From gratitude to faith: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year C, 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently. It is a concept central to the biblical tradition but it’s not something we often connect to the Christian faith. In fact, it may be that we only think about gratitude one time a year, around Thanksgiving. Our worship is full of thanksgiving—indeed at the heart of the Eucharist is thanksgiving as we offer thanks to God for all that God has given us, and especially the gift of God’s son.

Gratitude is subversive. We live in an anxious age, as we worry not only about the future of our world and our nation, but we worry about our own futures as individuals and families; we worry about our safety and security. As our anxiety grows, we tend to turn inward and become self-protective, hoarding what we have and envying those who have more.

We may be parsimonious in our gratitude, viewing the gifts we give and receive only in terms of their value. Like Sheldon in the TV show Big Bang Theory, we may even dread giving gifts for fear that the gift we give may not be as valuable as the gift we receive, so we remain in debt to the giver. Or to use a phrase we’ve heard a good bit recently, we think of giving in terms of quid pro quo.

In our gospel reading, we see a story of healing that becomes a story of gratitude and faith.

On the surface, it’s rather a simple and straightforward story. Jesus cleanses ten lepers; he tells them to go to the priests to be certified as clean, and then to go back home. Only one of them returns to thank him, and it turns out to be a Samaritan who responds to Jesus’ acts with gratitude. On the surface, this story seems to be about etiquette, about giving thanks; a biblical example of the imperative to send thank-you cards. In fact, it’s much more than that. It’s a story that models the Christian life.

There are a number of very interesting things about this story. One is the context in which Luke places it. I’ve been stressing for these last months that we are in the middle of a section of Luke’s gospel that is shaped by Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Way back in Luke 9:51, Luke tells us that “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We’re in chapter 17 now, and Luke begins this episode by reminding us that Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. It’s the first time, he mentions that fact since 9:51.

Even more interesting is the fact that this episode involves a Samaritan. At the outset of the journey, the first town Jesus and his disciples come to is a Samaritan village, which refuses to welcome them. The disciples want Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy it, but Jesus simply goes in a different direction.

There’s another mention of a Samaritan as Jesus makes his journey to Jerusalem—earlier in the Gospel he tells the story of the Good Samaritan as an example of what it means to love one’s neighbor.

Think about that story. A lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what scripture says and he responds, “Love of God and neighbor.” When the lawyer pushes Jesus, asking him, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan—an example of neighbor love. Perhaps our story serves as a bookend to that one. In this instance, the healed Samaritan is an exemplar of love of God

Jesus heals the ten lepers and then instructs them to go to the priests to be certified clean. This is was in perfect keeping with Jewish law as laid out in Leviticus. Nine obeyed him; one did not. The tenth came back, praising God with a loud voice, and thanking Jesus. Luke adds, as if in a marginal comment, “And he was a Samaritan.”

This story is not primarily about etiquette. It is about religious norms and values. The Samaritan was doubly unclean in the eyes of Jews. As a leper, he would have been excluded from the community, shunned. As a Samaritan, he would have been reviled for the religious traditions he followed. Although he was a Samaritan, reviled and regarded as ritually unclean, as a leper, it seems that he was part of that community of lepers who came together because of their shared plight. Now, as a healed leper among healed lepers, his otherness as a Samaritan would stand out.

What is puzzling is that his being a Samaritan takes on significance only after his leprosy is cleansed. Jesus told all ten to present themselves to the priests, what the law required. But of course, as a Samaritan, he would not have had that option. No certificate from any Jewish priest deeming him free of leprosy would make him a part of the Jewish community. Perhaps that is why he came back to Jesus. He realized he had been cleansed, and that was all that mattered.

The Samaritan turned back, he glorified God, fell on his knees and thanked Jesus. We might think such a response would be natural, but isn’t it the case that most of us would follow the rules laid out? We would do whatever it took to be restored to our families, our livelihoods, and our religious lives? It was only the Samaritan who responded differently. He acted as unexpectedly and extravagantly as Jesus himself did. He came back; and because of his response, he was rewarded extravagantly. The NRSV , “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” In fact, a better translation would read, “your faith has saved you.”

The Samaritan realizes he’s healed, turns back, prostrates himself, and gives thanks to God. Those gestures are also of great significance for Luke’s gospel. It’s the same language Luke uses to describe the actions of the shepherds as they returned to their fields after having seen the birth of Jesus. It’s also the way Luke concludes the gospel. After the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem in great joy and praised God in the temple.

When describing the Samaritan’s actions, Luke chooses a very interesting word. eucharistein. It’s translated as giving thanks, and it’s the word from which Eucharist comes. But it’s more than giving thanks—just as we do each Sunday in the Eucharist, it’s also about glorifying and praising God.

So this story is about us moving from need, to gratitude to faith. Like the lepers, we have all cried out in some way, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” Some of us have had our prayers answered. We have experienced healings. Others have cried out as faithfully and as desperately, but have not received healing.

Many of us right now may be struggling to be thankful in the midst personal or global crisis. We may be wondering whether we will have enough money for the rest of the month, wondering where our next meal is coming from, anxious for loved ones, or ourselves.

 

In the midst of all that, whatever struggles you might be having, we might be crying, “Jesus, Lord, have mercy on us!” But at the same time, is it still possible for us to offer thanks to God—thanks for life itself, thanks for the gifts that God has given you? And if you can give thanks, can you feel your heart open just a bit wider, more open to the world, to your fellow humans, to God? Practice gratitude, by offering God a simple, thank you, each day, throughout the day, and in time, you will come to experience so overwhelming a sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, that deepens your relationship to Jesus, and as it did for the leper, saves you.

 

 

 

“All things were made for Him”: A Sermon for the Blessing of the Animals, 2019

Genesis 9:8-16
Colossians 1:15-20
John 1:1-5

 

Each year on the first Sunday in October, we observe the Blessing of the Animals. It’s fun, chaotic, and a way for many of us to acknowledge ritually and religiously the important role our pets play in our lives, the blessings they are to us, and our responsibility to care for them.

We choose this day because it is on or close to October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the popular, beloved saint who was known for his affection for animals. Stories about his care for animals abound. He preached to the birds, he tamed the wild wolf of Gubbio, turning a predator who had terrorized a town into a peaceful vegetarian. Among the few texts that are attributed to him is the Canticle of the Sun, a translation or paraphrase of which we sang as our opening hymn. In the original version, Francis sings of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.

It’s easy for us to over-sentimentalize both St. Francis and our love of animals, and easy for us, as in so many areas of our personal lives, to fail to see connections between the animals we love and care for, and the whole creation of which we are a part.

Today, rather than focusing on St. Francis, or on our relationships with our beloved animal companions, I want to reflect on the larger issue, and the great challenge we face as human beings on a planet in the midst of dramatic climate change. Our collect, lessons, prayers of the people and confession come from resources approved for use by General Convention 2018. These particular propers focus on the kinship of all created things in Christ and seemed especially appropriate for this day on which we also remember St. Francis, who praised Brother Fire, Sister Earth, even Sister death.

We’ve been confronted this year with imminence of climate change: the sight of fields left unplanted after the unprecedented wet spring we had, images of the Amazon rainforest burning; news of melting glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctic. I realized that while many of us at Grace are concerned about the environment and probably even participate in advocacy efforts around climate change and similar issues, it’s not something we’ve talked much about over the years.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that in a congregation our size there are limits to what we can do; and with our advocacy and work around racism and homelessness, creation care might seem to be something for others to take on—or perhaps if some among us are so inclined, they could pursue these issues as a group within Grace. The Episcopal Church has produced a wealth of resources around creation care, materials on education and advocacy that would be a good place to start.

Our current situation invites us to respond in the way that Jesus challenged his listeners in his preaching: Metanoia. It’s a word that has traditionally been translated as “repent” or “repentance.” And we have a great deal of that to do. But more than that the word literally means “change your mind” or rethink. We must reorient ourselves—reorient our understanding of what it means to have faith in God in Christ, reorient our understanding of scripture, and reorient our roles as human beings and as Christians in the world.

There is a longstanding assumption in Christian theology, and among ordinary Christians, that when God created the universe and human beings, God created us to have dominion over all creation. That has led to our rapacious exploitation of natural resources, or willingness to exploit everything in creation for our use and benefit, our presupposition that we as human beings are outside of, exterior to creation and have no part or role in it. All of this derives at least in part from that commandment in Genesis 1: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and have dominion over it.

There is a second creation story, in Genesis 2, and it is rather different in its focus and meaning. In that version, God plants a garden and creates a man out of the dust of the earth to take care of it. God then creates all of the animals as possible helpers or partners for the man, and finally he creates the woman from the man. In this version then, human beings are literally part of the created order—made from the dust of the earth, connected with all living things, and participating with God in the ongoing work of creation as God’s stewards of creation.

It’s that story that I think offers us helpful ways of connecting our faith, our understanding of God and the created universe, with the urgent need for human beings to re-orient ourselves, to change our minds and take action to preserve the earth for future generations. As stewards of God’s creation, we are created and called to care for the created order, to tend it, to continue God’s work of creation.

Our lessons encourage us to think about our connection, even kinship with the created order. From God’s promise to Noah and his descendants that God would not destroy the earth, through the psalm, with its trust in God’s care for all of the created order, “you feed both man and beast, O Lord.” It also uses imagery from nature to describe God’s righteousness and God’s love toward living things, including humans.

The reading from Colossians and the Gospel, those first few familiar and powerful words from the Gospel of John, introduce a uniquely Christian perspective to our understanding of the relationship between God and creation. Creation happened through the power and work of Jesus Christ, the Word. Colossians makes a bold point: all things were made in and through him, that is, Christ; indeed, all things were made “for Christ.” What would it be like to understand all of creation, all living things, from the smallest plant or microbe, to the majestic Rocky Mountains, the Amazon rainforest, as being made “for Christ.” I daresay we would think and act rather differently.

I know there are Christians who believe that if or when our planet becomes uninhabitable, Jesus will return on a rescue mission to save the faithful from destruction. It’s strange because every biblical description of future bliss is an extension or improvement of our current existence. Think of the great vision of the prophet Isaiah:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

 

One wonders what a vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of God’s reign, a vision of a created order restored and perfected when God’s righteousness and justice prevail, when Christ reigns in majesty, one wonders what such a vision would look like or would include if the earth, the planet given us by God to tend and nurture, can no longer sustain life.

We are called to metanoia—to conversion. To quote Pope Francis, who wrote in his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato si“:

This conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works …   It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.

If and when we experience creation in that way, to discover God in the world around us as well as in our soul, we will be well on our way to becoming more fully human, more faithful to our calling as Christians, and become more completely shaped in the image of the one who created us. May God give us the grace to grow into that image and calling.

 

 

 

All the Lazaruses in our doorways: A Sermon for Proper 21C, 2019

You’ve all seen the sight as you come to church on Sunday mornings or if you’re downtown at the Overture Center for a concert, or out at dinner at a nice restaurant. As you walk down the sidewalk, you are confronted by panhandlers or see homeless people sitting on the benches. If it’s night, there are people sleeping in doorways or alleys. Whether there are more people experiencing homelessness now than in previous years, the perception that it is a growing problem certainly is real. In a meeting on Friday, Alder Mike Verveer, the alder for this district, said that he has fielded more phone calls and emails, had more conversations with constituents about homelessness this summer than at any previous time in his 24-year tenure on the City Council. Continue reading

Serving debt, serving wealth, serving God: A Sermon for Proper 20C, 2019

Debt. We all have at least a passing familiarity with it. Most of us have in the past, or currently have, socially and morally respectable debt like a mortgage. Many of us have other forms of debt—credit card debt, the loans we owe on our vehicles. Some of us have experience with more crushing forms of it—student loans, for example, which have skyrocketed and put many millennials in difficult circumstances. Then there is medical debt, which in too many cases can lead to bankruptcy.

Even if we don’t have direct experience with the sort of debt that can only lead to bankruptcy, it’s very likely that we know people who are deeply affected by it, in many cases through no fault of their own, except perhaps by deciding to get a college education or going to grad or professional school, or having the bad luck of becoming seriously ill. The amounts are mind-boggling: Forbes recently estimated that there is more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, owed by some 45 million people. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that more than 1 in 4 Americans struggled to pay a recent medical bill. Continue reading

A God who searches for us … and finds us: A sermon for Proper 19C, 2019

I hate losing things. One of the worst is books. A few weeks ago, I was looking for a book I had used regularly when I was teaching. I went through the shelves in my office several times and finally gave up. I have no idea where it is. Perhaps it’s in a bookcase at home, perhaps it’s in Corrie’s office. It may even be that I lent it to someone years ago who never returned it.

It’s even worse with paper documents. Grace lay leaders and staff know better than to give me hard copies of important documents. It will land in a pile on my desk and stay there, perhaps for years. Much better to send it electronically. Then I will have it, and can easily find it by conducting a simple computer search. Year end financials from 2010? Sure, just give me a second. Still, I remember what it’s like when you are looking for something; you can’t find it. As you keep looking for it, your anger and frustration grow; you start lashing out at everyone and everything. And finally, that moment of discovery—relief and happiness that overwhelm you. It might be a valuable object, a document you need, or some cherished memento of a loved one.

We all have had such experiences, so when we hear stories like the two we just heard in the gospel reading, we regard them as commonplace, ordinary tales, and put ourselves in the roles of the shepherd going back for the lost sheep or the woman searching for the lost coin, and overlook the strangeness of the stories themselves, and the possibilities that there might be other ways of connecting with the stories than by connecting them with our own experiences of search for lost items.

In fact, I think we allow our own experiences of searching for lost things to so dominate our minds as we hear these parables, that we interpret the story about the shepherd in light of the story of the woman with the lost coin, and overlook the introduction to both which might put a completely different spin on things.

Luke’s introduction to the parables strikes one of his overarching themes: sin and forgiveness. The Pharisees were once again complaining that Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners. Remember that these two groups were reviled by most first-century Palestinian Jews. Tax collectors, not because they worked for the federal government but because in the Roman system, their profit came by being able to extract more money from the people whose taxes they were collecting than they had send on up the pipeline to Rome. And in this instance, sinners doesn’t mean people who made the occasional mistake, but rather notorious sinners, whose lifestyles put them outside of the community—especially people who were ritually impure.

So think of the people most likely to be excluded from polite society, from our community gatherings, from our church—that’s who Jesus was hanging out with, and if he were among us now, it’s likely we would be the ones complaining, not the ones with whom he would be spending time.

In response to these complaints, Jesus tells two parables, introducing each with a question that invites the listener to enter into the story: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Now, contemplate the absurdity of that question.

Which one of you would do that? None of us would. We would do a cost/benefit analysis and cut our losses, leaving the one to die while making sure the 99 were safe.

Or the second parable: The parable describes in great detail the woman’s actions, she lights a lamp, sweeps the floor. The narrative almost stops for a moment, heightening tension, so that the discovery becomes even more dramatic. But then what happens? She throws a party, invites her friends, spends what, as much or double the worth of the coin she had lost? We can see ourselves searching for something, but throwing a party, and throwing what we found away in rejoicing? Who of us would do that?

Two people behaving completely unexpectedly, in ways that make utterly no sense by any rational analysis. They were so overjoyed by the finding that it’s almost as if they lost their bearings. Nothing else mattered but that joy, and offering others the opportunity to share in that joy.

It’s clear that Luke wants us to see the point of the story to be God’s extravagant joy in welcoming a repentant sinner. So be it. No doubt it fills us with love and gratitude toward God to imagine ourselves welcomed in such a way. So we should think about it in light of the final sentence in the passage: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Joy over one sinner who repents.

As important as that is, there is another aspect of the behavior on display in these two parables that might be key to our understanding of God’s nature and disposition toward us. The shepherd abandoned 99 sheep to look for the one lost one. The woman did everything in her power and persisted until she found the lost coin. What if God acts that way toward sinners? What if God does everything in God’s power, obsesses if you will, certainly persists, until finding that lost sinner—until we are once again safely in God’s protective arms? What does that say about our sin and the power and persistence of God’s grace and mercy?

We don’t like that word, sin, although it’s all over our readings today. We heard about the sin of the Israelites, who abandoned their faith in God to worship a golden calf in the wilderness. We heard Psalm 51, that great psalm of sin and repentance. Many of us may have bristled at its language: “

Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.

Even if the Christian tradition has emphasized human sin, we don’t like to think about it. When we go about revising the liturgy as we did in 1979 and are in the beginning stages of doing again, one of the first things we look to remove from our Eucharistic prayers is an over-emphasis on sin; we may even do it with the confession of sin.

But at the same time, in our heart of hearts, we know our sin and brokenness. We know all of the ways that we have fallen short of our best intentions, and fallen short of being and becoming the human beings God is calling us to be.

Confession of sin is the first step. Acknowledging our faults, looking at ourselves with clear eyes, with honesty, and recognizing who we are and what we have done. But of course, it doesn’t end there. That’s only the beginning. The next step is repentance, to ask God’s forgiveness of our sins.

Sometimes, I think we are reluctant to acknowledge our sins and sinfulness because we don’t think God will forgive us. But that’s not the case. True confession, true repentance open us up to receive the grace of God’s forgiveness, God’s overwhelming and abundant mercy.

And that’s where the parables teach us about God as well as about ourselves. The joy expressed by the shepherd and the woman are not just like the joy we might experience when we find something we’ve lost; they are describing the joy that God experiences when we confess our sins and ask God’s forgiveness.

That joy, experienced by God when we approach him as the psalmist did when he confessed his sins and asked God:

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

 

That’s the joy we experience, the joy of repentance and forgiveness, a response to our experience of God’s abundant grace flowing in us, remaking us in God’s image, and restoring us to right relationship with God and with our fellow humans. God doesn’t abandon us; God doesn’t give up the search, even when we don’t know we’re lost or we don’t want to be found. God is here, searching for us and the joy we experience when we repent of our sins and are forgiven is nothing compared to the joy God experiences when we are embraced in God’s mercy and grace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sending his own heart back: A sermon for Proper 18C, 2019

In this age of cellphones, it’s impossible not to eavesdrop on others’ conversations. We’ve all had the experience where we’re standing in line and behind us someone is having a loud, perhaps heated conversation. We can only hear one side of it, and even if we’re not paying attention, or doing our best not to listen in, we can’t avoid it. Sometimes we’re drawn in and we begin to imagine what the person on the other end is saying. Intimate details can be shared, the speakers seemingly oblivious to the fact that everyone around them can hear. Such moments can be excruciatingly uncomfortable, as we hear things that aren’t meant for us. But other times, we may be drawn in and begin to imagine the life worlds of the conversation partners. Continue reading

Jesus invites us to the messianic banquet, not the Taste of Madison: A Sermon for Proper 17C, 2019

Outside our doors today one of Madison’s most beloved and popular cultural rituals is taking place. It’s one many of us will be participating in as well, as we make our pilgrimage around the square and sample the various foods on offer. Few of us stop to think about what such rituals mean or signify; for most, if not all of us, the Taste of Madison, like other events such as Art Fair on the Square are fun. In this case, we get to sample food from restaurants we might not otherwise visit, or try new things, or purchase selections that remind us of other times and places—funnel cakes evoking memories of long-ago county fairs.

But such events also reinforce and inscribe our identities—in this case first and foremost as consumers, and they reinforce our place in the capitalist system. There are those vendors who are new or are trying to make a small business succeed as they pursue the fading American dream. There are also the cooks and servers who are working for vendors and likely receiving little more than the minimum wage. And the diversity—the ethnic cuisines that are adapted to mainstream American taste buds, or are being appropriated and monetized by others. Continue reading