Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gratitude and Generosity: it works if you work it.

LOVING AND CHEERFUL GIVERS: the Sermon on the Amount
Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 10, 2011

I’d like to invite you all to center yourselves comfortably in your seats, perhaps close your eyes if you’d like, and enter a time of quiet reflection and thought with me. And as you relax into this time, I’d also invite you to be aware of this space, its quiet warmth, the tiny sounds of children down the hall, the tall shafts of fir trees outside the windows, the light streaming through those trees, the movement of the breeze.

Let yourself feel the presence of others in this room, those you love and those you don’t yet know, those who challenge you and those you challenge, those you are curious about and those whom you know well.

As we sit in silence for a few moments, I invite you to experience the feelings associated with this place, these individual people, this community of seekers. There may be feelings of pleasure, and joy, and happiness. Or uncertainty, or confusion, or pain. There may be memories of laughter, memories of sorrow, memories of pride and accomplishment. Whatever they are, let yourself experience those feelings during these moments. (chime, time of silence, ending with chime)

I don’t know about you, but when I take time to just sit in this sanctuary, experience the people around me, sing together, see the trees and greenery through these spacious windows, bask in the light that streams through the windows and almost feel the breeze as it rocks the trees, I feel profoundly grateful that I am alive in this time and place.

There is a sense of being filled with something almost inexpressible, a sense of being in a good place, of being with good people, of doing something good for others.

I wonder how many of you may have had a similar sensation, perhaps during our reflective time right now or at some other time in your experience with this congregation. Have any of you had those feelings? Who would be willing to share a couple of words about a sense of gratitude for something that has happened to you here. (sharing of gratitude items)

Many of you have said things just now that jibe with my own sense of gratitude for this place and its people. This past week, I sat down and brainstormed all the things about this congregation and this place that give me that sense of gratitude and fullness. It turned out to be a huge list!

I first listed the many hands and hearts that do the tasks that keep us afloat, because that was the easy list: our religious education staff, the volunteers and the parents of our wonderful children; those who spend hours tending our landscape and the little repairs and upgrades that the building always needs; the folks who have learned how to use our sound system and help out as needed; those who built the library shelves, sorted and catalogued the books, and developed the system for checking them out; our ushers who do so much on Sunday morning to get us ready for our worship service.

The art works we enjoy on the walls of the foyer were chosen and hung by those who have an eye for beauty and creativity; we have people who make a special effort to reach out to befriend those who need special care---our shutins and those whose memories and abilities have been taken away by illness. The folks who bring refreshments, make the coffee, clean up the kitchen afterwards.

The Lyceum 2.0 task force which offers us a program on science and ethics every month. Our wonderful musicians and the wide range of musical experience they bring. Our volunteer choir directors and our vibrant choir.

Dinners for newcomers. A worship committee that spends many hours making sure we have high quality, inspirational worship every week. The laughter and creativity that our auction offers us because of the hard work of its creators and supporters.

Our administrative team, the board and our incomparable administrator, who oversee and carry out the workings of the congregation, its programming, its financial stability, the nuts and bolts of governance and administration. Our Leadership Council comprised of someone from every committee and working group in the congregation, staying abreast of the many activities of the congregation.

Our social responsibility council which encouraged us to give away our offering once a month and helped us see how much good we could do for the many local agencies which need our help.

Our communications team, putting together our newsletter, our website, our Friday messages, and doing all the printing for our worship and other activities.

Those who offer and attend our adult programs, from circle dinners, to koffee klatches, dine outs, classes, and other opportunities. Our history keepers, those who collect our history and keep its memory alive. Our greeters and hospitality providers, and all the regular givers of time, talent, and treasure.

That’s a long list, indeed. How many of you heard your own contributions mentioned? Did I miss anything? And those are just the everyday tasks of keeping our congregation smoothly operating and doing its important work in the world.

But there are other less tangible and even more important sources of gratitude for me. Every time I see a rambunctious child being gently and lovingly corrected, every time I see friendships developing between adults and children, every time I see adults making efforts to understand children rather than just expressing their disapproval, I am reminded of my own experience as a parent in a congregation years ago.

I’m reminded of a young single mom, me, and her rambunctious seven year old, a little boy who wasn’t sure how to behave in school or church, who didn’t understand what was going on between his parents, whose intelligence and maturity didn’t match up, who was smaller and more hyper than the other kids, who had no obvious talents other than being a smart-aleck and a clown.

We his parents were at a loss to know how to make the divorce easier for him, how to help him with his difficulties, and we were grieving the changes in our lives as well. So we all just kind of struggled along, with my ex and I apologizing for the many incidents of shoving or rowdiness or other misbehavior. We knew we all still needed the church, but it could be tough with a child who was having such a hard time.

But there were teachers and others in the religious education program who understood and loved our little boy. They didn’t give up. They saw the potential within this little smarty-pants, and they worked with him to help him with his frustrations and his fears, his sorrow and his self-control.

And it didn’t happen overnight, but by the time he was a teenager, he had mastered the art of friendship, the ability to joke and tease appropriately, the self-understanding and compassionate heart to reach out to others who were struggling.

And now, I’m pleased to say, that little boy now become a man is an active leader in the UU congregation he attends in another town, where he lives with his wife and family. Life is not always rosy for him, but he has the tools and the foundation to make good decisions.

That’s what Religious Educators and others who work with children in this congregation are doing right now. They are carrying on the work that those wonderful religious educators at Jefferson Unitarian Church did for me and my family those many years ago. My gratitude knows no bounds for the work of our religious educators.

What else brings that sense of fullness and gratefulness to me? I see how you all reach out to each other, offering friendship, welcoming new folks and my heart fills up. I see all the children who come and sit on the rug to hear a story, and I can’t help but smile. I hear of those who offer to transport someone to an appointment or who offer support to those in difficult transitions and my heart swells with thanks.

I see how you all enjoy each others’ joys and grieve with others’ sorrows. I see people walk into this room, look around, and I know they are seeing the same beauty and serenity and welcome that I find here. And there have been times when the music has been so lovely that I am left speechless and overcome by thankfulness that we have had the experience and that we have had it together.

Melody Beattie has written: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

And Winston Churchill once wrote, “We make a living with what we get. But we make a life with what we give.”

How is your gratitude expressed in the world? Do you find yourself wanting to do something to share your sense of fullness with others? When you are feeling lonely and deprived, has another’s generous kindness made a difference for you?

One lonely Saturday morning when I was living in Seattle, I was having my usual Grand Slam breakfast at the local Denny’s, and I noticed a group of young men and women off in one corner, laughing and drinking coffee. I remembered how my son, when he was about their age, used to drink coffee with his friends from work at the local Denny’s near our Denver home, and I smiled to see that age-old habit repeating itself in Seattle youth.

But I was very surprised, when I asked my server for the bill, to discover that it had been picked up and paid for by the group of young people I’d been observing. I went over to say thank you to them as I left the restaurant, and they mentioned that they were paying it forward, doing something nice for someone else because they had been the recipients of kindness earlier in the morning and wanted to share their gratitude.

There’s a member of this congregation who, when he sees me at El Corral restaurant once in awhile, pays my bill before I get to the cash register. This kindness cannot be ignored, so I have begun paying the bill of someone else in the restaurant, stealthily pointing someone out to Fernando and quickly leaving before they notice.

It would be easy to just say thank you to this person and go on my way with a smile, forgetting what it means to be the recipient of another’s generosity. And I did that for awhile, just being secretly pleased that this person would do this for me. It didn’t occur to me right away that there was more I could do. And then some friends came to El Corral and sat with me, and, guess what, it occurred to me then and I had the opportunity and took it.

Being able to give them the gift of a delicious meal was every bit as pleasant as being the recipient!

This ties in with another insight I had awhile back, the idea that “It works if you work it”. That’s a 12 step mantra, often echoed at the end of meetings, but it works in everyday life very well.

I have the habit, as perhaps some of you do, to regard advice from others as something I have to respond to politely, consider, and then let go of. Sometimes I don’t even consider the advice, particularly if I didn’t ask for it. Sometimes if I ask for the advice, I still don’t consider it, even when it’s good advice and intended to be helpful. “ I’ve made my mind up, don’t confuse me with your thoughts” seems to be my MO on occasion.

But it really works against me. It keeps me from acknowledging that others have good ideas, workable ideas, ideas that could actually improve my life!

For a long time, years ago, I denied the idea that I had some pretty unmanageable things going on in my life---I kept ending up with people who took more than they gave, treated me rudely frequently, and I had no idea what to do about it.

And then one morning, early on a rare day off from school when I was trying to sleep in, a friend woke me up with a phone call, suggested we meet for lunch, and, once we were together, she said essentially, “you need to figure out why you keep ending up with all these people who treat you this way.” And, for once in my life, I listened.

I took her advice, I started going to AlAnon meetings, and I decided to go the whole route, work the 12 steps and do them conscientiously and faithfully. If I had not done that, I suspect I would still be repeating the mistakes of old. It wasn’t so much the 12 steps that saved my bacon, it was my realization that “it only works if you work it”.

Gratitude is kinda like that. We can say thank you to people who compliment us or do something nice for us or perform a service of some kind, dishing us up pasta salad at the deli or helping us straighten out some financial issue over the phone. We can express appreciation to our kids or spouse for chores done or favors offered. We often say thank you and go on our way without really considering what it means that people are kind to us or that efforts are made in our behalf.

But gratitude as a spiritual practice really works-----if you really work it. I’ve noticed that when I really let myself experience the gratitude I feel, whether it’s for everyday kinds of things---the thank yous I hand out to those who help me or speak kindly to me----or for the larger gratitude I feel when I witness some act of kindness and generosity toward others, when I let myself really absorb the meaning of those acts, my sense of gratitude grows and my behavior toward others becomes more generous and kind.

I leave a bigger tip or I add a compliment to my thank you or I offer something helpful in return or I say yes to the Equal Rights Washington caller on the phone and promise to send in my pledge right away. Gratitude enhances my life, it improves my relationships with those around me, and the generosity which is the outpouring of that gratitude increases.

Gratitude works. It works to open our eyes to the wonders of our lives, the people we are in relationship with, the beauty of the earth and its creatures, the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Gratitude works. When we experience gratitude, we also tend to become more giving. We learn the transformative power of giving, its ability to lighten our mood, heal our hurts, improve our sense of well-being, change our hearts from fearful to joyful, strengthen our connections with each other; it teaches us to look deeply at ourselves, helps us see that giving and receiving are equal in value, gives us a chance to offer our unique gifts, connects us to the greater whole, gives us new eyes to see the world around us, to experience oneness with that world and to see its truths.

As we enter this stewardship season, I hope that each of us will think deeply about our gratitude to this congregation, this place of worship, the ways in which we reach out to each other and to the larger community. I hope that we will all express our gratitude for the gifts we’ve received here by being as financially generous as we can manage, within our own circumstances.

My practice every year is to increase my financial pledge by $300 a year. That’s an extra $25 a month. I can do that and I find that my heart expands and becomes even fuller, as I express my gratitude for the joy that serving this congregation brings me.

One theologian has said that if our only prayer in life is “Thank you, thank you, thank you”, that would be enough. But we have been given so much that “our gratitude calls us to give back, to find ways to bless the world as we have been blessed. Generosity is making love visible in the world. We offer our gifts as we build the beloved community.”*
(* from the Rev. Tom Disrud)

This is our religious home. We have work to do in the world. May our gratitude and our dedication to this religious community lead us to generosity that will sustain its work in the coming years.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, grateful for the love that has created and sustained this place and these people. May we express our gratitude in all the ways we are able and may we experience the joy of giving until it feels good. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Tina T-P said...

Nice sermon Kit - "Hoppy Easter" XOX T. & The "sickly" Shepherd

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Tina, sorry to be so slow publishing your comment! I just found it today---must have been lost in cyberspace.