“Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.” Amen
There is a story we tell ourselves here in America. They may tell it elsewhere, I don’t know: this is where I live. It is the story of the self-made man or woman; that person who, out of nothing, is able to make greatness; out of nothing, become wildly successful, or rich beyond imagination, or more famous than anyone else. Out of nothing but their own fortitude and strength and virtue, nothing but their own wit and wisdom and intelligence, they are able to build greatness.
It is a story that shapes who we are as a people; it is a story we believe about the greatest and even the milder successes we have in this life. It is a story that shapes our identity as Americans. The problem with this story is, it’s not true. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. As we hear in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God. That is the lesson the Israelites learned when they were wandering in the wilderness. They had to learn day in and day out that their food, the manna, was something God was giving them. They couldn’t collect it, they couldn’t store it, they couldn’t sell it, but every day God would provide it. And the water they drank, out in the parched desert, was something that God led them to, and was somehow able to bring out of a rock. Their protection from poisonous snakes and scorpions was also a gift from God. And here they are, standing on the precipice of entering into the promised land where they will settle down, where there will be springs and streams of steady sources of water for them, and they will be able to till the land and eat and accumulate and develop wealth. Yet God is deeply concerned that when they enter into this promised land they are going to forget that lesson they learned in the wilderness, that everything they are and everything they have is a gift from God. So here God is having Moses remind them of what they had discovered in the wilderness and to warn them: Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." This is the exact opposite of the self-made man. Instead, everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God.
Every one of us, as Deuteronomy says a couple of chapters earlier, “drink water from cisterns we did not dig, and eat from vineyards we did not plant”. We all exist within this larger community in which other people do a lot of work that we benefit from, and all of it is ultimately a gift from God. Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God.
When we begin to recognize this truth, we can begin to live the life of gratitude, the life that the one leper in ten knew in our Gospel reading, the one who returned to Jesus and offered thanks and praise to God for the healing. When we live the life of gratitude, we can receive that praise that Jesus bestows on him as well.
Gratitude is not just a disposition, it is not something that some people have and others don’t, although it does seem to come easier for some people, doesn’t it? Gratitude is an intentional practice, something we need to foster, something we need to till in the soil in order to achieve the bounty of it. We need to engage in practices of offering our thanks. Of course, since today is Thanksgiving, there are lots of intentional practices that people engage in. The Facebook feed is full of people offering their thanks today; many families have a tradition of going around the table and offering something that they are thankful for. But if we want to live a life of gratitude, we need to take it out of this one day, and start practicing it every single day. Here in the church we practice it every week in the Eucharist, which is the Greek word for thanksgiving, but we need to go beyond that and make gratitude a daily practice of our lives. We need to realize that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God.
G.K. Chesterton, a great writer, once said, “You say grace before meals. Alright, but I say grace before the concert at the opera, and grace before the play and the pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, grace before I dip the pen into ink.” Chesterton was a brilliant writer, and like many he could have imagined himself a self-made man with his writing, his own skilled achievement. And yet he had the humility to recognize that it was a gift from God, and something for which he should give thanks.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, I encourage you to begin to practice gratitude, today and everyday. I encourage you to begin to be transformed by that gratitude, to be transformed into a life full of gratitude, to be transformed deep into your heart so that, as George Herbert wrote in the prayer that began this sermon, we may have that grateful heart, not just on some days as if God only had blessings on the spare days, but such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise. May every heartbeat of your life be filled with thanksgiving.