Sunday, October 13, 2019
Lectionary 28, Year C
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c Naaman washes in the Jordan and is cleansed
2 Timothy 2:8-15 If we die with Christ, we will live with Christ
Luke 17:11-19 One leper made clean by Jesus gives thanks to God
Title: Humbly Thankful
Today we begin with a shout out to Canada. Yes, Janet, you heard right, Canada. Because tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. And I don’t bring this up just to make Janet happy. I mention this because our gospel reading, a fairly familiar story about a man cured of leprosy who took the time to give thanks to God where thanks was due, this is one of the readings that is suggested when a community hosts a liturgy around Thanksgiving Day. So, good for us, we are in sync with our Canadian siblings today. (No additional comments about longing to be Canadian in these turbulent days of our government in crisis will be made.)
But, with no disrespect to the thanks-giving Canadians, I would actually like to go back to the story we heard in the first reading. The story of the army commander Naaman who also suffered with leprosy. This is a favorite story of mine because it is filled with so many wonderfully human comedic moments. It is a comedy best appreciated if you think of pyramids and power. For some of the funniest moments are created because characters are seeing themselves as sitting at the peak of a pyramid that is used to symbolize the power that supports the one on top.
A brief background to the story. Aram, what is today Syria, had some sort of overlord hold on Israel. And so, when there is the promise of the King of Aram’s favorite commander being cured by a prophet in Israel, the king, seeing himself sitting a top a great power pyramid, sends a letter to the king of Israel who is imagined sitting a top another pyramid, lesser though it may be. Kings talk to kings. It confirms the power they see themselves as having when they acknowledge the power of their peers. And especially the peers that they have made a little less them themselves through conquest. The Aramean king does not realize that there might be one more powerful than a king in Israel. How could there be? Kings, like him, sit on the absolute peak of the power pyramid.
So this letter requesting help for Naaman arrives in the palace of the king of Israel, and though a vassal king to Aram, he still imagines himself sitting a top a pyramid of power, and is thus quite upset by this request (or demand) that has come from his overlord. Because when you are a vassal to another king and you do not make good on their demands – whether they be for taxes, troops, horses, or livestock, or, in this case, a miracle – you run the risk of being replaced by someone who will obey all commands and make good on all demands. Seeing himself as most powerful in the land, he figures he must activate the cure,- which he knows he can’t – and so he rips his robe in outrage and despair and expects the worst – a quarrel and removal. Am I God? Figuring that when you are sitting at the peak, there is no one above you.
However, Elisha, understanding who really holds the power in this and all situations, calms the king and takes on the managing of the request for healing.
But then we get one more pyramid sitter to be humored by – Naaman himself. For when Elisha gives him the simple instruction to wash himself in the waters of the Jordan seven times, Naaman takes his place on that power pyramid that as a general he has been set on before and demands that his power and position make him special and therefore something special should be asked of him or done for him. How is bathing in a muddy creek a remedy that is up to the standards that he himself deserves. Powerful and prestigious that he may be.
But, as in many a comedy, especially from the ancient world, it is the low person on that pyramid, the servant or the slave, the one who is suppose to contribute only by following orders and manual labor, it is that powerless one that understands the situation the best and offers the advice that will provide that last laugh, the happy ending. Perhaps their position at the bottom of the pyramid helps them see the whole picture. Whereas the one who thinks they are at the top, only look down.
But what do these pyramid sitters have to do with us? We certainly are not set over any structure of power. Don’t see ourselves as overlords of anyone. And yet, there is the power of our own lives. In our culture, we are filled with idioms and stories, with axioms and encouragements to be our own person, to take control of our lives, to exercise our freedom by calling the shots. Have you dutifully followed that advice and put yourself on top of the pyramid of your life? Do you try to hold all the power as monarch of your realm, small though it may be?
If that is where we place ourselves, or better put, if that is where we act and live our lives from (consciously or just by habit), than we can understand the actions of those nine lepers, cured by Jesus and running off to re-claim their lives. Perhaps their pyramid-peak thoughts are filled with: I’ve suffered enough, I believed enough to be cured, I worked at getting better enough, I asked sincerely enough, I must get on with my life.
Seems like a good time to hear James again call us to “Humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord.” And that humility takes us back to where we started. I don’t mean Canada, rather I direct us back to thanksgiving. Because at the root of true and full thanksgiving is humility. Those sitting high and lofty and looking down will see themselves as self-made, self-sufficient, self-fulfilling. Those who – in humility – look up, see the one who is worthy of all thanksgiving. It sounds easier than roasting a juicy turkey, but it really is not.
This past week, at the annual Forum on Forgiveness on Yom Kippur, participants again affirmed that forgiveness is hard. It often times goes against everything that we want to do, all the actions we of retaliation we want to engage, the cutting off that we think will bring us peace. In humility giving thanks, can be just as hard. We want to claim a reward for work well done. We want to boast of accomplishments. We want to lift ourselves up so that others see us sitting on a pyramid and thus give us admiration and praise. We want to hoard that which we think we deserve.
One might even view some of current national crisis growing out of the challenge of giving thanks with humility. There is a lot of rhetoric filling the discourse that comes from a “we deserve this, It is ours and not theirs, We want more” mentality.
This past week, as we blessed the dining area in Enrico’s new apartment, we heard in the prayer what it means to live humbly thankful. The prayer concluded with: “Help us to be grateful for all mercies, and mindful of the needs of others.”
Humility does not ask us to be shamed, or humiliated, or feel less than. It comes from the word humus – meaning earth. Living in the humility that leads us to thanks-giving to God for all blessings and mercies that we receive, just means being reminded that our feet are on the earth, not dangling from the peak of some imagined pyramid. And as humans, we know we are wholly dependent on God. So, let us, in all humility, with feet on the ground, look to our God – who claims us at the font, our God who is made known to us in the person of Jesus – who feeds us at his table, our God who is leading and empowering us through the Holy Spirit, this God of abundance, is truly worthy of all our thanksgiving.
The Rev. Mark Erson,