Last week we started our sermon series on prayer by discussing perhaps the most common type of prayer, prayers of help or petition. Today’s prayer is the second most common type of prayer - prayers of gratitude or thanksgiving.
Growing up my Sunday School teachers used to try to teach us the ACTS method of praying - with prayers of thanksgiving firmly planted near the end. But I think we need to re-examine how we pray - thanking God for the many blessings we have received first. Its one of the reasons that I love how we do prayers of joys and concern in this parish, with prayers of joy or thanksgiving almost always coming first. We need to remember that our blessings overflow and claim God’s goodness in our lives.
Prayers of gratitude can look like many different things. For some it may be that “rush of relief” that you feel when you don’t get pulled over by the cop for speeding, finding the item that you thought you lost, or hearing that it was not the diagnosis that you most feared. Its in these times, after things seem uncertain or a time of fear, that the words “Praise God!” readily pass our lips. But it is much harder to express prayers of praise and gratitude in other situations - especially when things don’t seem to be going well.
It’s during times like this that we sometimes hold our thanksgiving hostage like a bargaining chip with God. We state that if only God comes through for us or gives me what I desire then I will show that I am thankful, only to find that our thankfulness wains after a time of trial. As a pastor who ministers to people during times of crisis, it is not uncommon for me to hear people say that “if only God will….” then they will come to church or then they will tithe. That is not a true prayer of gratitude, because it doesn’t lead to us acting as the Psalmist described today, coming into God’s presence with thanksgiving and worshipping.
Instead of bargaining with God for the praise that God is due, prayers of gratitude invite us to think more deeply about all that God has blessed us with. I read a story this past week about a teacher at a boarding school. He had one boy in his class that always acted out - often becoming physically or verbally abusive to other students to the point where they did not want to be around him. One day after class the teacher called this student-bully aside and told him that he was going to have a new assignment - to come to that teacher each and every day and tell him five things that he was thankful for. At first the student balked, saying that he had nothing to be thankful for, but the teacher stuck with the assignment. Over time, the boys personality changed, and he started to be kinder to others students, often reaching out to help them instead of harm them.
What changed for this student? For him gratitude became a habit. A habit that so many of us are desperately in need of. If any people should be grateful, it should be Christians - for we have been offered the greatest gift ever given in Jesus Christ. And yet, Christians can be among some of the meanest people I know. Never offering a kind word. I loved what our District Superintendent, Beth Jones, said at change conference this year - if you are a grumpy person, don’t try to reach out to lead others to Christ, it only gives Christians a bad name.
To get over our grumpiness, we need a habit of gratitude. Often this means we need to reframe situations to see what God is offering us. That awful thing you are going through, is there a life lesson in it? That time of trial, does it help you grow closer to God or others? That unanswered prayer - could there be a blessing in God giving the answer of “no” or “not yet”? Author Anne Lamott points out that if we got everything that we ever prayed for or wanted, we often would be short changing ourselves, because God’s blessings and plans are so much better. Can we praise God even in the midst of life’s storms because of who God is?
The Psalmist today tells us that we are to make a joyful noise to God. To worship God and bow down at God’s throne. Perhaps one of the best examples of seeing gratitude in action is when it leads us to service. Anne Lamott says, “Gratitude begins our hearts and then dovetails into behavior”. Have you ever noticed that it is joyful people who seem to give away more freely their time, treasures, and talents? That people who are always praising God with their lips are manifesting their joy with their actions?
This past Thanksgiving, nine different churches came together for an ecumenical Thanksgiving service. Instead of having one pastor give a sermon, all seven pastors took turns standing up and saying ways that their churches were reaching out into the community. They weren’t sharing these things to brag - at least not brag on themselves - but to brag on God. To talk about how their love and gratitude for God has lead them to want other people to know about God’s goodness by our actions. This, brothers and sisters, is what it means to truly be the Church. To serve out of the well-spring of our joy and praise. Gratitude leads to service and the more we serve and see other people’s lives blessed, the more readily we ask “how can I give more?” Do you see what a big difference there is between a prayer of gratitude that leads to action and prayers that tell God to give us something first, before we will even say that we are grateful?
Joyful noises unto the Lord come from our lips and our actions, which are inter-connected. They express what our heart is feeling towards God. At the close of the thanksgiving service the light of Christ was shared, in a similar way to how we share it as a parish on Christmas Eve. It was a tangible reminder to me that we praise God our light shines - we reflect the will and the heart of Christ - which was always praising the Father - not just when circumstances were going well, but at all times.
At its core prayers of thanksgiving reflect what we will testify to in our life. What we will proclaim and share with others. If we have reflected upon what God has done for us and what we are grateful for, we are more likely to share that with others - more likely to shine it through our actions - then if we only dwell on what is wrong. Will we testify to God’s goodness at all times?
The book that this sermon series is based off of, Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott, was first introduced to me at an ordination retreat. For the opening worship the leader asked us to lift up prayers of petition, thanksgiving, and amazement. During the time of thanksgiving, she asked us a powerful question that I want to leave you with today. What are you most grateful for these days? My guess is that if we each actually sat down and reflected upon that question we could fill up pages and pages. But the real question is how that gratitude for the abundance of blessings, some of which we probably never took time to consider before, lead us to live our lives different. Lead for us to rejoice in God’s goodness like the Psalmist. To come into God’s presence, not demanding something, but simply because we are grateful.
What are you most grateful for these days and how does it lead you to live your life? Amen.