Photo credit: Marcus Wöckel
Readings: Psalm 111:1-10, Luke 17:11-19, Heaven and Hell #404 (see below)
Well, it is just the beginning of October, but let’s get a jump on Thanksgiving shall we? Because, the story that we have heard from the bible today is all about gratitude. Jesus is traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee. He meets ten lepers and heals them. It is interesting how it happens. They are not healed in Jesus’ presence; he sends them to see the priest and it says “as they went, they were cleansed.” They suddenly found themselves healed when they didn’t quite expect it. Yet, nine of them continued on their way, only one turned around and returned to Jesus to thank him. Jesus feigns surprise, and makes sure to point out that the one practicing gratitude is a Samaritan, an enemy of his fellow Judeans. Jesus has already told the story of the Good Samaritan a few chapters earlier, and this story drives home his point: we should be wary of the walls we erect between ourselves and others, for if we pay attention it is the Samaritan, the one the Judeans call “enemy” who is actually loving God and loving the neighbor as Jesus is teaching. This Samaritan’s gratitude is lifted up as a model.
Now, I did not grow up with a Thanksgiving holiday, and I’ve very much come to appreciate the tradition of setting a day aside to give thanks for our blessings in community. Perhaps the practice is as simple as saying grace at a feast, perhaps it is the practice of going around a table to say one thing we are grateful for, perhaps it is a yearly inventory of our blessings. Gratefulness is an important practice.
I do want to dive a little deeper and ask: Why though? Why is Thanksgiving so many people’s favorite holiday? Why is the practice of gratitude often so restorative? Why do we teach our children to say “thank you” when someone does something for them?
Certainly, it is a nice thing to do, it seems the right thing to do—but why is that? Because it is an acknowledgment that we exist in community, that we rely upon each other. It is the acknowledgement of the existence of someone else whose action made an impact upon us in some way, it is an acknowledgment that we are not islands but strands of a grand and beautiful web. Gratitude connects us to each other and to reverence.
Reverence, in the words of philosopher Paul Woodruff, is the recognition of something greater than the self.(1) Gratitude is one of the easiest and most important ways we enter into the experience of reverence. When we say thank you, we bring ourselves into the recognition of someone apart from the self, recognition of a need that we could not fulfill on our own, and therefore, a recognition that the self is not all-important or all-capable.
Or in the words of Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor “reverence stands in awe of something—something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits—so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.” (2)
This is essentially what we are doing here in church. God does not need our praise. God does not desire it. We heard that in our Swedenborg reading. We are here however, to be reverent, meaning to willingly let go of the primacy of self, and to consciously look outside of ourselves to see what else there might be, whether that be God, or community, or beauty, or insight or countless other things.
And when we notice and/or receive these things, these gifts, we fall on our knees in thankfulness that we are not alone in an empty world. Into this space of gratitude, we speak aloud an acknowledgement of our limits, our indebtedness, and our wonder. This is the push and pull of worship: to open our eyes to what God would have us see in ourselves and others, to take our awareness outside of our selfhood, to lay down our anxieties in front of someone who cares, to sing and pray and listen and speak ourselves into community with each other and God.
In Taylor’s words, “reverence [is] the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience.”(3) Humility and curiosity are key, for Jesus warned us in the text for today that our preconceptions about who we should be in community with, who we should be open to and grateful for, can get in the way of true reverence.
But our preconceptions of people are not the only things that get in the way. We often erect many obstacles to gratitude and reverence in our daily lives. As Taylor points out:
“The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings be come not more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. (note) We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable. Meanwhile, none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods. If anything these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods—if only we could find some way to do more faster.”(4)
What is it that reminds us that we are not gods? Simple awareness. We remain so caught up in our own competence, our own opinions, our own delusions, but a simple autumn leaf and the awareness that we had nothing to do with its beauty and process and life, this can bring us around to our place in the order of things.
We hear this in the words of Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, who recounted a vision she had one day:
And in this [God] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I look at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: what can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. (5)
The ten lepers were healed “as they went.” And so we also go about our lives, to and fro. As we go, will we notice our various healings, small and large alike, and will they remind us to praise, to be grateful, to see that everything has being through the love of God? In Taylor’s words, can we trust “that something as small as a hazelnut can become an altar in this world.”(6)
And so, as we explore for ourselves gratitude and praise in this season of Thanksgiving, as we meditate upon the ways gratitude shows that we belong to each other, let us hear this blessing from John O’Donohue:
May you listen to your longing to be free
May the frames of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart
May you find a harmony between your soul and your life
May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted
May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within
May you never place walls between the light and yourself
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you, mind you, and embrace you in belonging.
1 Praise the LORD. I will extol the LORD with all my heart in the council of the upright and in the assembly. 2 Great are the works of the LORD; they are pondered by all who delight in them. 3 Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever. 4 He has caused his wonders to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and compassionate. 5 He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. 6 He has shown his people the power of his works, giving them the lands of other nations. 7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. 8 They are established for ever and ever, enacted in faithfulness and uprightness. 9 He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever— holy and awesome is his name. 10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.
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 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.”
Heaven and Hell #404
Some spirits who thought themselves better informed than others claimed that in the world they had held to the belief that heavenly joy consisted solely in praising and glorifying God, and that this was an active life. They have been told, though, that praising and glorifying God is not an appropriate kind of active life, since God has no need of praise and glorification. Rather, God wants us to be useful to each other, to do the worthwhile things that are called works of charity. However, they could not connect any notion of heavenly joy with thoughtful good deeds, only a notion of servitude. The angels, though, bore witness that it was the freest life of all because it stemmed from a deep affection and was invariably accompanied by an indescribable pleasure.