28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – October 13, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98:1-4; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
Giving thanks is something nice. We are taught to say thank you from the time we are very young. We know that saying “thanks” is a good thing to do. And that’s true. Gratitude is nice and a good thing to do. But gratitude is so much more than that. Gratitude is necessary. And I would even argue that gratitude is the fundamental way of living life.
At each and every mass, we hear those familiar words. “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” “Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them up to the Lord.” “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is right and just.” In Spanish, interestingly enough, we respond, “It is just and necessary.” It is just, it is appropriate. But even more than that, it is necessary. “It is just and necessary.” And then the priest continues, “It is truly right and just [just and necessary], always and everywhere to give you thanks, Father.” So giving thanks is necessary, and the necessary thing to do is to always give thanks to God!
Gratitude is not just something good or something nice. Gratitude is necessary. Gratitude is the fundamental way of living life. Why? Because it is gratitude that opens our heart, that breaks down our walls, and that turns us toward the Giver. Without gratitude, we become closed in on ourselves, trapped in our own solitude, and everything becomes boring and flat.
Here’s the issue: a lot of us think of gratitude as repayment. And that’s not right. Gratitude can easily be the thing we do because we feel indebted to the person who gave us a gift, so we think that we have to say “thank you” as a sort of repayment. Some of us even feel the need to get the person a gift in return! We are so uncomfortable with someone giving us a gift, of feeling indebted to another, that we have to do something in return. And we call that gratitude. The problem is that is not gratitude!
I’m a big fan of The Office, probably my favorite show. (I mean, so many life lessons learned there.) And there is this episode of The Office where the character Dwight brings everyone bagels. And the character Andy has this thing where he has to repay everyone who gives him a gift. Thank you cards, returning favors, you name it. So there is this long back and forth between them.
The point being, gratitude takes the form of repayment—and that’s not gratitude. When we think gratitude is necessary because we have to repay someone, we’re missing the point.
It is like Naaman in our first reading. After he receives this gift of healing, he feels the need to give a gift in return. His gratitude is just repayment. Wrong.
Now, here’s the thing: when we’re young, it is easy to recognize gifts. We recognize everything as given to us. When we’re young, we know that we didn’t do anything, we didn’t deserve anything, and that everything is provided for us. And the way a child expresses gratitude is not by walking around saying, “Thank you,” no. A child expresses gratitude by saying, “Wow.” Have you ever noticed that? A child lives his life in wonder! Everything is new! Everything is a gift! For example, take Buddy the Elf…
But very very quickly we start to be pulled out of this wonder. You get a gift and you say, “Wow!” But then your mom immediately tells you, “Go say ‘thank you!’” Or, a child sees an airplane for the first time, but then you quickly explain how planes work and how there are a lot of planes and how it’s not that cool. Older siblings are the best at this! Their younger siblings are in awe of the world, they see everything as a gift, as something they didn’t make or deserve—but then their older and more cynical siblings tell them how dumb they are for being in awe at something.
And so slowly but surely, we begin to resist gratitude because we resist the idea that life, all of life, is a gift. We resist that life is gift, and so we resist gratitude. Gratitude isn’t necessary, because nothing has been given to us; that’s what we think.
a) All of a sudden we take things for granted. We stop being grateful for things, we just take them for granted. And usually, we don’t realize this until they’re gone. For example, when I was in college I played rugby. And one time I hurt my shoulder. Well, all of a sudden I couldn’t play cello! And that may not seem like a lot, but that scared me. I thought that I might never be able to play cello again! And so all of a sudden, I became very grateful for the ability to play cello. I had a newfound wonder for the fact that I could play cello at all. So yeah, we can easily take things for granted, and so we lose a sense of gratitude.
b) Another thing. When we don’t see life as a gift we begin to take things for granted, but we also become entitled to everything, everything is owed to us. I mean, for example, there is so much technology, and we feel like we deserve it. Have you ever seen someone freak out when their phone is slow, or it is taking ten second to download instead of five? Give it a second! “I was on an airplane, and there was high-speed internet on the airplane. It was brand new, [first time ever]. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, ‘Open up your laptop, [pull out your phones], you [have WiFi]. And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips. It’s amazing! I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down, and they apologize, ‘The internet is not working.’ And the guy next to me goes, ‘This is [ridiculous]!’ Like, how quickly the world owed him something that he knew existed only ten second ago!” Or even flying itself! When people get back from a flight they tell you all the things that went wrong, all the inconveniences they had. And I often want to say, “Oh, what happened? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? Did you take part in the miracle of human flight? You’re flying!” But no! We feel like we deserve this, like we’re entitled to it, the world owes us this (c.f., Louis C.K.).
c) But the worst, the worst, is that when we don’t see life as a gift, eventually, we just become indifferent. Life is life. Life is boring. Life is pointless. “Look! We sent a man to the moon!” Who cares. The opposite of gratitude is not being ungrateful. The opposite of gratitude is indifference, not caring. We see this all the time. Parents, you work so hard to give your children so much: house, clothes, food, school. But all you hear is complaining. Instead of waking up and your child saying, “Wow! I have a house and clothes and food!”—instead it’s just indifference, they don’t even care. Or worse, they only complain about what they don’t have. They need to have more clothes, they need a new phone, they need this. But even when they get the new phone or clothes, one week later they’re back to life being boring and pointless.
And maybe you’re stuck here. Maybe for you, life is boring and pointless. Maybe, life is just difficult and you don’t feel like you are getting what you deserve. Maybe you just take things for granted. But the way out of this hole is to go back to the fundamentals, to live a life of gratitude. Gratitude is necessary.
There is an experiment that was done about gratitude, and I want you to do it as well.
I want you to close your eyes. Now, think of a person that has been very influential in your life, someone who did something really amazing or important for you. Now I want you to think about—or when you have time, write down—why this person is so important. When you go home, take fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, and hour, and write this all down. And this would be good. But I want you to do one more thing. After you write that down, I want you to pick up the phone, call that person, and read what you wrote to them. It’s scary, I know.
But the people that completed this experiment were much happier, more joyful. Life took on a new dimension, life was fuller and richer. The cycle was broken. Gratitude opened their heart, broke down their walls, turned them toward the giver. Gratitude is an action, it is a turning toward the giver. And little by little, we begin to break out of the bunker of ourselves, we are no longer trapped in our own solitude, and life isn’t so boring and pointless.
Life, our lives, existence, everything is a gift! Everything has been given to us by the Lord! The Lord has given us himself, totally; so much so that we receive him in the Eucharist. We may be trapped in taking things for granted, or entitlement, or even indifference. But each and every time we turn toward the giver, every time we seek to live our lives filled with wonder—when life is lived in constant gratitude, we begin to experience the Kingdom, salvation, here and now. Gratitude is a nice thing, it is good. But gratitude is more than that. Gratitude is necessary, always.