Per usual, this sermon was preached from lessons I did not choose. Here they are. If it’s a half-decent sermon, it will make only modest sense without them.
What are you up to today? I’d ask him. Five foot ten and a quarter, Dad would answer. Every. Single. Time. I asked him. He was lying about the quarter inch. But let me ask you, all dad jokes aside, what are you up to today?
Most of the time, we know what we’re up to. We know where to be, or where we want to be. We know where to go, or where we want to go. Societal norms direct us. Self-interest, too. If I want this, I’ll go there, if I want that, I’ll go here. Concerns about safety, rational concerns – and irrational ones, also – direct us. Expectations of benefit. Accrual of social capital. The desire for good reputations. When someone remarked to my friend one time the old cliche, “It’s a small world,” my friend answered, “Actually, it’s a rather large world, filled with strange things and wonder. But it’s easy,” he conceded, “to confine oneself to just a familiar cow path or two within the wonder and come to believe that it’s small.” My friend’s popularity at social gatherings and dinner parties is unclear.
But he’s right.
Everywhere, the invisible calculus. Everywhere, a thousand considerations go into taking this step and not that one. Saying “yes” to one friendship and “no” to another. And as much as we’d like to think we’re up to the task of independently and accurately assessing each step on its own, we develop invisible patterns until without even knowing it we’re walking in only the thinnest slice of the pasture and the possibilities provided us. By the way, that’s what – among other things – therapists are really good for; helping us spot the invisible patterns. Of course, if your therapist shares your blind spots with you, good luck. You may both stay on the same cow path together, and not even know it.
This brief and disputable account of one part of our shared human nature is helpful for spotting the mischief of Jesus in the gospel today. Jesus is traveling through the region between Galilee and Samaria. He’s traveling along the border. The border, which is the edge of a cow path decided by peoples. And the invisible patterns that constitute borders are not the same everywhere, but here – between Jews and Samaritans, in the region between Galilee and Samaria – the invisible pattern is the familiar mutual disdain of people each side is certain they are better than. Think Texas/OU weekend at the fair. Or any group of people your family of origin taught you to count as less than, especially if it wasn’t clear to you when they spoke that they were joking.
The highlight of the story today is of course the healings, but also Jesus’s own astonishment that only one of the ten people Jesus heals of leprosy comes back with a thank you card. Guess what, the one who came back? He came from the wrong people. From the people despised by Jesus’s people. But hey, says Jesus, at least he came back. At least he said thanks. Where are the others? The silence that follows as Jesus’s question hangs in the air is a judgment of ingratitude for the people who thought of themselves as being on the side of the good, even on the side of God. As better than the one who came back. Where are the others? he asks.
Will Willimon has observed that gratitude is not an emotion that comes easily to people, generally speaking. Life moves fast and there are temples to get to, religious or otherwise. The crisis resolves and it’s back to the rat race. Business as usual. No time to lose. But a friend of mine one time gave me sage advice I cherish. He said you’re never running too late to go to the bathroom. Because what good are you, really, if you show up on time but full of – stuff, or so urgently occupied that you are unable to be present to the people around you? It’s probably the same with gratitude. We’re never too busy or running too late to lift up our hearts, to give voice to our thanks, but sometimes we forget or tell ourselves otherwise. What was the healing for, we wonder, if not to help us get back on the hamster wheel of running ourselves into the ground?
So we move on. Maybe we find ourselves incentivized to get on with things because the gift we were given and the dependence it reveals wound our pride. Maybe we view God’s help, when it finds us, through the lens of entitlement, as a possession we were owed, even a kind of personal achievement, because we’re, you know, really pretty swell. Self-righteousness kills gratitude, because it claims as its own what is really God’s gift. What we’re talking about is learning to speak truthfully about the world, about our lives.
When you catch a sniff of self-righteousness in yourself, if you’re quick, you can grab a hold of the frayed end of a single, sacred thread. It’s the thread that connects love of God and love of neighbor. They’re on the same thread because God is always giving for the benefit of others, for people like you and me. And for people unlike you and me. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).”
Love of God and neighbor are on the same thread because it’s hard to be thankful to God for the good gifts of God without becoming generous by extension. Theologian Miroslav Volf writes that the true God gives so we can become joyful givers.” But it’s hard to be thankful to God when I’m pretty sure what I have is because I am better or more deserving than you, whether you’re a Sooner or Samaritan. It’s hard to be thankful and take what was meant to be a continuing blessing for me as well as all those around and beyond me and instead dam the waters around myself, where the waters grow stagnant by my imagined superiority, deserving, and/or self-importance. The same walls that keep me at a lofty and self-satisfied distance from the other side also keep me from seeing the truth about my life. These walls keep me from knowing my life as a gracious gift of the living and generous God.
So let’s cut to the chase. If you pull that thread tight, the one connecting love of God and love of neighbor, if you pull it tight, all the way, you end up with something truly terrifying. Something like what Dorothy Day, that great saint and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, realized. She put her realization this way, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Ugh. Dorothy’s popularity at social gatherings and dinner parties is similarly unclear.
Why does he do it? Why does Jesus insist on traveling in the land between regions? Along borders. Off familiar cow paths? Can’t we all just stay away and mind our own? But watch this, says Jesus. Follow me. And then, as they do, as we do, Willie James Jennings describes it, “The disciple of Jesus Christ (becomes) a surprise to the world, especially to the cultural and economic worlds where people live in…segregated spaces and sequestered living places…” We become a surprise to the world exactly as we follow the One who goes through the region between Galilee and Samaria.
The thread that connects love of God and love of neighbor is the same thread that connects generosity and gratitude. Nothing so much as generosity – giving and forgiving – reminds us that everything we enjoy is a gift for which we rightly give thanks to God. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Nothing so much as generosity – giving and forgiving – reminds us that the good gifts of God are meant for sharing even across borders, for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people. Generosity and gratitude are what humans do when we are, with God’s help, most fully alive.
So what do you do when someone or something does something beautiful and humbling and you realize you are not yet as alive as you could be? What do you do when someone you have learned to despise – or simply not care about – becomes a sacred window through which you glimpse the abundance of life and, in order to grow closer to God, you find yourself with no choice but to draw close to the infidel? What happens when no one comes back, except for this foreigner?
In the reading from Jeremiah, God gives God’s people the unimaginable instruction to live out their faith in a foreign land. Among the oppressor. As foreigners. They will be the foreigner they have feared and despised. It will feel like the end. But God is evidently okay with this situation in the interim, an interim which will last for most of their lives. Even through they will find themselves involuntarily removed from their cow paths and comfort zones in ways that will test their faith to its limits, even there, God will repeat the blessing and instruction of Eden – “be fruitful and multiply” – and even in a strange land, as strangers, God will be with them.
So, it’s stewardship season, and you’ll hear a lot more about that from people other than me in days ahead, but did you know that the practice of tithing, of giving a percentage of one’s income away, finds its roots in Deuteronomy 26, where the people are entering the promised land for the first time in their history not as foreigners?
It’s an instruction that begins “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess,” in other words, “when you are no longer foreigners, either as your wandering ancestors or as slaves in Egypt, to keep you living and located in the story of God’s deliverance, at the heart of God’s promise and mission in the world, be generous, set aside a portion for the poor and those just traveling through.” It’s the same deliverance at the heart of the Easter Vigil, the exodus Christ completes by his death and resurrection, and so the word is true for us, also: in order to keep you living and located in the story of God’s deliverance, at the heart of God’s promise and mission in the world, to tend the flame of faith with your life, be generous. Give to the ones most unlike you, because they are like you. Remember that you were once them, that you are them, that though you have a place now, remember that you are still pilgrims on a journey, believers in a promise, remember that your true home is in God.
You don’t have to. Do you want to?
It is important for me to give because generosity does not come naturally to me and it is easy to lose sight of my place in the story of God. It is easy to trade the single, sacred thread of Christ’s love for acts of self-deception. But practicing generosity has given me a heart that is grateful for it. In other words, I have come to see that even what I regard as my generosity is really one of God’s gifts. I might have had a much smaller life. I might have declined opportunities to grow in trust of God. I might have continued fearing loss in the many forms it takes, declining border travels and fearing those whom God has made my friends. But, thanks be to God, I am learning to speak truthfully about the world and about my life. Thank God I didn’t wait to feel generous before I tried it. Mostly, thank God I married a woman more generous than me.
And so I thank God for the gift of generosity. First God’s own, made known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Second, the generosity God gives the church to share, as the living God who makes God’s home in us works in us and through us for the blessing of others, for the restoration of all things in God. And finally, I pray that God will not stop emptying my hands of the things I would otherwise hold onto.
What else do you do, what else do you pray for, when you realize you are both wonderfully loved and yet not as alive as you could be? As alive as you will be.