October 13, 2019

2019 Oct13









Proper 23 - Year C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


Gratitude. Today’s readings have a great lack of gratitude. For Naaman, the Aramean (now Syrian) army commander, to be ungrateful might be somewhat expected. After all, he is from an enemy kingdom of Israel’s, no friend of the Hebrew nation – then or now! However, it is precisely through gratitude that Jesus’ healing is effective.


In the Gospel, Luke played a little fast-and-loose with the geography of the journey in order to include a Samaritan among the lepers. Like Naaman, the Samaritan leper would have been an enemy of the Hebrew or Jewish people – and Luke’s primary audience was unconverted Jews. Of all the lepers, it was the Samaritan, the foreigner, the aggressor who was the only one who showed gratitude. That’s Luke saying, “Take that, you sanctimonious Pharisees!”


The message today:
We need to show more gratitude
in our daily lives.


AJ Jacobs is the author of books such as “The Year of Living Biblically” and “Drop Dead Healthy”. He gave a TED talk last year related to his book “Thanks a Thousand”. He described how he embarked on the journey to thank everyone involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. He started his talk by stating the obvious:


“I can hear 100 compliments and a single insult, and what do I remember? The insult. And according to the research, I'm not alone. Unfortunately, the human brain is wired to focus on the negative. Now, this might have been helpful when we were cave people, trying to avoid predators, but now it’s a terrible way to go through life. It is a real major component of anxiety and depression.”


Naaman’s initial ungratefulness and that of the other 9 lepers is, according to research, how we are supposed to be under normal circumstances. Yet, we have things like the Psalm:


Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the deeds of the Lord! They are studied by all who delight in them.


At least 33 of the 150 Psalms are ones of Thanksgiving. However, in line with AJ Jacobs’ assertion, at least 74 of the Psalms – almost half – are Psalms of Lament. This puts a whole new understanding around the Prayer of Humble Access that we used to say before the Eucharist:


We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.


“So,” AJ Jacobs asks in his TED Talk, “how can we fight the brain’s negative bias? According to a lot of research, one of the best weapons is gratitude.” His quest to live a life of gratitude took him months and around the world. His journey was not limited to the baristas, the café manager and the janitor. Jacobs was considerably more extensive in his endeavor to thank every single person who contributed to his coffee. This included:


  • The growers in Colombia.
  • The processors in Colombia.
  • The steel workers in Indiana who contribute to the processing machinery.
  • The driver who brings the coffee to the store.
  • The asphalt producers who make the roads.
  • And even the woman responsible for pest control in the warehouse where the coffee is stored before distribution.


This degree of expressing gratitude is extreme! However, Jacobs realized that:


“…it doesn’t take a village to
make a cup of coffee. It takes the
world to make a cup of coffee.”


In that ecosystem of producing his cup of coffee, there are both human beings and elements of God’s Creation which are integral to one’s joy. Naaman and the Leper had single encounters which resulted in God’s grace being bestowed upon them. That’s how we tend to think: If something good happens to me, it’s God’s direct intervention. Yet, AJ Jacobs’ journey illustrates, and reality tells us, that God’s goodness works through many, many others – a series of events and actions which lead to your cup of coffee, your birthday party, your new gadget purchase, your new friendship, your spiritual and physical healing.


Each Sunday, we come here to engage with Jesus in the form of the Eucharist. The very word “Eucharist” is Greek for “Thanksgiving”. The Holy Communion is our “Great Thanksgiving” for what Jesus has done for us in His life, death, Resurrection and Ascension. The whole service is entitled “The Eucharist”, not just the Bread and Wine part. It’s meant for us to be grateful for both the Word and the Sacrament, to know and to meet Christ in both Word and Sacrament, and to remind us that Christ Himself is both Logos (Word) and Sacrament.


After receiving the Sacrament, we are to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We are to do so with gratitude and with “gladness and singleness of heart,” as we say in the Post-Communion Prayer.


It might be difficult to muster up the energy to be thankful and to express that to others. Expressing your gratitude in prayer is right and proper; expressing your gratitude in your mind is a start. But to really express gratitude is to tell another person “Thank you for what you do for me.” The act of doing it is hard, and you will feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. You’ll want to stop thanking people, particularly strangers as soon as you start. You’ll be thinking, “That AJ Jacobs guy is kind of weird!”


AJ Jacobs gives some really good advice on getting through that initial phase of awkwardness: “fake it ‘til you feel it.” By this he means to keep thanking people until you actually feel the gratitude. This works with many ways of being positive; I know because I have tried it; I have been forced by circumstances to maintain a positive emotion in a particular environment for a sustained period of time such that I eventually genuinely enjoyed being in the environment. The same is for being negative in a particular situation, time-after-time, like that particular committee meeting or visiting a particular relative. Jacobs said of this “fake it ‘til you feel it.”:

By the end of the project, I was just in a thanking frenzy...I would wake up every morning in my default mood, which is grumpiness, but I would force myself to write a thank-you note and then another and then another. And what I found was that if you act as if you’re grateful, you eventually become grateful for real. The power of our actions to change our mind is astounding. So often we think that thought changes behavior, but behavior very often changes our thought.


Today’s Bible readings are trying to teach us this lesson: Practice gratitude until you are actually grateful. Both the OT and Gospel stories use examples of not being grateful to help the gratitude stand out. In the Gospel, it’s the 9 ungrateful Jewish lepers. In the OT, it’s surly Naaman. But that’s not all; there is more to the lesson.


A part that is missing from our OT story is that of Gehazi, Elisha’s servant. If you look at the citation for the reading from 2 Kings, you will see that it ends at verse 15c. The very last part of verse 15 and onto v16 go like this:


[Naaman said to Elisha,] “…please accept a present from your servant.’ But [Elisha] said, ‘As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!’ [Naaman] urged him to accept, but [Elisha] refused.


The remainder of ch17 is helpful in illustrating the concept of gratitude because it’s about GREED! Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, ran after Naaman and lied thusly:


‘…my master has sent me to say, “Two members of a company of prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim; please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.”’ Naaman said, ‘Please accept two talents.’ He…tied up two talents of silver in two bags, with two changes of clothing, and gave them to two of his servants, who carried them in front of Gehazi.


When Gehazi returned to Elisha, he again lied. Elisha, being a man of God, knew something was up, and cursed Gehazi with Naaman’s leprosy as punishment. The NRSV gives this section the title “Gehazi’s Greed.” It’s attached to the main story in order to enhance the importance of being grateful. The eventual gratitude of Naaman extended all the way to a servant running after him to request a gift that had previously been denied. The greed better helps us admire the gratefulness.


Remember what Jacobs said:

“So often we think that thought
changes behavior,
but behavior very often changes
our thought.”


That goes for the bad as well as the good. We can condition ourselves to do evil to the point that it becomes normal. When that happens, Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection teaches us that we can always turn back, we can always repent, even if we have to “fake it ‘til you feel it”.


It’s also true for attitudes other than gratitude. It works for kindness, as well. Last month, as the new academic year began, UCLA opened The Bedari Kindness Institute, the first to study kindness. The Institute will gather research from sociology, psychology and neurobiology to make sense of the real-world practice of kindness, including how kindness spreads, and how being kind impacts the human brain. Kindness, like gratitude, is solely for the receiver. The Director of the institute, Professor Daniel Fessler, said


[W]e define kindness as thoughts, feelings and beliefs that motivate action intended to generate a benefit for another party. In other words, intended to enhance the welfare of the other party, where doing so is an end in itself and not a means to an end.


So, both expressing gratitude and being kind are attempts at making the world a better place! Jacobs found that out in his exercise and in his own research:


The research shows that the more grateful you are, the more likely you are to help others. When you’re in a bad state, you’re often more focused on your own needs. But gratitude makes you want to pay it forward. And it’s why I encourage people, friends, family, to follow gratitude trails of their own. Because it’s a life-transforming experience.


When you “fake it ‘til you feel it” and you eventually feel it, you will begin to have gratitude for that which God has given you, not just for what other people have done for you. And if you have believed yourself to always have been grateful for that which God has given you, you will start to feel it in a different and deeper way. We come here Sunday-after-Sunday and receive Sacrament-after-Sacrament in remembrance, so that we not only know but feel and understand that Christ died for us so that we might have Eternal Life. We say in our Prayer of Thanksgiving:


It is right, and a good and joyful thing,
always and every-where to give thanks to You,
Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.


We need to believe that and practice that. If we believe it but don’t practice it, then, like Jacobs, we have to fake it ‘til we feel it so we can go away from here to live a life that is a worthy response to the acts of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – that we give thanks for in The Eucharist.


One last notable element of today’s readings: In both the OT and Gospel, minor, unnamed characters play key roles. The unnamed Hebrew slave girl is an evangelist, of sorts, for the God of Israel, and she encourages Naaman to visit Elisha. The unnamed Samaritan Leper is the one who shows his gratitude to Jesus. Both are outsiders in their contexts, yet both show us, the readers, the path to God.


There were a lot of previously unnamed characters in AJ Jacobs’ quest to give “Thanks a Thousand”, and he made a deliberate effort to change that. Perhaps that unnamed character is someone in your daily life to whom you should give thanks and show your gratitude – be that glimpse of God that they might need. After all, you could very well be that unnamed character is someone else’s life.

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