First Reading = Philippians 4:1-9
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
We are starting a new series on gratitude for the next several weeks. As I’ve been studying for this series, I found it fascinating that psychologists talk about different types of gratitude. There’s gratitude as a disposition – how grateful you are because of your personality or approach to life. There’s gratitude as a mood – fluctuations in gratitude based on the day. There’s gratitude as an emotion – how you feel in a given moment. And there’s also gratitude as a memory – reminding yourself of your blessings based on the past and present.
That’s fascinating to me, because it means all of us can invest in and cultivate gratitude in our lives. Some people have a more natural disposition toward gratitude, but all of us can grow or shrink our mood, our emotions, and especially our emotional memory.
One of the great examples of increasing gratitude comes from right here in the forests of Colorado. An atheist was walking through the woods admiring the trees – these beautiful accidents of evolution in his mind. Suddenly, a giant Black Bear sprang out behind him and charged at him hungrily. He tried to flee, but he tripped and fell. Just before the bear reached him, he cried out, “O my God!”
And time froze – totally stood still. In that frozen moment, God spoke directly to this atheist. God said, “You have denied my existence for your whole life, and yet now you call out to me. Are you ready to believe in me?”
The atheist was a man of integrity, so he said, “I would feel like a hypocrite to become a Christian now, but maybe you could make the bear a Christian instead?” God agreed.
As time resumed, the Black Bear sat down. He pressed his paws together. He bowed his head, and the bear spoke aloud. “Lord Jesus, thank you for this food I am about to receive. I am truly grateful.”
True story of increasing gratitude in the world 🙂
Gratitude is a major theme in the Bible, as you might guess. We’re starting with one of the classic passages from Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. One of the key features of the Sermon on the Mount was how Jesus widened the scope of the camera lens. Most of the religious leaders were completely focused on the external – eating according to kosher laws, following the intricate Sabbath rules, giving God exactly one tenth of their garden herbs – external actions like that. But Jesus widened the camera’s scope to include the inside. It’s not just the what, it’s also the why and the how. It’s not just following the religious rules, it’s also your internal thoughts and feelings. This passage is a collection of things Jesus said can dis-proportionally affect your heart.
Sermon Reading = Matthew 6:16-24
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
The Damage of Doom
Over the years, you have heard many stories from me about basketball. I’m solidly OK – not great – but it was my favorite sport to play for many years. But you haven’t heard as many basketball stories over the last few years. And I said it “was” my favorite sport to play. Past tense.
I didn’t always have my shot going, but I always played tough defense, rebounded, and did all the hustle plays like running down loose balls. You could count on me for that. But that has led to some injuries. Back when I lived in Austin, I was playing against some firefighters. They also hustled. So when I went for a loose ball, one of them did, too. I think my head is still ringing from that collision between his unstoppable force and my apparently movable object. But I kept playing.
Then a few years ago I had a similar loose ball collision and landed directly on my kneecap. It took a lot of rehab, but I kept playing. Then I had another loose ball collision shortly after returning to the game I love, and I landed directly on the same kneecap.
That’s when I realized some things. I realized I’m getting older. I realized my body isn’t healing quite as quickly as it used to, and yes, before you point it out, I am well aware that it’s going to keep getting worse over the years. I realized that I kept getting injured doing the same thing – hustling for loose balls. And finally, I realized I couldn’t stop myself from hustling for loose balls. It was too deeply ingrained. So I kept hurting myself by playing basketball. I couldn’t change how I was playing basketball. So to avoid permanent injury, I had to stop playing basketball.
Similarly, I used to read the comment section of articles on the Internet. And one day I realized I was always mad about what people were putting in the comments. And that’s when I had another epiphany – I don’t care what SassyMomma2344 has to say about the news! I don’t want to know what vitriol PedanticGeek1996 wants to spew about an interesting project. So I stopped reading online comments. It was quite liberating! Reading the comments made me feel angry. Not reading the comments didn’t make me angry. Winner? Me!
Playing basketball my way started to hurt my body. Reading online comments was hurting my emotional state. Do you have any habits that are damaging your body, heart, mind, or soul?
Does having your favorite news station on all day leave you feeling refreshed, or some other emotion?
Does scrolling through your favorite newspaper or online comment thread or social media feed leave you feeling uplifted, or some other emotion?
There’s actually a term for scrolling through negative content online compulsively – doomscrolling. When the world is uncertain, our brains crave information to try to control the chaos, even if the search for “the right information” actually damages our minds or emotions. But you never find satisfaction that way. It’s just like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was forced to push a bolder uphill forever. But every time he got right before the top of the hill, it rolled back down and he had to start again. Doomscrolling never leaves you fulfilled, just searching for more. It damages you.
In our text today, Jesus cautioned us against several things can damage our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls. First, he said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” So constantly checking your bank account or the stock market or your home valuation or the price of assets can damage your heart. Constantly fretting about your income or your expenses can damage your heart. I’m using the word constantly on purpose. A little bit is fine – and indeed it’s good to have fiscal responsibility. But there’s a point where worrying about it too much damages your heart.
Jesus then said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” So that means if we’re constantly watching or reading things that make us angry or bitter, we’re making our souls angry or bitter in a more permanent way.
This series is all about diminishing our input of the things that damage our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls, and increasing our gratitude in its place.
Mother of All Virtues
Gratitude is sometimes called the “mother of all virtues,” because it has been shown to increase the development of things like patience, humility, and wisdom as well. If you want another virtue in your life, start with gratitude and you’re greasing the wheels!
Jesus touched on this as well. He said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” And we already heard about the eye being the “lamp of the body.” If we treasure our reasons to be grateful, we will become more grateful. If we focus our eyes on our reasons to be grateful, we will become more grateful.
And gratitude is actually healthy for you! A study of cardiac patients found that those who have a more grateful disposition reported better sleep, less fatigue, and actually had less physical inflammation. So if you want better sleep, less fatigue, or a body with less inflammation, start with gratitude and you’re greasing the wheels for those things!
Cultivating gratitude in your life is like holding onto a giant helium balloon that lightens up everything else in your life. It’s not going to make everything sunshine and rainbows, but it will change you and give you more options when you experience more losses than wins. Gratitude is powerful! Winner? You and me!
Tools for Gratitude
And we can cultivate it in our lives with a little bit of attention and focus. It’s not just about reducing the negative, you can also focus on gratitude. It’s kind of like my twice-damaged kneecap. I can stop playing basketball, sure. But when it starts hurting on a random Tuesday I also have a set of stretches that loosen it up and make it easier to move around. So here are a few tools to decrease the negative AND cultivate gratitude.
I’ve shared before that I used to have my whole day ruined when the Texas Longhorns lost a football game. And they’ve done a lot of losing over the last decade. Not all of us can have actual eternal football sunshine and roses like Alabama fans, Blakeley. I can’t keep myself from checking the scores, because I do still care way more about the Longhorns than I care about the online comments of SassyMomma2344. But I placed some limits – some guardrails. I follow the score online for the first half and decide if I want to watch the second half. I read headlines, but I don’t read full articles about recruiting or prognosticating about the upcoming season. I still care, I still want to know how it’s going, but I placed limits.
That’s one of the tools you can use to cultivate gratitude and decrease the things that damage your body, heart, mind, and soul. If you can’t give it the boot altogether, if you do actually care, you can place a limit. Maybe that’s a 10 minute cap of the news or scrolling through your Facebook feed or trying to track down an informational rabbit trail. Maybe that’s only checking headlines instead of long articles that leave you enraged. Maybe that’s only talking to that certain family member every so often or for less time before the inevitable relational explosion. Place a limit on the negative if you still care about it. I still want my Texas Longhorn poison, but only a little bit, please!
Then there are tools for cultivating gratitude directly. One easy way is to use meals as a cue to remember to be grateful. This could be as simple as sharing highs and lows, and make sure you get the highs in there! Or it could be a little more structured – share 3 reasons to be grateful and share 1 thing that makes you not feel grateful. This is really powerful if you have kids at home. If, on the other hand, you don’t have anyone with you at meal time, see if a friend would be your gratitude text or email buddy.
The final tool I’ll mention today is similar: keep a gratitude journal. You may have a prayer request list, but do you have a gratitude list? When you write down your reasons to be grateful, it definitely increases your inner gratitude. And then you can go back and look at your list when you forget your reasons to be grateful. It’s like having a backup memory for gratitude.
Sisters and brothers, what we look at, what we think about, what we talk about, what we listen to – those things affect our hearts. Don’t take my word for it – that’s what Jesus said in our text today in his most famous sermon.
I don’t know about you, but I find no shortage of reasons to be negative or angry or disappointed. So I have to be a bit more intentional about gratitude if I don’t want to be a negative, angry, bitter person. How will you decrease the poison and instead cultivate gratitude? Gratitude is the mother of all virtues, so if you cultivate it you’re greasing the wheels to other good things, too. Winner? You and me!
As Jesus said in our text today, “if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” Gratitude is one of the lights of Christ. And you can get more of it. Will you join me in cultivating gratitude over the next several weeks? Amen.