Where Gratitude Leads Us
November 23, 2014
Most of us, if not practically all of us gathered for worship today, are unfamiliar with the name Karen Jacobson. But, many of us in this room hear from Karen every day. As a matter of fact, roughly 25 million people on average are listening to advice from Karen at virtually any moment of any day. Who is the Australian born Karen Jacobson? She is the real life person behind the most popular voice used on GPS systems. Nicknamed “Australian Karen”, she is the one who helps us find our way. When we get lost, she is the one who reminds us of how we got to where we are. (Meet Karen Jacobson, The Guiding Voice of GPS, CBS News, November 15, 2010)
Without question, it is easy to forget how we got to here. This is true not only when it comes to directions in general, but, it is also true from a spiritual perspective too.
This is one of the reasons that I appreciate Thanksgiving so much. Though really not a strictly religious holiday, Thanksgiving has a profound spiritual dimension to it. Thanksgiving is the yearly season when we are invited to stop, take stock of who we are and where we are, and to remember how we arrived at this place and who are the people that helped us to get here.
This is also why I appreciate the story of the disciple Philip – the last of the twelve that we will look at this fall. Philip’s story, as found in the gospel of John, unfolds in such a way that we really can’t help but see in him someone who was grounded in a desire to live with gratitude for who he was becoming in Jesus.
Like most of the disciples, we don’t know a lot about Philip. In fact, only John’s gospel tells us anything about him at all. In the other gospels, Philip exists in name only. But in John, this disciple who was apparently from the same fishing village of Bethsaida where others among the twelve were also from, appears and speaks in three different stories. Beyond our text for today, in John, Philip also plays a role in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and is a central character in the last supper story too.
As was also the case last week, I want to center our attention on Philip’s role in the call of Nathanael as told in John 1 which is the first place where we meet Philip. For again, in this story and in Philip, we meet someone who seems to have been poised to live with gratitude for the rest of his life for what Jesus had done for him.
I say this for two reasons and I want to highlight both of these ideas this morning as we prepare for this week of Thanksgiving. Both, I think, are invaluable ingredients that helped not only Philip to live in a grateful manner but I believe both can help us to do the same. On the one hand, this text is clear that Philip lived with gratitude or with thankfulness because he had a good memory. That is to say he maintained a backward glance. Now, one could argue that this was a short-term memory since Christ’s work in Philip’s life was a rather recent event. Yet, even when the events are rather recent, we are all prone to forget the role that others have played in our lives.
Philip, however, was under no such allusions. The experience that he was so excited about and that he wanted to offer to his friend Nathanael was centered on what Jesus had done for him. His life was in the process of taking on a new shape and focus because of what Jesus was coming to mean to him. His excitement was not the result of anything he had accomplished himself. It was what Christ was doing for him that was important. In essence, he was affirming the gift that God offered to him through Christ.
There is an interesting experience that all of us have from time to time. We will remark about a favorite shirt, a treasured piece of jewelry or special item that we possess and say something like “you know, for the life of me, I can’t remember where I bought that.” Almost before the words get out of our mouths, one of our children, a parent or a spouse will say, “You didn’t buy that — I gave it to you for Christmas” or “I got that for you as a gift on your birthday.” We don’t do it intentionally. No, generally speaking, our memories simply blur and fade over time and we forget the origins of some of the special things in our lives.
We do this with God too. Without question, it is not done intentionally. But, it still happens. In spite of our best efforts, we fall into the trap of giving ourselves credit for the gifts and good things in our lives that are ours not because of our good work or intelligence but that are really ours only because of the love and goodness of God. In turn, I firmly believe that our ability to live with gratitude and thanksgiving hinges our ability to have good memories and to do our best every single day to remember fully, clearly and without fail where the best gifts in our lives come from — that is primarily from God and from other special and very generous people in our lives.
On the other hand, this text is equally clear that Philip also lived with gratitude and thankfulness because he had deep desire to share. Or said another way, just as he looked backward to where his newfound joy came from, he also looked forward toward the need to share his gift with others. That is where Nathanael, whom we talked about last week, comes into the equation. In a very natural way, having discovered the gift of a relationship with Jesus, Philip felt compelled to offer the same gift to his friend Nathanael. From the very beginning, Philip seems to have understood what we often struggle to learn over the years – a key element of a healthy life of faith means always wanting others to have the same experience with God that we have had. A healthy faith is always a faith that is being given away.
This is true in life in general too. We should never become too attached to what we have. Rather, we should always be open to the question of how our gifts and resources can be offered in a generous way to others too. This not only leads to others benefitting from what we have, but, in all honesty, this is the way that we gain maximum enjoyment out of what we have too — not as we hoard it but as we share it. In the same way, our generosity is another primary way that we show our gratitude and thankfulness for the life that we have.
The famous writer Isak Dineson, best known for her work Out of Africa, also wrote a short story called Babbett’s Feast which was made into a movie back in the mid 1980s. The story is that of a poor refuge from Paris who comes to live with two sisters who are a part of an isolated religious community in France. She becomes their cook as a way of offsetting her room and board. Unbeknownst to them, she is a world class cook. But, her ability to prepare wonderful meals is hampered by their religious beliefs that life should be free of any type of luxury. In turn, her bland cooking is a way of mirroring their bland lives.
In the story, Babbett is gifted a lottery ticket every year by a relative still living in Paris. One year, her lottery ticket is the winner paying her $10,000 franks. Have been loved, cherished and cared for by the sisters and their church community, she decides to spend the entire $10,000 on them by making the most lavish meal any of them have ever experienced. In short, her conclusion is that unless she is generous and allows others to enjoy what she has received, she’ll never been able to fully enjoy or appreciate it herself.
A thankful life always keeps these two ingredients of Philip’s life in tension with each other. A thankful life always looks backward by never forgetting the source of our blessings. And a thankful life always looks forward by also never forgetting that one of the best ways we show our gratitude for what we have is by wanting others to be able to enjoy it as well.
There is an interesting little website that gets at this idea. It is called paperbackswap.com. This site for avid readers never charges anyone a single dime for access to virtually any book someone wants by working off a single basic principle. To get a book, you have to share a book.
Here is what that means. On paperbackswap.com, people list the books they are looking for. Once you scan the list and give to another person the book they would like to read, you have one credit that allows you to request a book that you want to read from someone else. Again, if you give a book, you can get a book.
Said another way, as long as you are always looking back, to remember that what you have came from another, and, as long as you are looking forward to remember that what you have is also freely available to others, then you are never in need. Instead, you constantly live with thankfulness and gratitude for those who helped you to get where you and with generosity toward others as you play the same role in their lives that others had played in your own. Amen.