Monday, May 03, 2010

Homily: "Gratitude is the Basis for All Religion" (Delivered 5-2-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Connect - To connect on a shared spiritual journey. Click here for more information.

The Place I Want to Get Back To by Mary Oliver

is where
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
the darkness

and first light
two deer
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me

they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let's see who she is
and why she is sitting

on the ground, like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;

and so they come
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way

I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward

and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years

I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can't be repeated.

If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named

At home I have this refrigerator magnet that contains one woman’s four sentence synopsis of the message of Unitarian Universalism. These words, written by Laila Ibrahim, announce,
It’s a blessing each of us was born.
It matters what we do with our lives.
What each of us knows about god is a piece of the truth.
We don’t have to do it alone.
We don’t have to do it alone. If there was a sentence that summed up this sermon, that would be it. We don’t have to do it alone.

I’m not sure how many of you recognize this or realize this, but the sermons that I preach are not created alone. When they are bad I am happy to take all the blame, but when they are good I cannot take all the credit. In this congregation we have a worship committee that works collaboratively with me. A lot of times I think that this group flies a little bit under the radar. At least they have a greater public presence on those 20% of Sundays when I am not in the pulpit. On those Sundays, the worship committee serves as worship leaders, assisting our guests to find their way through the order of service, making sure that the chalice gets lit and extinguished, that the offertory is given and received, and so on. The worship committee also arranges our annual Distinguished Guest Minister weekend that has brought us the likes of Kendyl Gibbons, William Murry, and Suzanne Meyer.

But they have another role as well. We meet as a committee almost every month and we begin each meeting by reviewing the services from the previous month and I receive feedback about what worked especially well and what did not work. Next we talk about the worship services that are coming up in the next month and I receive input and ideas. Sometimes we even brainstorm the contents of a sermon together.

So, for example, when I told the worship committee that I was going to be doing a service on the theme of gratitude, one member of the committee mentioned the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver that I read earlier. This member of the worship committee also shared that she had been at an auction event where a group of church members had gathered to discuss the poetry of Mary Oliver and that one of the other guests had made a remark along the lines of, “Gratitude is the basis of all religion.”

All of this is just to say that there is more than meets the eye. All of this is to say that there is more teamwork and mutual effort that goes into any given Sunday service. All of this is to say that the line “You don’t have to do it alone” is absolutely true. All of this is to say “Thank You” because if it were not for the members of the Worship Committee not only would 20% of all worship services be threatened, but the 80% that have my name and title attached to them would be severely diminished. So, thank you. [At the end of the sermon I briefly recognized volunteers throughout the congregation.]

What did that member of our church mean when he said that “Gratitude is the basis for all religion”? Of course, I could have gone and asked the person. But instead, I decided to wonder about its meaning.

To me “basis” does not mean the same thing as “origin.” Spiritual writer Anne Lamott has said that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me,” and, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Somewhat facetiously I wonder whether the first prayer uttered by some missing link hominid millions of years ago might have been a prayer of gratitude.

Was the caveman grateful? “Thank you for sending along a succulent animal for me to kill with my spear!” Or, was it a prayer of petition? “Please send along a succulent animal for me to kill with my spear!” Or, was it a prayer of confession? “I have done something horribly wrong to cause you to withhold succulent animals from me!”

Or, maybe, in saying that gratitude is the basis of all religion, this person was saying that all religions have in common the act of expressing thanks, that cultivating a thankful heart is something that all religions hold in common. I am hard pressed to think of a religion that does not practice a form of gratitude. All across the spectrum of English speaking mainline Protestantism, church-going folks this morning are singing a doxology that goes,
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Earlier this week I attended an interfaith gathering. At this gathering the “Faith Reflection” was led by a Jewish woman from Congregation Beth Torah who taught us about the traditional Jewish prayer known as the Birkat Hamazon, which is said after a meal. The Birkat Hamazon involves four expressions of gratitude. First, gratitude is expressed for the food that has been eaten. Next, gratitude is expressed for the land that brought forth the food. Third, gratitude is expressed for Jerusalem, the Holy Land. Finally, gratitude is expressed for God’s goodness.

It is hard to imagine a religion of the world that does not make a major point out of the expression of gratitude. If there is one the person who could probably tell us about it, it would be Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University. In his newest book, God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, Prothero writes, “For more than a century, scholars have searched for the essence of religion… Today it is widely accepted that there is no one essence that all religions share.”

So, gratitude was probably not the first religious sentiment ever uttered by our hominid ancestors. And, gratitude may not even be a common characteristic that connects all of the religions of the world. I want to offer a third interpretation of the claim that gratitude is the basis for all religion. Perhaps what it means is simply this:

Suppose you are going about your daily life. Work or school. Commitments and obligations. Feeding, grooming, and cleaning. Volunteerism, amusement, relaxation, procrastination, exercise, Sudoku. Suppose you are going about your daily life and inside of you there stirs some inclination towards religion, towards faith. The easiest way to embrace this mode of being is to turn towards gratitude and to name and fully embrace that thankful spirit.

That is what Mary Oliver’s poem is about. In her poem, “The Place I want to get back to,” she describes a powerful religious experience. She is sitting in the woods in solitude. A pair of deer amble past and – can it be believed? – one of them resists its skittish and fearful urges, approaches the poet and nuzzles her hand, a moment at once incredibly tender and sublime.

That image, as powerful as it is, is actually not what this poem is about. The poem is about the twenty years that pass after this ecstatic encounter. She writes that for twenty years she has gone to the woods and sat, not because she was expecting these events to repeat, but to live in the memory of and the abiding gratitude for that great gift she found decades earlier.

The opposite of gratitude is to take something for granted. The opposite of gratitude may also be some combination of desire and greed that devalues the present or the past by impatiently grasping at a vision for the future.

The place that Mary Oliver wants to get back to is not having another deer come and nuzzle her. It is not a desire for two or three or four deer to approach. It is not a desire for a bobcat to saunter by or for foxes to turn somersaults for her amusement. The poet is not complaining. She is not whining, “C’mon, Mother Nature, I’m getting impatient. Entertain me.” The place she wants to get back to is that experience of awe and thankfulness. If she loses that, she loses so much. If she loses that, she loses so much.

And, so I want to say “Thank You.”


I'm going to end this blog entry with both a plug and an embarrassing confession.

The plug is this: If you live in the Kansas City area you should definitely plan to go the Lied Center in Lawrence, Kansas where Mary Oliver will give a free poetry reading this Wednesday, May 5, 2010. I was fortunate enough to hear her read several years ago in St. Louis and it was very enjoyable.

The confession is this: Mary Oliver and I have an ongoing rivalry. Well, it isn’t really a rivalry. Mary Oliver has no clue who I am or even that I exist. But, about five years ago I found myself talking with a group of Unitarian Universalists who were going to hear her give a reading. People were very curious, wondering what her voice sounds like. Completely straight-faced I told the gathering that they were going to be completely shocked because Mary Oliver sounded like Mike Myers’ character on the Saturday Night Live skit Coffee Talk. So, I’ve had this shtick where I’ve read the poems Wild Geese and In Blackwater Woods in my own version of a “Coffee Talk” (heavy on the New York accent and avoiding the Jewish stereotypes.) Well, that shtick has gotten old. For some time I’ve been trying to think of a new way to do a prank reading of Oliver’s poetry. I finally found it! I am going to auto-tune Mary Oliver! The debut of auto-tuned Mary Oliver will be this summer at Midwest Leadership School.