.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when I told you about Deanne’s and my trip to New York City and the powerful experience I had remembering 9/11 at the site of the Twin Towers. I was standing at a site of horror but what gave me hope was the ministry of the church across the street that opened its doors to anyone and everyone. And  I found myself praying a prayer of thanks – it empowered me and I knew deep down that “tears may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” that horrors linger in the memory but thanksgiving and praise releases enormous amounts of energy that heals and liberates.

Paul holds me accountable to thank God for everything and I mean everything; not only the good but the bad too. To thank God for the magnificent serendipitous surprises that catch my breath AND for the inconsequential things we take for granted AND even those horrendous occurrences that make you wonder, what, why, how, who?

It is hard to thank God for my stupidity, my mistakes, even for the ways I break covenant with God, with myself and with others so often. I am most thankful for a God and a community who forgives. Giving thanks helps with jealousy. Giving thanks helps with anger. Giving thanks helps with humility. Giving thanks helps with hope – because giving thanks is like casting your net onto the waters of possibility.

It should come as no surprise to us then, that the central liturgical act of Christian worship is the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.” The Lord’s Supper is the memory of the worst evening of all time. God is betrayed and denied and taken to the cross. And yet, by being so taken, God takes up every worst evening of your life, every worst suffering of the world, every pain and every sin and every madness and every brokenness and reclaims them as holy. When I say holy, I mean that all these instances are given divine meaning, divine involvement. It is a mystery, I don’t begin to claim to understand it – but it leaves me in awe wanting to say “thank you” wanting to praise, wanting to lean close and give all – give my being, my heart, my body, my soul.

And here is another mystery that I think is true. It was articulated by Walter Brueggemann a couple of weeks ago when he spoke about his love for the Eucharist – he described is as the place where God leans close to you and “valorizes” you – recognizes your valor, your identity as a beloved child. God offers his being, God offers her heart, God offers his body, God offers her blood, God gives everything to you. I think God in the Eucharist gives thanks to you, for you. You and God, we and God, are just so close.

The Psalmist knew of this proximity between God and the people. In the midst of the up and down nature of God’s relationship with the chosen people, the psalmist still proclaimed: “God has raised up a horn for his people, for the people of Israel who are close to him.”

I don’t know where I read this originally but I thought it was lovely and so I cut it out and pasted it onto a 3×5 card and I have kept it for at least 20 years. I don’t know who wrote it but I want to share it with you. The author wrote:

Do you remember the beautiful penultimate scene in “Manhattan” where Woody Allen is lying on the couch and talking into a tape recorder? He is writing a short story about people who are creating unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe. He leads himself to the question, “Why is life worth living?” and to consider what makes it worthwhile for him: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” Swedish movies, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, the apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, and, finally, the showstopper: his love Tracy’s face.

Now that is a beautiful scene, a wonderful quotation. I would like to hold all of you accountable to a discipline of praise and thanksgiving – it will get you out of your head and into your heart. It will make you look at your spouse, your child, the other members of this church and it may drive you to say “thank you” before you criticize – it may cause you to tell your truth less hurtfully. All the studies show that businesses do better when they shaped by appreciation, when the workers are thanked for jobs well done. It may perhaps even make you see your enemy in a new light – who knows?

In a little while you will come forward to take communion and some of you will choose to continue to the railing for an anointing, a blessing. Clover and I have the awesome privilege of knowing some of the blessings and the burdens that you come forward with. The bravery with which you trudge and carry on is remarkable and so very honorable. I know I speak for her when I say; “How moving it is, how powerful it is to know your stories and to say your names.” I thank you for your witness. My hope is that you leave this Eucharist feeling that God is thankful for you – that you leave the railing feeling, as Brueggemann said, “Ten feet tall.”

I give thanks that you and I have been given hearts to feel the pain of the world and to do something about it. I am thankful that even in the darkest recesses of evil – you and I have voices to raise with choices to be made – that can change everything.

I give thanks for the woman, who I will not name because she may be sitting in the pew next to you, who despite it all (and there is a LOT of “all” in her life), her favorite saying is, “Thank you God.” I have heard her say this lying in a hospital bed in tremendous pain.

What secret does she know? I want some of that.

It was Dag Hammarskjöld, remember, who wrote in his journal on a New Year’s Eve:

For all that has been “thanks.”
For all that is to be “Yes.”

Now that is radical stuff. It is a radical, faithful view of life, a belief that within and under and through it all there is a deep current of reality beneath that causes us to say, or to groan, “Thank you” and “Yes.”

Praise the Lord!

Praise God in the heights!

Thanks be to God and thanks be to you.

AMEN

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