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Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: “What Do You Say?”
Psalm 66: 1, 7–8
My nephew Nick, his wife Johnelle, and their almost-two-year-old daughter Adara are visiting us this week. And I have to say it. My little goddaughter is utterly charming. She’s is at that age when she’s soaking in everything about what this world is, how we get what we want, and especially how we use words to connect.
Picture this typical scene, which we all know so well. Johnelle holds out a cookie to her little daughter. As Adara’s face lights up, and the treat lands in her outstretched hands, her mother asks, “What do you say?” And in a delighted, high voice she replies, “Thank you!” And their eyes dance, and they both smile—and it’s hard to tell who got the bigger treat in this exchange.
Multiply that response by the number of people standing by. Seeing a little child say “thank you” can be an emotional rush. Why is that?
Well, over the past decade, a whole new field of scientific research about gratitude has sprung up to investigate that question. Psychologists, sociologists, behavioral scientists, neuroscientists—theorists and researchers at top universities and labs worldwide—are studying the science and practice of gratitude.
Surprising? This topic is as old as religion itself. Spiritual leaders of all faiths—in our time, the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindahl-Rast—have persistently, repeatedly, called attention to the way gratefulness can transform our perspective on life.
So why has this taken off as a scientific field that’s not only hot—but taken seriously? Well, consciousness research and cognitive neuroscience have sparked new questions. And there’s money behind this new field. The “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” project at UC Davis and Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center just handed out $3 million in research grants funded by the Templeton Foundation. There’s money—and there are data making this message come alive in the twenty-first century.
It turns out, we can measure how gratitude is good for us. It’s good for our bodies: grateful people have 10% fewer stress-related illnesses, stronger immune systems, blood pressure that’s lower by 12%, better physical fitness. Gratitude can boost feelings of optimism, pleasure, and enthusiasm. And those overall positive emotions can add up to 7 years to our lives. Grateful people even sleep better!
Funders backing this research also recognize that the practice of gratefulness can not only improve us individually, but also bring about large social change. Data show that grateful people live in a way that leads to the kind of society human beings long for. More compassion, forgiveness, and altruism. Less exploitation, oppression, and violence.
So it’s a good investment in a better world. And when this message comes through the voice of science, it speaks louder than religion does in our culture.
So let me share a bit of this research and then reconnect it to our religion. To our Gospel story of the grateful leper. To St. Patrick’s and our everyday lives. Because as dense as this science can get, it truly is as simple and profound as the mother, the toddler, and the cookie.
Robert Emmons, perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, defines it in two parts. First, gratitude is “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” This means we wake up to a new attitude: we focus on what is positive in our life and make a conscious effort to savor it.
Granted, this takes more than a one-time realization. Research shows we have to practice this awareness in the mix of life’s ups and downs—meditating, writing gratitude journals (Oprah made this one very popular), sending letters of thanks, making a vow to pay attention to what’s right in our lives, small and large, from a hot cup of coffee to the sun coming up.
And this practice builds resiliency. Over the past decade, hundreds of studies have documented that the social, physical, and psychological benefits of gratitude are felt especially by people going through their hardest times: by elderly people confronting death, women with breast cancer, couples going through divorce, vets coping with PTSD.
We feel better, and cope better, when we focus on the good. This doesn’t mean we deny what’s difficult in our lives; we just don’t let it block out our awareness of all that is positive.
But this good feeling alone, the researchers say, is still closer to joy than to gratitude. We can feel happy about our lives—yet also feel entitled to that happiness, without acknowledging a source of goodness outside ourselves. This is where the second part of Emmons’ definition comes in, the part that is teaching us today through the story of Jesus and the lepers.
Emmons says, if we’re grateful, “we acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers—give us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” We recognize this goodness as coming from outside ourselves. We not only experience a positive emotion of joy—we express that feeling to the source of our gifts.
It’s this expression—saying the thank you, returning the support, lifting up the prayer—that truly transforms us and helps us build the most important relationships in our lives. Gratitude is not only good for our personal well-being. At heart, it’s what ties us together. At heart, it’s what makes our connections to fellow humans and to God flourish.
A top researcher named Sara Algoe has examined this in what she calls the “Find-Remind-Bind” theory. When we receive a gift, we find a valuable partner we want to be in relationship with, or, if we already know that person, we’re reminded of that benefactor’s kindness. Then our grateful response binds us to that benefactor—maybe not through a reciprocal gift, but through heartfelt thanks.
“Find-Remind-Bind.” The more we do this, the stronger and healthier the relationship becomes with that giver of gifts. And research again shows that high-quality relationships are essential for health, well-being, and even longevity.
Let’s leave the scientists and go back to the ten lepers and Jesus. Of course, nine of the lepers were thrilled that Jesus had turned their lives around with his healing. As they walked back to town to get the priests’ certification that they had been cleansed, they saw that their dread disease had been lifted. More than that, they knew this was the end of their exile from society. Of course, they experienced Part 1 of gratitude: an affirmation of the astonishing gift they had received. Life was now good.
But only the tenth leper made it to Part 2: to express gratitude for that goodness by returning to Jesus. A double outsider, a Samaritan and a leper, this man was the only one who fully reconnected with God and with society after his terrible life of exclusion. What incredible renewal and resilience! The Samaritan stopped in his moment of joy.
Acting out the three-step theory, he found Jesus and thanked him wildly and loudly as his benefactor. In his prayers of gratitude, he reminded everyone present—disciples and witnesses—of God’s power as the Source of goodness greater than all. And he bound himself into a new relationship with God through this prayer of gratitude, an act that Jesus says fully transformed him: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
What an electric moment. And I guarantee you that everyone standing by got an emotional rush too. Because as research and our own experience tell us, heartfelt expressions of gratitude powerfully strengthen friendships, partnerships, marriages, families, communities—transforming the way we live together on earth.
So, as people listening to both science and Jesus in today’s world, let’s experiment with the two parts of gratitude during our six-week Stewardship season that starts today. Like the nine lepers who became fully aware of their healing, let’s notice and affirm the little and large miracles in our lives.
But like the tenth, let’s also express our gratitude for these many gifts in prayer, word, and deed—strengthening our relationship to God, to others, to our church community doing God’s work. This expression means prayers of thanks, acts of generosity, and pledges of support to St. Patrick’s so that together we can become a voice of joy and praise and compassion in our community that’s as loud as a healed leper.
Let’s start with the affirmation of our psalmist who names the Source of all that is good: “Be joyful in God, all you lands; sing the glory of his Name; sing the glory of his praise. Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard; Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.”
Let’s be as grateful to God as little Adara receiving that cookie. “What do you say?” “Thank you.” Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
October 13, 2013
 David Steindahl-Rast, “Is Gratitude the Path to a Better World?” [http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_gratitude_the_path_to_better_world]
 Robert Emmons in “What Is Gratitude?” [http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/gratitude/definition]
 Sara B. Algoe, “Find, Remind, and Bind: The Functions of Gratitude in Everyday Relationships,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6/6 (2012): 455–69.