Gratitude in Spite of it All
October 6, 2019
Psalm 103:1-5; Genesis 29:31-35; Job 13:15-18
Our text this morning is ancient. It tells a story in symbolism, remembering a time before marriage had the expectation of emotional and romantic fulfillment, written in a time before the advent of modern psychology. We don’t get much insight about the interior thoughts of Leah or Jacob. But the symbolism of the story makes the point fairly clear.
Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of Judaism, then Christianity, then Islam. So, it is an epic story. When Jacob is young, he sees a cute girl and he wants to marry her.
But her father, Laban, has two daughters and Jacob is interested in the younger one. Laban makes Jacob marry the older daughter first. We leave aside the moral repugnance at the patriarchy that is implied in the whole story, where women are not really given any say in their destiny, a sermon for another day.
Apparently, the older daughter Leah, is not as pretty as her younger sister. The writer of the story puts it indelicately. He says, ‘the younger sister’s eyes sparkled but Leah, the older daughter, “had the eyes of a cow.” Ouch.
Leah is not a happy woman. She is unloved by her husband and we may presume not loved by her father either in any way we would recognize love today.
Leah does not know what to do, so she decides to have a baby, hoping this will make things better. We may presume that this was a regular choice made by women in patriarchal societies, with very few options to choose from. In this story, she becomes ‘every woman’ symbolically.
She gets pregnant and has a son. She names the child ‘Reuben”. The name means “Look, a son”- as in “I’ve given you as a man what you are supposed to want from women, a son, an heir. Perhaps now you will appreciate me and show me some respect?”
Apparently, no. She is still not loved. So, she gets pregnant again and she has another son. She names him “Simeon” which mean “One who hears me” as in “God, You are listening to my plaintive prayers that my husband will love me if I do what is pleasing to him, right?” “God, you hear me”. Simeon.
But her husband is unchanged. She gets pregnant again, has a third son. She names him “Levi” which means “attached” or “having affection for”, as in “Now, I’m hoping against hope that this child will make my husband have affection for me.”
Uh, no. And, so she has one more child, a fourth son and she names him “Jehuda” or “Judah” as we say in the West. It means, “I praise God in gratitude.” “My petitions haven’t really answered, my situation is not good objectively speaking, but I’m going to engage my gratitude about the goodness of life anyway”. Jehuda.
By the way, and I’m sure you don’t know this, but this is why we call the Israelites “Jews”, they are descendants of Jehuda.
The name “Jews”, literally means “The grateful ones”. It is a poignant symbolic story, for she is grateful without having much objectively to be grateful for. And the Jews are names “grateful ones” but they don’t have much objectively to be grateful for either.
When you consider their longer history, the Jewish people have spent far more time in exile than they have in peaceful fulfillment. And this is important to note for all of us spiritual seekers because we don’t get any guarantees in the spiritual life that things will turn out well. They usually don’t.
And that is why so much of the Hebrew scriptures are filled with kvetching at God about how difficult it actually is to keep a positive attitude in the midst of suffering, exile and frustration.
We have the wonderful figure of Job who so embodies faith and kvetching at the same time in the only play that we have in the Hebrew scriptures. Job is the prototypical ‘good man’. Good heart, great neighbor, moral man.
But one bad thing happens to him after another. He endures famine, his cattle die, his huge family dies off one by one by one. Bad men take advantage of him. Finally, just short of death himself, he gets boils on his bottom that hurt so bad that he can’t even sit down, so he has to stand up all day.
In other words, he is as miserable as miserable can get and still be alive. But, Jews loved this play. Job is the only play we have in the Bible. Jews loved this play because, like Senator Kamala Harris, “I am that man”. Job’s story is the story of the Jews reduced to one character.
Job has a line that says roughly ‘though He (God) beat me, yet will I serve Him”.
That line could summarize the piety of the long suffering Jews who have sought their own homeland for a short 3000 years in one diaspora after another. Job’s friends can’t explain why he is such a good man and yet he suffers so much. Job can’t figure it out.
Finally, after a long time, Jewish scholars started to articulate the reason that the Jewish people suffered so much. They figured that it was their unique contribution to humanity to actually bring the moral light of the laws of Moses to the other nations and that meant that they had to be more moral than other people. They had to be more moral whether or not it brought them prosperity. They had to be more whether or not they were happy in this life.
They have a more difficult path than other nations. This way is the more noble way. Of course, it also feels like a divine curse so this more noble way, this more moral way is also the source of their resentment towards the Almighty. So, Jews, “the grateful ones”, kvetch to God about how miserable they are with regularity. Like Job, like some of your friends that kvetch about how unjust their situation is, they don’t need you to actually give them answers (especially if their situation is intractable and won’t really change), they just need to register their complaint with an official of the Almighty and right now that would be you. So just listen.
And with that kvetching, or right after it, just like Leah, the symbolic Jewish “Every woman”, they engage their gratitude, the fundamental disposition of the spiritual quest.
It is captured so beautifully in Psalm 103 (that we read earlier) that this is something Jewish people read every day. All of us should.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless God’s holy name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all God’s benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live[a]
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
This disposition of ‘gratitude in spite of the evidence’ is a disposition that all three Abrahamic faiths share- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Not only to they share it in common, but they equally emphasize how important it is to actively engage your gratitude regularly. The spiritual life begins and ends in gratitude, remembering that God was benevolent towards humans before we could actually do anything to deserve it.
We don’t usually understand this when we are children, unless we narrowly escape death or perhaps, we are traumatically separated from our parents in the dark or in a snowstorm and we have the sense of ‘being lucky to be alive.’
But our lives are a ‘gift’ and they are fundamentally good. But at some point, in our society, it happens for the first time in a serious way, when we are falling in love and our spouse is falling in love with us.
You are just overwhelmed with that sense of “Oh man, I’m so glad I was born to live to see this day.” That expectation, that promise of something deeply fulfilling. I love the scene from the movie “Shakespeare in love” the morning after our couple kiss for the very first time. The maid comes to wake up our protagonist by saying, “Wake up dear, it is a new morning.” And Gwyneth Paltrow just exudes, “Oh no, it is a whole new world.” And yes, it is… It is the deeper sense of real gratitude just sweeps over us. Our life is a gift, a good gift.
And, of course, that fundamental experience, Matt and Lisa, have just been through with the birth of Julia. That feeling of the ‘gift like character’ of how good our lives are is just overwhelming.
When one of our grandchildren was born, I just remember standing in the nursery waiting for the nurses to do their jobs so we could hold one of our grandchildren and this couple was in front of us getting robbed up, emotionally overwhelmed.
I was a little confused and they looked at me with their eyes full of tears. One of them said, “We just adopted her” and the other said, “This has been a long, long time coming.”
Such a good day. Such a blessing.
With a basic sense of reverence and awe, we take a knee in a private moment and we say something like “Bless the Lord, O my soul, Bless the Lord with all that is within me”.
Spiritually, we have to build this disposition into the fabric of our lives and come back to it.
Jews, of course, give thanks to God annually when they remember back to the founding event that gave rise to their identity as a people. In the Seder they remember that God brought them out of the darkness of slavery and into freedom. The Seder meal is simply a Thanksgiving Feast.
So one of the prayers that Jews say every Sabbath is the Modim Anachnu Lach. It begins, “We gratefully acknowledge that You are our eternal God”[i] They include this prayer because of a tradition that comes from Deuteronomy remembering the time that they had been freed from Egypt but had not yet gotten to the Promised Land.
The author of Deuteronomy has God saying to the Israelites, with anticipatory prescience, “When you get rich, do not say to yourself, ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” Don’t forget God when you have a good and prosperous life.
No, the maxim would be to remember that the benevolence of God actually precedes what you have, it undergirds your life, and it will live on after you have passed from the scene. We are here but a brief while and nothing we can take with us. If we could step back and see ourselves from God’s perspective, we would see that our spiritual mission in this life is to make the most of a very short and limited tenure, expressing gratitude throughout our lives as a kind of refrain at the joy we have about being alive.
The New Testament has a word for these times of our lives that we don’t have in English exactly. Greek has a word for regular time, ‘chronos’ from which we get the word chronometer, which measures time and chronology the sequence of events as they unfolded.
But Greeks had another word for time, ‘Kairos’ that is a fulfilled time. It means something like when everything has developed and come to fruition like the harvest that is ready after months of planting, tilling, weeding and watering. There finally comes this moment, the hour that you actually find yourself on your knee ready to ask your girlfriend to marry you. It seems like your life is just coming together in this moment.
Sometimes we say that these are the thick times of our lives, they are pregnant with meaning, rich in what life has to offer that we know we will look back on and savor. Often, they catch you up in the moment that they are actually happening. We can’t really live our lives and reflect on them at the same time. But in retrospect, we cling to these moments because they are spiritually important markers, filled with grace that have shaped our futures and given us a direction, a mandate, a people to love into being.
Walker Percy has a wonderful line in one of his novels when a middle aged man finds himself falling in love, much to his own astonishment. He thought his days of romance and fulfillment were behind him. He is surprised by his own good fortune and aren’t we all? When they embrace for the first time, Percy writes, “kissing her was like rounding a corner and heading for home.’
What a great phrase. Suddenly, it is as if the key that unlocks the door has been found and we have stumbled into our place in the universe where it all makes sense for a moment and we belong.
Hold on to that. Savor that. Call upon that in the middle of the tedium and the real crazy inanity that is coming out of Washington at the moment. Spiritually, gratitude is what is really real in your life. That is where your meaning comes from. This is where you will find your purpose. And your purpose will keep you going in season and out of season, when the skiing is smooth and down hill and when the climbing is tough and not fulfilling at all.
You can become that oddest of people, the grateful New Yorker, surrounded by plenty to bring out the jaded cynic in us all, but grateful in spite of it all because our gratitude is the spiritual nutrient that makes real meaning and fulfillment possible.
That is why we remember it here in Church. That is why you need to figure out a way, by yourself, with your spouse, to invoke your gratitude as you begin or end every day. That is why you need to develop friendships with other spiritually attuned people, like people that are around you here, that will help you remember what you are actually grateful for, what really matters in your life.
Be generous, love, heal, bless. And may you find reconciliation in yourself and with those around you. May you make a spiritual space around you for peace. Amen.