Last week, I joined fifteen other pilgrims in the pilgrimage of a lifetime. We made our way through the minsters, cathedrals, and colleges of England, hearing Evensong and Choral Mass, saying prayers, lighting candles, learning our history, discovering our present, and reveling in our walk with God. You can see the daily reflections originally posted on Hickory Neck Church‘s Facebook page reprinted on this blog. In the meantime, I am grateful this week for this incredible group of people who opened up new spiritual discoveries for my own journey!
The last two weeks have been marked with rituals of thanksgiving: a community ecumenical Thanksgiving service at the local Roman Catholic Church, Holy Eucharist on Thanksgiving Day at Hickory Neck, dinner and visiting with my dad, and, today, offering the benediction at the 400th anniversary of the first official English Thanksgiving in North America. The rituals have all been tremendous blessings and ways to center and ground life in gratitude, a practice that can sometimes fall to the wayside in the busyness of life.
However, what has struck me about this season of gratitude is how imperfect it has been. Often when we think of Thanksgiving Day, we immediately picture Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of the perfect meal. But as I checked in with people and as I watched those around me, I realized nothing about this season of thanksgiving has been perfect. I had parishioners who just welcomed a baby a few days before Thanksgiving Day and had resigned themselves to having Chinese so that no one would have to cook or stress about taking the newborn out. I heard stories of family drama over the menu for the day. My own family was coming off a few hospitalizations so resigned ourselves to dinner out – which then got foiled by a two-hour wait, with a wait staff that looked like they wanted to be home with their own families. The music and collaboration of clergy was beautiful last week, but we hold in tension our denominational differences. Even the anniversary celebration today is consciously honoring the ways in which the histories of American Indians, African-Americans, and English-Americans bring a shadow over our celebration.
As I have been pondering this imperfection, this disconnect between our ideal of perfected thanksgiving rituals and the reality of the messiness of life, I have actually found deep spiritual comfort. Nothing about our lives is perfect. We are all sinners, trying to be better versions of ourselves. Even our offering of thanksgiving is imperfect. But the love of God is perfect. God sees our messiness and loves us anyway. God sees the ways we hurt each other, the ways we argue, the ways we are rude or unkind, the ways that we cannot always honor our rituals, and God loves us anyway. In fact, I sometimes wonder if God doesn’t prefer our imperfection, for in confessing our imperfection, we are fully honest, fully vulnerable, and fully trusting of God. We bring our real selves to God, and it is there that we give the most heartfelt thanksgiving. We feel, know, and experience God most powerfully in those moments of imperfection.
This week, I invite you to continue your practice of gratitude with God and one another. In our thanksgiving, we are not just thanking one another for appearance’s sake, but we are thanking one another in fullness, in love, and in generosity. Use this week to find people to thank – for the big things and the very tiny things. My guess is we may all start working toward the perfection of God’s love with each act of thanksgiving.
My husband and I experience our birthdays very differently. He is perfectly happy to have a quiet, reserved day, wanting to be acknowledged, but not wanting a lot of attention on him. I, on the other hand, love have a ton of attention on my birthday – songs, cake, cheers, you name it. So when my daughter insisted I wear a “It’s My Birthday!” sash yesterday, I only hesitated for a second. What was funny about the sash was the experience I had wearing it. The funniest reactions were probably at the bus stop. I think most of the kids must have parents more like my husband as they seemed surprised I was celebrating. But one kid in particular asked me, “So are you having a big party with your friends tonight?” When I replied I was not, her response was, “Yeah, I guess you’re too old, huh?”
It’s funny how a six-year old can make you question your life. I was suddenly wondering, “Should I have assembled a party? Should I have found other big ways to celebrate?” But as the evening closed yesterday, I reflected on what my day of celebration entailed: a breakfast, including eggs and coffee, my children proudly made by themselves; a lunch in the school cafeteria with my older daughter and her friends; an evening watching my younger daughter’s ballet class – an activity I cherished growing up; a surprise dinner by my husband, fully ready upon our return home; not to mention cards, cupcakes, and endless texts, calls, and social media messages. It wasn’t a party in the traditional sense, but it did feel like wonderful day of celebrating life – my life here and now.
In the last couple of weeks, I have administered last rites, conducted a funeral, spent several days with my dad who was in the hospital, talked to families dealing with crisis, consoled the bereaved, baptized a baby, and heard people’s life stories for the first time. When you are that deep in the reality of life, parties or treats no longer seem necessary. What suddenly becomes important are the ultimate things of life – breath, family, loved ones, intimacy, little life moments.
To help me keep celebrating, I invite you this week, to slow down and look at the blessings all around you. I know some of you are hurting, some of you are just trying to get by, and some of you don’t have that many stressors right now. Wherever you are, take a moment today to give thanks to God for all your bountiful blessings – big and very small. Each breath, each day, each year is a gift. Tell me where you are feeling grateful. I’d like to celebrate with you!
I don’t know about you, but I find my spiritual life has hills and valleys. There are times when I feel especially close to God, and that closeness leads to a sense of overflowing gratitude. And there are times when I fill up the extra space in my life with everything but God. In those valleys, I sometimes feel God is far away – mostly because that is where I pushed God. In those times, gratitude is often the last thing I experience. Instead, I can be irritable and short-tempered.
In order to stay out of those valleys of self-absorption, I have found I need intentional practices of gratitude. Celebrating Thanksgiving Day tomorrow helps put most of us in a spirit of gratitude (assuming we are not in a spiral of menacing traveling conditions, dread about time with challenging family members, or anxiety about food preparations). But this year, I have found that I am coming into Thanksgiving Day with a full cup. I am working on a stack of thank you notes for the generous pledges our parishioners have made to our church; the generosity of our parishioners makes writing the notes a joy. Our church has been negotiating a new partnership which looks like may come to fruition; it is the culmination of a lot of dreams, most of which began before my arrival, and the promise of fulfillment is at times overwhelming. And our church has two different services for Thanksgiving: one with our ecumenical brothers and sisters, and a mass on Thanksgiving Day; both are occasions for deep joy and gratitude.
The thing about these events and experiences is they cultivate in me a spirit of gratitude. When my spirit is primed for thanksgiving, every time I take a walk or hop in my car, I find a breathtaking tree that has hit its peak fall color. When my spirit is primed for thanksgiving, the little things my family does – an unprompted “thank you,” a cleaning up of the kitchen, a spontaneous hug – all make my heart warmed. When my spirit is primed for thanksgiving, I see the daily tasks of others that go unnoticed: the county worker clearing a dead animal from the street, the childcare provider who sees my child being extra clingy and swoops her up in a big, distracting hug, or the administrator who has already thought about the things on my mind and started the projects I need accomplished.
If your spirit has not been primed, there is still time. Perhaps you can start with tomorrow’s celebration, looking for glimpses of hope and blessing throughout your day (even in the midst of family drama, I promise you can find those glimpses!). But do not let the thanksgiving end there. Find ways to enrich your spirit each day: whether it is putting on lenses of gratitude, taking up a tangible practice, or surrounding yourself with others who are naturally inclined toward an attitude of gratitude. My suspicion is you will find your cup running over soon, and that overflow can be a blessing to others!
I am always amused when I discover the Holy Spirit at work because the discovery usually happens when I am in the thick of executing something I thought I had planned myself. Ideas come to me, I test out the idea with others, I do the planning to implement the idea – basically the whole process involves a great deal of self-direction. But when an idea really blows me away is when the idea takes off in even better ways than I planned. When I finally realize how inspired the idea is, I realize that the idea could not have possibly come from me alone. The only way those incredible moments of confluence occur is through the Holy Spirit.
I had one of those moments this week. On Sunday we kicked off our stewardship campaign entitled “Journey to Generosity.” All sorts of activities are a part of that campaign: inspirational materials from our Stewardship Committee explaining the campaign, reflections from fellow parishioners, Parish Parties, sermons from the clergy, and meditations from national church leaders. All of those experiences would be enough to situate us in a place of profound gratitude. But then other things started happening.
The first has been attending our adult formation series. The series is about evangelism, so I had expected our energies to be focused on the work of spreading the good news. But the first sentence from the book we are using says, “Evangelism is your natural expression of gratitude for God’s goodness.”[i] While I thought our conversations about gratitude and generosity would be limited to stewardship, here gratitude was permeating other areas of church life. The second thing that happened was welcoming the first of three babies due this month at church. As I held the first one yesterday, especially after a rough twenty-four hours of mourning another massive shooting in Las Vegas, I looked at that tiny child and felt a profound sense of gratitude for the gift of life.
Our “inspired” idea to talk and pray about our Journey to Generosity has already morphed into something much bigger. I find myself being grateful not just for the generosity of parishioners who are passionate about our church and support its work through financial giving. I am also grateful for a community of people who are so enthusiastic about their gratitude that they want to go out and share the good news with others. I am grateful for a church community so generous in spirit that they can take tragedy and find rays of light and hope all around. I am grateful for a community whose gratitude is so powerful that they have a vision of making our community a better place: through our Fall Festival, through our visioning work with our Vestry, and through daily service to others. What seemed like a catchy campaign slogan has actually been naming a way of life at Hickory Neck: a life rooted in gratitude and generosity. Thank you for letting me be a part of this journey with you all. You inspire me every day and you transform my relationship with God every week. God bless you on your journey to generosity!
[i] David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism (New York: Church Publishing, 2008), 1.
This week in Discovery Class, we did a review of Holy Scripture. We talked about how many years writing the Bible took, the content in each section, the types of literature we find in scripture, and what scripture reveals about us as God’s people. Our homework was to study today’s gospel lesson, being sure to read the text immediately before and after the text we hear today as a way of helping us interpret the passage. That tip was especially telling in today’s Old and New Testament lessons
In our lesson from Exodus last Sunday, we heard the story of the parting of the Sea of Reeds. We heard of that dramatic moment where God allows the Israelites to pass through on dry land, but destroys the Egyptians as the waters return. The last line in last week’s lesson from Exodus is, “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” Today, the first sentence from our Exodus reading is, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” Israel’s groaning and complaining today are much more grievous when we read the great heights of their praise and faithfulness last week.
Likewise, in our gospel lesson today, we hear the familiar story of the generous landowner, who gives the same wage to those who work an hour and those who work all day in the broiling sun. We can read this passage, and criticize the envious, hardworking laborers for their lack of gratitude. But the power of the story is heightened when we realize immediately before Jesus’ parable, Peter interrupts Jesus’ teaching and basically says, “But what about us? We left everything behind and we have been following you. What’s in it for us?” And right after Jesus’ parable, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus and basically says, “Listen, if it’s not too much trouble, can my boys sit at your right and left hand in the kingdom?” So, when Jesus says to Peter, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” and when the landowner says to the workers, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” what do you think Jesus is trying to address?[i]
I do not know about you, but both of these texts have left me pretty uncomfortable this week. Watching the Israelites go from faithful, obedient, loyal followers, to whiny, unappreciative, complaining messes hits a little too close to home. Admittedly, part of me cringes at this text because we have been hammering home the importance of gratitude with our own children. No sooner is the ice cream cone finished before the complaint comes that we never do anything nice for them. But as much as we fuss at them, we know the same is true for us. We are great at praise and thanksgiving to God – when things are going well. When seas are parting, and enemies are defeated, our God is awesome. But when we cannot seem to make ends meet, when our loved one is sick again, or when our relationships are falling apart, gratitude is the last thing on our lips. We find ourselves in what one scholar calls the “spiritual wilderness of ingratitude.”[ii] We cringe at these readings because we are no more masters at gratitude than our children are.
What both of these lessons do, ever so brutally, is lure us in with stories about abundant, underserved generosity, and put under a microscope our deeply buried discomfort with abundant, underserved generosity. Part of the reason we are uncomfortable is because God’s generosity often bumps up against our notions of fairness.[iii] I do not know if we understand the concept of fairness innately or if we are taught fairness by our community, but somewhere along the line, we learn the concept of fairness and apply the concept with exacting scrutiny. I remember when I was a child and wanted a treat, my dad would make my brother and me share the treat. One child was allowed to split the treat in half, but the other child got to pick which half he or she wanted. You can imagine how precise my cuts became when looking at that cookie.
But our notions of fairness evolve over time. One could take that same cookie and give a slightly larger half to the older child since they are bigger. Or one could take that same cookie and give the slightly larger half to the child who was better-behaved. Or one could give the larger half to the one who was physically weaker and needed more nourishment. There are all sorts of ways to determine fairness. But God’s measure, in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures seems to be that everyone receives God’s generosity despite worth or effort – or even the showing of gratitude.
Take our lesson from Exodus. The people have clearly approached mutiny. Their love for God is buried in their physical hunger and their self-centered greed. But instead of punishing the Israelites, God lavishes them with all they need. God gives them bread every day and meat every night. In fact, God even gives them a double portion on the eve of the Sabbath so that they can observe the Sabbath without having to work for their food. The feast is not a rich feast of wines and marrow, but their feast is gloriously generous and enough.
The same is true in Jesus’ parable. Yes, the landowner has a weird way of putting the day-long workers in the awkward position of watching his generosity, but ultimately, the landowner gives everyone enough. He gives the wage he promised to the day-long workers – a wage that will fill them and their families for days.[iv] But he also gives the same wage to the hour-long workers. Sure, they did not deserve the wage, but the same wage that feeds the other workers feeds them too. The landowner is gloriously generous and gives enough.[v]
I have been wondering all week where these texts leave us: maybe a bit guilty, perhaps a bit convicted, and definitely “last” in the pecking order Jesus describes. But what I realized this week is both in Exodus and in Jesus’ parable, perhaps being last is not all that bad. You see, Jesus does not say, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be ejected.” No, Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” So even on our worst Israelite days, when we are moaning and complaining about the very God who miraculously saved us, or even on our worst vineyard days, when we are complaining about an unfair, albeit generous, owner, we are still not ejected. We are not taken out of God’s generosity; we are not stripped of our blessing. We may be last, but we still have enough. Our abundantly generous God takes care of us when we deserve God’s care and when we do not. Our abundantly generous God gives us enough when we think God’s generosity is fair and when we do not. Our abundantly generous God loves us whether we embrace God’s generosity or we do not.
I cannot promise we will ever get in line with God’s generosity. I am not sure we will ever be cured of our sense of fairness or even our ill-conceived notions that we could earn God’s generosity. But what I can tell you is that we are not alone. Our people thousands of years ago did not master God’s generosity. The disciples two thousand years ago did not master Christ’s generosity. And I suspect we will not either. But every week, we try. Every week we continue on our journey toward generosity – seeing God’s generosity in ourselves and others – being inspired to try again. I am not sure we will ever be first in line. But the good news is we get to stay in line – which means there is always room to try again. Our generous God will make sure we have enough until then. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 100-102.
[ii] Deborah A. Block, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 2.
[iii] Taylor, 103.
[iv] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 224.
[v] Block, 4.
For those of you who know me well (or read this blog each fall), you know that I love the changing of the leaves during Fall. Fall is my favorite season of the year – the cooler weather, the crunch of leaves, and the brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges that take your breath away. The leaves turned later than usual this year in Virginia, so I have had time to enjoy their beautiful journey until now. Just this week, a light wind was blowing, and a tree was raining down yellow leaves like a flower girl before the bride. Some people like to stop and smell the roses. I like to stop and revel in the beauty of God’s changing leaves.
Watching and being fed spiritually by that beauty this year led us to creating a Thanksgiving Tree at Youth Group this past Sunday. We took a poster with a bare tree, and then used our post-it notes to cover the tree with things for which we are grateful. We had five categories, including family, relationships, creation, God, and school/work. I challenged the group to write down three things in each category – not just a one-word response, but an explanation of their gratitude. Perhaps 15 notes seemed like overkill to the young adults, but what I was hoping was that the more they thought about the blessings in their lives, the less space the negative would have in their hearts and minds.
That is my prayer for each of you this week as we head into Thanksgiving celebrations. Though we may have Normal Rockwell images of Thanksgiving Day meals in our minds, and although some of you may actually get that experience, the reality of most meals, especially if spent with family, is that they will include a fair share of conflict. If you are lucky to avoid talking about politics, some other family drama will surely emerge. Expecting that conflict, I invite you to start praying your thanksgivings. If your crazy family promises to bring angst, start praying now about the things that bring you joy about each member of your family. You may have to dig deep (Lord knows your uncle’s jokes can drive you insane – but maybe you can thank God for predictability with your uncle or for the knowing glances of your cousins). But my guess is that the more you start looking at your family or friends with the eyes of gratitude, there will be a lot more space in your heart and mind for blessings than curses.
If you can master that practice of thanksgiving prayers throughout one of the more stressful days of the year, perhaps you can carry that prayer practice through the next month. As you hone that spiritual discipline for the next month, you may find it becomes easier to carry it into the next year. Given our current climate, we are going to need all the space we can get for blessings.
When I learned we would be gathering for worship as ecumenical brothers and sisters to celebrate a service of Thanksgiving, I could not have been happier. But when I realized we would be reading from the book of Ruth, I was thrilled! Ruth has always held a special place in my heart. This woman, a complete stranger to our faith, teaches us more about faithful living than most of our ancestors. She marries a foreigner, quickly becoming a widow with no support, following her widowed mother-in-law to a foreign land. In her abandonment, she pledges allegiance to a God who in many ways has felt absent. And when they return the foreign land of Bread, and she sees Naomi may not be able to support her, she takes it upon herself to go sweat in the fields, and secure them a livelihood. She even eventually permanently ensures their security by somewhat scandalously approaching Boaz for not only food, but marriage, and progeny. Ruth puts all others before herself, and she is faithful to God and her family. If anyone is a beacon of living into the Great Commandment to love neighbor as self, Ruth is that beacon of light.
But the more I thought about our text today, the more I realized that despite the fact that I love Ruth, we gathered here today are more like Boaz. You see, we are people of privilege and power. Though we can certainly name countless people who may have more wealth and influence than we do, most of us know where our next meal is coming from, have a roof over our heads, and have our basic needs met. Some of us are even comfortable enough to enjoy much more than our basic needs. In that way, we are much more like Boaz, a man with power and influence, who can use that power for good or for evil.
Boaz has little obligation to Ruth, the foreigner. He knows she is connected to Naomi, making her adopted family, but allowing her to glean with the other gleaners would have been enough. He didn’t have to give her tips about how to be safe from the men, give her access to drinking water, feed her his bread at mealtime, and tell his men to make sure she got extra grain to glean. He did not have to say yes when she asked for his help in taking her in. He did not have to negotiate with the next-of-kin to have her hand. Boaz takes God’s command to love neighbor beyond what anyone would expect.
I have been thinking about Boaz as I have been thinking about our ministry together. Though you may not know about each case, each of the clergy here work with families in need through the use of discretionary or alms funds. Each church here has ministries that we support – whether food pantries, homeless shelters, elder care, medical clinics, or assistance with basic needs like back-to-school supplies, clothing drives, or holiday support. And all of us collectively have taken that a step further and agreed to help provide more food assistance by starting up a local food distribution outlet through our partners at House of Mercy. But just because we do that work does not mean that we do that work like Boaz.
My husband is a social worker in Richmond and he was recently telling me about a client’s experience with a church. The client reached out to a church for assistance, and instead of pastorally working with the client, the church representative gave them a hard time, wanting to know what poor decisions the client had made that brought them to the church doors. Now, I know we all screen the clients we help. We have to be smart about how we help those in need. But that client experienced a loss of dignity at that church that Boaz never exerts. In fact, Boaz knows how degrading poverty can be. He sees Ruth, and knows simply by her gender and foreignness that she is at risk for assault and manipulation. And so, not only does he help her, but he looks at all those around him and hold them accountable for caring for the disadvantaged too. He does not act alone in his mercy – he makes his whole community merciful.
As we head into a holiday marked for Thanksgiving, the church invites us to look at our ancestors for the best ways to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commandment. Want to know how to love God and our neighbors? Look at our sister Ruth. Want to know how to show love, dignity, and compassion? Look at our brother Boaz. Though many of us spend this time of year reflecting on what we have to be grateful for, the church invites us also to use this time as a time of action. Our gratitude is not passive. Our gratitude is active – a call to action to love God and love neighbor. I know many families who have a tradition of going around the Thanksgiving table, enumerating those things for which they are grateful. Perhaps this year, our families can also enumerate what we are going to do in response to those things for which we are grateful. Our ancestors, our Savior, and our faith communities are here to embolden us in that response. Thanks be to God!
In honor of Thanksgiving Day at the end of the month, a trend has developed that uses the entire month of November as a month of gratitude. The practice has several forms: journaling about at least five things for which you are grateful every day; posting daily on Facebook a note of gratitude; or using Instagram or other outlets to post a daily photo of something for which you are grateful. The practice is quite spiritually based. I have had countless spiritual directors who have encouraged me to use gratitude as a discipline for my prayer life – using the end of the day to give thanks for things in life as opposed to our natural tendency to look back at the day and make mental note of all the things that went unaccomplished or were hurtful to ourselves or others.
This past Sunday we gathered our pledges for the upcoming calendar year. Each year in the Episcopal Church, parishioners are asked to fill out a pledge card, letting the Vestry, or governing board, know how much income can be expected so they can formulate a budget. The pledge cards certainly serve a practical purpose. But their use can also serve a deep spiritual purpose. As I blessed three different baskets of pledge cards on Sunday, I had the thought that each of those baskets were like piles of thank you notes to God – a way of articulating how blessed we are and how grateful we are for the resources we have and our ability to share and support ministry with those resources. Each card held a story – a story of someone who feels connected to and passionate about Hickory Neck, who has been nurtured and challenged in this place, who has a unique life story, and who has encountered Christ here. As I thought of the conversations, prayers, and reflections those cards represented, I could not help but smile. There is something quite beautiful in witnessing the intimate, vulnerable exchange between God and parishioner. I felt privileged to bless that sacred act.
In the coming weeks, I have the privilege of entering into that sacred space of thanksgiving and gratitude. I have the task of thanking each pledging member. When the Stewardship Committee and I first talked about the campaign, we joked about whether my hand would be able to survive writing so many notes. There may be times my hand actually does get sore, but so far, I am nothing but grateful to be writing those notes. I have found that writing them has been a tremendous time of blessing – an opportunity for me to pray for each parishioner, to thank God for the gift of them to our community, and to send my blessings upon them. The “duty” has become an incredible gift that keeps the cycle of gratitude going.
How are you participating in the cycle of gratitude? In what ways do you cultivate a spirit of generosity, passing your sense of gratitude and blessing on to others? I look forward to hearing how you are participating in the cycle, and how God is using you to bless others.
I once knew a man who was impossible to compliment. Whether you wanted to compliment a job well done or good deed, his response was always the same, “It’s not me. All the glory goes to God.” His response always left me feeling like I just offered a present that was rejected. Of course, I totally agreed with what he was saying – none of us is able to do good without the God who empowers us to do so. And truly, Jesus was not that great at accepting compliments either, especially if you recall all the times he asked people to keep a healing secret or to just go back to work. But upon receiving a compliment, a simple, “Thank you,” would not have hurt this man. After a while, I just stopped trying to praise his work or good deeds.
I think that is why I relate to the nine lepers who do not return to Jesus to give him thanks and praise. There were ten lepers originally – nine who were Jewish and one who was a Samaritan. We are not sure why the ten are together – the Jews and the Samaritans were enemies and rarely spent time together.[i] We are told at the beginning of the text that Jesus was passing through a borderland between Samaria and Galilee, so there is a possibility that then ten men banded together through their disease instead of culture. You see, both Samaritans and those of Galilee would have been seen as impure due to their leprosy. Being exiled to the borders of their land, they may have found more in common than divided them. And so, as a group, they shout out to Jesus for healing – careful not to approach him, of course, which would have been improper in their condition. Respecting their distance, Jesus does not insist they come forward, but instead tells them to go to the priest to show themselves to be healed. Along the way, they are healed, but they still would have needed to show a priest in order to be restored to their families and friends.[ii]
The Samaritan among them returns and gives praise to God, but the others do not. We do not know how their journey unfolds. Presumably they are faithfully doing what Jesus told them to do – going to the priest for restoration. Perhaps they give praise to God once the priest restores them. Perhaps they give praise when they are reunited with their families. Maybe they even show their praise through helping lepers later. But that is all supposition. All we get today is Jesus’ criticism of the nine because they neglect to turn and give God praise and thanksgiving.
I have been reflecting on Jesus’ words this week, and what rubs me the wrong way may be the same thing that rubbed me the wrong way when that man I knew always refused praise. In both cases, whether Jesus, or the man I knew, there is both implicit and explicit criticism of my own practice of gratitude and thanksgiving. What irritated me about the man’s responses to me was that they made me feel guilty – that perhaps I was not grateful enough to God for the goodness in my life. The same thing irritates me about Jesus this week – his judgment of the nine makes me feel guilty about the ways I have walked away healed and not given praise to God.
This week we are kicking off our stewardship season in a campaign called, “Living Generously.” After the service, you will be receiving a packet of information about how you can support the ministry of Hickory Neck, and a pledge card that we will collect in a celebratory ingathering in just four weeks. Most preachers would have read the text today and thought, “Yes! The perfect Stewardship text!” But the more I sat with Jesus’ words, the more I realized that his words actually bring up feelings of dread rather than joy. Most people associate stewardship with the same sense of guilt that this reading brings up. We feel guilted into showing gratitude, and so we guiltily look at our budgets and see if we can increase our pledge this year.
The first time I experienced the concept of pledging was when I started regularly attending an Episcopal Church. In the churches where I grew up, you never had to tell anyone what you were going to give. The preacher might have talked about a tithe – ten percent of your income. But the preacher never wanted you to say exactly what you were going to give. So when the warden of this church started explaining how he wanted us to pledge, I was aghast. I remember thinking, “That’s private! I don’t have to tell you how much I am going to give!” Now, I knew we would probably tithe that year, but the idea of telling someone else about my giving seemed to go against every cultural norm I knew. Fortunately, I stayed to hear the rest of the warden’s talk. He explained that the way the church formed the church’s budget was through the knowledge of what income they could expect. The Vestry would adjust expenses accordingly and try to get the budget balanced. My outrage faded as I realized how responsible that model seemed. Thus began my adult journey into pledging.
But that journey into pledging experienced a transformation about eight years later. We were at a new church, and the priest asked to hold our pledge cards until a particular Sunday. We did and the funniest thing happened. In the middle of the service, a banner appeared. The banner was processed down the aisle, joyful music started playing, and people started following the banner forward. We placed our pledge in a basket, and I felt something stirring in me. The priest blessed the pile of pledge cards, and something about stewardship turned in my heart – the pledging, the monthly giving was no longer an obligation or burden – something to be guilted into. My pledge was a joyful sign of gratitude – a sign blessed by God and affirmed by the community. And I have to say – it felt good!
In the gospel lesson today, the text says that the Samaritan turns back to Jesus. That word for turns back is more than just a physical description – the action of turning back is a sign of deep transformation – a reorienting of the Samaritan’s life from duty to gratitude.[iii] I do not think Jesus was looking for a guilty admission of thanks from the other nine lepers. What Jesus is looking for is a transformation of the heart – a turning of one’s life away from obligation and duty to joyful gratitude and thanksgiving.
I was reading this week about a woman with an interesting habit. Whenever someone asked her how she is – that basic question we always ask and anticipate the answer being, “Fine,” – instead she would say, “I’m grateful.” No matter what is on her plate – stress at work or school, an illness that kept plaguing her, strife at home – her response is always the same, “I’m grateful.”[iv] As I thought about her response this week, I realized that her response is probably one that took willful practice. I am sure there were weeks when she really felt grateful. But there were also probably weeks when she had to say she felt grateful even if she was not sure what there was to be grateful about. But slowly, slowly, I imagine the practice cultivated a spirit of gratitude. A practice like that can do exactly what Jesus wants for us all – a turning of the heart to praise and thanksgiving. I know I will never be able to shift toward the kind of response that the man I knew always gave, rejecting praise altogether. But learning to say, “I’m grateful,” might be a way for me to get a little closer to the same sentiment.
What that woman is doing, what Jesus is encouraging, and even what our Stewardship campaign is inviting is not a sense of guilt or burden, but a genuine invitation into a life that turns our heart to gratitude and transforms the way we see the world. Now that does not mean that every time you write the check to fulfill your pledge you will part from that treasure with a joyful heart. But that practice is a small invitation, every time, for us to turn our hearts and to see not only the God from whom all blessings flow, but to even see the blessings in the first place. Jesus is not mad at those lepers because they are ungrateful – he is sad for them because they have denied themselves the gift of transformation. That is the gift that he and the Church offer us every week – the gift of a transformed heart that can change everything. For that, I’m grateful. Amen.
[i] Audrey West, “Commentary on Luke 17.11-19,” October 9, 2016, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3029 on October 5, 2016.
[ii] Oliver Larry Yarbrough, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 169.
[iii] Margit Ernst-Habib, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 166.
[iv] David Lose, “Pentecost 21C: Gratitude and Grace,” October 3, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/10/pentecost-21-c-gratitude-and-grace/ on October 5, 2016.