“Gratitude: What’s In It for Me?”
A Sermon by Joe Cleveland
Delivered on February 10, 2013
At The First Parish in Bedford

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

O if we but knew what we do

         When we delve or hew —

            Hack & rack the growing green!

               Since country is so tender

               To touch, her being so slender,

                  That, like this sleek & seeing ball

                  But a prick will make no eye at all,

            Where we, even where we mean

               To mend her we end her,

                     When we hew or delve:

After-comers cannot guess the beauty been . . .

—from “Binsley Poplars”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins




READING  A Hasidic story included in Sources of Our Faith: Inspirational Readings

Some Hasidim of the Maggid of Mezheritz came to him.  “Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must thank God as much for the bad days as for the good.  How can that be?  What would our gratitude mean, if we have it equally for the good and the bad?”

The Maggid replied, “Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you.”

The Hasidim undertook the journey. Arriving in Anapol, they inquired for Reb Zusya. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age.

When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. “Welcome, strangers!” he said. “Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!”

“No. We have only come to ask you a question.  The Maggid of Mezheritz told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?”

Reb Zusya laughed. “Me? I have no idea why the Maggid sent you to me.” He shook his head in puzzlement. “You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles.”

READING From “A Theology of Gratitude” by Galen Guengerich[1]

I realize the idea of faith as a discipline may also sound like heresy to many Unitarian Universalists. Unless our faith is mere intellectual affectation, however, the defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind. What kind of practice? For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah.

And what of us? What should be our defining religious discipline? While obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith, my current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude. In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude.

Why gratitude? Two dimensions of gratitude make it fitting as our defining religious practice. One has to do with a discipline of gratitude, and the other has to do with an ethic of gratitude. The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters. From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole. The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.

I’ve been thinking about gratitude, and what I want to know is What’s in it for me?  Why should I take the time to be grateful?  How would that affect me?

I’m coming to church for a religious experience — what does gratitude have to do with that?  In his essay, “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson claims that what will make for a true religious insight will come from going our own way, and if we have the strength to let go of old ways and the ideas of others, we may achieve for ourselves a true religious insight.  Emerson writes, “In the hour of vision there is nothing that can be called gratitude […].” Then he goes on to describe what that hour of vision is like.  He describes it as a rising above and a beholding all.  In the hour of vision, “The soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal causation, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowing that all things go well.”[2]  This description of the moment of religious insight echoes those of mystics from many religious traditions — mystics like Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, and Rumi.  They all describe journeys of the individual soul toward a union with God. It was Julian of Norwich who said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” which Emerson echoes.

Religious experience as rising above and beholding all — this sort of definition has been appealing to me as a bookish loner, especially when I was younger. Feeling awkward in social settings, it felt reassuring for there to be a rising above I might have access to. And beholding all — that sounds great to a lover of science and poetry.

But recently, I ran across another bit of writing that Emerson did.  In Concord on July 29, 1872, Emerson wrote this:

Dear Sir — I desire to express to you, and through you to the engineers and members of the Fire Department of this town, the sincere thanks of myself and each one of my family for the able, hearty and in great measure successful exertion in our behalf in resisting and extinguishing the fire which threatened to destroy my house on Wednesday morning last. We owe it to your efficient labor and skill that so large a part of the building was saved, and let me say that we owe it to your families and a great number of generous volunteers that almost all the furniture, clothing, and especially the books and papers contained in our house were saved and removed with tender care. I hope to have the opportunity of thanking, sooner or later, every one of our benefactors in person.

Yours most gratefully, R. W. Emerson[3]

I wonder how that feeling of gratitude changed Emerson? Emerson couldn’t possibly have saved his house by himself.  He wasn’t, in the end, totally self-reliant.  I wonder how his essay on self reliance might have been different if written after the fire?

I actually had an experience similar to Emerson’s.  The house my apartment was in caught fire. It was in the middle of the night. A cold January winter night. I woke up and smelled a sweet wood fire smell and wondered how could I be smelling someone else’s fire when all my windows are shut tight? I stuck my head out the door of my apartment and saw a fire truck coming up the street and heard my neighbor saying, “the house is on fire!” I shoved my boots on, grabbed my coat, and left the building. I stood outside and watched flames shooting through the roof of the building I had just left.  I was in shock.

It was past one o’clock and the fire fighters and the police were there. It was well below zero, so a police officer had me sit in the backseat of his car to stay warm. A city bus came to give the firefighters a place to warm up. And less than a couple hours later there was a small truck with volunteers from the Red Cross.  They gave me and the other residents of the building vouchers for food and clothing. “These are a gift,” they said. “There’s nothing to repay.” They made arrangements so that we all had a place to stay. In the end, though the fire department did what they could, the building was lost, and I lost much of what I owned.

Some friends took me in and let me stay in a spare room in their house.  A couple weeks later, some of my friends in the local music community organized a benefit concert to raise a little money for me. Fellow students in my graduate program gave me their extra towels and dishes.  It got so I was grateful for the fire.

Now, I don’t recommend having your house burn down. It’s awful.  It was heart-rending.  Sitting on a friend’s couch the morning of the fire, suddenly homeless, I didn’t just cry — I sobbed.  But it was heart mending, too. Confronted with unexpected generosity the night of the concert, I wept again.  The fire became an opportunity for me to start again.  There are still things I lost in the fire that I miss.  But the experience helped me to look with gratitude on the world and renewed my faith in people.

It wasn’t an experience of rising above and beholding all. It was an experience of being held close, of being loved. It wasn’t an experience of being individual and self-reliant. It wasn’t an experience of my independence. It was an experience of my dependence.

It’s when I remember that we are dependent on one other and when I can extend that feeling of interdependence also to the air I breath, the water I drink, and the land I tread on — well, I’m pretty amazed by the scope of it.  All these different bits connected, relating to and depending on one another?  It’s awe-inspiring to me.  And my heart tells me the appropriate response is gratitude.  I need to treat this big interconnected world — you and me and everything — with gratitude.  Of gratitude, Walt Whitman wrote that, “I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry—as in parts of the Bible.” And he said that “Of my own life and writings I estimate the giving thanks part, with what it infers, as essentially the best item. I should say the quality of gratitude rounds the whole emotional nature; I should say love and faith would quite lack vitality without it.”[4]

When I take the time to be grateful, that is when I have the readiest access to the religious experience of being-holding-all and I feel part of something that is bigger than just me. Gratitude is at the center of my Unitarian Universalist faith.  I am not grateful because I am happy. I am happy when I am grateful, when can get myself to pause a moment look and around me with eyes of gratitude.

What’s in gratitude for me?  Everything.  What’s in gratitude for you?  Amen.


[1] Galen Guengerich. “The Heart of Our Faith”  UU World. Spring 2007 (February 15, 2007). http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/11144.shtml

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”

[3] Emerson’s letter addressed to J. C. Sanborn, chief-engineer of the Concord Fire Department, is reprinted in the book: Connie Leas, The Art of Thank You: Crafting Notes of Gratitude (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2002). 131.

[4] Walt Whitman, From the Philadelphia Press, Nov. 27, 1884. http://www.everywritersresource.com/writingsense/2010/11/walt-whitman-on-thanksgiving/