Gratitude as Community Practice

Proper 29,  October 19, 2014

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Today’s second reading from Thessalonians may seem relatively unremarkable.  It is simply the opening to one of Paul’s letters, containing greetings to a church we don’t even know.  It’s like overhearing formalities between other people – not so very interesting!  But this passage does bear one distinction.  It is actually the oldest piece of Christian writing that exists.  Scholars are generally agreed that 1 Thessalonians is the first of Paul’s letters, and that makes it the first book of the New Testament to be written.  Assuming that Paul started writing his letters at the beginning and continued through to the end, these words have the distinction of being the very first words of a rich Christian literary heritage that continues today, almost 2000 years later.  So, if for no other reason, they merit a closer look.

What do we see? The very first piece of Christian writing, after the opening salutations, begins with the words “I give thanks”.  Paul proceeds to do just that, to express his gratitude and appreciation for the church at Thessalonika, for a Christian community who welcomed him at a difficult time, who heard the gospel he preached, not just as interesting ideas, but with the Holy Spirit and with power; who were transformed by the Spirit, and served as an inspiring example to those around them, so that the church in that place has continued to grow.

This is a remarkably positive passage. Paul, you may recall, is not always very positive when he speaks of the churches he is writing to. This is a passage that is brimming with the encouraging, up-building, life-giving energy of true gratitude.

Now I know I talked about gratitude last week, for Harvest Thanksgiving.  But it is an important topic, so I wanted to speak of it again today, and specifically about the role gratitude plays in building up a Christian community.

I have been reading a book lately on congregational development:
“Living into Community. Cultivating practices that sustain us” by Christine Pohl.  On one level it is a book about church growth.  But I find it a refreshing change from so many books about church growth, which are really about strategies and programs and techniques for marketing the church.  Now I suppose that strategies and programs and techniques are useful things, as far as they go. But the problem with them, and with most church growth books, is that they take our attention away from the very thing we are “selling”, the church itself.

It’s the problem with modern consumerist culture, isn’t it?  Once upon a time (or so we like to imagine) manufacturers cared about the quality of the products they were selling.  They worked hard to make the best quality appliances or toothpaste or the best tasting beer, in the belief that people would want to buy that.  Nowadays, of course, what matters is marketing, making a product look good, or cool, or sexy, so that people buy it.  How often do you end up buying some over-hyped product, only to discover that it is really a piece of junk.  People get sick of this experience, and have learned to distrust marketing.

As I see it, that’s the problem with a lot of church growth material.  It concentrates on marketing to get people in the door, instead of thinking about what people will find when they get there.  There is no point in doing a Back to Church Sunday, if what people are going to experience when they get there is a bunch of bored and cranky people.  That just does one more piece of damage to the credibility of the gospel.  Those people wont be back, maybe not to any church.

Now, let me be clear. I am not suggesting that is what people will find when they come here.  In fact, I want to suggest just the opposite.  As a newcomer among you, I think you have a lot going for you in terms of Christian community and faith witness.  But the premise of this book I have been reading is that any Christian community can benefit from identifying and consciously developing the works of the Spirit in their midst.  This is how church growth starts: by cultivating inner growth, spiritual growth, self-awareness, and discipline, and mutual accountability.  The book’s subtitle is “Cultivating the practices that sustain us”.  Now there is an important insight behind the word “practices”: the insight hat a Christian community is formed not by ideals or abstract virtues or even beliefs as much as it is by practices.  It’s what we do, how we concretely live out our faith, that will speak to others about who we really are.

Think about the way Paul talks about Christian virtues in this passage.  Elsewhere, in that famous passage in 1 Cor 13, he lists the central theological virtues.  You know how it goes: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  A beautiful passage, no doubt. But notice how, when he talks about faith, hope and love in these abstract, absolute terms, they just kind of hover about out there somewhere.  We don’t yet see how they connect with our lives. They are just words.

Contrast the way he talks about them in today’s passage:
“We give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, remembering your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope –  here these virtues look a little different than just abstract ideals. We are starting to see what they might look like in a Christian community. We are starting to see them not as ideals, but as practices: practices by which we rally around each other in difficult times; by which we forgive each other when we have been offended, not dwelling on our own sense of injury and each other’s shortcomings; practices by which we welcome and celebrate each other’s gifts; by which we look the world’s problems squarely in the eye, and yet remain hopeful; practices by which we cultivate joy.

Pohl names a number of practices:
•    gratitude: seeing and celebrating what is best in one another;
•    fidelity: keeping our promises to one another;
•    truth-telling: keeping connected with reality;
•    hospitality: welcoming the gifts of others.
Today we begin with gratitude.

The practice of gratitude is all about what we choose to notice.  In whatever situation we find ourselves in, it will never be perfect.
Maybe we think it is for a while, like newlyweds, fresh landed in heaven, but we know it won’t be long before they discover it is not perfect.  Hopefully they will still find it very good, but it’s not perfect, nothing ever is.

And when we discover it isn’t perfect, we have a choice.  It’s the old glass half empty or glass half full.  We can choose to concentrate on all the ways in which our situation is not perfect, or on the ways in which it is good.  It may not be a conscious choice; I suspect it usually isn’t, few people choose consciously to be negative.  But it’s a choice nonetheless, even if we make it by default, just slipping thoughtlessly into always seeing the half-empty glass.

However we come to make it, we know what the consequences of that choice are: we always see the shortcomings of another person, or of our situation.  We become hypercritical, carping, complaining, negative, peevish. I suspect anyone who has ever been married knows what that can look like in a marriage.  It is probably the biggest threat to any marriage, the temptation to give more attention to our partner’s shortcomings.  It can poison any friendship.  It can be a huge handicap to our parenting: as parents we are prone to seeing our children’s shortcomings, as children we can become hypersensitive to criticism, and before long we end up with an unhappy impasse.

Ingratitude can also poison any church.  Perhaps church is a particularly dangerous place for ingratitude, because we come to it with such high ideals and expectations.  And we will inevitably be disappointed.  This is not the kingdom of God; we are simply a group of faulted human beings, hopefully trying our best.  It’s easy, with our high ideals, to become disappointed and bitter when our fellow Christians insist on being faulted human beings.  So we end up focussing on the things that disappoint us.  We don’t like the way that decision was made, or we don’t like the music, or we don’t like the way that person throws her weight around – and we lose sight of all the good blessings there are.

We can begin to believe that this congregation is just not spiritual enough for us, that that new church across town would meet all our needs.  Just like in a marriage!

At its root, ingratitude is a failure to trust our gifts, to trust that the gifts this community has been given are the true working of the Spirit among us; and that we ourselves, with all our shortcomings, have spiritual gifts in plenty.

So much for ingratitude.  Fortunately, we know the other half as well.  We know what it is to concentrate not on what is lacking, but on what is there.  Sometimes this takes a little more work: it is so easy to slip into carping and dissatisfaction.  Sometimes we just have to give it more conscious attention: as I said last week, we can so easily start taking each other for granted.

That is why gratitude is a practice.  It won’t necessarily well up spontaneously.  It is a discipline to be cultivated consciously.

It is an eminently Christian practice.  After all that is how God treats us, not counting our shortcomings against us, but intentionally seeing the glass half full.  In theological language, this is called the doctrine of justification by grace.  So we should treat each other that way also.

I have seen myself, and heard from others, about a lot of people who do a lot of work, good, selfless, engaged work, for the flourishing of this place.  Do we remember to say thank-you often enough, to let them know that we are not taking them for granted?  A small gesture now and then, an ongoing practice of making small gestures regularly, will make a big difference.

I have seen just a bit of what you have accomplished over recent years.  Moving through some difficult and hurtful situations with clergy earlier on, building up this community of worshippers/ building the new church, and yes, meeting the challenges with grace and hope of a shifting congregation through aging and the loss of many of the younger generation.

I am beginning to see something of the challenges and opportunities of this marriage of two churches: both the dangers of carping about one another – honestly, I’ve heard a bit of that on both sides – but also, and I think more importantly, the good and holy work of appreciating and valuing each others gifts and friendship.

So my challenge to you today is to think about the practice of gratitude in this place; to remember the many ways in which this congregation practices gratitude; and to ask yourselves about some ways in which we could become more intentional about seeing and celebrating the blessings we have in one another.

It is, I think, a foundation for the spiritual health of any congregation.  Nobody wants to be part of a grumbling, peevish church: those are practices that sap our morale and our energy.  But a church that practices gratitude, intentionally, consciously, as a discipline, is a church where every spiritual gift is lifted up and nourished and celebrated, where the Holy Spirit is seen to be at work with power and conviction. That is a church from which the word of the Lord sounds forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in Kingston and Greenwood and Middleton and Lawrencetown.