"Cultivating a Grateful Heart"
Scripture – Psalm 145:1-7
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Today, David Steindl-Rast is a Roman Catholic priest and author, but he remembers a heart-pounding moment in his childhood when he narrowly escaped death. He grew up during the Second World War in Nazi-occupied Austria, and he remembers experiencing air raids on a daily basis. Usually, the bombers would be spotted before they reached the city and the sirens would blare and everyone would dash to the nearest air raid shelter. However, one day was different. The bombs started falling the split second the air raid sirens sounded the warning.
David was walking down the street and had no chance of reaching an air raid shelter for protection. So he dashed into the building that was only a few steps away, which happened to be a church. To shield himself from the falling debris and the shattering glass, he dove underneath a pew and covered his head with his arms and his hands. The bombs were exploding and the ground beneath him was shaking violently, and he was terrified. He knew that at any moment the enormous vaulted ceiling would come crashing down and bury him alive. But that moment did not come, and eventually the bombing stopped, and the sirens sounded the all-clear message. He crawled out from under the pew and began shaking off the dust and debris. Then he stepped outside into what was suddenly, a glorious May morning. It was glorious because he was alive, after being certain that he would die. His survival came as a complete surprise. The solid buildings he had seen less than an hour before were now smoking mounds of rubble. After that devastating bombing, the fact that there was anything at all struck him as unbelievable. Then his eyes fell upon a few square feet of lawn that stood out in the midst of all the destruction. It was as if a friend had held out to him an emerald. Never before or since has he seen grass so intensely green. That experience helped him grasp a deep truth about life: our eyes are opened to the surprise character of the world the moment we wake up from taking things for granted.1
Isn't this what makes new born babies and young children so delightful? We love to see their sense of surprise when they discover something new about the world. We love to watch their eyes grow wide with excitement when they see the beauty of simple things that we have long since overlooked. Perhaps you have savored the moment of a child who was enthralled at the sight of a lady bug slowly traversing up the stem of a flower. Or maybe you have been blessed to observe a child holding her hand under a faucet mesmerized by the water as it tumbled out of her palm and spilled through her fingers.
The world is an amazing place overflowing with fantastic gifts, but we have to be awake, or we will walk past them, oblivious to the miracles around us. And if we fail to recognize and experience the marvelous treasures that life offers, we will find ourselves restless, continuously searching but never fully discovering deep joy and fulfilment. But, how do we learn to wake up? It all begins when we recognize that life and the world in which we live, are gifts from God.
The universe is an enormous expanse, much larger than anyone ever imagined, and throughout most of space, there is no life. That's because numerous factors must come together in just the right mix to create the conditions for life to exist. Temperatures must fall within a certain range. Most places in the universe are much too cold or much too hot for life to thrive. There has to be oxygen and water and a number of basic elements for even the simplest forms of life to take hold and survive. Once we recognize how unique the earth is, we begin to realize that it is probably not an accident; not simply a fluke in the universe. There must be a greater power that creates and sustains the conditions that make life possible on this planet.
There are those who believe that existence is merely a fortunate accident. Such a belief leads to doubt that there is any real purpose or meaning in life. But beware, because that approach to life is void of any deep and lasting hope, and without hope people become cynical. Life becomes more and more a struggle that must be endured.
However, people who believe that life is not an accident, that it is instead, a precious gift from God, seek to live life to its fullest. If we are going to wake up to the amazing treasures around us, we must first recognize that life is a gift.
Prayer is a wonderful tool to help us wake up from taking things for granted. Pausing at least once each day to give thanks to God for the simple joys of life can help us wake up to the blessings that we so often overlook.
I suspect that most of us need to learn – or actually relearn – how to pay attention to God's marvelous creation. Young children know something that many of us have forgotten: that the world is a remarkable place. Each day children make astonishing new discoveries and for them, life is enchanting. As we grow older, many of us forget how to be alert to the wonders and beauty of the world. We become so focused on the tasks we need to perform and so pressured by the deadlines we must meet and so stuck in our familiar routines that we become blinded to the treasures that surround us. Some day soon, walk outside on a clear night and observe the stars in the sky. Find the Big Dipper and Orion's belt. Contemplate the vast distance between stars and the enormity of space. You might be treated to a shooting star.
If you're going to the beach this summer, spend some time simply staring at the ocean. Watch the waves as they swell and then crash on the shore. Relish the flight of the pelicans as they play "Follow the leader" just inches above the water. Take some bread crumbs and feed the sea gulls. Get them to come up close to you so you can look into their eyes. Toss the chunks of bread into the air and watch them swoop in and snag them before they hit the ground.
Some time this week, gaze at a loved one from across the room, when he/she is unaware that you're looking. Recall some of your most cherished moments together. Think about the ways this person has touched your life and helped you become the person you are today.
Once we realize that life is a precious gift of God, and we relearn how to pay attention to the many wonders around us, we develop a grateful heart. And, a grateful heart leads to a more rewarding experience of life. When we have a grateful heart we feel closer to God and closer to family and friends. We even feel closer to people we do not know, because deep inside of us there is an awareness that we are all children of God and that makes us brothers and sisters of one another.
The author of this morning's Psalm certainly knows what it is to experience the blessing of a grateful heart. He writes, "I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; God's greatness is unsearchable...On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate." It's as if he cannot take it all in, and he cannot contain himself. He's bubbling over with gratitude. That's because he has woken up to the wonders of the world and his basic attitude toward life is one of gratefulness. He feels compelled to express his appreciation to the One who is responsible for it all.
Gratitude is one of the primary motivations for worship. We set aside a special day of the week to join with others whose eyes have been opened, and we say thank you to the Creator of heaven and earth. Of course, we do not simply wait seven days for the community of faith to worship together. In the days between Sundays, we express our gratitude in personal prayer, in song and in our treatment of others.
Some people say, "I would be grateful, if it weren't for what has happened to me. I would be grateful, however life has not been easy." Their basic attitude toward life is: "I don't get what I deserve." For them, life is never truly fulfilling, it's always frustrating. They always feel as if they have been short-changed. They see others who seem joyful and at peace, and they assume that it is because the circumstances of life have been better for them.
However, people who live a rich life have discovered an important truth, and it is this: a grateful heart does not emerge from the absence of problems. A grateful heart is not born in a trouble-free existence. You do not have to have good health to be grateful. You do not have to be talented to be grateful. You do not have to be wealthy or good-looking or to live a long life to be grateful. You simply must recognize that life is a fantastic gift from God filled with wonders and surprises and beauty.
A few years ago, Itzhak Perlman, one of the world's great violinists, played Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. If you've ever seen Perlman, you know that he supports himself on crutches, the kind that fit around your arm like braces and become extensions of your arms. It's almost painful to watch his body jerking back and forth as he slowly moves forward on his crutches. When he comes on stage for a concert, the violin section must part itself extra-wide so he can get through to his podium and chair.
At this particular concert, he was making his way onto the stage. The concertmaster was standing next to Perlman's chair holding his violin and bow for him. The audience was greeting him warmly. The applause was still full as he planted his left crutch up on the podium and swung his left leg up. Then the right crutch. But as he swung his right leg up – it missed the podium and his right crutch flew out with it.
Perlman crashed to the floor very hard. He was face-down on the stage, his arms still in the crutches, and the soles of his shoes facing the audience. The applause stopped as if a guillotine had dropped. 1,500 people gasped all at once, and then there was pin-drop silence.
Perlman did not move. For maybe four or five seconds, he was motionless. The concertmaster, the conductor, and the principal cellist all jumped toward him to help. Then he shot a hand out to wave them away. The next moment, he spun himself around and sat up. With a big smile on his face, he said, "And you think the piece I'm about to play is difficult!"
The place went nuts, no one knowing if he'd broken bones or hit his head or if there would be a performance at all. But he started to get one crutch under him, and he asked the audience, "Do you mind waiting a few moments?"
The crowd burst into applause, and over the course of the next three or four minutes, they witnessed a piece of how his life really is. They saw what it's like when he is not the World's Greatest Violinist, but simply a 55-year-old man who contracted polio when he was a child.
First he had to get the crutches in the right spot so that he could gain some traction on the floor and get himself moving. That took the longest, and it was not all that successful; he wound up more or less crawling onto the conductor's podium. Once he was seated there, he reached down and grabbed his legs behind the knees and hauled them in place so he could stand up. All of this was done in slow, methodical stages, yet each stage punctuated by a one-liner he threw out to the audience.
He was right about asking the audience to wait. He knew that getting himself off the floor and into his chair was not going to be quick, or pretty, yet he repeatedly waved away offers of help, because he was determined to do it himself. And he made the packed auditorium laugh as he did it.
Then, the concert was on and he played the Barber piece. It was not flawless, but it was incredibly inspiring. And there was a moment in the second movement – the part Barber created for the violin solo that's filled with sadness and longing and joy all bundled together – where Perlman was amazing. He sat up ramrod straight for the first time all evening and just let it fly.
When the piece concluded, the audience exploded out of their seats. Cheering somewhat for the Barber piece and Perlman's performance, but mainly for Perlman's courage, and his ability to laugh at his adversity.2
Perlman could have excused himself from the performance after his hard fall. He could have let people gather him up off the floor and carry him out, and say, "I'm sorry. Not tonight folks." But he has learned to overlook the struggles of life and to focus instead on the opportunities of life. He does not sit around and mourn about all the things he cannot do, which are many. Instead, he makes the most of what he can do, and he does it with a smile on his face. Such an attitude springs from a grateful heart – one that gives thanks to God every morning for the beauty and wonders and the very gift of life itself.
Healing Prayer ~ Gregory Knox Jones
Creator of the universe and Source of our lives, you gave us the healing ministry of Jesus. He opened the eyes of those who were blind and helped them envision a path to adventure and joy. He touched those who were ill and made them feel vibrant and whole. Jesus forgave those who were captives of guilt and freed them for new ways of living. He engaged people who were tormented by internal demons and liberated them from destructive behaviors. He encountered men and women whose spirits were dead and resurrected them to hope-filled lives.
Mighty God, our world is so desperate for healing. Fatal diseases rob us of our loved ones. Illnesses of the mind alienate victims from society. Racism divides communities and gives rise to injustice, violence and hate crimes. Terrorism and war spread mayhem and extinguish innocent lives. Greed drives many to become callous to human needs and some to destruction of your creation.
Loving God, you call us together in the Body of Christ and plead with us to continue the work Jesus began. Give us the will to follow the teachings and example of Jesus:
by visiting one who is ill and touching her with love;
by listening with undivided attention to one who needs to unburden his soul;
by speaking kindhearted words of welcome to one who is shy and lonely;
by expressing our compassion to one who is grieving;
by speaking encouraging words to one who lacks confidence;
by standing with victims of crime or oppression and advocating for justice;
by being good stewards of your creation and repairing the health of the earth;
God, when we reach out to those yearning to be healed, we pray that our expressions of love and concern may work in harmony with your Spirit that is within them. May our connection with your Spirit, arouse their resolve to live as fully as possible.
Weeping God, open our eyes to the painful wounds of the world and the individuals who are wounded. Although we feel inadequate and insufficiently trained, you have given each one of us in this sanctuary gifts of healing. Grant us the resolve to touch the lives of others with your love and the assurance that when we minister to anyone in need we touch your heart and soul.
Gracious God, if we are the ones in need of healing because we are facing the dreadful consequences of bad choices we have made, or we have been harmed by the cruel actions of others, or we are the innocent victims of a defective gene or an accident of the universe, help us to be open to whatever healing and transformation is possible. May we not worsen our lot by rejecting the assistance of others or by resisting new ways of living.
Now, we pray together the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven...
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