"Grateful Hearts" - Matthew 6:25-34
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin and yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?”
“Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ for it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all of these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”
My thoughts for tonight fall under the category of “Practical and Holy,” something you hear me say often around here, I hope. I was reminded again this week about how giving thanks – experiencing and expressing gratitude – is a holy, spiritual discipline for our day-to-day lives that has practical consequences, for us and for others when we get it right and when we do it well.
This “practical and holy” reminder came in the form of a news story about how gratitude is literally good for the heart. (Gratitude is Good for the Soul and Helps the Heart, NPR News) And I’m talking about the heart – not the spiritual, touchy-feely, heart-shaped part of your soul, whatever that is – but good for the muscle of your heart that beats beneath your rib-cage, tucked somewhere behind or between your lungs, doing what it does to keep your blood moving and your life, living.
The short version of the story is that Paul Mills, a neurophysiologist, at the University of California at San Diego, recruited patients with heart damage from things like high blood pressure, heart attacks, infections, even to part of a study. 186 men and women, with an average age of 66, played along. They filled out questionnaires, reporting their levels of gratitude for the stuff of their life like people, places, and things.
And the results showed that those who considered themselves to be more grateful, also proved to be less depressed, to sleep better, and to have more energy than those who landed on the lower end of the grateful scale. Even blood work on these subjects showed lower levels of indicators like inflammation and plaque for those who identified themselves as more grateful than others.
And, since these subjects already had problems with damage to their hearts, the researcher took all of this a step further and asked his people to keep a daily journal of gratitude where they were to write – sentences, paragraphs, pages, whatever – about whatever it was that made them feel grateful in their daily lives. Of course, they wrote about things like children, spouses, pets, travel, jobs, and more.
And after 2 months of this deliberate, gratitude journaling, results showed that writing about gratitude – engaging a daily practice of thanksgiving – actually lowered their heart disease risks. Inflammation decreased, heart rhythm improved, and so on.
The research doesn’t try to explain why any of this happens, exactly, but the researchers suggest all of this “thanks-giving” reduces stress for people by helping them to focus on the things they can be grateful for which, in some way, helps us cope in the face of struggles; it puts our struggles into perspective, maybe; it allows us to see a balance, at least, between those things in our lives and in the world that threaten or sadden us and those things in our lives and in the world that bless us and bring us joy or comfort or hope or peace. (You can listen to the brief, two-and-a-half minute piece from Morning Edition, here.)
“Do not worry about your life. What you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing?” Jesus asks, in the Gospel.
What I like about this little ditty from Jesus in the context of this research, and as we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, is that it puts the spiritual practice of gratitude into the context of something that is as good for me as it is for the ones – and for The One – to whom I am grateful. By being… by experiencing… by expressing…thanksgiving, I get holier, and healthier, and happier along the way. How great is that? And I’ll take it as just one of many signs of God’s abundance, in my life and for the sake of the world.
See, God doesn’t want us to give thanks and to be generous and to practice gratitude because we need another thing to add to our lists or schedules or spiritual disciplines. But isn’t that how we sell gratitude and thanksgiving in our lives? Think about the way we teach our kids to “say please and thank you.” As often as not, it’s all about being polite…as something we should do…as something we ought to do…as something that seems to be all about the other person/people to whom we’re being grateful.
But I wonder if Jesus didn’t know something the scientist in San Diego learned from his research: that being and expressing gratitude – experiencing thankfulness, like any good gift – is as good for the one who offers it up as it is for the one who receives it.
When we hear the Psalmist sing, “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations,” imagine the implications that has for a soul and a spirit in a world like the one we live in today. (Psalm 57:9)
We're hearing about the art of giving thanks in the face of struggle and hardship, not just around a table full of family and friends and turkey and pumpkin pie. And that's the kind of lifestyle, the sort of Kingdom living, Jesus us calls us toward.
In Matthew 6 – with all those words about worry – Jesus is speaking as someone who loves his people – his friends and his family and his followers – and as someone who wants the best for them.
So the thanksgiving we’re called to as followers of Jesus is meant to be more than just a discipline or a chore – certainly not just an annual extravaganza around a table overflowing with our favorite food and crowded with some of our favorite people, or not-so favorite people, as the case may be.
The thanksgiving Jesus calls us to is meant to be a daily blessing for our lives – one that does a good work through us and for us, just the same, by putting our struggles into perspective; by putting our lives into balance; by helping us to see what is good and righteous in our midst, even if we are surrounded by so much to the contrary, too.
Because our Thanksgiving, in Jesus, reminds us that we are blessed in the face of our struggles. We are made strong through our weakness. We are rich when we are poor. We are promised new life, even, in the face of death. And for that – and so much more – we are called to give thanks, with grateful hearts, that are changed for the better, when we do.