March 10, 2019, Lent 1C, Deuteronomy 26:1-11
This past week I watched a recent TED talk from A.J. Jacobs. Most people are familiar with him as author of the book, The Year of Living Biblically, which tells the story of the year he spent trying to live in strict adherence with the over 700 rules and guidelines he found in the Bible. However, this TED talk was about his latest book, Thanks a Thousand, where he tells the story of his endeavor to live a life with more gratitude. (https://www.npr.org/2019/01/18/686269793/aj-jacobs-how-can-we-thank-those-we-take-for-granted)
Jacobs desired to live with more gratitude because he knew all the research says its psychological benefits for us are numerous. So, for someone who says his “innate disposition is moderately grumpy, more Larry David than Tom Hanks,” he decided he needed more gratitude in his life to gain those benefits. In an effort to achieve this he started a new tradition in their home before meals of saying a prayer of thanks. Except as an agnostic it wasn’t really a prayer, but more a thanksgiving listing all those who provided their food for them. One day though his ten year old son told him that since none of the people he was listing off were in their apartment to hear him, if he really cared he would need to go and thank them each in person. Thus began his quest to thank everyone who helped to provide his morning cup of coffee as he thought thanking people for the production of just one item would be simple enough.
Except, he quickly found out that it wasn’t so simple to do this for even one item. It took hundreds of people to make it possible for that coffee to reach him. From the barista to truck drivers to road pavers to coffee growers to architects to goat herders to biologists to miners, by the end of his quest he had to literally thank over one thousand people who helped make his morning coffee possible each day.
There were several lessons A.J. Jacobs learned about gratitude from this endeavor, including one he describes as “fake it till you feel it.” He said that by the end of the project he was in a “thanking frenzy” with writing emails, sending notes, making phone calls, and paying visits all to say thank you for helping to make his daily cup of coffee a reality. He said some people he contacted weren’t that into it, questioning his motives and thinking he was up to something sinister or even criminal. However he said most people were surprisingly moved by his efforts. He remembered the conversation when he called the woman who did the pest control for the warehouse where his coffee is stored. He said he called her and said, “This might sound strange, but I want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee.” She responded by saying, “Yes, that did sound strange, but you made my day.”
Jacobs said what he found was that such encounters didn’t just affect the people he thanked, but they affected him as well. He found that it made him more grateful when he acted more gratefully. He discovered how our behavior can change the way we think as we act ourselves into a new state of mind.
In our first reading from Deuteronomy today we see Moses trying a similar tactic with the Israelites. They find themselves in an in-between or liminal state. They are in Moab, having just left the wilderness and not yet having entered the Promised Land. They have finished up forty years of wandering and whining about how bad things were for them there in the wilderness and how much better it was for them back in Egypt. Because although in Egypt they were in slavery they said, as least the food there was better. God had led them from Egypt to freedom and told them that the Promised Land was ahead for them and God would provide for them all through their journey there through the wilderness, but were they grateful? Nope. No matter what God gave them they complained that it wasn’t enough.
In spite of the abundant blessings God was providing for the Israelites, it seemed that they couldn’t quite appreciate them. God never abandoned them throughout their difficulties and yet they still could only see what they didn’t have. A.J. Jacobs says that is pretty much the norm for us as humans though as evolutionary psychologists say human beings are genetically programmed to pay attention to what goes wrong in our lives. We are wired that way because that was how our ancestors needed to be in order to survive from the advent of humankind. Forget which mushroom or berry is the poisonous one and you wouldn’t be around for very long. So, we can’t really blame the Israelites or ourselves when we focus on the negative aspects of life because it is who we are made to be, right?
While we might be wired this way in order to survive in nature, God made us in God’s image. An image of grace and generosity. As such, God wants more for us than this cranky kind of life spent unaware of all we have to be grateful for. Thus, before letting the Israelites into the Promised Land God has Moses talk to the people once again and offer them a gratitude practice to do to change the way they think so that even when they enter this place flowing with milk and honey and all is well once again, they won’t forget who brought them there and who they belong to. Because when things aren’t going our way and aren’t as we’d like them to be, we can forget to be grateful for what we have as we think God has abandoned us. However, when things are going well we can forget to recognize God’s presence with us then as well as we think we’ve earned the good we have and forget to acknowledge God at work to provide for us through times of abundance too.
Therefore, in our reading from Deuteronomy today, before crossing into the Promised Land Moses offers the Israelites some instructions for how to live gratefully. He invites them to look back and remember what God did to bring them to this place. To recognize the precariousness of the journey, but also how God brought them through. And to look ahead to see this place overflowing with milk and honey that God promised them would be there at the end of their journey. But to not rest thinking what they have found in this new place is all their own doing and the result of their hard work, but live aware of their blessings.
Moses tells them to look behind and look forward and to give thanks. To give thanks for the blessings God provided that brought them here and to give thanks for the blessings ahead that will sustain them into the future. He invites them to make an offering to God who made it all possible so they never forget who they are and whose they are no matter where they go or the good or bad that happens to them along the way. Moses wants them to always remember they belong to God and it is God who they depend on for all they have in life and it is God who always provides.
This gratitude practice is actually a great one for Lent because as I talked about in my Ash Wednesday sermon, Lent is a time to deepen our relationship with God. It is a time to remember who we are and whose we are and to live more fully into that knowledge so we grow closer to God. Practicing gratitude just as Moses instructs the Israelites to do reminds us as we thank God how God provides for all our blessings and how we are dependent on God for all we have and all we are. It reminds us that belonging to God we are made in God’s image and so don’t have to be stuck in our usual grumpy scarcity survival mindset. Instead, created by a gracious and generous God and blessed with abundant blessings, we are set free to be generous like our Creator and to freely share with our neighbors.
Like Moses instructs the Israelites to share with the Levites and aliens as part of their gratitude practice – those who were dependent on the kindness of the Israelites to provide for them because both are landless and without the means to provide for themselves – we are called to share with our neighbors who are dependent on our kindness to provide for their needs. We can’t do this on our own, but as we practice gratitude and thank God for all our blessings we become more grateful and find that our blessings aren’t ours to hoard, but God’s to give and ours to share with others. The more we practice gratitude the more we want to give because the more grateful we become and the more we grow in relationship with the One who made us.
This reveals one other thing A.J. Jacobs discovered in his gratitude experiment, that we can “use gratitude as a spark to action.” He said that while some might think gratitude can make us complacent as we sit back fat, happy, and satisfied with our situations. Instead, he says the research says the opposite. Gratitude drives us to help others. Therefore, when we practice gratitude what happens is exactly what Moses describes in his directions to the Israelites for practicing gratitude, when we act in a grateful way we become more grateful and take action to help our neighbors.
Therefore, this Lent perhaps like A.J. Jacobs we too can take a walk on a gratitude trail and act our way into a new way of thinking through its practice. It doesn’t have to be a coffee trail, it can be something else. Perhaps an orange or banana or water or automobile trail – where we can give thanks for all who bring one of those items to us. And perhaps in doing it we will achieve what Moses seeks for the people of Israel as he leads them in a similar gratitude practice as they prepare to enter the Promised Land – a deeper connection to God as we grow into the grace and generosity of the One who provides for all our needs and made us in God’s generous image. Amen.