Based on the Scripture readings:
2013 October 13
Entitled to be Thankful
There is an old story about a prayer offered by a person lying in bed. It could be a man and it could be a woman; it doesn't really matter. And the prayer goes this way:
I thank you God for the gifts of this day.
The thing about this story that intrigues me is not the sin-based focus of the character on the mattress. It's the nature of his thankfulness. On one hand it's quite honest and authentic. On the other hand, it has nothing to do with engaging the world in any way: the speaker hasn't lived into God's life yet. It would be interesting to know what happens in ten or twelve hours, to see what changes.
Scholars say that there has been an issue with Christian thankfulness for a long, long time. They think that there was a deep trend in Christianity that is still very widespread for today's Protestants, and it's hidden in plain sight in the Gospel of Luke.
The deep trend could be called presumptuousness, or it could be called entitlement, but instead of our naming it, let Jesus reveal it with his story.
The story about the thankful Samaritan in Luke is unique. It shows up nowhere else. And it's a curious story with some internal oddities. For example, one that requires a map reader is the fact that if Jesus is going to Jerusalem, then why is he traveling from Samaria to Galilee, the wrong direction? According to where he's been in the last few stories, he's made a wrong turn. So, we are inspired to ask, is this a literal story, a factual one, or is it something deeper?
This is not the only healing story in Luke, and these are not the only lepers in the Gospels. But there are ten lepers here, and in Jesus' day lepers tended to live in groups near the margin of population centers so that they could both beg and keep at bay in decent measure. Nine of the lepers here are Israelites and Jewish. One was from away -- from Samaria and another faith. All of them did as Jesus asked. All of them went to see the priests, all of them were healed, all of them were OK with God -- we can see that. But only one of them says thank you to Jesus. Only the outlier, the odd one, the double exile: he says "thanks."
Here's the fundamental issue that commentators see at hand, which is our Protestant predicament, too: Luke was writing about forty years after Jesus' death and resurrection. By then the Church was still a toddler but not exactly a newborn anymore, and it was beginning to take God's blessings for granted. They experienced them, and they expected them. If you asked Christians how they were they'd say "I'm good." For there is nothing like hearing that you don't really need the Temple, don't really need a priest, don't need any more altar sacrifices, and that the righteous live by their faithfulness or that your faith has made you well -- nothing like all of that to make you sense that you don't really need to do anything else to be good with God, don't need to do much in return to God, even to say "thank you." The essence of Christianity that includes the forgiveness of sin and the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to face empires and calamities and daily life can so let some of us off the hook that we don't even notice it anymore. On this side of the Cross, we can use the phrase "to die for" about dinners and clothing and jewels instead of justice and liberation and hope. Or at least some commentators think that's what was happening in Luke's day, and so this story is really a story about a people who were so blessed that they forgot to say thanks or even to recognize the source of blessings.
You can understand this. It's logical. Paul writes that God chooses you and God's Holy Spirit lives in you, and Jesus tells you you are the salt of the earth and even Rome's horrific threat of destruction and death has lost its sting because you begin to believe in resurrection, and after decades of blessed assurance and amazing grace, well, you begin to take God's blessings for granted or even feel, as they say, a bit entitled to them, and you start to think that parking regulations don't apply to you, and you can walk into meetings late, and when day after day after day go by and you have safe housing and enough food and clean water, you don't even say thanks.
So Luke told this story. But it's a double-edged story. Because, again, everyone is healed -- all ten lepers. Everyone is OK. Everyone is reunited with their community, their faith, their life. And one said "thanks."
I used a phrase just a few moments ago: experienced and expected. That's a great approach to God's love and grace and way. Experienced and expected. I wouldn't want to lose that. So why does Luke tell this story?
You know thankfulness is rarely listed as a Christian value. It is not one of the Four Cardinal Virtues, the ancient Theological Values, or Paul's Fruit of the Spirit. You can find as many references to gratitude in Earth, Wind & Fire's music as in some religious texts. And it is good that we do not form our faith in a fear-based or guilt-inducing manner or see ourselves as unworthy of Christ's good name. The Cross released all those, too. Still, the Apostle Paul uses short, imperative phrases in his letters to build churches. In Thessalonians we hear "Give thanks in all circumstances." In Colossians, "Be thankful." And the mystic and Church father Meister Eckhart says, "If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice."
So perhaps Luke tells this story because thankfulness is faithfulness, and it changes us, and it changes the world. Because thankfulness is not flaccid or placid or dull. It settles you and centers you, but it also incites you and inspires you and ignites you. It directs you beyond yourself to God as well as to others. It doesn't separate you: it connects you. And let me tell you what I mean.
Last week Tripti Thomas and our mission committee organized the fellowship time Hunger Banquet here. And children and adults went into the Parlor after worship where we are used to having quite a wonderful time eating cookies and drinking tea. But last week, everyone who went in got a ticket which took them to a particular table, and as most of you know only one of those tables had very much food on it so most of the people in the room got crackers or water or nothing. I was at the "nothing" table. But the first-world table, the bountiful table, the table that reflects the way most people around Greater Newton live their lives, had several cakes and fruit and a selection of sweet beverages. And the plan last week was to learn what we learned, work on our mission energies, and go deeper in our "feed the hungry" projects as a parish. The plan was to learn by experience across generations. But then things changed. Then something else happened, too. It might have been guilt. It might have been worry. It might have been simple logic or having open eyes or just plain hospitality but something, some things, caused the people at the first-world table to be unwilling to let everyone leave the room without sharing their food. Once they knew what they had and what others didn't have, they couldn't not share. As I watched this I wondered how it would evolve. And as I watched this I saw our experience and expectation, our entitlement and our blessings all collide, and I wondered if on some level the word for this wasn't a revelation of thankfulness?
The Achilles heel of the Protestant principle is the all-embracing love of God. (There's a sentence to quote!) Our strength is also our weakness. We are accepted. New life is in our midst through Jesus' way. We should experience that and even expect it. But are we not thankful for it? Isn't good news worth that? Is the Biblical model of ten percent applied to being thankful acceptable to us and to God? A tithe is all we ask of stewardship. Can't more than 10% be thankful? And is there something deeper at hand here?
There was something about that table last week where once we saw what we had, we couldn't not speak and act. There was something about how once we saw what others did not have, we couldn't not change. Even experienced, entitled people share and serve and celebrate; they express their thanks. And there are some specifics for how to do that, too -- how to practice thankfulness, so that's what I'll talk about next week.