Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Greed versus Gratitude–The Grudge Match

Thanksgiving Sunday, November 21, 2010, UU Society of Sacramento
Hymns: #67 “We Sing Now Together,” #1010 “O We Give Thanks,” #71 “In the Spring with Plow and Harrow.” Choral anthem: “Autumn Vesper.”

Prayer and Meditation
Please join me in the spirit of prayer and meditation. After I offer these words for centering we’ll take a minute of silence.
Spirit of Life and of Love, bless us now and in the days to come. Let us give thanks today for all the gifts of life, including the amazing variety of the human family, the abundance of this planet Earth, and the beauty all around us.
During a time of thanksgiving and celebration, we extend our prayers of care to those around the globe in zones of conflict, deprivation and other forms of oppression—both to those serving there and those who call such places home. We pray for courage, peace and hope for all members of the human family.
Closer to home, some of us carry our own burdens as well as reasons for joy. In this community, let us not presume that those around us are any less familiar with doubts or struggles than we may be, and let us be gentle with one another. We pray for those of us living with present needs and with fears about their future, including the need for work, financial support, shelter, food, safety or serenity. We hold in our hearts those in our congregation receiving medical care and those facing decisions about surgery and other treatments. We send healing wishes and love to all who face health challenges, and all those caring for them.
As this week’s national holiday approaches, we praise the many gestures of hospitality and fellowship around us, both in the congregation and in our local communities. Let us remember that we all can reach out, each in our own ways, and remember that even a smile and a kind greeting make a difference.
For those who will be traveling, we send wishes for safe journeys and joyful gatherings, and as little tension as possible. For times of togetherness, energy and fun, let us give thanks. For simple gifts of understanding, kindness and quiet presence, let us give thanks. For memories we treasure, and new ones now in the making, let us give thanks.
In the names of all that we call holy, so may it be. Amen.

Sermon
Ladies and Gentlemen: Step right up, get your tickets here, get a seat up close. It’s the fight of the century! In this corner, our fearsome smack-down champion—7 feet 7 and 400 pounds of massive muscle and pure force, the speedy and relentless Human Greed. And in this corner, our challenger today, the gentle and quiet contender, weighing in at a wispy 100 pounds and standing a modest 5 feet 3 inches, is that scrappy little runt with a second wind, the Attitude of Gratitude!

Step right up. Don’t miss our Sunday-before-Thanksgiving match-up! Today’s competition will make us face this question: Is giving thanks the way of weaklings? Or does gratitude smash greed into pulp like pumpkin pie?

So that’s the match-up. Which one do you think will win over our souls: greed or gratitude?

For most people, I think, there is not a once-and-for-all victory. Spiritual life is never a settled matter. For many people, greed may take a nap or go into semi-retirement, but it can leap back into action. Sometimes it jumps us when we’re not looking. Gratitude can hold off greed, gently lift the claws of greed out of our flesh. Yet gratitude has learned that it must be patient, and it must stay in practice. Gratitude never knows when we might need it to rescue us from the grip of greed. Indeed, gratitude is not really a fighter. It is a practice. Gratitude is a learned way of looking at our lives, a way of thinking and speaking about life, a way of going easy on life, so life is easier for us. Gratitude needs practice.

And, looking over at the other corner, what is it that keeps greed going? Is it fear or hurt? How is greed able to jump us? Who is its coach? Is it resentment or insecurity? The image that comes to mind is that of my hands holding on, grasping, pulling things toward me the way gamblers at a casino table pull chips toward them after a win. Grasping is the opposite of letting go.

When I’m in a supermarket or another retail store, I look for good deals. I raid the clearance rack; nothing greedy about saving a little money. Sometimes though, a price is so low that I grab more than I need—lots more. If the price is good, I buy first and ask questions later. Is this more than I can use or eat in a reasonable amount of time? I can think about that later!
I haul things up to the cash register. If there’s a line ahead of me, I might get lucky. That is, I might stop– and think: Do I want to buy everything I’ve grabbed? And I might realize: if I don’t buy every last container of that food item, or all three shirts left in my size, it could make someone else happy to be able to buy it.
If I’m lucky, I’ll put back half of what I’ve put in the cart. I’ll let go of it. I can enjoy the purchase I’ve made, and before long will forget about what I’ve left behind. When I’m grabbing and grasping, I feel rushed and needy, and I’m less aware of what’s going on around me. When I let go, I feel a bit more present, aware, peaceful. I feel grateful.

One August afternoon a few years ago, I attended a potluck dinner party at the home of a member of the church I was serving in the San Jose area. It was a gathering of members of all of the covenant groups, what we call Ministry Circles here. The host greeted me standing in her back yard, carrying a Dachshund, waist high. Schnoozer was a rust-colored plump little dog. Schnoozer was nervous about all those people. Of course I am an attentive pastor, and confident that a dog will see my loving heart, so I touched Schnoozer, and bent down to greet her, talking doggy talk, hoping for a kiss or at least a smile. Schnoozer barked and snapped. Her mouth met my nose, and it felt as if someone had punched me. I retreated to the bathroom to look in the mirror. Bright blood etched the scratches on my nose. I washed up.

I held a cloth on my nose and sat in the living room. As my student intern tended to the party guests, my hosts came to apologize. Guests came inside one by one, to sympathize and see how I was. I feared that I would need stitches, but I all I had to do was get a tetanus shot, which hurt, of course. My doctor filed a report with the city, and Schnoozer was put under house arrest for two weeks of observation. Her owners alerted their homeowners’ insurance company of my injury.

After I sent in my medical bills, a claims adjuster called me. “A dog bit you! I’m sorry,” the young man said. “I guess you never can tell when a dog is just going to attack.”
“Uh, yes,” I said, letting him think I had been charged by a German shepherd. I didn’t volunteer the fact that it was a small, nervous dog, held by its owner, and that I had gotten into its face. He said they would cover my costs and pay me for my distress and my time. The agent came over to my place, and we sat and visited. Then he offered a settlement. He said, “For your costs and the trouble this has caused you, we’d like to offer you fifteen hundred dollars.”

It’s amazing how fast the mind can work. In the same instant, I thought: “One thousand five hundred! That’s a lot of money!” and I also thought: “I wonder if I can get more!”

That’s how fast greed can move, how quickly it can show up on the scene—at least for me. I thought for a bit, and decided not to try for more. He left and came back with a check for me. I signed off that I would not sue them, which I had not even thought about in the first place.

What a lucky break, fifteen hundred dollars. Now, if you had come to me and asked: “Can I pay you money to let my dog bite you on the nose?” –I don’t think I would have taken the deal for fifteen hundred .… But now it seemed like a nice windfall.

A few days later I flew to Boston for a meeting. While there I attended a play at a not-for-profit theater that I love. After the show, I went to a computer to visit an online auction– a fundraiser for the theater company. A big item on auction was a six-day South African safari for two, with meals and lodging. Airfare and ground transportation to the lodge were not included, and you would have to buy wine for dinners. Even so, I thought the last bid was too low for such an item, only half what the thing was worth. So I added a bid of my own to help raise the level, and I bid on a few other things things.

Days later, I received notice of my winnings: a 75 dollar certificate for dinner at a Boston restaurant and a safari in South Africa. Price? Fifteen hundred dollars. I never took the trip. I couldn’t make it in the 12 months before its expiration date. That’s okay: six days of safari sounds like too much of a good thing. So there went my windfall from Schnoozer’s insurance policy.

This is more detail than I need, to show you how the mind can play tricks on you, or at least on me. For me the story shows how fast we can act on urges and impulses. We act on impulses to do the right thing, and sometimes: ouch! We act on impulses about how much we need, and what we really want, and sometimes: ugh!

I never resented the dog bite or the tetanus shot or the money that came and went. Didn’t feel sorry for myself. But I can find plenty of other things about which to sorry for myself. It’s easy. It’s an accumulated list of regrets and resentments. I can compare myself to others who seem happier or better off. I think: I don’t make enough money, I’m not famous, I haven’t accomplished anything significant. I’m short, skinny and getting old. My office is a cluttered mess.

Thoughts like this might as well be written in stone and hung around our necks. That’s how much of a burden they are. They weigh down the spirit. This is not rational—of course! And it’s no fun, but sometimes it happens, this impulse to self-doubt, this attitude of scarcity and pessimism. Such attitudes and impulses are not greed, but they are greed’s relatives. They all involve grasping and holding on.

I envision them as a curling inward, shriveling up, holding back from life. What loosens the grip is not fighting: brute force cannot pry loose greed, resentment, or hurtful self-doubt.
What loosens my grip is not fighting, but noticing. Noticing, and accepting, and letting go. What works for me is a gentle practice of giving thanks. I can’t pry a bad attitude out of my grip, but I might be able to coax it into calmness.
If I’m caught up in resentment, fear or hostility, I can stop to appreciate what’s going on in the moment. It can make a difference.

If I have the urge to gobble up my food, I can take the time first to give thanks for the meal I’m about to eat. It can make a difference. If my urge is to take seconds and thirds from the buffet table all at once at the start of the meal, so that I will make sure to get all I think I want, I can give thanks for just the first helping of food. If I give thanks for the hands that harvested the food and prepared the meal, it can make a difference. I notice the peaceful surroundings and the company around the table, and give thanks. If I can, it makes a difference. It makes life easier. It helps me go easy on life.

My gratitude list includes the good fortune of having shelter, food and rest; includes a good job with a lovable congregation, includes the trust and care of many people in my life. I give thanks for my health, too. Sooner or later my health will falter, I expect, but I hope as that happens I still can practice gratitude for the blessings of my life.

In the morning on most days, I try to sit on a cushion to meditate. Before I do, I look out the window at the sky or the trees blowing in the wind, and give a prayer of thanks. I do this in faith that it makes a difference for my spirit. I trust that it makes life easier because it helps me go easier on life.

Of course, the gray skies and chilly rain of recent mornings do not evoke my thanks automatically. That’s why I need to practice. I practice offering my gratitude for the gift of a new day, and for the simple gifts I can call to mind and speak at that moment.

However you might find peace and spiritual freedom, however you might bring more ease to life, I wish for you and for all of us, a sense of ease and gratitude.
I wish for us, and for all people, all good reasons for gratitude, good reasons for giving thanks. So may it be. Blessed be.

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