Sunday, October 10, 2010

Attitude of Gratitude

Sheepscott Community Church October 10, 2010

Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7

Luke 17: 11-19

Attitude of Gratitude

Koraysha shared her new baby Ellis with us last week. His beauty, his curiosity, his focus on everything from his mother to Carol Shorey, to all the new faces he was surrounded by as he nestled safely in his carryall, all of what makes up the new life that is Ellis was a gift to all of us last Sunday. If Ellis is hungry, he lets Koraysha know by his mewing or wiggling or grasping at. A mom knows in a thousand ways that it is time to feed baby. Or if Ellis’s diaper is wet or full, Koraysha knows that in ways we all understand, and will take care of it. If Ellis is tired, whether overwhelmed by stimulation, as he was last week at the coffee hour, or by the dictatorial hands of the clock, which indicate how many hours it has been since he slept, if he is tired, his lids will droop, even against his will.

The time may come when he will fight those drooping lids because he can’t bear to leave the party or to not have sight of his mother for even a moment. But that’s in the future. For now, he settles into his mother and sleeps like a baby bird in the nest. This is entirely appropriate for a 6- or 7-week-old baby. In a year or so he may be demanding another handful of Cheerios on his highchair tray. He might do that by raising his voice and pounding the tray, and just as she recognizes the signs of his hunger now, Koraysha will easily interpret the different signs of his hunger at that different time.

What is appropriate for Baby Ellis is not appropriate for healthy adult persons such as ourselves. I am not talking about individuals in care who need a high level of support, but about individuals demanding that kind of support who are capable of doing for themselves.

People need to grow in all their parts as they age, not just physically. And that growth involves assuming personal responsibility, which in part can lead to appreciation of what has been done for us in our own past, not only by our caretaking parents early on, but by teachers, doctors, scout leaders, family members, all those who have helped us into adulthood, an adulthood in which we can provide the same support and mentoring for others who are growing. This is the Body of Christ in action.

If that appreciation, another word for gratitude, doesn’t kick in at some point, we become self-centered human beings, overgrown infants, who take life and its gifts for granted, not unlike the nine lepers of today’s gospel. I won’t be too hard on those lepers, who, simply by virtue of their long-standing suffering, were no doubt so excited about the healing they received––Can you imagine? To be without fingers or whole hands or even feet, with just stumps to hobble about on, and perhaps no nose, and the characteristic grayish pallor of the leper’s face, and then to be whole and healed and able to leap. And so they went on their way rejoicing, to show the priests, as Jesus had directed them. We can understand their giddiness and their focus on carrying out Jesus’ orders. And yet, and yet, one did come back. And he, as Jesus said, a foreigner, a Samaritan, who on his way to the Lord praised God with a loud voice for this great favor and threw himself on the ground at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Where were the other nine? Because the writer takes the trouble to point out that this was a Samaritan, it is reasonable to assume that the others were Jews.

An incidental point, that addresses the question of what this usually despised Samaritan was doing among the Jewish lepers, suffering is a great leveler, a great democratizer. For instance, those who have lost loved ones and who attend grief support groups don’t check on age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, or religion of members before deciding whether to attend. Loss of a loved one is a universal experience, and the suffering that attends that loss is also universal. As varied as individual responses to the loss may be, the feeling of utter bereftness is the same, and being in the company, in the presence of those who know the experience comforts as nothing else can. The Body of Christ in action. So, this suffering lot of lepers would not have checked the Samaritan’s ID card, when he came to their conclave. They needed only to see the affected flesh to open the gate to admit him.

It is also possible to assume that the Jewish lepers who did not return may have had a sense of privilege, as the chosen people. If anyone would be getting a healing, it would be they, after all. They continued on their way to show themselves to the priests in accordance with Mosaic law, while the Samaritan in a spontaneous outburst of gratitude and joy ran back to Jesus and flung himself at his feet in gratitude. That action is spiritually instructive. Which attitude do you think would be more pleasing to God? The obedience to the Law or the acknowledgment through spontaneous joyful gratitude of the revelation of God among men? That’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.

If we can’t tap the inbuilt sense of gratitude that would respond spontaneously as the Samaritan did in such a situation, how do we get there? How do we get out from under the heel of the Law that proscribes that kind of spontaneity? Can we cultivate such an attitude? A person cannot become what he or she is not. That seed of gratitude must be in him or her before it can grow. I think that seed is in everyone from the beginning. It’s part of the package when we come, a response by the creature to the Creator. However, that seed needs sun and rain in order to grow, i.e., moments of joy and of sorrow. The fact is that we grow more in and through the sorrowful times than through the joyful times.

Recall for a moment the voice that was heard to speak from the cloud that overhung Mount Tabor at the time of the transfiguration. Peter, James and John, who had accompanied Jesus up the mountain, were awestruck as they saw Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus about his passage and heard the voice from the cloud say, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” The point is the voice came out of the cloud. It is often in those clouded times of our lives that we begin to see clearly, that we hear God, that we begin to get our lives into balance by coming to understand what is important, what finally matters. When we’re running around the field playing disc golf on a gorgeous day and tossing back a beer between rounds, as important as that R & R might be to maintaining our sanity, it’s doubtful that that’s where we’ll be learning life’s big lessons.

As the saying goes, “Into every life a little rain must fall,” and it is that rain that will water the seed of gratitude out of understanding of what we have been given. I’m talking about the air we breathe, the water we have to drink, fresh eggs from hens––Who but God could have come up with that one? all the gifts of nature, other people, the gift of life itself, a marvelous body that usually works, the love that we by grace discover in this life if and when we pay attention to the moment and what the moment offers. Then, if we have been spiritually developmentally delayed, having continued to sit at the table and bang our fist for more Cheerios, we’re more likely to get up, clear the table, and do the dishes. We’re more likely to ask what else we can do to make life easier for the rest of the household. Remember the gospel of last week, where the servant does not expect to be served when he comes in from tending the flocks or plowing the field. Rather, he comes in and waits on the Master and will have his supper when the Master has finished his. And the servant doesn’t expect thanks as he has only done his duty.

The source of our gratitude is the grace that enables us to recognize the presence of God in the world, whether that is in nature, in a human being, in a situation, in the gifts of food and drink, of bird song and human song. Praise of the Creator is native to people. Human beings give praise for the same reason that birds sing. It’s an instinctive response to the creative love of God; it is the river flowing back to the sea, that is, when it isn’t dammed up by aforementioned, inappropriate, child-appropriate attitudes and behaviors.

It’s true that we people have a disposition to sin, as well as to do good, what the Catholic Church historically called original sin. According to Oswald Chambers, a Scotsman who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and who wrote extensively on spiritual matters, that disposition of sin is not immorality or wrongdoing, but the excessive preoccupation with self whereby we become our own little gods. By this I mean we claim our right to ourselves. Me, me, me. Like the baby, only inappropriately, I am the center of the universe. What a huge self-deception that is. Can you see what a mercy it is when we realize we are nothing except by the grace of God, whereby we then become everything, which we are invited to surrender. Didn’t you know it would come back to that? It takes a lifetime to surrender that way, but when it finally happens, it induces peace and joy.

Which brings me back to the reading from Jeremiah. It is presented as a letter from the prophet, who must have stayed behind in Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian captivity, perhaps because of his advanced age, which would prevent him being a help to the conquerors. In the letter the prophet encourages the people to buck up, keep on building houses, planting gardens, marrying, having children, and then marrying off those children so they too can have children. Jeremiah stresses that the people should increase and not decrease. It’s basically an admonition to keep on keeping on, even in exile, and to pray for peace and prosperity, for if their Babylonian captors thrive, they too will thrive. Very practical and pragmatic. No time for the “woe is me” routine. It is the time of the exile, but God assures them through his prophet that he is with them, that they shouldn’t give up. There does come an end to the exile in the fullness of time, and the people return and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. God will not delay. God will come.

He will come on the road on the way to Jerusalem, and there the lepers, all unexpectedly, will meet God in the person of Jesus. And he will heal them, again all un- expectedly. Halleluia shouts the Samaritan. I am saved. I am healed, and he runs back to thank this one whose power from a distance ran through him. Although, mark well, Jesus said to him, “It is your faith has made you whole.” It is our faith that makes us whole, and we come together in faith on a Sunday morning to thank God for the gifts of grace, including the gift of life itself, and the gift of life as it should be lived in a surrendered fashion in the example revealed in the life of Jesus himself. It happens that his life on the earth ended on the cross, and that cross has become the symbol of what he did for us, the teaching that he died for us. The fact is he lived for us; he showed us how to live and give our whole selves to the life, which is the love of God in the world. His life ended on the cross, but that was his bridge to the resurrected life in the next world.

I think I told you this at least once before, but it bears repeating here. I used to have images of the crucifixion around my house. I understood at some point along the way that it was time to put away the images of crucifixion and live the imprint of the resurrected life, not the imprint of the nails in the hands. If we can believe that, we are not focused on that extreme suffering but on the extreme expression of life that the resurrection represents and that can actually, by the power of the Spirit of the risen Christ, raise others to life as well.

That is what the gospel today calls us to do: to have the faith to be whole and to allow the risen Lord, through his Spirit, to work through that faith for the sake of others. We need to come out of our selves and our petty needs, our feed me, our see me needs, and in gratitude do for the other what once our parents did for us by raising us, and what God has been doing for us since the beginning, i.e., having mercy and allowing us the opportunity and time to become ourselves. To be Christ on the road ready to be God’s instrument of resurrection for another person. That other-directedness comes out of a sense of gratitude and proportion about what the gift of life really is. Our faith makes us whole, and where that faith is lacking, our willingness to believe the gospel message indeed makes us whole. Amen.

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