Friday, June 08, 2012

Sermon: "A Song of Gratitude in Your Heart" (Delivered 6-3-12)


I want you to imagine that someone is making a movie of your life.  I know this is a little far-fetched.  It probably won’t be a Hollywood blockbuster.  More like an independent art house flick.  Now, before you start wondering if George Clooney or Julia Roberts is available for the role, you might want to consider yourself cautioned by folk singer Susan Werner who sang, “But if they really made a movie of my life, they’d show me going to a [lot of] movies.  And if they really wrote a book about my life, they’d say I read a lot of… novels.”

But still, I want you to imagine that someone has made a movie of your life.  It’s a cut.  Filming wraps up.  The movie now goes to the sound editor.  It is time to give your life a soundtrack, to select some songs so that the viewer can be cued to your inner emotions and feelings and thoughts as you go about the action of your life.  What songs do you choose for the soundtrack of your life?

Maybe the soundtrack to your life has some vanity and self-absorption, so you select that silly “Sexy and I Know It” song.  Or maybe the soundtrack of your life has some moments of low self-esteem, so you put on a little Beck, “Soy un perdedor, I’m a loser baby.”  Or maybe the soundtrack of your life tells us that you are withdrawn and stoic, so you put on some Simon & Garfunkel.  “I am a rock, I am an island, and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”  Or maybe the soundtrack of your life should speak to feelings of hurt and resentment, so you select some Cee-Lo Green.  “I see you driving ‘round town with the girl I love, and I’m like…”  You can finish the lyrics on your own.  (I’ll tell you what, it’s hard to pick songs that I think we’re all going to recognize, so I apologize if you have no idea what I’ve been talking about here.)

If there was a movie about your life, there might be a couple of scenes of heroism and courage.  Hopefully there are some scenes of compassion and tenderness.  Scenes of integrity, mindfulness, generosity, and principled living.  And hopefully the soundtrack of your life has some love songs, some songs of joy and hope and inspiration.

Religion and spiritual discipline can influence us as we direct the outward action of the movie of our lives.  It can inspire us to stand for peace, work for justice, and serve those in need.  It can instruct us to welcome in the stranger and to love our neighbor as our self.  Religion and spiritual discipline can just as importantly be a tremendous influence as we select the soundtrack, the score, to the movie of our lives, the articulation of our inner feelings and emotions, our thoughts and imagination.

Of course, these are not completely separate.  They cannot be separate.  Our outer actions cannot help but to be shaped by our inner songs.  To score something means to set it music.  But to score something also means to make a real and physical scratch in it.  Enough marks may eventually become a groove.  Our inner scoring plays against the outer world.

This morning I want to ask you about the songs in your heart.  The trajectory of these words has been shaped by an amazing piece of writing that I’ve been reading.  In My Home There Is No More Sorrow by Rick Bass is a travel memoir by an American writer, an activist who has written about topics such as environmental justice.  Bass travels to Rwanda with his wife, teenage daughter, and a colleague to lead a writing workshop for a promising group of young Rwandan authors who are trying to rebuild that nation’s literary tradition.  The stakes are high; in Rwanda authors can face death for taking on politically sensitive subjects.  I’m fascinated by the way the author writes about how his inner soundtrack plays against his outer travel experiences.  Take, for example, this scene when the group stops at a local establishment while traveling across the countryside.
Some loud ‘70s tune is playing in the bar now, and when we gesture to the waiter that we like it – we’re laughing at how loud it is – he thinks we’re complaining that it’s too loud, and dashes into the bar to tell the owner.  Seconds later, the volume is dialed down to a discreet and very un-barlike Muzak croon.  When the waiter comes back, we try to convey that were just laughing, was all, that in no way do we want to impose our desires upon the folks in the bar, but we’re unable to make ourselves understood.  The previously festive, even raucous music remains subdued, in deference to the gigantic micromanaging of the high-maintenance Americans.
This launches the writer on an extended riff about the soundtrack, the spirit, of the people he meets, and the soundtrack that plays within him.  He remarks, “It feels… like we are in the presence of spirits [very different from] our own: less numb, less jaded, less beset by self-focus and the low chronic agony of unmet desires, many of which do not even originate within us but have been grafted on from the outside.”  This is to say that he is self-aware of how his own emotions and thoughts play on well-worn grooves. 

***

We opened up our service this morning by singing together a song that has come to find a regular rotation in our worship services.  “Oh we give thanks, for this precious day, for all gathered here, and those far away, for the time we share, with love and care, oh we give thanks, for this precious day.”  I was inspired to choose the subject of gratitude this morning because it is a virtue worth remembering as we conclude this church year and beginning the next.  Some of the board members and committee members are ending their time of service as new members come on to fill their shoes.  Our choir breaks for the summer, but not before they enjoy an end of the year pool party.  Our religious education teaching teams turn over.  It is important to pause for a moment and express gratitude.

And, as a preacher, I have to tell you that gratitude is a subject that doesn’t seem to need a whole lot of theological finessing.  Gratitude is one of those virtues that very few people go out of their way to avoid.  Forgiveness takes a lot of hard work, soul work.  Generosity can seem hard to swallow at first.  Compassion can take some intentional effort before you get the hang of it.  But gratitude can seem like the low hanging fruit of all of the virtues.  It helps that gratitude is a virtue that people don’t generally make a conscious decision to set their heart against.  People say things like, “I’m just not ready to forgive.”  “I’m not ready to accept.”  But, people don’t make a conscious decision to be ungrateful.  It is a sin of omission, not commission.

I find it helpful to think about virtues as songs, or perhaps as stories, that live in our heart.   If you walk around singing about giving thanks for this precious day, you’re liable to do just that.  The story you find yourself in will be the story of the universe unfolding in a kindly way for you.  If you’re not much for hymns, then I commend to you any number of popular songs that speak to a grateful spirit.  I’ve provided a list at the end of this sermon.

If songs of gratitude fail to become stuck in our hearts, if they fail to serve as the stories we find ourselves in, it is probably not because we have rejected gratitude.  Rather, it is because we have chosen to sing another song in our hearts.

One such song is found in our hymnal.  Hymn number 304 is entitled “A Fierce Unrest.”  Its lyrics declare, “A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things.  It was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings.  There throbs through all the worlds that are this heartbeat hot and strong, and shaken systems, star by star, awake and glow in song.”  The last line of the hymn announces, “We sing the stinging discontent that leaps from star to star.”

This is not a hymn that is often sung, and I doubt that many of us walk around singing it.  However, its words describe a way of being in the world that we may recognize.  How many of you know somebody that this hymn describes?  Or, does it describe you?  Are you ever fiercely restless, stingingly discontented?  If that is the emotional space you occupy, you are going to find it hard to have a grateful heart.

In the interest of full disclosure, this song probably describes me in a lot of ways.  And, don’t get me wrong, there is a sense in which unrest and discontent can be beneficial.  Martin Luther King frequently used the term “divine discontent” in his sermons and speeches and spoke of being maladjusted to systems of oppression.  At the same time, embodying that spirit of discontent can take a harsh toll on our relationships.

If the song of gratitude is not playing loudly in your heart, another song that may be drowning it out is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love Judy Garland.  It is a really hopeful song.  Imagining a better world where dreams really do come true is important.  But, I think we all have met people who fall into a simple dichotomy that complains that here stinks, but over there is awesome.  Right here is wanting and deficient, but over there is all wonderful.  The grass over there is greener.  And, at the end, isn’t the longing for what lies over the rainbow tempered by a grateful acknowledgment that “there’s no place like home”?

I love Judy Garland and I love Janis Joplin, and I’m glad that Janis was being playful and tongue-in-cheek when she sang, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.  My friends all drive Porsches.  I must make amends.”  But, we’ve known people who have that song in their heart, just without the irony.  Oh Lord, won’t you really buy me a Mercedes Benz.

I recently had the opportunity to dine with a family with young children.  We had a great dinner and then they served an amazing, mouth-watering, dessert.  I glanced over and noticed that the young boy in this family was glancing back and forth between his sister’s plate and his own.  He was making sure that they had the exact same amount of dessert, that she didn’t have any extra, that he wasn’t being cheated.  This is developmentally appropriate for a child his age, but it is something we’re supposed to grow out of.

What songs do you carry in your heart?  Do you carry a song of gratitude with you?  Or, is that song of gratitude drowned out by “A Fierce Unrest,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or “Mercedes Benz”?  If the virtues are songs that live in our heart, we should be mindful of the songs we carry with us.

***

Some songs of gratitude I recommend:

The Luckiest by Ben Folds
ThankYou by Dido
ThankYou by Led Zeppelin
Kindand Generous by Natalie Merchant
ThankU by Alanis Morrissette