Date: April 2, 2017
Title: “Fasting from Discontent, Feasting on Gratitude”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Philippians 4:1, 4-13
Today is the fifth Sunday in the season of Lent. For five weeks we have fasted and we have feasted together. First, we fasted from noise and feasted on silence. Then, we fasted from complexity and feasted on simplicity. We fasted from despair and feasted on hope, and last week we fasted from excuses and feasted on enthusiasm. Which brings us to this day, and the invitation is to fast from discontent, and feast instead on gratitude.
We’ve all been there, in that place of discontent, where nothing seems right with our world. Our clothes don’t fit right, we don’t like the meal we are served, our kids don’t seem to understand us and our parents won’t respect our choices. We worry about love or money, about safety or security, we have too much stress and not enough fun, and absolutely nothing seems right with the world!
We’ve all been there in that place of discontent, but few of us have really earned it the hard way. Few of us can say we really deserve to be discontented like Alice Herz Sommer. Alice was born in Prague in 1903. At the age of 39 she became an accomplished pianist. In 1942, her life was turned into turmoil and tragedy when her entire family was rounded up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. Her parents were killed but she and her son survived because the Nazis were making a propaganda film and they wanted to exploit her musical talents. Each day she laid on a freezing dirt floor, trying to soothe her son, knowing that soon she would have to get up and perform, and that if she didn’t do well, both she and her son would be killed that same day.
Alice had reason enough – more reasons than most of us will ever have – to stay in the place of discontent, to live only in her pain and her sorrow. And yet, somehow she found a way to not only survive, but to thrive. At the age of 108, Alice explained her longevity by saying:
I look where it is good. I know about the bad, but I look at the good thing. Because everything is a present.
Alice sounds a bit like the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians which we read this morning. Paul tells us to focus on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Is he nuts?! He is writing this letter from prison, not knowing whether he is about to be freed or about to be killed. A casual reader of Philippians could be forgiven for dismissing it as nothing more than a Pollyanna denial of reality. Surely, if all you had was this one letter – or if all you knew was Lent and you never had Easter – this would be an unrealistic, unreasonable denial of reality. But we know that Paul has more than rose-colored glasses through which to view his world and ours. Susan Eastman puts it this way:
Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which humanity is constantly at war somewhere, where people are betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other, in order to get ahead. This was true in Paul’s day and it is true in ours. We know only too well how to focus on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. But Paul reminds us of another reality – the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near.
It is the counter-reality of God’s rule in the midst of human relationship, the counter-reality of God’s hope in the midst of human despair, of God’s healing in the midst of human brutality, and God’s freedom in the midst of human oppression. It is this counter-reality, and our ability to lean into it, that makes it possible for us to fast from our discontent and to feast instead on gratitude, what Kathleen Norris calls “primary among the spiritual values, the wellspring, of them all.”
Gratitude. Someone else once called it the “jazz factor” of faith, because gratitude is love improvising its answer to love. Now I’ve known people who’ve gotten caught up in the rhythm of such jazz. I think of my friend, whose house burned to the ground, leaving her with nothing but the clothes on her back and a profound gratitude for the gift of life. Likewise, I remember watching a Bolivian Methodist congregation improvise the most joyous worship I have ever experienced, all in a church with only two walls and part of a roof to shelter them from driving rain. And then there are all those I have known who have improvised life in the face of death, choosing to find blessings where everyone else might find only pain.
Poet David Whyte tells us:
Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given. Gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not necessarily something that is shown after an event; it is the deep, a-priori state of attention that shows we understand and are equal to the gifted nature of life.
Gratitude is an orientation, and a way of being in the world that takes us beyond ourselves, and helps us to live even now in the reality of God’s powerful presence. Peter Marty, Editor of The Christian Century, tells the story of one who held that kind of orientation, and went far beyond herself:
Fifty-six years have passed since six-year-old Ruby Bridges walked into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby was black; the other students were white. Her walk into that school, surrounded by federal marshals, signaled a major development in desegregation.
Before her first day of first grade had ended, parents had emptied the school of white children. Ruby learned alone that year, taught by the one teacher willing to remain. Huge crowds of protestors gathered daily outside the school to shout slurs and death threats at Ruby. Throngs of angry whites waved Confederate flags, and some even shoved before Ruby an open child’s casket with a black doll lying inside.
Psychiatrist Robert Coles was studying children in the desegregating South in the 1960s, and he took a personal interest in Ruby. Her display of strength, stoicism and bright cheer in the midst of a daily hell puzzled him, so he began to meet with Ruby every week. One day Ruby’s teacher told Coles that she had noticed Ruby moving her lips as she was walking into school. So Coles asked her, “Who were you talking to, Ruby?” She replied, “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street.” When Coles asked “Why?”, Ruby said, “Well, I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”
“But Ruby”, Coles persisted, “those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.” “No”, she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good them. I always pray the same thing: ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.’”
Six year old Ruby Bridges borrowed those words from Jesus as he hung on the cross doling out love to those who had insulted, betrayed, ignored and marginalized him. From her orientation of gratitude, Ruby found a peace which passed and defied all understanding. And so might we do the same! My friends, today is a gift. We have, each of us been given this gift. And whether we can see God’s presence in it or not; whether we are held by loved ones in an unconditional embrace of acceptance, or vilified by enemies in unbelievable hatred, we can choose to fast from discontent. We can choose to feast on gratitude. We can choose to receive the peace that defies all understanding… just like Ruby, just like Alice, just like Jesus. And with God’s help, just like you! Amen.