The #blessed, the righteous, the thankful

Deuteronomy 8:7-18 | Psalm 65 | 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 | Luke 17:11-19

The last time I stood in this pulpit to preach, Lowell spied my iPad at the ready and asked me just before the sermon if it received text messages. I wanted to say “no,” but I knew it could. Lucky for me, it wasn’t connected to the wi-fi, and I got his message that I was doing a good job after the service.

Cultivating a sense of humor, being able to take–or even play–a prank every now and then, and learning how to juggle many things at once are just some of the things I’m grateful to St. Paul’s for teaching me along my path of discernment and formation for ministry. When Suzanne asked if I would be willing and able to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day, my first thought was “of course!” What better way to express my gratitude for all St. Paul’s has been for me than to celebrate the Great Thanksgiving in this place at this time? Whether we’re familiar to one another or not, I’m sure we could agree on many things for which we are grateful to St. Paul’s and The Episcopal Church.

Like Psalm 65 offering thanksgiving for the earth’s bounty, we could count our many blessings, creating a beautiful, bountiful list. Many of us today will do this, likely go around our tables, sharing what we’re thankful for, and I heartily encourage you to do so. Share with family and friends your gratitude, your hopes. Perhaps we could also share our awareness of those less fortunate and what it looks like to take action on their behalf. Perhaps we could also consider our responsibility for the abundance we have and what we do as good stewards of our bounty. I make these suggestions because the Gospel never really tells us to sit around and linger in our comfort.

We could be tempted, of course, to count our blessings and marvel at how #blessed we are. All of us here this morning are definitely blessed. We don’t have work today (well, most of us, anyway; thanks, Jack!). We’re safe. Preparations for our feasts are made. If I could gaze into your hearts, I’m sure I would hear the sound of love coursing through your being: love of God, love of others, and hopefully love of yourself. We’re here offering thanks to God for the ultimate sacrifice. We are praying for those who are less fortunate. We’re living the good life.

When we’re feeling so grateful, why do we get the story of the ten lepers today? Leprosy, a disease that eats away at the flesh, is a most unappetizing sort of image. Could it be that we in blessed comfort, if we’re truly honest, have our own dis-ease eating away at us?

If the greatest self-help guru came to the Town Center, imagine the crowd that would gather. He might call to the crowd for ten volunteers, choosing from the multitude those waving their arms most frantically, desperately: “Pick me!” He calls to the stage those whom he chooses:
~A corporate woman always wanting the next bigger, better thing,
~A warehouse worker who just never has enough,
~A waitress who can’t get ahead and hoards every little thing she has,
~A struggling musician who just can’t get a break,
~A minister who knows he’s struggling to practice what he preaches,
~A stay-at-home mom wrestling with the super-mom syndrome,
~A doctor with a god-complex,
~An entrepreneur who just lost his savings,
~A teacher whose voice is never heard,
~An undocumented day laborer who sends most of his money to his family out of country.

To this group he tells them simply to go somewhere safe, to someone they trust, and to tell that person the truth of their discomfort, their dis-ease. “Go! Go now!” he says. So they run off stage, rushing on their way. He smiles after them, knowingly.

The one most used to being pushed aside and left behind, the one used to waiting for the chance to do a bit of work for a bit of cash, finally makes it to the doors at the back but pauses. He feels it. What has ailed him has left him. The burden he has been carrying has been lifted. Instead of dis-ease, he feels a tingling of . . . Light? Joy? Love? With tears in his eyes, he returns to the guru, falling at his feet, making a complete scene and everyone else incredibly uncomfortable, but he can’t stop thanking this person.

Everyone else is looking on, confused.

“Better already?” the guru asks the laborer. He showingly spans the crowd. “Is this the only person made well? Where’s everyone else?” He helps the laborer to his feet and looks into the questioning eyes with all wisdom and love. “Faith,” he says. “Carry on and keep the faith.” He sends him on his way.

All ten came to the guru believing something could be done to make them well.

But only one had the presence, the awareness to realize that the healing wasn’t necessarily a result of an action he himself had to do.

How beautiful it is to me that seeking healing with an honest, humble, helpless heart puts us in a unique position to be most fully restored to wholeness by “the surpassing grace of God,” “an indescribable gift” (2 Cor 9:15).

Even as we are counting our blessings, giving thanks for our blessedness, what eats away at our joy? What prevents us from living into the fullness of love of Christ? What blinds us to the truth of reality that we are in community with one another, no matter how different we think we are from everyone else?

What is our dis-ease?

Our current and present hardships are real. I affirm and validate your struggles because I know each and every one of us has more than one we’re dealing with. And I hope you can go to a safe place, a trusted person–and maybe that’s a paid professional–to help you figure out what your next steps are. But spiritually, from a place of faith, you bear God’s favor. The very image of you from your DNA to the reflection you see in the mirror bears God’s blessing.

Because God made a covenant. God promised to see the people to the Promised Land. God promised abundance upon abundance, plenty of everything, wealth and health, and all things delicious. There seems to be this condition, though, that our being #blessed is conditional upon our giving thanks to God, not forgetting that all things come from God, remembering to uphold God’s commandments, ordinances, and statutes. Putting God first above myself and all else

That’s where righteousness comes in. Ps. 112 describes the blessings of the righteous, those who are gracious, merciful, and just. Generous. Steady of heart. Unafraid of evil. They rise like light in the darkness. Yes, they, too, have a rich and wealthy house, are blessed and honored, but their homes might look more like a one-bedroom apartment than a mansion complex. Just because people are struggling doesn’t mean we aren’t blessed. Just because we’re going through hardships doesn’t mean we aren’t righteous. Like the ten bridesmaids from last Sunday where the only reason we know five were wise and five were foolish is because we’re told, we know that all the lepers are healed because we’re told. If we were only going by what we saw, we’d only think that one was healed. But only one was aware enough to turn back to the one who showed mercy and healed fully then and there. The rest thought they had to go someplace and do something special. We can go seeking grace and find it in unexpected places, but the most astonishing discovery of all is when we realize it’s right where we are. Because God made a new covenant, one of unconditional love and mercy and grace, through Jesus Christ.

Right here where we are, we practice remembering all gifts come from God. Right here where we are, we bring our dis-ease before God, allowing grace to fill our spirit with renewed seeds faith and hope and especially love, that we might sow them bountifully wherever we go from here. We do go from here, to love and serve the Lord, but first we acknowledge our faith, pray for all, confess our sins, make peace with one another, and, of course, give thanks to God.

Continue Reading

From Our Deepest Hurt to Our Greatest Love

 

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 | Psalm 66:1-11 | 2 Timothy 2:8-15 | Luke 17:11-19

The first experience for first year seminarians in Sewanee is to make a pilgrimage to Hayneville, Alabama, in honor of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire. Daniels saw the inequality in the South and believed so strongly in advocating for civil rights that he left the comfort of his home and school and went to join the movement in 1965. After being released from jail and going to get a soda, Daniels was shot in Hayneville in front of a convenience store, shot because he took the bullet aimed at a 17-year-old black girl named Ruby Sales, whom he had pushed out of harm’s way. Daniels became one of our modern day martyrs, and Ruby Sales has since continued advocating for civil rights and has become a public theologian, perhaps living into some of the roles Daniels would have, had his life not been cut short.

In reflecting on her youth, Ruby Sales says* she grew up with black folk religion “that said that people who were considered property and disposable were essential in the eyes of God and even essential in a democracy, although (they) were enslaved. And it was a religion where the language and the symbols were accessible, that the God talk was accessible, to even 7-year-olds.” She describes her parents as “spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that (she) was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched (her) consciousness” and a world where “hate was not anything in (their) vocabulary.”  This “black folk religion” was her foundation and was ingrained in her so much that later when she thought she had left the church, she realized that even though she had left God, God had never left her.

Ruby reached this moment of realization, she says, “When I was getting my locks washed, and my locker’s daughter came in one morning, and she had been hustling all night. And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs.

“So something said to me, ‘Ask her, “Where does it hurt?”

“And I said, ‘Shelly, where does it hurt?’ And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother.”

Such an honest, open question given to her by “something” that we might call Spirit, opened Ruby to the reality of the person before her, this equally essential child of God. As Shelly shared the source of her pain, a relationship was forged, not only between Ruby and Shelly but also between Ruby and God. Ruby was reminded of her foundation in God and guided to pursue a way to do her work not as a Marxist but as a public theologian. In a moment of intimate relationship, Ruby went back and gave thanks to God maybe not in so many words, but her life work became about fighting to maintain this intimacy in relations, being able to look at matters straight on and ask, “Where does it hurt?” In the midst of this relationship-forging and soul-sharing, God shows up, and despite the pain, healing begins.

In nearly every conversation I’ve had in the past week, whether it’s been asked directly or offered willingly, people are sharing where they hurt. The images we see, the rhetoric we hear, the experiences we are having are chipping away at our resolve to be people of faith, people in relationship with one another and with God. It is so much easier to close our eyes to that which offends us, close our ears to that which assault us, close our minds to that which challenges us, and close our hearts to that which pains us. Perhaps like me you get caught in those moments where your heart physically hurts. Even as an enduring people who remember Jesus Christ, we are tired, and we are hurting. We may not have leprosy, but we know that we are sick, that we need Jesus’s mercy now more than ever, that we have no part of the kingdom of God without God’s grace, our only hope of salvation.

Getting to the kingdom looks like it’s a long way from here, looks pretty impossible, actually, but Jesus has shown us that it doesn’t matter who we are–black, white, or brown, native or foreigner–our faith makes us well.

Our faith saves us. Our faith makes us whole.

Our faith that says when we are baptized and die to ourselves, we live life in Christ; that when we endure all manner of suffering, we reign with Christ; that no matter how faithless we are, God remains faithful to us because God cannot deny God’s self. Our being in relationship with God depends on us, on our faith.

I tell my kids when they don’t want me to go somewhere or when they were younger and didn’t want me to leave them alone at night, that I am never separated from them because our heartstrings are connected. I would place one hand over my heart and my other hand over their chest, and they would almost always lay their hands over mine, holding me close. So when my heart hurts over images I see, over the discourse I hear, over the suffering of family, friends, and neighbors near and far, I imagine my heartstring to God being pulled, being strained. Even in the pain, I’m grateful that I still feel this connection to God in my care and love of others. I know that I can invite God into this pain to give me strength, to strengthen my hope and faith. But perhaps our heartstrings can be pulled so much and so often that they become numbed, that we forget we are connected to God from the beginning. Perhaps we can lose our foundation or close ourselves off in isolation, being turned away from God.

When we ask, “Where does it hurt?” we are asking so many things.

Where are our relationships strained or broken with ourselves, with others, and with God? When were we told that we aren’t essential? When was the accessibility of God taken away from us? When were we told that we aren’t valuable, that we aren’t beloved? These are incredibly powerful questions, and answering them honestly makes us vulnerable and weak . . . and yet creates space for God to restore us to wholeness, to restore and strengthen our heartstrings–our relationship–because God is reminding us that God’s still here, has always been here: won’t we just turn toward God, perceive God’s power at work in our lives, offer our thanks and praise, and get on with the work God needs us to do?

God already knows our hurt, feels our pain, and has already laid out the path to our health and salvation. As we are restored to wholeness and affirm the great power of God, we testify to others how our salvation is already accomplished. It’s not cheap grace or easy love. Jonathan Daniels saw what was hurting in our society and was determined to show up in a place that needed a witness of God’s love. Two months before his death, Daniels wrote, “I lost fear … when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I have truly been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.” Such is the union of a saint with God and the life of one burning fiercely with compassion for others. Ruby Sales took for granted her foundation in God’s love but witnessed the power of that Love when extending it to others. In asking and answering a simple question that touches on our pain, we open ourselves to receive God’s mercy in our weakness. No matter how undeserving we think we are or how unessential society has marked us to be, salvation in Christ is offered to all who endure with Him and glorify God.

We may not have grown up in black folk religion, The Episcopal Church, or any religion or church at all. But if we are here today, we are plunging into relationship with Christ, because if there’s something we are good at in this place, it is in remembering Jesus Christ and giving thanks and praise to God. We open our ears to hear God’s Word, we open our hearts to forgiveness, we open our mouths to proclaim, and we open our hands to receive. In all this we affirm our lives rooted in God, centered in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and we give our thanks. We have the security of our relationships with one another in Christ to share where we hurt and to see the way forward with hope through God’s grace, through Love, our heartstrings firmly connected.


 

* Krista Tippett’s interviews with folks have a way of speaking to what is true in so many aspects of our lives. I am grateful for this podcast that captures not only Sales’ experience but also the questions of other public theologians. http://www.onbeing.org/program/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/8931 

Continue Reading