Gratitude: The Steward and the Ship
This Sunday is Gratitude Sunday in our Stewardship focus. And we will continue with Noah and his story to look at exactly what gratitude means. So today we pick up with Noah where we left off last week. He and his family had built and boarded the ark and taken with them sets of seven of some animals, pairs of others. The floods came, and it rained for forty days and nights. Maybe that in itself doesn’t seem so bad until we realize from the passage that Jerry read today that they actually had to stay on the ark for ten month while the flood waters abated from the earth. Noah keeps sending out a dove to check for dry ground until it finally returns with an olive branch, a symbol of peace. And finally, he and his family and these animals can leave the ark.
The first thing Noah does when he gets off the ark is build an altar and make sacrifices – gifts of animals – to God. Noah makes an offering. And the scent, we read, is pleasing to God, and God promises never to destroy creation again. I think this is a pretty profound action on Noah's part. Maybe we think nothing of it – Noah just survived with his family a natural disaster of epic proportions – of course he is thankful! But he also just lost everything he knew about his life and world. His home, his city, any family outside of those listed in the scripture – his immediate family. His neighbors. Whatever livelihood he had before ark-builder. A way of life that made sense to him. If you had lost all of that, could you still have gratitude be your first response, even if you walked away with the gift of life?
Cultivating a life of gratitude is developing the practice of looking at what we have and seeing the abundance and giving thanks. It isn’t always easy, for sure. But what do we see when we look at what we have? Our situations? What we experience? A couple of weeks ago we talked about joy – deep joy – as being more than something that just made you happy or entertained – but that deep God-given contentment that rests in your soul – joy. I think gratitude is similar. I have a pet peeve that is a peeve against myself. I have picked up what I consider the annoying habit of responding Yup when someone says thank you. Thank you. Yup. It doesn’t quite work, does it? But I think it might reflect that culturally we don’t let our thankfulness go very deep. Is giving thanks just something that we go through the motions of? Is it too inconvenient to give thanks, and are we not really even thankful? I love the beauty of many languages, but I have to say English has it all over French or Spanish where the standard reply to Thank You is – It was nothing. In English, we are supposed to say You’re welcome. Short for you are well come here. In other words – it is a good thing, a pleasing thing, that you are here. Such a genuine response, isn’t it? Thank you. You are welcome. Gratitude – a thankful heart.
Are you a grateful person? And again, like with joy, gratitude doesn’t mean closing your eyes to the serious and real painful situations you experience. But when you look at the whole of your life – are you thankful? Deeply? What do you see when you look at your life? Is the glass half full or half empty? Or can you see that God has filled it to overflowing? And how do you show your gratitude?
Here is what I think is the crux of it: We have gratitude only if we see what we have as a gift. If I go out and buy myself a pizza – I am not going to be grateful to you for it no matter how nice and thoughtful you are – because you didn’t get me the pizza – I did! But if you buy me a slice – not even a whole pie – just a slice – well, then I am grateful to you – because you gave me the gift. I am grateful for the gifts I receive. The question, when we come to faith and stewardship, then, is this: What do we see as a gift from God? Of course, we talk about everything being a gift from God. God gives us life, is our creator, sustainer, redeemer, giver of all good things. Everything is from God. But I wonder how much we really believe that? Or live into what we believe?
Everything is a gift. Last week, I gave you three homework assignments – a spiritual gifts survey, a time study, and study of how you spend your money. And I asked you not to change your habits to get the answers you wanted, but to honestly assess where you were. How did it go? Any surprises? Any eyes opened? Or just what you expected? Were you happy with what you saw? Talents, and time, and treasure.
I think we are most easily grateful for the talents – the spiritual gifts – we've been given. But in this case, we have to be convinced that we have them. Over the years, in all my congregations, I am always amazed at how unwilling people are to believe or see that they are gifted. Friends, admitting you are gifted isn’t saying that you are all that. It isn’t bragging. Saying you are gifted is quite simply saying that someone – in this case God – has given you a gift. And denying it – well, that is basically saying that God hasn’t given you anything! Not discovering and using your gifts is like refusing to open a present from God. Kind of rude, isn’t it?! And it when it comes to showing gratitude for your talents, the best way to say thank you is simple – use them. Use your gifts. If you aren’t sure how to use them, we can talk. I am sure I can find some ways to put your gifts to use. But you are gifted.
What about time? What did you learn about using your time this week? Are you thankful for your time? I suspect that a record of how we use our time would reflect that we aren’t always appreciative of it. We often say that we wish we had more of it. We don’t have enough of it. But sometimes I wonder if God doesn’t think our requests for more time are like asking for second helpings of food when we haven’t yet finished what is already on our plate. Are we asking for more time without even really using what we have? Oh, of course, it ticks by. It moves on with or without us. But what are we doing with it? Growing up, one of the worst things to say to my mom, but especially to my grandmother was: I'm bored. My grandmother was a depression-era baby and she just had no use for boredom. Saying you were bored was the ultimate form of ingratitude. And it would surely get you assigned a task or chore you would really rather not do. Rest is good – God rested, and asks us to rest, to have holy rest even! But wasting time is a whole different issue. We want more time? Are we really using what we have in a way that warrants such a bold request? Time is a gift. And unlike our talents, we always use it up completely. But how do we show we are grateful for it? Sometimes the way we use time is like taking our best linens and using them to wipe the floor. Using our best stationary as scrap paper. Wasting something precious. You have time. Show me time well spent, and you show gratitude for God's gift.
Our money is a gift. Here I think we struggle a bit more to agree. Because we get a little confused. Didn’t we work hard for our money? Didn’t we earn it? And if we earned it, isn’t it ours to spend as we please? Isn't it our right to do so? Sure, we put in work. We are laborers in God's vineyard. But friends, the vineyard always still belongs to God, and we may be the best stewards in the world, but we are always still stewards. If we earn money, I guarantee that we had to use several gifts from God in order to make what we have. If you find yourself thinking a bit too much about how hard you’ve worked, try to trace the source of what you have. For example: Did you get a good scholarship to college? How did that happen? Did you do well in school? You needed some intelligence for that. Where did that intelligence come from? Is it not from God? How do you earn your living? What gifts do you use that convince someone else to give you a paycheck? For example – I have learned to be extremely grateful for the gift of music I have. Carrying a tune, for the most part, isn’t something you can learn. Most people can either carry a tune, or they can’t. And while you can refine your voice with training, without something to refine to start out with, you can’t do much. Singing is a gift God gave me, and it has been more useful to me in my ministry than I ever anticipated. It helps me in my life work – and so what a build up to support myself from my ministry – it all belongs to God, and is shared by God with me. I try to use it well, but I know who it all belongs to.
Are you grateful? We can only be grateful if we can look at all we see and see it all as gift. Our talents, our time, our treasure, our lives, our world, the love we share – all gift. And to show our thanks, we do what we are always trying to do – be more like Jesus. Follow his example. Do what God does. Give, give, give. To God. To your loved ones. To God's house. To strangers. To enemies and friends alike. Give, and give thanks. Thanks be to God for all our gifts. Amen.