Monday, October 8, 2018

Sermon: "Relational Gratitude", Job 1:1, 2:1-10/Hebrews 2:5-12 (October 7, 2018)


Sermon video here.


Before I begin today, I must confess that the excitement of preaching this week has been eclipsed for me by another even more exciting, more personal event. You see, tomorrow is my first wedding anniversary, and as we all know, it’s smooth sailing after the first year, so I’m pumped. In all seriousness, though, this week has been a flood of memories for me, since the week leading up to the big day were filled with last-minute on-site details (because I had done a bulk of the planning from well over 2000 miles away). And I know that there will be even more memories in the coming days, as I relive the ceremony, the reception, and of course, the most important part. You know what I’m talking about.
The thank you notes.

Yes, even once the stress of wedding planning gives way to the joy of the day itself, the specter of the thank you notes looms large for weeks, months, even up to a year afterwards. I suspect they are a prominent memory for many a bride. But just because they cause extended stress, anxiety, and hand cramps in couples everywhere doesn’t mean I think this tradition should be abandoned completely. Expressing gratitude is an important part of a life lived in relationship with others. It’s how we express our desire to remain in relationship with one another. It’s how we let others know that they matter to us, and that they’ve made our lives better. It’s how we remember to notice the good in our lives and how it came to be. Gratitude is important!

Now, we think we’ve got this down, right? We know how and when to do gratitude; we’re practically experts. When someone does something for us—BAM!—“Thank you”—first words out of our mouths. We’re on top of it when someone holds the door for us, when someone does us a favor, when someone, say, gives us a gift in celebration of our wedding. For most of us, saying “thank you” in these situations is almost as reflexive as blinking. Certainly, this type of gratitude is valuable as an expression of manners and courtesy, but at its core, I would argue that it’s relatively shallow. It’s performative. The very ease with which we deploy it demonstrates how little thought we put into it. It doesn’t communicate much more than “you’ve done somethings for me; therefore, I owe you acknowledgement”. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it for what it is—it’s just that there’s not much to it. It’s simplistic and impersonal.

How often does this sort of transactional gratitude make its way into our relationship with God? How many of us, if we were to honestly evaluate our prayer life, would find that most of it revolves around either things that we want or things that we’ve gotten? I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of this. I remember to practice gratitude most readily when my blessings are noticeably abundant. It’s not a completely empty gesture; I really do FEEL gratitude. It’s just that it’s directly connected to whatever thing God has done for me most recently. Sometimes it feels like God provides a service, and I settle the bill in gratitude. Ick. In this light, transactional gratitude doesn’t sound so appealing.

And apart from this, what happens when BAD things happen to us in this model of gratitude? Because bad things DO happen to all of us. If we understand gratitude as something to be demonstrated in response to the good, it follows that something different should happen in response to the bad. Is there a gratitude vacuum? A pause button? Are we temporarily exempt from feeling grateful? Or is there some opposite of gratitude that we’re suddenly justified in displaying?

Not if Job has anything to say about it.

Let me preface this by saying that it’s sometimes hard for us to embrace the book of Job since it can be problematic in a lot of ways. Notably, we chafe at its depiction of a God willing to subject a righteous man to the whims of a literal “Devil’s Advocate” simply to prove the man’s devotion. But it’s still scripture, and it still has something to teach us about Truth. It may help if we approach Job not as a factual theological narrative describing who God really is, but as a fable whose objective is to challenge our assumptions in order to help us break through to a deeper Truth. Try thinking of Job as a theological “thought experiment”: what if God were to allow a perfectly pious man to be tortured for no reason (which, of course, we know God wouldn’t actually do)? What would be the implications for how humanity reacts to good and bad things? What can we learn about ourselves?

So: onward.

The book of Job is a case study in the problem with transactional gratitude. It asks exactly the question that I just did a few moments ago: when bad things happen to good people, what do good people do? Over the course of the entire book, we discover that actual human reactions to these circumstances are far from simple. But in my opinion, the answer of what attitude we SHOULDN’T adopt is pretty clear: our gratitude towards God shouldn’t be contingent upon the good things in our lives. Job rejects transactional piety soundly towards the end of our reading. When his wife suggests that any reasonable person would curse God for such misfortunes, Job answers, “You’re saying things that a foolish person would say. It doesn’t make any sense to accept good things from God, but not accept the bad things. That’s not how this works!”

Indeed, shall we receive the good but not the bad? Shall our relationship with the divine be contingent upon what God has done for us lately? Does God only deserve our gratitude if we’re satisfied with our current blessings? If so, why are there Christians in chronically impoverished nations? Why are there Christians in the wake of natural disasters? Why are there Christians who, like Job, have lost everything? God doesn’t cause these things, of course, but with a theology of transactional gratitude, it shouldn’t matter: fewer blessings and more tragedy means less gratitude.

I think that most of us would agree that this isn’t the way our relationship with God should work, but it’s hard to articulate what the alternative would be. Transactional gratitude comes so naturally to us that it takes some effort to tease out what we should be doing instead. To help us understand, let’s consider wedding thank you notes once again—it’s still my anniversary weekend, after all.

On the face of it, wedding thank you notes seem to be as much about transactional gratitude as anything else. But any bride or groom who’s ever slaved over a desk writing note after note knows that it’s not that simple. Even though the stimulus for the “thank you” is technically the wedding gift, it’d make for a depressingly short note if that were the only thing mentioned. Proper etiquette demands that you not only thank the guest for their gift, but for their very presence at your wedding, and indeed, their support and love both leading to that moment and going forward. Some people even go so far as to write thank you notes to anyone who attended, regardless of whether or not they gave a gift (I wasn’t quite that gracious or ambitious). Because these notes aren’t really about what your guests have done for you. At their best, these notes are about the relationship that you have with your guests.

It turns out, as far as I’m concerned, that the opposite of transactional gratitude is relational gratitude—thankfulness based not on what you get, but on who we are in relation to one another. It further turns out that this model makes a lot more sense in the context of faith than transactional gratitude. Think about it: God didn’t choose the Hebrews to be God’s people because they were somehow more pious than everyone else. God didn’t create a covenant because of what the Israelites could offer. God didn’t come to earth to dwell among us because we’d somehow earned it. No, the entire premise of our faith is a God who is constantly trying to remind us who we are and whose we are, because that’s what matters.

The book of Hebrews recalls Psalm 8 in awe and humility as it describes who we are in relation to God: we were created by God to be little lower than angels, crowned with glory and honor. And although we don’t always live into our created identity (let’s be honest; who among us behaves “angelically” with any regularity?) we also have Christ to help us. Hebrews says that in seeing Christ, we’re able to catch a glimpse of who we were created and called to be. Christ came, crowned with glory and honor himself, to help us better see and understand God’s desire for our lives and to claim our divine inheritance in spite of our sin. Christ loved us so much that he was willing to die in order to lead us to our salvation, regardless of our profound imperfection. No matter what we might do, Jesus remains unashamed of us: he is willing to name and claim us as siblings. He wants to remain in relationship with us. God chooses to love us not based on anything we’ve done, but on the simple fact that God chooses to love us—and that’s who we are.

THIS is the place from which our gratitude should flow: the realization that God wants to be in relationship with us; indeed, that God created us for this purpose and this alone. That should be enough to inspire us to surrender transactional gratitude permanently. No more score-keeping, no more tab to settle. Just an ongoing immersion in our relationship with God through Christ.

It’s beautiful in its simplicity. The emphasis is shifted from alternating “turns” of gratitude to lives intersecting with one another, so we’re able to focus on what really matters. I mean, think about it…we know that sending thank you notes for thank you notes is silly. Somehow, we realize that the point isn’t to respond to each disparate event with gratitude, but to be in relationship with another person, and a never-ending loop of stationary does nothing to accomplish this. The gratitude is valuable entirely and exclusively because of the connection that it forges. Its value lies in how it builds and grows relationships. The thing that God asks of us in is this connection. God asks for us to give ourselves. Not another thank you note.

Lest we think, however, that this gets us off the hook from any greater obligation, we should think again. Relational gratitude doesn’t eliminate the “response” part of gratefulness, it just transforms it. Instead of creating a transactional feedback loop of “thank yous”, it lights a fire under us that spurs us onto greater things. If God creates us to be little lower than angels, crowned with glory and honor, then true gratitude should fill us with a sense of responsibility. Our special status with God isn’t its own reward; it’s a catalyst that moves us to care for the creation with which we’ve been entrusted and for each other. THIS is the proper response of gratitude. THIS is the thank you note that God wants.

Relational gratitude shouldn’t just beget more gratitude; it should beget action. When your church community builds a beautiful new coffee bar, you don’t just dedicate it with thanksgiving and then forget about it. You use it—preferably to welcome new people into the community. When a teacher changes your life through their love and lessons, you don’t just thank them and be done with it. You pay it forward, using what they taught you to teach others. When you live in a country that you love, you don’t just sit back and think about how lucky you are. You participate in the life of the nation, you vote, you fight to make it better so that others will love it as much as you do.

This is the type of gratitude that has its source rooted deep in God’s heart. This is the type of gratitude that forges rich, meaningful connections. This is the type of gratitude that brings us closer to who we were created to be. Is this the type of gratitude that you practice? Take some time this week to consider your own patterns of thanksgiving: if you find that you’re giving more of yourself when things seem to be going well, and less when they don’t, well…think about what kind of “Thank You” note you’re sending to God. Think about whether your gratitude is absolving you of further responsibility or challenging you to action. Think about whether it’s exhorting you to further God’s kingdom, to become more and more a reflection of who God created you to be. Gratitude is a practice that holds so much potential. It all depends on how we use it.

Thankfully, I finished writing my thank you notes just a few months after the wedding. But still haven’t forgotten what each person’s love and support meant, and continues to mean, to me. My gratitude endures. And I pray that my gratitude for all of them—including you all—will continue to be transformative in my life and beyond. Thanks be to God—may we mean it, and may we live it. Amen.

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