Saturday, November 28, 2020

Difficult Gratitude Is Rewarding Gratitude


November 26, 2020 – Thanksgiving Day, Year A

 © 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:40.

You have heard that Samaritans and Jews hated each other. There was more than a rivalry or sectarian conflict between them. They were divided by layer after layer of history, ethnicity, culture, religious practice, and all the resentment that comes from such division. 

You will remember that shortly after King Solomon died, the nation of God’s people was divided into two: the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah, which was centered on Jerusalem. If a civil war were not enough grounds for hatred, when the Babylonians came and destroyed the southern kingdom and took its people captive, many of the people from the north, who a generation earlier had been ransacked by the Assyrians, were left behind. They continued to read their holy text, the Torah. They continued to worship on their holy mountain, Mt. Gerizim. They struggled to survive, but, a generation or two later, when the residents of Jerusalem were permitted to return, they found new reasons to resent their Judean counterparts.

During the Babylonian captivity, much had changed. One people had lost its holy city and its temple, but the other had remained at home. Without the central apparatus of its religion, the people of Judah had developed new sacred practices—new ways to stay connected to God while in exile—but the people of the northern kingdom did not recognize these perverse new practices. Even the central stories of their shared ancestry had been reshaped by the experience of devastation and exile and return, but these new sacred texts were rejected by the Samaritans as a bastardization of God’s word. But, for the Judeans, to reject the scripture and practices of the exiles was to deny their experience of pain, grief, and loss. You can imagine, then, why such hatred persisted between these two peoples—ancient siblings separated by political conflict, sectarian separation, and divergent experience.

In Jesus’ time, that hatred wasn’t just a chapter from history. It was a lived experience. Josephus, the Jewish historian, recalls that, when Jesus was about seven years old, Samaritans snuck into Jerusalem during the Passover festival. At midnight, when the temple was open for pilgrims to enter and pray, this group of Samaritans came and threw parts of dead bodies into the temple in order to defile the sacred spot during the holy festival. Like ransacking a synagogue and spray-painting anti-Semitic graffiti on its walls, this act was designed to strike at the very core of who their embittered foes were. Samaritans and Jews were known to attack each other, especially in the territory in which today’s gospel lesson takes place—that no-man’s land between Samaria and Galilee. They would capture their enemies and, if they could find any Egyptian traders nearby, they would sell them into slavery. That hatred was the basis for the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story Jesus used to question everything we know about who is our neighbor. And it’s the background for today’s story about a miraculous healing.

Despite all that separated Samaritans and Jews, as the story of the ten lepers begins, there is nothing left to distinguish one leper from another. All ten are united in their shared ostracization from society. Leprosy was any number of stigmatizing skin ailments that required complete separation from other people. You could not worship with the community. You could not stay in your own home. You could not eat with your own family. You could not embrace those you loved in times of joy or loss. You lived completely and totally apart. “Unclean, unclean!” you would yell in public places in order to make sure that people knew to stay away from you. And, if you dared to get close enough to touch someone, you could be put to death. You were no longer rich or poor, male or female, Samaritan or Jew. You were simply defined by the illness that held you prisoner.

These ten lepers, united in their condition, were united in their plea for mercy: “Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” And, from a distance, Jesus answered their request: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And, as they went, they were healed. The miraculous healing itself is overshadowed by what follows. There was no dramatic prayer, no intimate touch, no incantation or prescription, just Jesus working his power from a safe distance. But as soon as they were healed, something powerful happened: the ethnic distinction, which had been hidden by their leprosy, suddenly recrystallized. 

Jesus told them all to go and show themselves to the priests at the temple, but the Samaritan did not have access to that religious option. He did not have a place among God’s people at the holy mount. Being examined by a priest was a necessary step in the process of being readmitted to Jewish society. What was this Samaritan supposed to do? Presumably, he had his own separate religious rites for rejoining his people. But, instead of walking toward Mt. Gerizim, he turned around and came back to Jesus. Praising God with a loud voice and falling at the Jewish rabbi’s feet, he thanked him. 

“Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus asked. It’s easy to hear those words as a criticism of the other nine, but they were simply doing the right thing, the very thing that Jesus had asked them to do. It seems unlikely if not unreasonable for Jesus to be upset with them. Perhaps a better translation would be, “Of the ten, how remarkable that this stranger was the only one who came back to give praise to God!” Jesus marvels on our behalf that a Samaritan, separated from all that Jesus represented by generations of sectarian conflict and violence and hatred, was moved to return and offer thanks. And that faith, Jesus tells us, is what made that man well.

Sometimes gratitude is harder to show than others. Last week, I was getting my haircut when the conversation turned to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. “There isn’t much to be thankful for this year,” one of the other customers remarked from behind his mask, giving voice to the struggle that all of us are feeling. But one of the barbers immediately piped up, “Sure there is! It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to see it.” We are all untied in our struggle and in our suffering. There is no one among us—friend or foe, sibling or rival—who has not been hurt by the pandemic. We all have good reason to shake our fist at God and grumble about how difficult these last nine months have been. And God would receive our grumbling graciously and lovingly, as a parent receives the pain and struggle of a child.

But this is also a remarkable opportunity to be thankful and to express our gratitude. It takes a little more work this year than usual to name those things for which we are thankful, but there is restorative power in doing so. Practicing thanksgiving allows us to stay connected with one another and with God not only in our struggle but also in our restoration. It reminds us that we are not alone even when we are isolated from one another. And it brings forward into our conscious lives that truth that lives within us even when it is hidden by our struggles—that we are beloved by God, that we are saved by God’s love, and that God will forever hold us in God’s loving arms.

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