Monday, October 11, 2010

20th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 23C sermon

This sermon references the texts of Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Luke 17:11-19.

20th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 23C
October 10, 2010

In thinking about gratitude this week, I was reminded of the scene from that old movie, Shenandoah. In the movie, Jimmy Stewart is a pacifist farmer in the midst of the civil war. He’s trying to raise 7 children without his wife’s presence, but with her strict instructions that they be raised as good Christians, so he prays dutifully over their bountiful dinner, “Lord, we cleared this land; we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here; we wouldn’t be eating it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone for every crumb all ourselves, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we are about to eat. Amen.” And I wonder, when compared with this week’s gospel story, is this gratitude?
I think that there is a certain part of gratitude that has to do with duty. I wish I had a dollar for every time I do something for one of my children and then I always say, “Now what do you say to me???” (And what are they supposed to say?) Thank you! In the South, we know that saying “thank you” is just what you do; and so we do it because we are supposed to.
But our gospel lesson for today gives us another piece of the picture of what gratitude is. 10 lepers are walking by Jesus out in the middle of nowhere. They all cry out to him, “Jesus, Master, Have mercy on us.” He tells them to go show themselves to the priests and on the way, they discovered that they have been healed of their skin affliction. One person, upon realizing that he had been healed, turns back and falls at Jesus’s feet and tells him thank you. Jesus tells the man to get up and go on his way, for his faith has saved him. It’s important to note that the writer of the gospel of Luke situates this story of the healing of the 10 lepers and the one grateful one who returned, right in the middle of a chapter on discipleship. It is discipleship that moves gratitude from being about duty into being about our relationship with God.
Does God need our gratitude? No. But we need to be grateful. It is the natural state of the creature toward the creator, and every Sunday, we are reminded that it is a part of DNA as people of faith: “lift up your hearts!” We lift them up to the Lord!” Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give God thanks and praise. It is right, and a good, and joyful thing, always and everywhere” to praise and give thanks to God. Our sacred meal of remembrance is called Eucharist which means Thanksgiving. It is not just what we do, but it is also who we are. We are people of gratitude.
Sometimes it is so easy to lift up grateful hearts before God. When the weather is like it has been, I am so much more mindful of being grateful to God than in the dog days of summer. Several years ago, it was beautiful weather (like today) and Mary Margaret and I were going to go on a walk. She was very excited about the prospect and was buzzing around while I got us ready and finally got her into her stroller. Then she said to me, “Wait, Mommy. I need to do something.” So I waited; and she prayed: “God is great, God is good. Let us thank God for this walk. Amen.”
But there are other times in our lives, when the weather is not so nice, when the diagnosis isn’t what we had hoped, when the old wounds refuse to heal, when the news is not good or when life is just plain hard. And as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to be grateful to God, even then. How are we grateful then, when it feels that we have very little for which to be grateful?
You have heard the words of the false prophet, Hannaniah, Jeremiah writes to the children of Israel who have been taken away from their home in Israel into captivity in Babylon. Hannaniah is telling you that you will be coming home soon, but I am the true prophet of the Lord, and I am telling you that you will not be coming home soon. So here’s what God wants you to do. Even though you are homesick and grieving, even though you long to return to the land of your ancestors and heritage, God is calling you to get on with your lives, there in Babylon. Build houses and live in them. Plant a garden, marry off your children, make friends with the Babylonians. Get on with your life. And even if you are not grateful, you say thank you anyway; because you are still God’s people, even after everything. You practice gratitude, and as you practice, the Holy Spirit will transform your burden of duty into joyful gratitude. And you will be healed (but maybe not in the way you expect).
Like faith, gratitude is not about feeling. It is about practice. If you do not feel that you can be grateful, then live gratefully. Let us pray. God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for this day. Amen.

Monday, October 4, 2010

19th Sunday after Pentecost--Proper 22C sermon

19th Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 22C
October 3, 2010

Luke 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

I will never forget the day in CPE-the chaplaincy training program that most clergy have to complete before ordination—when one of my colleagues was kicked out of our program by our supervisor. His name was Miles, and he was from a more fundamentalist tradition. He had been serving as chaplain in the ICU floor of our hospital, and the head nurse reported him to our supervisor because he told the daughter of a man who was dying in the ICU that if she only had more faith, then her father would get better.
This is one of our worst nightmares, one of our most shadowy, dark, secret fears. If only I had more faith then the bad things wouldn’t happen to me; if only I had more faith, then maybe a miracle would occur. If only I had more faith, then I would know what to say when faced with such tragedy and sorrow.
Even the disciples, when faced with Jesus’s description of the demands and challenges of discipleship, whisper in their hearts, “Oh, if only I had more faith, then maybe I could accomplish this.” And then, overcome by their fears and terrors, they cry out to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”
So often we read Jesus’s response like my former colleague Miles: “if only you had the smallest seed of faith, then you’d be able to accomplish miracles.” But these are not the words of Jesus to his friends, friends that he is preparing to give his life for. And these are not his words for us, we who are needy, discouraged, disheartened, and grieving.
“Why, you don’t need more faith,” Jesus tells us. “All you need is this teeniest, tiniest little bit. You already have what you need. God has already given you what you need. Do not worry about how much faith you have. Instead, live faithfully. Do your duty, what you are called by God to be and to do. Even the tiniest bit of faith is enough to do extraordinary things, but it must be put into practice.”
Faith is not just saying “I believe.” It is living as if “I believe that…” I believe that God is still at work in the world; I believe that all the suffering will one day be redeemed; I believe that love is stronger than anything, even death. Faith is so much more than just showing up and going through the motions. Practicing our faith means picking a spot to be rooted in and to grow in that spot, in giving, in prayer, in good works.
Faith is looking unflinchingly into the face of suffering, in our own lives, in our relationships, in the world, and it is saying that this suffering is the way of the cross and that even this darkness can and will be redeemed in and through Christ’s resurrection, no matter what happens.
Faith is holding onto the faith that has been passed on to us, by our mothers and our grandmothers and all the saints who have come before us, and it is trusting them and their faith when we feel we cannot trust our own.
And it is clinging to the faith and the hope of the people of God, who cry out to God in their suffering across the ages in echoes of loneliness, despair, grief, utter bereavement, spiritual and physical homelessness, and suffering, and who cling to the steadfast love and mercy of God who is fully present in and with our loneliness, despair, grief, utter bereavement, spiritual and physical homelessness, and suffering.
“In my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—there is so much pain—the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted. I want God with all the powers of my soul—and yet there between us—there is terrible separation.” These words were written by a famous person of faith in the 20th century, and they may sounds hauntingly familiar to many of us. They were published a few years ago in the book Come My Light, which is composed of excerpts of letters written by Mother Teresa in letters to spiritual advisers over a period of 45 years in which she directed the Missionaries of Charity, the order of Roman Catholic nuns she founded. Though she longed for joy in her faith, she knew that her feelings were not the point. What is importance is the practice.
You already have what you need. God has already given you what you need. Do not worry about how much faith you have. Instead, live faithfully. Do your duty, what you are called by God to be and to do. Even the tiniest bit of faith is enough to do extraordinary things, but it must be put into practice.