The Rev. Bingham Powell
These past few months, we have been hearing the story of the Israelites entering and exiting Egypt. We heard how Joseph took the people into Egypt during a famine. They were welcomed with open arms by the Pharaoh and given the choicest land in the country. And then we heard how there arose a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph and we heard all of the awful things he did. He was afraid of the Hebrew people and in his fear he oppressed and even murdered them. He put them in slavery and beat them. He tried to kill all of their baby boys. The people cried out to God for decades to save them from this terror.
The Biblical story tells us that the crying out to God lasted over eighty years, before God called forth Moses from the burning bush to go confront Pharaoh. It took a while, but after ten plagues, the final one being quite horrific, Pharaoh finally let them go. He ended up changing his mind, but fortunately, by this point, the Hebrews were far enough along in their escape, that a little supernatural divine help, they made it across the sea and the Egyptian army did not. And then, they celebrated. They sang, they danced, they played tambourines. Oh, that party must have been great. Eighty plus years of oppression over. Eighty plus years of terror ended. This is what they had been asking for for decades: Crying out vigorously to God to free them from their slavery.
And yet, the most amazing thing happens. Within just a couple of verses of their celebrations, as we heard in the reading last Sunday, they are lamenting and crying out to God: Why did you bring us out here to die? It would have been better to have stayed in slavery in Egypt where at least we had bread to eat. God solves the food problem, but then nearly immediately, as we heard in the reading this morning, they complain about water. God solves the water problem, but then, they complain about food. Luckily, we are going to skip that reading, because it is endless. This cycle of complaining about food and water repeats itself many more times during their sojourn through the wilderness.
It's almost comical. They got exactly what they asked for, but yet they complain. It would be comical, if it wasn't so true and didn't hit so close to home. Haven't you ever done the same thing: wished for, prayed, begged, cajoled, struggled and strived for something, and then once you had it complained and yearned to go back? Or yearned for more? I know I have.
The Hebrews in the story would be comical fools if it wasn't so true to human nature and our insatiable desires, which are never satisfied with what we have. Always dreaming of the greener grass on the other side. Always coveting what our neighbor has, while it turns out that our neighbor covets what we have. We can say that the Israelites lack faith. They don't trust in the God who brought them out of slavery. Of course, God is not going to let them starve or die of thirst. But, it is equally true to say that they lack gratitude. And maybe these two things are linked. They are not grateful for all that they do have: they have their freedom; they have their lives; their prayers have been answered; they have a community of family and friends. They have so much. And all of this abundance that they have is because of God, because God has richly given it all to them. But they don't see it, because they lack gratitude.
For some people, gratitude is just second nature, but for many of us, we have to practice it, just like we have to practice sports or math or praying. Some of us have to work at it by taking on practices of gratitude - regularly naming all of the things for which they are grateful in their lives, intentionally offering daily prayers of thanksgiving. And I have seen such practices of gratitude change lives. I have seen people who intentionally take on practices of gratitude turn from rather sour individuals to people of joy. In my own life, intentionally practicing gratitude has turned despair into hope many times. Gratitude makes us see life as it really is by showing us all of the good and joy in this world, and by showing us the abundance of good things that we already have in our lives.
Gratitude is the center of our lives as a community. Every week, we gather together for the Eucharist. The word Eucharist is Greek for thanksgiving. The central act of our communal worship is a prayer of thanksgiving, in which we thank God for all that God has done for us from the creation of this world until today, throughout all of history, most importantly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We thank God for the love shown through creation, through covenants, through the prophets, and through Jesus. We thank God for this bread and this wine, which are to us the body and blood of Christ, and which nourish our souls. We thank God for the community of faith throughout the generations and today, throughout the world and right here in this place, who has engaged in this great thanksgiving and who we join when we partake in the Eucharist. We thank God for the love we have received, and for the forgiveness we have found, and the grace we have been given. We thank God for the abundance of gifts that God has given us: all things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.
This past week marked the start of Fall. To me, fall seems like the season of gratitude. The summer bounty isn't there anymore, but there is still a lot more good food to harvest. We aren't yet to the sparseness of winter, but we see it coming, and we are grateful for that which we do have. And, of course, Fall is when we celebrate the great feast of Thanksgiving. This week, this month, this season, I encourage you to think about all those things for which you are grateful. I encourage you to practice gratitude. Practice gratitude by partaking of the Eucharist. And practice gratitude by taking on some intentional practices of thanksgiving. Name daily that for which you are thankful. Name daily the abundance which God has given you. See the world for how it truly is, and be grateful. Amen.