Confronting Fear with Gratitude

November 18, 2018

Rev. Susan Bjork

Associate Minister

Joel 2:21-27

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Loving God, let us pause in this moment to say thanks. Thank you for this life, thank you for this world of your creation, for those who are beloved and dear to us, for this community of faith, for all of the many blessings that fill our lives. In this time together, help us tune our hearts to your Spirit and listen for your call to us. Amen

Today, we continue our sermon series on facing our fears and living with confidence. And our focus today is to explore how the practice of gratitude, the practice of intentionally taking time to give thanks, can help us confront our fears (whatever they may be) and help us live with hope and courage.

Our scripture lesson from the prophet Joel has a lot to say about this. The prophetic books of the Bible usually include a mix of statements – some of judgment and challenge that call the people back from however they have strayed; as well as passages, like today’s, which are testaments to God’s goodness, affirmations of God’s grace, visions of hope, and promises of salvation. That is part of the give and take of this covenantal relationship between God and God’s people – there is both challenge and affirmation.

In today’s passage, Joel lifts up the very goodness and abundance of God’s grace that is alive in creation itself. In fact, he first speaks directly to creation: “Do not fear, O soil! (He talks to the dirt!) Be glad and rejoice for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, animals! God has given you green pastures, trees full of figs, and vines that are laden with grapes.”

And then the prophet speaks to the people: “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice! For God will bring you abundant rain; your threshing floors will be full of grain; your vats will be overflowing with oil and wine. You shall eat plenty and be satisfied. And you will be moved to praise the Lord, your God.”

We can tell, from what Joel says in this passage, that things haven’t always seemed so good. This vision of an abundant harvest refers back to a time of want, a time of famine, a time when locusts and grasshoppers destroyed all the crops. And Joel’s promise that God will bring plenty of rain again probably comes after a time of drought (we can certainly relate to that).

And, of course, in these experiences of destruction, desolation, and drought, the people undoubtedly wondered: “Where are you, God?” And so, to this question, Joel responds with God’s promise that once more “you shallknow that that I am in your midst… you shallknow that the Lord is your God and that there is no other.” You may have wondered where God was in the past, but have faith because you will know God’s presence again.

We can certainly relate to this experience too. In times when we’ve experienced spiritual drought, we have wondered if the blessed rain will ever come again. In times when we’ve been sad, lonely, or afraid, we’ve probably asked, “Where are you, God?

But time and time again, the testimony of the biblical narrative, the testimony of our faith tradition is that we are not alone. Time and time again, the answer God gives is “I am with you.”  One story after another, one proclamation after another lifts up God’s fierce love and determination to be in relationship with us. And, at the same time, encouraging us to deeper loving relationship with one another and with all creation.

God doesn’t give up on this relationship. And neither should we.

I think we know this. But I also think that there are times when life really stretches us; illness, tragedy, violence, injustice, whatever it is that challenges us most. And these challenges bring about the real fears we face in this life… fear of suffering, of death, of losing those we love, of being lonely… these are real fears. And those of us who are economically privileged might never have faced the real fear of not having what we need to survive and thrive, but many people in our world do face that real fear daily.

Now, I don’t think fear itself is the enemy. Fear is a natural human response. It has its place (in fact, it’s kept us alive as a species). It is ok to feel afraid. And it is ok to name our fears and express them in safe company. That’s one of the reasons we’re offering this sermon series and talking about some things that don’t always get talked about in church.

But our fears also often come with a choice. Will we allow fear to control us, paralyze us, devastate us, or even destroy us? Or, in naming and expressing our fears, will we then confront them, face them head on, and figure out how to live, and serve, and embrace joy in spite of our fears?

Part of the journey of faith is learning how to weather the storm, learning how to carry on through the times of drought, learning how to navigate through the tough stuff life throws at us.

And I don’t think this is something we just figure out one day and then we’re all set and its clear sailing from then on out. It’s an ongoing life-long practice.

But one of the best tools we have for navigating this journey, in the easier and more challenging times, is the practice of gratitude.

We have so much to be grateful for! I think that is one of the reasons Joel speaks to creation itself. He is pointing out that God’s goodness, grace, and glory are present in this life, in this world. God’s promise of redemption and transformation is for all creation.

And it may be tempting sometimes to hide away or look elsewhere for things that will numb our fears and sorrows or temporarily fill in those feelings of emptiness that creep up from time to time. But our faith calls upon us to look to God. And our faith proclaims that abundant life, and God’s abundant grace, is found right here. Abundant living can be experienced right here, right now in relationship with God and with one another.

And so what can our response to God’s ever-present love be but thank you?

But gratitude is not simply a feeling. It is a choice. And it is a spiritual practice. Giving God thanks and praise is one of the main reasons we all gather here on Sunday mornings.

Scholar and author, Diana Butler Bass, has recently done a lot of work around gratitude. In fact, she just published a new book entitled Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (HarperOne, 2018).

As she’s explored this topic, one of the central insights she came to understand is that gratitude is a choice. There are times when we may feel more grateful. There are times when we may feel less grateful. But the practice of giving thanks, regardless of our particular feelings at the moment, is a choice.

She says that, “gratitude is the primary moral framework of life in God.” Gratitude ought to be our primary orientation as people of faith. She goes as far as to say gratitude is not really optional because it is the central hope and affirmation of our faith tradition. Faith is not about fearing a wrathful, vengeful God. Faith is not about asking God to grant our every wish. Faith is, at least in part, about saying thank you for this precious life and living, to the best of our ability, a life that expresses this gratitude in love and service.

Butler Bass uses the idea of table fellowship as a central image to illustrate the importance of gratitude. Think about how many images of tables and meals and banquets there are in our tradition: the Passover feast, communion (which was based on Passover, of course), the communal meals that the early churches practiced (which essentially included communion plus a potluck), and the image of the feast, the banquet, where all have a place and all are fed (which is an image both the Hebrew prophets, including Joel in today’s passage, and Jesus lifted up many times).

Giving thanks around a table is not something that ought to just happen once a year on a Thursday in November. It is central to our faith. In fact, as Butler Bass points out, when we look at this history of these table traditions, giving thanks to God often happens at both the beginning and the end of the meal. Our time together at the table ought to be bookended by gratitude.  Perhaps we ought to start saying grace twice!

In fact, what might happen to us if we bookended each day with gratitude? Maybe you already do this in some fashion. Saying thank you each morning is an act of faith and trust in God’s presence in the day to come and an expression of gratitude for the very opportunity to live and serve another day. Saying thank you each night is a response to the blessings the day has brought and recognition of God’s presence in what has unfolded.

And here’s the thing, choosing gratitude is not something we do out of obligation or duty. Even when we choose gratitude in the midst of moments when we are feeling less than grateful, we choose gratitude because we choose faith, because we choose to look for the good and the hopeful. We choose gratitude because we choose to proclaim that God’s love and grace are abundant, that there is enough for all, and that we will work to do our part to share it. Gratitude is a joyful choice.

But, as Butler Bass also points out, this practice of gratitude, and this communal image of table fellowship, has often stood in contrast to the dominant cultural structures of hierarchy. Whereas we might imagine God’s banquet table as round with room for all (and no seating chart), many socio-economic political structures are pyramids where people have prescribed places and it’s pretty hard to move positions.

In Jesus’ day, the pyramid was the Roman Empire – Caesar was at the top of the pyramid, followed by the ruling class, followed by landowners, and merchants, and then the peasant working class, all the way down to slaves at the bottom. It was believed that Caesar gifted his wealth to the empire and credit must be given where credit was due.

And so gratitude in this structure was not a choice. It was a duty. It was a required obligation to the empire. And those who did not give thanks to those above them and to Caesar were considered ingrates. And to work towards a different structure all together… well that was considered treason.

The distinction is pretty stark. A pyramid or a circle. Empire or God’s banquet. Hierarchy or community.

It remains a challenge for us in our time, of course, to confront the pyramid structures that loom large in our world. And structures can only shift when attitudes shift too.

And so we come back to choosing gratitude, joyfully choosing gratitude.

When we choose to go through life with openness to blessing, with a willingness to say thanks to God and to all the people who bless us with their lives, with a desire to confront our fears, our sorrows, our challenges (rather than be undone by them), then transformation is possible.

Giving thanks might just change us and it might just change the world if we keep working at it.

If you’ve taken yoga classes with Christi Dysart, you know that she has an abundance of wonderful quotes on gratitude. And I’d like to leave you with one she shared a couple of weeks ago from one of our forebears in faith, 19th century Congregationalist minister, Henry Ward Beecher:

“If one should give me a dish of sand, and tell me there were particles of iron in it, I might look for them with my eyes, and search for them with my clumsy fingers, and be unable to detect them; but let me take a magnet and sweep through it, and how would it draw to itself the almost invisible particles by the mere power of attraction? The unthankful heart, like my finger in the sand, discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day, and as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.”

Let your heart be magnetized. Be open to God’s grace in your life. Choose gratitude. Share God’s abundant love. Embody transformation for yourself and for all.

Amen.