Sunday, October 13, 2013

"An Attitude of Gratitude"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 13, 2013

Year C, Proper 23: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

“An Attitude of Gratitude”
            Last week we began our stewardship campaign. We didn’t come up with a new slogan. Maybe we should. A number of years ago my former parish used a stewardship slogan that I like a lot, “An Attitude of Gratitude.”
            “An attitude of gratitude.”
            Well, in the section of Luke’s Gospel that we heard both last Sunday and today, Jesus has a whole lot to say about gratitude.
            In my sermon last week, I focused on the first part of the gospel lesson, where Jesus tells the apostles – his closest followers and friends – that if they had faith only the size of a tiny mustard seed they could say to a mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea” and it would obey.
            Jesus told the apostles – tells us here today – that if we have faith only the size of a tiny mustard seed we can do truly amazing things.
            But there was a second part of last week’s gospel lesson that I didn’t mention in my sermon.
            After Jesus’ teaching on faith the mustard seed, Luke quotes Jesus asking the apostles a rhetorical question:
            "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?”
            The apostles would have known that the answer to Jesus’ question is, of course, NO! Right or wrong, when the slave comes in after a days work the master doesn’t tell him or her to take it easy and enjoy the meal. No, the slave’s work continues. And the master is certainly not obliged or expected to say thank you.
            And then Jesus throws in a command to the apostles – and to us:
            “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!'"
            In other words, we Christians shouldn’t expect a medal for doing what we’re supposed to do.
            I suspect that many of the older folks among us have little or no problem with this teaching. I don’t think I’m idealizing the past when I say that people were brought up to do their duty - and not expect a whole lot of praise or even a thank you in return.
            That may have changed.
            Last Saturday some of us attended “Vestry University” where leaders from churches all around the diocese came together to learn, and to enrich their ministries.
            I attended two very good workshops on stewardship.
            And one of the takeaways was the importance of thanking parishioners for their pledges. (In fact, we will include a thank you in the bulletin to all of you who’ve pledged.) The workshop leaders emphasized that this gratitude is not only good manners but they also went on to say that many of our younger adults really expect praise, affirmation and gratitude when they do something good.
            In other words, lots of us today do expect a medal for doing what we’re supposed to do.
            The workshop leaders claimed that this mindset comes has been created by parents and teachers who may have gone overboard affirming and praising our kids – giving them certificates and trophies for participation – sometimes literally giving them medals for doing what they’re supposed to do.
            Young adults, don’t get mad at me! I’m not sure if this is really true.
            But, it reminded me of an interesting article I read not too long ago about how there’s been a huge increase in the number of medals given to – and worn by – members of the military. And that includes officers at the very top. In the article they compared pictures of some of the great generals of the World War II era – men like Eisenhower – who wore very few medals or ribbons on their uniforms. And then they compared them to today’s top brass – whose uniform jackets are almost completely covered by shiny medals.
            Well, whatever the case is today, Jesus is clear that as his followers we shouldn’t expect gratitude – shouldn’t expect a medal for doing what we’re supposed to do.
            So, for example, when we drop off food for the food pantry we shouldn’t be looking for a thank you.
            And when people line up at the Church of the Incarnation on the fourth Saturday of the month to receive bags of groceries, those who serve them shouldn’t expect a word of thanks.
            The privilege of serving God and serving others should be enough.
            Someone once shared with me a quote from the great Catholic saint, Vincent de Paul. I’ve never been able to find the exact words but essentially it was: “We should thank the poor for the privilege of serving them.”
            “We should thank the poor for the privilege of serving them.”
            An attitude of gratitude.
            But, while we shouldn’t expect gratitude from those we serve, we Christians are certainly expected to be thankful people.
            Which brings us to today’s gospel lesson – a story unique to the Gospel of Luke, the story of the one healed leper who returned to thank Jesus.
            In ancient Israel there was a strong revulsion at any kind of skin ailment, not just what we call leprosy today. People afflicted with skin diseases were ritually unclean, were forced to live out on the edges of the community, and made to call out when they approached other people.
            These poor, miserable, outcast people call out to Jesus, “Master, have mercy on us!”
            There’s no dialogue between Jesus and the lepers. Jesus doesn’t interrogate them about their prayer lives, their beliefs, or their personal morality.
            Jesus simply heals them.
            Then, obeying Jewish Law, which required all of those healed to be officially certified by the religious authorities, he tells them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
            Luke then gets to the heart of the story when he tells us that only one of the healed lepers turns back to thank Jesus for this miraculous healing, prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet.
            And then Luke reveals a key piece of information: “And he was a Samaritan.”
            Now, thanks to this story end especially Luke’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, we have a very positive impression of the Samaritans. But, that wasn’t the case at all for First Century Jews.. Although they were related, the Samaritans and the Jews did not get along at all, disagreeing on all sorts of religious matters.
            Jews viewed Samaritans as ritually unclean.
            So, you see Luke’s point? The other nine do what they were supposed to do, heading off to Jerusalem to show the priests what’s happened. Fine. But, it’s the lowest of the low, it’s the most unclean, the most outcast of the lepers, the one who probably least expected to be healed - it’s the Samaritan leper who offers gratitude to God.
            The one who was the lowest and the least has a profound attitude of gratitude.
            And that gratitude has a powerful spiritual effect.
            Notice what Jesus says to the healed Samaritan leper at the end of the story: “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”
            But, wait a second, Jesus had already healed all of the lepers right?
            Yes, but Jesus is talking about much deeper wellness.
            It seems that the profound attitude of gratitude of the healed Samaritan leper has made him well in a much deeper way - healing whatever was wounded or broken in his heart.
            And in my imagination I see that deeply healed Samaritan going on his way out into the world, with a heart nearly bursting with gratitude to God.
            I imagine that deeply healed, deeply grateful, Samaritan spending the rest of his life offering healing and help to others, thankful for the privilege of serving those in need - and never expecting – never even wanting - a thank you in return.
            So, what about us?
            I bet at one time or another we’ve all felt like the Samaritan leper – outcast, rejected, a mess, desperate for God’s mercy and healing.
            The good news – really the best news of all – is that in and through Jesus, in and through God’s Word, in and through the Body and Blood of Christ that we share and receive - God offers us that same kind of deep healing given to the leper long ago.
            And, just like the leper, the only appropriate response for us is an attitude of gratitude – and a willingness to go out into our broken and hurting city, offering healing and help – thankful for the privilege of serving those in need - and never expecting – or even wanting a thank you in return.
            May we all have an attitude of gratitude.