I have never been what I would call physically expressive with my faith. I remember the last time I worshipped at my mother’s church, I was so uncomfortable with the raised hands and utterances of praise, that I found my arms tightly crossed and my eyes glued to the screens to avoid looking around me. I remember walking an outdoor labyrinth with a priest friend of mine, who upon reaching the center of the labyrinth raised her arms and her head silently to God and just stood there for a long time. My pace slowed dramatically as I began to panic about how I would never feel comfortable in such a stance, even if I was all alone. I remember in the multi-cultural church where I worshipped in college watching parishioners stomp and clap as the choir led a spirit-filled song. I managed to eek out an “Amen,” or maybe even a quiet, “Yes,” but I was drowned out by the boisterous praise around me.
As Episcopalians (or as many call us, “God’s Frozen Chosen”), I imagine that many of us in this room do not see anything strange about my aversion to physical manifestations of praise. The most physicality we like to show in worship is through our active alternating between standing, sitting, and kneeling. But my aversion to praise lately has not simply been physical. I have noticed that the lack of praise has been missing from my words and actions lately too. Lately my prayers for the parish have become a long litany of people who are hurting or suffering or who simply could use a sense of God’s presence in their lives. Rarely do I lift up an equally long litany of things for which I am grateful for in this parish and in your lives. I am not really sure how I got to this praise-lacking place. Part of me wants to blame my lack of praise on the endless bad news in our world – the recent government shutdown, the economy, shootings, natural disasters, injustice and oppression, and wars. But I think a larger part of the lack of praise has to do with something missing in my relationship with God – a focus on what needs work in my life as opposed to a focus on what ways my life is so blessed.
I guess you could say I sympathize with the nine lepers who do not return to Jesus when they are healed. Of course, those lepers do nothing wrong per se. In fact, they follow Jesus’ instructions to the letter. Jesus tells them to go and present themselves to the priests and that they will be healed along the way. And so, the nine lepers obediently follow directions, and in doing so, live life faithfully. But when Jesus asks the Samaritan leper where the other nine lepers are, we notice immediately that there might be more to our spiritual journey than simply living life faithfully or following the rules. The contrast between the lepers is so vivid that you can almost see the story in colors. The nine lepers who are healed and follow Jesus’ instructions to go to the priests might be depicted in beige or taupe. They do not lack color, but their color is pretty neutral. Much like their actions are mundane, so are the colors they merit. Meanwhile, the Samaritan leper might be depicted in vibrant reds, oranges, and golds. His return to Jesus and his physically dramatic praise that includes prostrating himself at Jesus feet makes him more vibrant in the story. He is the man raising his hands in praise, standing in wonder before God in the center of a labyrinth, or stomping his feet and shouting at the top of his lungs in worship. Of course our eyes might be drawn to the vibrant colors of the Samaritan, but we would rarely pick such vibrant colors ourselves – or if we did, we would only use those colors in accessories – a vibrant bag or pair of shoes, but certainly not an entire vibrant outfit.
What the Samaritan leper shows us is that faithful living is more than just following rules or being relatively well-behaved. Faithful living is more than trying to be a generally good person, or occasionally dropping a few extra dollars in the offering plate if you have some to spare. The Samaritan shows us that true faithful living is not a quiet or mild experience. Faithful living is expressive, passionate, and full of wonder and gratitude. The Samaritan shows us this reality because not only does he perceive his blessing, he articulates his blessing.[i] This is what sets the Samaritan apart from the other lepers. Surely they perceive or see their blessing too. But the Samaritan then articulates or gives word to his blessing. We see what this double action of seeing and speaking does – the Samaritan is blessed by Jesus. All ten of the lepers are healed. That work is done and given without strings attached. All are healed. But the Samaritan gains more. By articulating his thanksgiving, his blessing is doubled. His gratitude overwhelms him, which seems to overwhelm God into more blessing. What a fantastic cycle!
David Lose says, “Gratitude is the noblest emotion. Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself. But maybe, just maybe, gratitude is also the most powerful emotion, as it frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we’d ever imagined.”[ii] The practice of gratitude changes things. “When Christians practice gratitude, they come to worship not just to ‘get something out of it,’ but to give thanks and praise to God. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgivings at the table.”[iii]
Gratitude is something we have been talking a lot about these past couple of months within the Stewardship Committee. Today is our official kickoff of stewardship season, and you will be hearing a lot about gratitude over these coming Sundays. A long time ago, before Scott and I were even married, we talked about the model of stewardship with which I had grown up. Though United Methodists do not use “pledge” language, they do talk about giving and more specifically about tithing. Growing up, my family always committed to tithing and talked about that practice regularly. I always knew money was tight, but no matter what, that ten percent was going back to God on Sundays. I saw how deeply tithing impacted my parents’ spiritual lives, and Scott and I agreed early in our relationship that we would take on that same spiritual discipline.
So you can imagine my amusement then when I first experienced stewardship in the Episcopal Church. I heard people making the invitation to give and they used a phrase called the “modern tithe.” Apparently the modern tithe was the phrase used for giving a percentage of your income to the church – a percentage that you could determine yourselves. I almost laughed the first time I heard about the modern tithe. The modern tithe idea sends the message that gratitude is important, but we should decide how much of the tithe we want to give. The whole idea seemed like a slippery slope to me. The reason I found the idea strange was because I had lived with the ten percent notion my whole life. And what I learned about ten percent is that sometimes that ten percent is easy and feels great to give, and sometimes that ten percent feels like it could send you into poverty and despair. But that is what is great about a sacrificial discipline. No matter where you are in life, that practice of always giving that percentage is a way of saying, “Lord, this does not feel good right now, but I know you to be faithful and full of blessing, and so I give this to you grudgingly, hoping you can infuse my heart with the gratitude I have felt so many times before.”
I tell you that the Andrews-Weckerlys tithe ten percent not because I want to guilt you into doing the same. I tell you about our tithing because I want my story to help me reclaim some of that joyful gratitude that the Samaritan has and that I have had at many times in my life. I confess that lately that monthly pledge check has been hard. More often I write those numbers with a deep sigh of resignation than with a song of praise. My hope is that in telling you my story of how I feel like one of the nine lepers, that you might encourage me to be like the one Samaritan leper. My hope is that in sharing my struggles, you might begin to ponder where you are in your spiritual walk with God and whether your financial giving is a reflection of the deep gratitude you have toward God or instead is the obedient, but joyless following of expectations. My hope is that in offering up my challenges, we might all have more open, honest conversations at home, with one another, and with God about where we are and where we want to be. The invitation of that bright, loud, boisterous Samaritan is there for all of us. Blessings await. Amen.
[iii] Kimberly Bracken Long, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 168.