Sunday, October 13, 2019

Thanksgiving

Luke 17
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[b] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”


Are you feeling thankful?

Is that even the right word? Maybe you’re feeling grateful instead. Maybe you’re gratified, gruntled (the opposite of disgruntled, of course) or just tickled pink. Maybe you’re chuffed, and if you don’t know what that means, you’re going to need to ask Harold, Barbara or Judith. Or someone who watches Top Gear.

And since we’ve crossed the pond for a moment, we should visit Oxford, or more specifically the Oxford dictionary, and investigate the difference between thankful and grateful. And you’ll be chuffed to know that there is a difference, something that doesn’t seem to be the case on our side of the pond.

So thankful, according to Oxford, means “pleased and relieved,” giving the example “they were thankful that the war was finally over.” Odd. And the second example, “I was very thankful to be alive,” seems to have been written by the same person who wrote the first. It doesn’t exactly say turkey and pumpkin pie, does it? So on to grateful.

Grateful, for Oxford, means “feeling or showing an appreciation for something done or received.” And then gives the rather obvious example: “I'm grateful to you for all your help.” This seems much closer to the mark, which makes me think everything we’re doing has been mislabeled. But before you toss out your Happy Thanksgiving napkins and party hats, maybe we should dig a little deeper—and for this we need scripture.

Ten lepers cry out for help: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” And without a thought, ten lepers were healed. ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests—the only ones who can declare you clean—and they will discover that you are clean.’ So, off they go, but one turns back, praising God, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet, and being thankful. At this moment Luke adds a ‘by the way’ to the story, saying ‘and by the way, he was a Samaritan.’ More on that in a minute. Jesus then transforms this healing into a teachable moment, saying ‘didn’t I just heal ten of you? Where are the others? Has no one else returned to praise God except this foreigner? Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’

So two things to consider here, the first is the tenth leper and the nature of his response, and the second is the obvious plot twist when we learn that this man is a Samaritan. Now, not wanting to wear you out with the dictionary, but I should point out that the nine who kept walking were likely “pleased and relieved,” meaning thankful, but it didn’t translate into any kind of tangible response. The tenth leper, “showing an appreciation for something done,” was grateful, and therefore returned to praise God and throw himself at Jesus’ feet. Now you can throw out the napkins.

And what about the plot twist? Does it matter that this man is a Samaritan? And why do Samaritans keep appearing anyway? So we’ll start there. In the literary world we find the idea of the ‘stock character,’ a person or group of people that frequently appear in a story to play a specific role—most often to embody a characteristic or trait. So Samaritans play the role of ‘the last person you would expect to do something’—like help someone beaten by robbers, or return to Jesus to express thanks. We don’t have time to do a full survey of the bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, so I’ll give you some shorthand instead. Jews viewed Samaritans the way evangelical Christians view Mormons, or the way the NDP view the Green Party—and if that makes no sense, see me later.

For Luke, then, the Samaritan is playing a role. And like the Good Samaritan helping out when the so-called religious ones refuse to do so, the Samaritan leper turns around when the nine locals don’t. In other words, when the stock character—whoever that may be—understands the need to help or provides a grateful response, then we’re really going to be disappointed in everyone else. In other, other words, shame on the people who can’t respond as well as the outcast/foreigner/outsider/etcetera.

Now that the religious people have received their ‘direct message’ found in the lesson, what about those nine others? What are we to make of them? First thing to note is that they are still healed. Still released from a terrible ailment, still able to show the priest and be declared clean, still able to return to kin and clan, still able to rejoin the life they knew. With Jesus there are no take-backs, no retractions, no post-healing reassessment. They remain healed. A tad rude perhaps, but still healed.

And to understand the God of the no take-backs, we’re going to need to take a road trip, first to ancient Sparta, then Rotterdam, and finally a lovely town on the shores of Lake Zurich. Someday the readings will allow me to speak at length about Sparta, but for today I will only share a message from the Oracle at Delphi. It seems that when asked by some Spartan if they should go to war with Athens, the Oracle said "Called or not called, the god will be there” (vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit). I have no idea what happened next.

Meanwhile, 1,110 years later, a Dutch scholar named Erasmus is busy compiling Greek and Latin proverbs for publication (Collectanea Adagiorum) and includes this quote from Delphi (along with 4,000 others). Jump another 400 years, and a precocious 19 year-old named Carl Jung finds the quote and makes it his own. Decades later, as a pioneer in psychology, he will have the quote carved over his front door, a reminder to all who enter that “called or not called, God is with you.”*

Called or uncalled, God is with you. I actually prefer the alternate translation, “Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.” It takes the quote into the realm of worship, thinking of the bidding prayer—any words that express the sentiment “God, hear our prayer.” In other words, whether you acknowledge God or not, call on God or not, return and thank God or not, God is with you. So write it down, have it tattooed somewhere you can see it, or add it to your Twitter profile: “Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.” But please, use the Latin, ‘cause Latin makes everything classy.

So back to the no-show nine, or than thankless nine, God is with them. They have been released from sorrow whether they run back or not. And this is the nature of God’s unfathomable grace. You can sit out Thanksgiving, but God will still send sun and rain, secret growth beneath the earth, germination and growth, long summer days given to shorter, cooler ones, maturation and harvest, skilled hands at mill and kiln. You can neglect to thank God and still eat, but the experience will not be the same. Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.

Better, in the spirit of gratefulness, to show some appreciation. Grace received, new life given, hope restored—and we can give thanks. Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” Gratitude transforms us, makes us into new people, restores us to the realm of grace where we can simply receive.

So, to you I say Happy Thanksgiving, or whatever combination of gratefulness and giving thanks you can make, knowing always that God is with you. Amen.

*http://www.jungnewyork.com/photo_vocatus.shtml

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Philippians 4.4-9

Philippians 4
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


I have a vague memory of a time when every third word was ‘gentle.’

And it usually comes amid a parental word salad, along with ‘no’ and ‘be careful’ and ‘you better let me take this.’ Smashing, ripping, thumping, throwing—all part of the learning process, I suppose—discovering things like cause and effect, or what gets the best reaction. I recall a week when Isaac destroyed both remotes (it was a simpler time) and the VCR itself. Maybe he knew the technology was out of date.

I recall some years ago preparing for worship at a senior’s home, waiting for the staff to roll out the notoriously unreliable sound system for our use. On this day the staff person fiddled and fiddled until they reached the point that they were smashing the amplifier with the microphone and shouting “I don’t know why this thing’s not working!” Excuse me, I think I know.

You gotta be gentle. It works for toddlers, the frustrated—really anyone who thinks that you can smash your way to solving a problem. It generally works when dealing with other people, and it’s even good advice when dealing with ourselves. And it’s something that can be taught, as the smashing, ripping, thumping, and throwing behaviors give way to a new set of behaviours—like constantly asking why.

But that’s another sermon. For today, the advice is simple: You gotta be gentle. And don’t just take my word for it, listen to St. Paul, who begins this section of his letter to the church at Philippi with these simple words: “You gotta be gentle.” Then he says “The Lord is near.” We’ll come back to the second part of the verse in a while, but for now, it’s all about gentleness.

Recognizing that nothing ruins a perfectly adequate sermon like parsing the Greek, I’m going to parse the Greek. But I’m parsing with purpose, because sometimes a word needs to be explored in greater depth, and for this, we need Greek. Gentleness, in Philippians 4.5 comes from epieikos, one of those compound words that only makes sense if you break it down.

So epi- means ‘over’ or ‘in addition to’ and eikos- means ‘to yield’ or ‘to submit.’ You can see why we have Bible translators then, because telling someone to ‘over-yield’ sounds cumbersome and not quite right. So your pew Bible (NIV) gives us ‘gentleness,’ while other translations suggest ‘moderation’ (KJV) or ‘forbearance’ (ERV).

And just because we’re on a bit of a roll here, here is the English poet Matthew Arnold, who had his own swing at epieikos, suggesting it means “sweet-reasonableness.’ This sounds like something we all should strive for, like something you might want to overhear at a party: ‘That Michael—he’s known for his sweet-reasonableness.’

So what’s the context here? Why is St. Paul urging the church at Philippi to embrace sweet-reasonableness for all to see? To get to the request, it might be time to make a list, in this case ten things to know about Paul, his letters, and Philippi.

Paul wrote letters to people he knew, and letter was meant as a substitute for his presence with them.
Paul’s letters address specific issues within the church.
These letters really were meant to be correspondence— maybe shared around, but very much a letter.
A letter from Paul was meant to read aloud in worship, hence all the prayers, blessings, and fragments of hymns.
Paul sees no need to remind the church at Philippi of his authority as an apostle—indicating greater intimacy.
Paul describes the congregation at Philippi as a ‘house church,’ meaning small, and maybe very small.
The combination of a small church and greater intimacy with Paul gives the letter to the Philippians it’s hallmark beauty, simplicity and warmth.*
Immediately before our passage he urges two leaders in the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche (YO-de-ah and SEN-te-key) to try to come to a common mind on some matter.
He doesn’t state the matter because he doesn’t have to— everyone in this small church understood why these two women were at odds, Euodia and Syntyche.
Paul seems intent on overwhelming them with love, something that seems plain from the language of our passage.

I guess I could have simply said two elders were fighting and Paul said ‘be gentle.’ That pretty much sums up the context, but now you also know that Paul knew and loved these people, he was invested in their success—if that’s even the right word. He wanted to convince them of a higher way, and he wanted to do it in the context of worship: praising the author of love through his words to the church.

So that’s the why of the matter, what about the how? How do you foster the sweet-reasonableness needed to move forward as a church? How do you become gentle, or at least mindful that gentleness is needed? Paul has an answer for that too, and he gives the answer in two of the most moving (and familiar) passages in all of Paul. The first is a blessing:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

You may know this (in part) because it is part of our funeral liturgy, a blessing meant to calm hearts and quiet minds in the midst of suffering. It is Paul’s testimony that only the peace of God, the peace that frail human minds cannot fully comprehend, is the peace that will help us overcome trouble.

In other words, Paul is saying “I don’t know how this works, but it works.” Amazing, really, considering that Paul is Paul: he’s the architect of the Christian Church, and the foundational source of much of our theology, yet still doesn’t know the exact nature of God’s peace. I take great comfort in this—I don’t need to understand how God’s peace with protect my heart and mind, I only need to trust God in Christ Jesus.

And then this:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Obviously gentleness—the peace of God within you—requires practice, requires intentionality, requires mindfulness. I can’t really say ‘in other words’ at a moment like this, basking in the poetry of divine peace—whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. Meditate on these and find some peace. Find the sweet-reasonableness that will allow you to live with others, and be a blessing to others.

Today we will share the most gentle of rituals, the sacrament of communion. Bread broken and wine poured—gifts of God for the people of God. Then the salvation history of our people will be recited in prayer, all leading to a single moment in time when Jesus said ‘this is my body, broken for you.’ The sign behind the symbol may be violent and cruel, but the remembrance is nothing but gentle, terror transformed by the peace of God—which transcends all understanding—transforming our hearts and minds through the self-giving love of Christ Jesus.

Worldwide Communion is more than geography and joining together on the same day. Communion, worldwide or otherwise, exists outside of time and joins us with believers back to that house church in Philippi long ago and forward to the church of the future, whatever form it may take.

Most of all, we know that whenever we gather at this table, the Lord is near. The Lord is near because our hearts are joined in this peaceable ritual, drawn together in the sweet-reasonableness that is a life in Christ. Amen.

*Most of the list is suggested by Fred Craddock, Interpretation, p. 1-8.