Sermon for Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 09 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jer 29:1,4-7; Ps 66:1-11; 2 Tim 2:8-15; Lk 17:11-19
It is not actually deliberate, that the gospel reading we just heard tends to fall on Thanksgiving Sunday; though you would think that it must be, since it is all about expressing or failing to express thanks. It’s a bit of an odd set-up—Jesus seems curiously petulant about the fact that nine out of ten lepers have, actually, done exactly what he told them to do, and gone off to have their healing verified by the Temple priests, their re-incorporation into community officially begun. As for that tenth leper, that Samaritan, it is possible that the reason he comes back is that he has no structure like that to turn to, no priests to whom he might show himself—he comes back to fall down in gratitude perhaps because he has nowhere else to go.
But the language of this story suggests that, whatever his reasons, he does something by which he is further changed. All of the ten lepers are made clean—this is clear, they are not lepers any more, they can all, although probably with some difficulty, begin rebuilding their lives as fully accepted members of their society. But the foreigner, the outsider, the exile in the borderlands, he is not only made clean, but also made whole. Because his healing not only cures him, but breaks him open, because he can only fall down in thanks, because he turns in a total response of his entire being, he can be, even if only for that moment, a rescued person, a restored and completed person, a loving and beloved person, here because he has nowhere else to go, here because there is nowhere else he could wish to be.
These moments have broken, I think, into most of our lives at some time; those moments when suddenly, even briefly, all is well, and the only thing we can do is to be helplessly grateful. Those moments when we can say nothing but “thank you”, to another person, to the simple facts of existence, and in that thanks we are healed, we are home, we are whole, and there is nowhere else to be.
Now, I am suspicious of demands for gratitude; I am made edgy by some of the language around Thanksgiving. Not only because those of us who are settler people are presuming to thank God for the harvest from land which we straight-up stole, to be thankful for what we’ve got without much thought for the people from whom we stole it, nor for whether our harvests have been reasonable or sustainable or healthy. Or because this is just the most outstanding example of people with unexamined privilege cheerfully expressing their gratefulness for that privilege, and the toys and tricks it buys them, without stopping to think why others have so much less, what our part is in a system of inequality.
But also because one does hear attempts to enforce gratitude in a way which compels suffering people—and we are all at some times suffering people — to smother their genuine griefs and pains and losses. And one does hear demands for a false gratitude which discounts justice, demands that people be happy for whatever tiny consolations they may have, even if those are inadequate, even if there is every reason to desire a better and more equal sharing of resources and of dignity, a world more true to the values of the kingdom.
But, all that said, the story is still true—to give thanks, real thanks, is a deep human need. To be broken open by the gladness of our healing. There is a true and profound gratitude which is inseparable from the desire for justice, the recognition that being itself is pure gift, and nothing but gift, that we do not make or earn our selves but are given life, given space to exist, given these bodies and this earth and each other, for no reason, for no purpose or calculation, but out of the pure love which wills that all this should be, simply in order to be beloved. And if we and all things are made, finally, simply to be loved, then all we can do is fall down in amazement and adoration. All we can wish is to take part in that love ourselves.
Because I am grateful for music and cinnamon and rivers and chipmunks and little birds, and also for those somewhat deformed rutabagas from our garden, because I am amazed and grateful that the people I love are in my life, and that I am with all of you here, because I am grateful simply to be in this creation, to see it and know it, because of all this I must live in astonishment, and I must return love for love by loving this world, and trying to do what I can to heal its wounds.
And this takes us to our first reading, to Jeremiah’s instructions for exile. This passage is, deliberately or not, Jeremiah’s answer to the question of Psalm 139—how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? This is how you do it, says Jeremiah to the traumatized and scattered people, trying to find their way in the chaos of Babylon—by loving the place into which you have been driven, by doing your best for it, by seeking the welfare of the city, planting gardens, building relationships, creating and caring. This is how you sing the song of thankfulness, even when there seems to be nothing left.
And so we, in this our exile, we do the same. In the chaos of empire, where we have been tossed without our choosing, we tend and nurture and build. We sing the Lord’s song, in the city to which we are sent.
And we gather here, and give thanks. Because that is the meaning of the word “eucharist,” that is one of the meanings of the act we perform here together every week. The eucharist, the Mass, it is many things—it is a remembering and a making present of the pain and violence of the cross, it is our incorporation of the resurrected Christ here among us, it is a meal in which we offer bread and wine to their creator, and offer ourselves with them; and it is a comprehensive giving of thanks for, and on behalf of, all of creation.
Like that one leper out of ten, we exiles come here, perhaps because we have nowhere else to go, perhaps because we are the ones who will never quite fit in, and we give thanks on behalf all those who are somewhere else, doing what they can, assembling their own lives. Those who may be thinking, somtimes, about a moment in which they were healed, in which they knew themselves whole and loved, and never knew how to respond. And we don’t know either, let’s be honest about that, we are not here because we are smarter or better or more special. But we come here, out of our wandering, maybe only because we can’t think of anywhere else to be, and we are made, even sometimes despite our own best efforts to prevent it, into those who give thanks on behalf of all. Those who seek to live out of that thanks, to live into healing. We hold up our hands to receive the bread, and we make whatever clumsy return of gratitude we can. And we are sent back out to seek once again the well-being of all our fellow lepers and Samaritans, the well-being of the city, the wholeness of the world.