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.

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Risking a Different Narrative

Judges 4:1-7 | Psalm 123 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Matthew 25:14-30

This Sunday is the only time in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary that we get to look at the book of Judges. This provides a great plug for Bible study, thanks in part to our prompting from the collect to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. We’ll talk more about doing this in Christian Education after the 9:15, but let me point just a few things out for you, especially why I prompted you to read at least all of Chapter 4.

After Joshua died, Israel got a series of judges, of which 12 are presented in the namesake book. This is important because the Israelites don’t have a good track record when left to their own devices. (Even with judges, they’re not perfect.) The Israelites had a tendency to go along . . . and then pull a little like a car out of alignment, drifting out of line. They do wrong, anger God (expressed by oppression by enemies), then plea for repentance for which the LORD sends deliverers, or judges. This is a pretty predictable pattern that plays out time and again.

With Deborah, the fourth judge we’re given, we hear that the Israelites have displeased God. They’re being given over, sold to an enemy. Defeat is certain, what with the fancy iron-clad chariots and all. But Deborah, prophetess and judge, gives then an alternative, their hope for repentance and for getting back on the right road. She offers a teaser to their victory, that Sisera, the opposing military general, will fall at the hand of a woman.

Will it be Deborah? We’re mindful, of course, that Deborah may be judge and prophet, but she’s not the military commander; that’s Barak’s role, the one she’s directing. We could be left with the mystery, but I think it’s worthwhile to know that we get a more complicated, detailed story. There’s the basic pattern, but we have more (which is why I encouraged you to at least read all of Chapter 4).

Looking at what follows Deborah’s outrageous command, Barak basically says, “Deborah if you’re not going with me, I’m not going.” It sounds almost endearing, like President Obama saying he wouldn’t take the Oval Office without Michelle (like I’m sure he did!). Or like Moses not leading the people without Aaron to speak for him. Or like Jacob not letting go of the angel he wrestled with until he had the angel’s name. When we’re heading into battle, into stormy territory or rough water, we want to know we go with God’s assurance and blessing, especially when the prospects look grim.

So of course Deborah goes with him, and they’re victorious over the army, and they sing a song like Miriam did after they crossed the Red Sea (because we so often repeat our stories). But Sisera fled, commander as he was, and he hid in a tent where he happened to find the smith’s wife–the smith who had likely forged the iron for Sisera’s chariots. Surely at this tent, Sisera would be safe, Jael the wife providing him refuge. But she doesn’t. She gives him milk, not water (which would have indicated true hospitality–maybe like our coffee?), and when he sleeps, Jael drives a tent peg through his head–a graphic scene of violence (of which Judges has many) our lectionary opts to omit from our comfortable Sunday mornings.

Except maybe our Sunday mornings aren’t as comfortable anymore. There’s nothing that says our churches are a guaranteed, promised violence-free sanctuary. Another pattern has emerged. A headline appears. Multiple fatalities. Details about the town, the place, the victims, and the perpetrator. An investigation that lingers longer than our attention span, not bloody enough to lead the news anymore. We wring our hands and lament the loss of life, the senselessness of it all, hug our babies close and send them back to school, go back to work, go back to church, and lock our doors at night. All this in an effort to keep safe.

I spent three hours at a seminar on Thursday, a Safe Worship workshop aimed toward clergy to get us to see how or why our church might be vulnerable. They offered practical steps to keep ourselves safer, and at vestry this next week, we’ll talk about which things we’ll implement: some are simple, while others will require your help, too. We’ll keep you posted.

But I wonder what Deborah would say. When violent crimes at churches have increased about 870% from 2004-2017, where would she lead us? What would she tell us to do?

Let me offer one more insight I shared at the Continuing the Conversations on Wednesday. Tuesday night I attended a lecture at the UofA. Professor Carol Anderson, who teaches African American Studies at Emory University, shared with us the story of how in 2014 all the news stations were showing Ferguson on fire. All the anchors were saying that the African Americans were burning their home. She repeated this, as she heard it repeated over and over again. In the midst of this narrative, perpetuating that there’s something wrong with the black folk–obviously–because they’re destroying their home, she stopped.

Wait a minute. Folks don’t just burn up their homes.

She said that we were so focused or maybe even distracted by the flames that we forgot to look at the kindling that sent the flames sky-high. She talked about patterns of systemic oppressions, where profiling, incarceration, and voter suppression–thus lack of representation–were destroying the fabric of their society. Finally a match was struck, and the flames revealed the rage that was already in the offensive position. Only the narrative was focused on the reactive. And if we only ever respond to the reactive, does anything ever change? If we only get the homeless a hotel room every once in a while . . . or only treat those without insurance in the ER when they’re very sick . . . or only look at mental health or gun reform when people are gunned down . . . what will change?

When we’ve gotten off track, what do we do?

Deborah would say we’ve got to listen to and follow God.

Dr. Anderson would say we’ve got to wake up to the facts and imagine a different narrative than the one we’ve bought into.

And the Gospel? The Gospel tells us it’s complicated.

The Gospel is complicated because we want to think and believe that if we just listen to our master, our commander, the voice of justice, then we’ll be rewarded justly. But we’re given instructions, and then we’re left to our own devices. What do we do?

The parable today rewards those who took risks, and the one who thought he knew the master’s nature and did what was safe, was cast out. This surprises us because the master apparently isn’t the best of guys. But the servants are getting a lot of money–a bag of gold, 15 years’ wages, or $1.25 million are descriptions I’ve read of what a talent is. The third guy played it safe and didn’t do anything but hide his treasure. He had a choice. Barak had a choice. He could have disobeyed Deborah or tried to hide, but then as in Matthew, there’s an inevitable accountability to God. And we just don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. It’s complicated. We won’t always get it right, and we won’t always know how it’s going to end.

But a good combination of listening to God and taking risks for the sake and love of God, that’s worth our all. Stopping in our tracks to ask questions, standing at the brink of disaster and asking, “What’s going on here?”–that’s a hard and scare place to be . . . but so worth it. We know it’s worthwhile because we’re not the same person afterward. We have new knowledge about the world, our community, and ourselves. This knowledge fills our vision with awareness and clarity we didn’t have before, as if we’ve woken up to see another dimension. We see a way we can take all our talents and use them to make a difference in the world around us.

What we realize is that listening to God and taking risks transforms us into the people God needs us to be so that the world God imagined, redeemed by the Son, could be made manifest.

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