First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"Gratitude" Sermon by Rev. Barbara Merritt Mar 18, 2007

“No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.”
-Elie Wiesel

First Reading: - from Psalm 139

O LORD, you have searched me, and known me.
You know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.
My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is beyond me, far too lofty for me to reach.
Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in hell, you are there too.
If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me, your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light" --
Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day.Darkness and light are but one.

Second Reading: — “Be Cool to the Pizza Dude” by Sarah Adams

If I have one operating philosophy about life it is this: ''Be cool to the pizza delivery dude; it's good luck.'' Four principles guide the pizza dude philosophy.

Principle 1: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in humility and forgiveness. I let him cut me off in traffic, let him safely hit the exit ramp from the left lane, let him forget to use his blinker without extending any of my digits out the window or towards my horn because there should be one moment in my harried life when a car may encroach or cut off or pass and I let it go. Sometimes when I have become so certain of my ownership of my lane, daring anyone to challenge me, the pizza dude speeds by me in his rusted Chevette. His pizza light atop his car glowing like a beacon reminds me to check myself as I flow through the world. After all, the dude is delivering pizza to young and old, families and singletons, gays and straights, blacks, whites and browns, rich and poor, vegetarians and meat lovers alike. As he journeys, I give safe passage, practice restraint, show courtesy, and contain my anger.

Principle 2: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in empathy. Let's face it: We've all taken jobs just to have a job because some money is better than none. I've held an assortment of these jobs and was grateful for the paycheck that meant I didn't have to share my Cheerios with my cats. In the big pizza wheel of life, sometimes you're the hot bubbly cheese and sometimes you're the burnt crust. It's good to remember the fickle spinning of that wheel.

Principle 3: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in honor and it reminds me to honor honest work. Let me tell you something about these dudes: They never took over a company and, as CEO, artificially inflated the value of the stock and cashed out their own shares, bringing the company to the brink of bankruptcy, resulting in 20,000 people losing their jobs while the CEO builds a home the size of a luxury hotel. Rather, the dudes sleep the sleep of the just.

Principle 4: Coolness to the pizza delivery dude is a practice in equality. My measurement as a human being, my worth, is the pride I take in performing my job -- any job -- and the respect with which I treat others. I am the equal of the world not because of the car I drive, the size of the TV I own, the weight I can bench press, or the calculus equations I can solve. I am the equal to all I meet because of the kindness in my heart. And it all starts here -- with the pizza delivery dude.

Tip him well, friends and brethren, for that which you bestow freely and willingly will bring you all the happy luck that a grateful universe knows how to return.

Sermon: “Gratitude”

In India recently someone asked my spiritual teacher a question, “What is the worst karma a person can undergo here on earth? What is the greatest difficulty? The harshest circumstances?”

What an interesting question! How would you answer it? A few responses that came to my mind include financial poverty, to be born in a war-torn country, mental illness, debilitating physical illness, domestic abuse (my Lord, the list seems endless.)

I was astonished by my teachers reply. He answered (and I paraphrase), “The worst karma is to be ungrateful. If you suffer from ingratitude then it won’t matter what blessings and goodness are in your life, you won’t be capable of receiving it. In contrast, if you are grateful then even in the most challenging of circumstances, you will be able to recognize the many gifts that you are receiving.”
When I heard this last Sunday, I immediately recognized the truth in his observation, but it was not altogether good news to me. For you see, many of us (if not most human beings) suffer from this particular variety of bad karma. Rather than possessing a grateful heart that is able to focus on all the advantages we have enjoyed, all the good company that we have been given, all the many blessings that God offers us on a daily basis, we (or should I say I) occasionally, in fact frequently, get lost and quite forgetful.

I focus on what isn’t on the banquet table. Looking over a lifetime, there are some of us who think we have an inalienable right to criticize, to complain, to accuse and to feel victimized.

It’s not that good fortune and great friends and tremendous blessings don’t find their way to our door. They do! But the relationship we usually take to such things is to take them for granted. Good health, a warm house, nice clothes, nutritious food, meaningful work, volunteer opportunities, beautiful music from the choir and an occasional nourishing novel or TV show or film; these become white noise – mere background – “givens” . . . but not necessarily noticed, appreciated, or fully acknowledged. We scream at their absence, but hardly ever notice their presence. And if someone says we ought to be grateful for what is good in our lives, we might become annoyed, resentful or impatient.

I was genuinely shocked when I went to my “Big Book of Quotes” looking for some wise words to put in the newsletter about “gratitude.” Under that heading more than 2/3 of the quotes were negative about the virtue of gratitude. The writers and poets and philosophers described gratitude as a form of servile humiliation, as an expression of indebtedness and disempowerment. The master of the house demanded it from the servants and such obligation was always an admission of defeat! Just for example, the Bengali poet Tagore wrote, “Power takes as ingratitude the writhing of victims.” The French philosopher Diderot dismissed it this way, “Gratitude is a burden, meant to be shaken off.”

Even an article in the recent UU World – while it claimed that gratitude was the pre-eminent Unitarian Universalist virtue, I was disturbed by what I perceived as a subtext (which may or may not have been present, or intended.) What I heard was a scolding tone. Our dependency was an inconvenient truth rather than a liberating relationship. Independence, freedom and autonomous individual integrity were described as posing “grave dangers.” Rather as if autonomy and self-reliance were simply self-indulgent fantasies that good Unitarian Universalists would have to sacrifice in order to dutifully acknowledge the many ways we need one another.

It’s possible that the reason I didn’t love the article on behalf of gratitude in the UU World is that no one can argue you into becoming grateful. The journey to gratitude is not about making lists or comparing how much you have compared to others, or forcing you to acknowledge how dependant you are on the co-operation of a lively universe.

How we arrive at gratitude is something of a mystery and I suspect that there are many roads (and detours.) How you get to gratitude might take you on quite different paths than the one your neighbor travels. I believe that some models of gratitude are dead ends, especially those based on the calculation method. In this mindset, your assumption is that at the auspicious moment gratitude will descend on you like fairy dust. People who enjoy the privilege of being grateful are those who 1) win the lottery; 2) receive the Noble Prize or a McArthur Grant or an Olympic Gold Medal; 3) billionaires; 4) people whose loved ones never die or suffer from ill health; and 5) those whose cars, appliances, computers, and hearts do not break. In such idealized fantasies, those lucky enough to be grateful are rare indeed.

A few weeks ago a member of this congregation, George Lane taught me a joke that he heard from Garrison Keeler. My poor husband has had to hear me tell it about 73 times. I thought I’d get over with this morning and tell you all at once. It concerns a grandmother who was walking with her 5-year-old grandson on the beach, when suddenly a rogue wave comes up and grabs that child and carries him out to sea. She looks up to the sky, holds her fist and says, “God, this is unacceptable, unbearable. You cannot take an innocent child.” And just as those words come out of her mouth, another rogue wave comes and deposits the child smiling back at her feet. She picks up the child in her arms, looks up to the sky and says, “This child had a hat!”

A variant on the calculation model, which is much more effective (but not without problems), is to put life on a balance. Acknowledging that life is a combination of good and evil, blessings and curses, advantages and disadvantages, peaceful moments and times of great agitation and anxiety. You ride the waves. And when you go into a tough time of hardship and deprivation, you simply have to wait it out. Happiness is an achievement of timing. The Broadway music lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein wrote with great eloquence as to why he defines himself as a happy man. Listen to what he has to say on the subject of enjoying this world.

I am a man who believes he is happy. Why do I believe I am happy?

Death has deprived me of many whom I loved. Dismal failure has followed many of my most earnest efforts. People have disappointed me. I have disappointed them. I have disappointed myself.

Further than this, I am aware that I live under a cloud of international hysteria. The cloud could burst, and a rain of atom bombs could destroy millions of lives, including my own. From all this evidence, could I not build up a strong case to prove why I am not happy at all? I could, but it would be a false picture, as false as if I were to describe a tree only as it looks in winter. I would be leaving out a list of people I love, who have not died. I would be leaving out an acknowledgment of the many successes that have sprouted among my many failures. I would be leaving out the blessing of good health, the joy of walking in the sunshine. I would be leaving out my faith that the goodness in humanity will triumph eventually over the evil that causes war. The conflict of good and bad merges in thick entanglement. You cannot isolate virtue and beauty and success and laughter and keep them from all contact with wickedness and ugliness and failure and weeping.

I don’t believe anyone can enjoy living in this world unless he can accept its imperfection. He must know and admit that he is imperfect, that all other mortals are imperfect, and go on in his own imperfect way, making his mistakes and riding out the rough and bewildering, exciting and beautiful storm of life until the day he dies.”

Mr. Hammerstein presents a persuasive and compelling argument that the only place gratitude can exist (in this world) is in the midst of a complicated imperfection. I believe he is right about that.

Where I can’t so easily follow is keep to my balance and stay grateful when the ride gets especially rough. Some things go wrong and are never right again. Tragedies can break your heart for a whole lifetime. Some sorrows are inconsolable. Some failures and defects are permanent. While I can celebrate Oscar Hammerstein’s image of “riding out a rough and bewildering and exciting and beautiful storm of life,” this will not comfort a mother who has just lost a child, or the family who has just seen the father of their small children get killed in Iraq.

The road to having a grateful heart has to travel a more difficult terrain. And it was eloquently expressed by Elie Weisel. A survivor the holocaust of 8 million Jews, he wrote: “gratitude emerges from the kingdom of night.” Gratitude is not, in this model, the result of good fortune, happiness or great success. Instead gratitude is a response to life itself. It emerges precisely at the moment when we do settle at the farthest limits of the sea – in places and circumstances where we believe that we are unreachable, unsaveable and irredeemable. No one ever put it more clearly. “Thou are acquainted with all my ways . . . Where can I flee from your presence? If I make my bed in hell, thou art there . . . even the night shall provide light. The darkness and the light are both alike to Thee.”

The psalmist is making a rather bold statement. Grace can find you anywhere and everywhere. Even with your best and most determined efforts, you cannot exile yourself from the range and reach of love. The power of goodness is so enormous that eventually you will be pulled in.

This is the heart of Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. Not only is our poverty and our bad habits and our unconsciousness about the giver of our wealth and talent and strength not a barrier to God’s love, amazingly it is the way that human beings travel. We stumble, we fall, we get up over and over again our whole lives long. And there will come that moment when we see that love does not hold that against us. After all our adventures we will be welcomed, embraced and given a really big party.

It is out of that breathtaking vision that I suggest you establish your ever-so-cool relationship with the pizza delivery dude.

Sarah Adams, in wonderfully concrete terms, speaks of the practice of forgiveness and humility, not as something to contemplate in church. Instead, they are to be brought into play when a car cuts you off in traffic, exits from the wrong lane and doesn’t use his blinker. Each of us is given opportunities (probably more often than we’d like) to “give safe passage, practice restraint, show courtesy and contain our anger.”

We are here on earth, at least partially, to practice empathy, to honor honest work and to ceaselessly embody that central Universalist principle – the dignity and worth of all human beings. This practice of radical equality is measured by “the respect with which you treat others, and by the kindness in your heart.” And then comes the leap. When you become the giver of kindness, you are more likely to become aware of the kindness flowing towards you.

Gratitude is not about the things you do (or do not) receive. It is about a relationship. Some of us call the source of all life (and goodness and love) by the name of God. Some of us call the sense of all life a mysterious reality that cannot be named. But there ought not to be disagreement about our response to our current imperfect circumstances. We can pray to be given a grateful heart. Grateful for the gift of life. Grateful for the opportunities of this day to come closer to what is real and sustaining. Grateful that no matter how far we wander, or how many times we stumble, grace will find us and we will be blessed.