Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
Our theme this year at HMC is focused around building connections. We are on the lookout for ways to connect with ourselves, each other, and God. During the month of November we have been exploring what is means to make connections through the practice of gratitude. The story we find in Luke chapter 17 affirms the power of gratitude in building connections.
In the text we find Jesus traveling along the borders of Samaria and Galilee.
What this loosely means – is that he is in a space of in-between – and for Jesus – it is truly a space of in-between. In the bigger picture of the Jesus story, he is making his way towards Jerusalem, towards the impending challenge of his authority and ultimately towards his death. The space of in-between we find him in in today’s text is a space identified as a border region between Samaria and Galilee, a place that provided the potential cross-over for between the traditional Jewish community and the Samaritan community.
It is just such a mix of folks, Samaritans and Jews, who make up the group of ten people with leprosy that cry out to Jesus for healing as he enters their village. By this point in his ministry, Jesus has done enough to be known for his teaching and healing skills. The group suffering in this village calls out to him as he comes near – they don’t actually approach him, as they are afflicted and might be quarantined in some way or another – but as they see him enter their village they do not refrain from crying out – “Jesus, Rabbi, have pity on us!”
Jesus sees them and responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
To our ears this may seem an odd response that Jesus offers to this group of people, almost as if he is casting the requested care giving duties upon others – go to the priests with your problems. Yet, in this moment, Jesus isn’t disregarding this group of folks who have cried out to him, he is instead offering them healing. Per cultural customs and laws of the time, in cases of leprosy, it was the role of the priests to offer inspections, impose quarantines if necessary, and also to offer rituals and declarations of healing for those who were cured of their affliction. Without so much as a pause, Jesus, fully aware of what he is offering, sends the 10 to the priests for inspection.
It isn’t until they have turned to make their way to the priests for inspection that the people find they are healed. We can imagine that, upon discovering the disappearance of their symptoms, this group took off running to the priests to receive declarations of healing and be set free to live their lives on their own terms once again. And all but one of them did.
Of the ten that were healed, one realized what had happened, he understood the connection between Jesus’ action and the healing power of God and returned to offer thanks and praise to God. He was even vigorous in his gratitude and unabashed in his praise – the text says he came back praising God in a loud voice, then fell down at the feet of Jesus and spoke his praises. This is not just a simple thank you. This is grace-filled, spirit-driven, deep-rooted gratitude. And in this offering of gratitude, Jesus sees the readiness of this one individual to be an active participate in the community of God and assures him that his faith has made him well.
The wellness Jesus speaks of extends beyond just the healing of the leprosy, this wellness is a gift of God in response to gratitude and praise. It is the gift of peace and prosperity that comes when we choose to be intentional participants in building the community of God. It is the wellness that blossoms within us when we are active witnesses to God’s movements within and around us and when we respond to that activity with expressions of praise and gratitude.
Living out gratitude takes practice. It is not always easy to be grateful and there are may be times when it feels we have little to be grateful for. Learning to live with gratitude is about opening oneself up to seeing connections between things and then being willing to express praise and thanks for those connections.
This week I read a book called “The Marvels” by Brian Selznick. In it there is a young boy, named Joseph, who has run away to his uncle’s home in search of a better understanding of his family’s past – of where and what he comes from. His uncle turns out to be more of a mystery than not, as is his house, which is filled with inscriptions of the Latin phrase: Aut Visum Aut Non – roughly translated: you either see it, or you don’t. When Joseph initially encounters this phrase it feels, to him, like threat, like a challenge or a taunt about what he is missing out on. You either see it, or you don’t! Yet, as the story progresses and bits and pieces of the mystery seem to start being revealed, that phrase, which was at first perceived as a threat, becomes an invitation. You either see it, or you don’t. It isn’t a taunt, it is a gentle nudge to fully engage with and look at what is surrounding you. It is an opportunity to name things, interact with them, and perhaps, if we are willing, respond.
This is the experience of the one person with leprosy, who realizes that it was Jesus’ action that had brought about the healing of the ten. He sees it! He is not satisfied to go forth with his life without naming, praising and offering gratitude for the mercy and healing that had just been extended to him. He looked beyond the healing itself and saw something bigger at work and that vision literally changed his direction.
Pastor and theologian Davis Lose puts it this way in a commentary he wrote about this text:
“How we see shapes our outlook and our behavior…before we are called to believe or confess or help or do we are called simply to see…and to help others do the same. We are called, that is, to point out blessing, to claim mercy, to name grace wherever we are and with all the courage we can muster.”
In my own practice of gratitude this month I have found it to be a mix of all those things – pointing out blessing, claiming mercy, and naming grace, not just for myself but for those I encounter and for the communities in which I move and live. And we live in a time and place in deep need of courageous seers. Like Jesus, who traveled on borders, we are living in a space of in-between, where a variety of perspectives, cultures, and voices are vying for power and dominance. It is easy to feel lost in the mix, helpless, and hopeless. Yet, blessing, mercy, and grace abound, especially if we accept the invitation to seek and name them. For example – this week I learned that Randy Spaulding has been called to serve as the pastor of Boulder Mennonite Church. For those who may not understand why that is significant – Randy was previously a pastor in the Mennonite Church and had his credentials stripped from him when he came out as gay. With his call back to a pastorate in the Mennonite Church, he makes the 6th officially out LGBTQ pastor in MCUSA – and even just a few years ago that fact would have been a phenomenal idea. There is movement, hope, and healing actively happening and it happens even more so when we choose to extend blessing, mercy, and grace to others as well. That is part of the practice of gratitude.
And it takes practice. There were ten people healed of leprosy in the story, nine of them didn’t return. Those nine were healed of their leprosy, but in failing to practice gratitude, they missed out on the fullness of the gift that was being offered by God. When we recognize what we are seeing/have seen at work in our lives and offer gratitude, we experience wholeness. And when we practice gratitude in community, in relationship with each other, we create space for healing and wholeness, not just for ourselves, but for each other and for those beyond our circles who are in deep need of healing and hope. When we learn to practice gratitude, for ourselves and each other, we are making space for the fullness of life available to all of creation in the presence of God.
A fullness of life that is available in abundance when we accept the invitation to see and respond with gratitude. 2 Corinthians 9, while more literally meant about finances, also serves as a reminder of the invitation to be people open to shifts of perspective, people on the lookout for connections of God at work on and beneath the surface of our lives and to offer gratitude:
Keep this in mind: if you plant sparingly, you will reap sparingly, and if you plant bountifully, you will reap bountifully. You must give according to what you have inwardly decided.
Aut Visum Aut Non.
This is not a threat, it is an invitation to plant gratitude bountifully and, in so doing, reap a wholeness of life, for ourselves and others, beyond expectation.
In the words of A.A. Milne – author of Winnie the Pooh stories: Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.
Gratitude is something that we can practice with God and with each other, it is available in every moment and every relationship and it is something that people of all ages can participate in. And many of us have been at work practicing it in intentional ways this month. We will now hear reflections on the practice of gratitude that two folks have been experiencing this month as they have participated in the gratitude buddy experiment. The gratitude buddy experiment has paired people willing participants up with each other and offered them the challenge to share moments of gratitude either daily or weekly during this month. Saundra and Becky – I invite you to come share your reflections and experiences of gratitude.
The Prayer of Thanksgiving by Walter Rauschenbusch, 1861-1918
For the wide sky and the blessed sun,
For the salt sea and the running water,
For the everlasting hills
And the never-resting winds,
For trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses
By which we hear the songs of birds,
And see the splendor of the summer fields,
And taste of the autumn fruits,
And rejoice in the feel of the snow,
And smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty;
And save our souls from being so blind
That we pass unseeing
When even the common thornbush
Is aflame with your glory,
O God our creator,
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.