The Always Answered Prayer -- 11/18/2012

It never seems that I have been grateful enough.  Thanksgiving rolls around and I am asked for what I am grateful, and to whom am I grateful, and the questions seem to catch me flat-footed, and by surprise.  Well, I am grateful to everybody for everything, of course.  But somehow, when you asked me, I wasn’t thinking of it right then.  I seems to me that I should have been more aware of it, more consciously thankful.  

Of course, gratitude is not always on one’s mind.  We live mostly in the present and in the future, but gratitude is a type of memory.  If one lived in the present all the time, without a thought to the past or the future, you wouldn’t feel grateful very much.  It is said to be a second pleasure.  Gratitude is the memory of a something pleasurable, a favor, a friend, a moment of grace.  And so, gratitude comes to us when are reminded, and so it can come as a surprise. 

Gratitude is a way of remembering the world, a way of remembering life. It is a way of making sense of everything that is happening, and has happened, a way of making sense of life.  It is a way of sorting and classifying, it’s a way of evaluating what has happened.  At the end of the day, when you look over what happened, you can tell a story about how everything went wrong, and people were thoughtless and inconsiderate to you, and even how you were, once again, screwed over by the implacable forces of evil.  Or, you can tell a story of how you were blessed with good fortune during the day -- acts of kindness, good luck, great weather, even beauty, none of which had to happen, but they did. 

At the heart of gratitude is the mystery of contingency.  

Today, I am enjoying the memory of last night’s John Henry Hammer’s Coffee house, Walter Crockett and the wannabe wabbits and Dennis Brennan, a folk rocker.  It was here at the church.

I am grateful to the performers, especially Walter Crockett who sang two wonderful songs expressing his loss of his wife and his daughter, and I am grateful to everyone who made the event happen, the radio station,  WCUW, the people from the church here (Scott Hayman, and  Seth Popinchalk, and Linda Wyatt and Bob and Susan Shaw,  and others).  It wouldn’t have happened without them.  You see, in order to be grateful, I have to be conscious of the fact that none of it had to happen.  

We might have decided not to host the coffee house again, when the idea first come up last year.  There might not have been anybody willing to take on the task.  The radio station might have approached another church.  The performer might have decided to go into his father plumbing supply business instead.  His car might have broken down on the way to the gig, or he might have gotten a cold.  There could have been a terrible storm and the power might have gone out. 

I might have decided that it wasn’t going to be worth the drive and stayed home.  I might have not gotten far enough on writing this sermon.  I might have gone into his father’s plumbing supply business and never become a minister.  That passerby who noticed the smoke coming from the eaves of the church back in 2000, could have looked the other way (literally been looking the other way) and not called the fire department, and the church might have burned to the ground.   

As soon as you look at anything, and calculate the huge number of other possibilities that might have happened instead, you are struck by the overwhelming odds against reality.  It was to sound a bit like Joe Biden, LITERALLY, so statistically unlikely that you and I are even here today that it boggles the mind.  

The Brazilian poet Carlos Drummon De Andrade wrote a poem called “in the middle of the road”.  It was translated by Elizabeth Bishop, a poet claimed by Worcester.

[read Poem] 

In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

On the one hand, the poem seems silly.  I can hear people now saying, “Remember when Reverend Tom preached about the poem that just went on and on about rock in the middle of the road, like it was the second coming of the Christ.”

On the other hand, if you think about it enough, the fact that that rock was in the middle of that road is as good a concrete example of the unknowable mystery of reality as anything else.  It is no less strange and wonderful than the song of birds, the swell of the ocean, the shape of clouds, the invisible wind.

I don’t know what is harder to believe: that an all-knowing God, complete with white robe, beard and sandals, made it all happen just so according a very complicated plan, or that it happened by sheerest, most unplanned and impersonal chance.  

So therefore, it is a miracle and highly unlikely, and almost against all odds, that we are here together today, we should take the time to ask ourselves: what on earth are we doing here? 

I cannot say why you come to church on Sunday.  

I can only say what I think that the invitation that the church is making to you. And when I say “The church” I do not mean this congregation, but I mean the long tradition of Unitarian Universalism as now understood by its ministers, my colleagues.  But ultimately, I am speaking for myself.  What I think I am doing by leading worship in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

At the heart of worship is the work of gratitude.  

Think over your week, your day, your life.  You’re telling yourself a story about it -- what story are you telling?  You are sorting and sifting and evaluating.  Since last Sunday, I planned a memorial service and I heard about the life of a man I never met, Reuben Patton.  I talked to Rosel and his sister and his brother and his step-son:  I could remember how hard it was to do this work, but I also remember how much they shared, and how they made visible their feelings.  And I went to a retreat of my colleagues, which could have been time away from the work that I wanted to do, but it was also a time when I could feel their affection, and I learned some important stuff, and I even had some difficult conversations with colleagues.  I try to remember that they trust me with that.  

And on and on... I am pushed by this service, by these hymns, by the words of the Psalm to look at this ordinary week as a week in which I was gifted and blessed with good work to do, and with great companions, and occasions of great beauty and meaning, none of which had to happen and none of which were owed to me. 

Our goal in the liberal church is to increase your capacity for gratitude, whether it be gratitude to the God that watches over you, or gratitude to the horse that brought you home.

Because gratitude is the beginning of all spirituality.  If you are grateful, then you will be generous.  No one can give unless they know how to receive.

And if a person is grateful, then that person can see the miracle in everything, and in that grateful, reverence will grow.  If you can slow down, and relax enough, and refresh your fatigued retinas to never forget the improbable fact of the stone in the middle of the road, then how can you not notice the image of God stamped upon the face of everyone you meet, including that face you see in the mirror.  So self-possession and solidarity grow together from gratitude. 

How can you let that holy image of God, seen in the face of another, go hungry, or sleep in the street, or cower in fear of a bomber or a rocket, or pick through garbage all day for food, or walk five miles a day to bring water to her family, or live with pollution and filth, or be condemned to never dream?  

Gratitude begats reverence which begats self-possession and solidarity, which begats a deep dissatisfaction with the realities of the world.  The same world for which you give thanks.  

How can you live in a world with such injustice, such cruelty, such hatred, such violence?   

There is a prayer that is always answered. 

Stand in your spot -- that spot for you. 

Stand beneath the stars, shimmering into the distant reaches of space.

Stand in the summer fields, buzzing with life and lazy with abundance. 

Stand amidst the autumn leaves all brightness and crimson

Stand in your kitchen, all clean and quiet at the end of the day.

Stand in the cemetery where the elders rest and wait for you

Stand in your children’s bedroom and listen to them breathe

Stand in that spot, that piece of holy ground

and whisper this prayer:  Thank You !

Thank your lucky stars, or ALmighty God, or the horse that led you home, but 

make a prayer of “thank you! “ and send it into the Universe.

And the Universe will answer “you’re welcome.” 

You’re Welcome.

You are welcome here.  


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