Gratitude on the Borderland

A little recap

Last week we launched our two-month annual renewal program, the theme of which I characterized as the stewardship of tender competence.  Stewardship is a year-long process, however, it gets an injection of energy during  the Fall of each year with an annual renewal phase. In the annual renewal phase we are asked to enter into an intentional reflection within ourselves and within our community. The focus of this reflection is on our relationship with God, lived and expressed through our relationship with one another as members of the Body of Christ at Trinity Cathedral. For me, there is a metaphor for the process of reflection borrowed from London Underground’s slogan: mind the gap.

As we begin the process of spiritual reflection on the way we are living, where do we notice the gap in our awareness lying?  I am keenly aware of a gap between what feels safe and manageable and what feels more than I am able to share from my gifts of time, talent, and treasure. It is when we mind the gap, that we notice the emotional- psychological chasm in our awareness between what we feel is reasonable and what is asked of us.

As Christians, and as a Christian Community, we long to contribute to the increase of well-being in the world around us. Becoming aware of the link between our desire to make a difference and our own spiritual growth and health is crucial. For instance, there is a strong spiritual health connection between the extent to which we long to open our hearts and the comparatively closed nature of our checkbooks. I am afraid that spiritual health requires us to open our checkbooks as widely as we long to open our hearts.  

The links: faith, courage and gratitude

In the passage from Luke’s Gospel that we heard proclaimed last week, Jesus drew our attention to the nature of faith. The problem of faith is not that we don’t have enough faith, but that we are not living courageously enough to believe that the mustard seed amount of faith we do have is able to achieve more than we can either imagine or expect.  Where are we to find the source for courage?

We live lives of gentle courage when noticing that at the heart of the mustard seed amount of faith there lies the core experience of gratitude. Gratitude is the first fruit of the spiritual life of discipleship. No circumstance is able to knock us off course for long when on a day by day basis we give grateful thanks for the freely given benefits we enjoy in our lives. In my experience only gratitude supplies enough of the energy needed for courageous, faithful, living.

The Gospel readings that will take us through this season of stewardship renewal focus on Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. This journey is an image for the path of discipleship. We are the disciples who accompany Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. Along the way we are learning what God needs from us as accountable and tenderly competent stewards. Mark, Matthew, and Luke each offer their own interpretation of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Each, creates a particular feel for this journey through their selection of events encountered along the way. This year we journey with Jesus as seen through Luke’s eyes.

One of the key characteristics of the journey as perceived by Luke is the way Jesus goes out of his way to welcome those who were on the outside of society. Luke’s Jesus is particularly attentive to the plight of women and children in a brutally, male dominated society. He attends not only to the physical plight of the sick. He pays particular attention to the way illness socially relocates individuals to the outer edges of their social and religious systems. In doing this we are asked to reflect on the way social and religious systems continue today to relocate the sick and vulnerable to the margins. Luke’s Jesus is particularly concerned with the issues of inclusion and exclusion, who is in and who is out.

Gospel context

Today’s Gospel centers on a typical Lucan event, that of a request for healing. As Jesus moves through the contested borderlands between Jewish Galilee and the hostile region of Samaria, ten lepers encounter him along the road. They respectfully keep their distance while calling out for Jesus to have mercy on them.  Jesus turns his attention towards them and seeing them simply says: go show yourselves to the priests. As they set off to do so they are healed.

Miraculously finding themselves healed, nine continue on their way. Only one turn’s back to thank God, falling at Jesus’ feet, overwhelmed with gratitude. Jesus then asks the onlookers as well as his disciples, were not ten made clean?  Jesus’ point is that it is only the foreigner, the spurned other, who returns to give thanks?

This short story is crammed to overflowing with significance. Luke intends for us to read between the lines in order to grasp the significance for our own journey of discipleship.

  1. The first thing to notice is the location. Jesus is in the contested border region between two mutually hostile populations, Jews and Samaritans. It is significant that Luke does not place this event among the rolling hills of Jewish Galilee. Neither does he wait until Jesus has safely crossed into the Jewish heartland of Judea. Because it is in the borderland, the places in our lives in-between those comfortable zones of certainty and secure identity. It is in the in-between spaces that we find God is most active.
  2. The region between Samaria and Galilee is a metaphor for the in-between places where we experience risk and uncertainty, maybe even danger. It is in those uncomfortable experiences of taking a risk that we are more likely to be open to the power of God in our lives. The reason for this is simple. God is always closer to us in our vulnerability than in our security.
  3. The phrase Luke uses for the healing of the lepers is made clean. Jesus sends them to the priests so that they can be certified to be ritually clean again. We miss the point if we see their physical disease as the core problem for the lepers. It’s their ritual contamination, a source of their exclusion from society and religion that is the core problem for them. In my experience it’s often the so-called religious worldview of good Church–going Christians that presents the strongest resistance to the inclusive expectations of the Kingdom of God.
  4. In reflecting on tender competence in our relationships with others, does our religion protect us from those we shun? Does our faith challenge our need to protect our own sense of security by scape-goating and shunning those we fear as other?
  5. A related point follows. Presumably nine of the lepers were Jews. Luke wants us to see that only the Samaritan, the feared other, the foreigner, allows himself to be spiritually and not merely physically healed. The fruit of his spiritually healing shows in his becoming overwhelmed with gratitude.

Some concluding remarks

Why does God desire our expression of gratitude? The latin word gratis means freely given, not earned, not paid for, but gift. Gratitude is our human response for what is freely given to us by God. Gratitude is not a matter of groveling before an irate, finger wagging God, who in a booming voice demands: you should be be grateful!  By closing the gap in our awareness, gratitude functions as a spiritual and emotional realignment towards God that issues forth in generous love and service. Gratitude opens us to God like flowers before the warmth of the Sun. Gratitude calls us to more deeply appreciate the link between the gifts God has given us to enjoy and our responsibility towards the health and welfare of the common good.

God invites our collaboration. We have the free will to either accept or decline the invitation. Most of us don’t really decline God’s invitation, we simply postpone acceptance until what we imagine will be a more propitious time in the future when we will be better situated to accept. In this way we perpetuate the gap between what feels safe and what is required of us. In this gap our courage fails. We feel unable to make an impact upon the world around us. We are filled with a sense of futility that encourages us to close-in, living increasingly in the interests of our own safety and security.

As we proceed with our intentional reflection on the art of tender competence, my hope for us all is that we become more mindful of the gifts of health, wealth, time and talent, which are ours not only to enjoy, but to share through lives of courageous faith and generous service.

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