Thursday, November 27, 2014

Tears of Thanksgiving

November 27, 2014 – Thanksgiving Day, Year A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Lately, it seems as if God is working on me in a strange and somewhat scary way. I haven’t quite figured out why, but he certainly has my attention.

It started a few weeks ago when I was at the Episcopal conference center in the Diocese of Mississippi—the Gray Center just north of Canton. I was there for Credo, which is a program designed to help clergy focus on wellness. The idea is that healthy clergy make for healthy parishes. Anyway, I spent six days there, listening to presentations on physical, financial, spiritual, and vocational wellness. I met with experts in those areas, and I spent time reflecting on my life and ministry with some peers. It really was a wonderful experience—down to every last detail.

One day, instead of eating a typical lunch, a member of the Credo staff led us in an exercise designed to help us appreciate the spirituality of eating. When we arrived at the dining hall, the doors were closed. We were asked to wait outside. So we waited. And waited. Finally, when everything was ready, we were escorted into a room that had been transformed from a camp-style cafeteria into a banquet hall. Each place had been set with a beautiful plate. Perfectly arranged, colorful strips of bell pepper accented a carefully designed palate of hummus, fruit, and salad. The guide asked us to look at the food before eating it, to smell the food before tasting it, to consider where each piece came from, and to appreciate how it had found its way onto our plate. Finally, we were invited to indulge ourselves and taste the meal.

After a few final words of instruction, we began to eat in silence. A few minutes later, someone broke the trance-like experience with a word of admiration. Soon the conversation swelled, and we all ate until we were content—a modest but appropriate amount of food. More important than the quantity was the careful, deliberate, loving care with which each plate had been arranged. The men and women who had been providing all of our meals had clearly gone to great lengths to make this a feast to remember.

But the meal wasn’t finished yet.

The leader announced that the Gray Center staff had decided on their own to prepare a second course. I was astounded that any more could be enjoyed. I had already experienced so much. But the kitchen staff wanted to do this for us. We learned that they had prepared shrimp cocktail over a mango salsa with a side of jambalaya and some bread pudding for dessert. It was like finishing a fabulous meal only to discover that the meal had not even begun yet. It was literally too much to take in—both physically and emotionally. Still, we all began to eat again, and the conversation at every table centered on the staff who had done so much for us. We were astounded.

When everything was finished, the kitchen staff came out to let us thank them with a standing ovation. Although pleased with the offering they had made, they were humble and looked mostly at the floor while we cheered and clapped. I took time to look at the face of every one of the men and women who had given so much to me in that meal—and not just in that meal but in every meal we had enjoyed during our time there. These were the faces of people who called that place home, who took pride in their work, and who understood that even serving a meal in a cafeteria is a ministry in God’s kingdom. As I looked at them, I started to weep. I was surprised—even alarmed. Tears continued streaming down my face, flowing so freely that I didn’t even try to wipe them away. Their generosity, their love, their selflessness was so magnificent that it shook me to my core.

And that’s what’s been following me around ever since. Tears are right below the surface. In everyday conversations, I can tell my heart is on my sleeve—that my emotions are living up here in my throat rather than down here in my gut. Casual moments with my children bring me to tears. Recalling stories of friends and mentors who have supported me makes me weep. What is wrong with me? I’m not a sentimental person. I’m a cold, hard, factual, rational person who doesn’t have time for tears. What is this all about?

One day, while he was making his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was approached by ten lepers. Keeping their distance—as was required by religious and social etiquette—they called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Without otherwise engaging them—never touching them or conversing with them—Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests. According to the Law of Moses, a leper, when cured, was to show himself to a priest in order to be readmitted to society. So the ten turned and went on their way, just as Jesus had asked them to do, and while they were walking they were healed.

“It’s a miracle!” one of them exclaimed. “This is what we’ve been waiting for! We can go home to our families. We can go back to work. We can get our lives back!” Indeed, to be diagnosed with leprosy was a fate worse than death. Lepers lived in total isolation. They were kept at a distance. As a result of the rash on their skin, they gave up everything. And Jesus had given them their lives back. All they had to do was go and find a priest who could verify that they had been cured. With that certification, they would be allowed back into society. They would be normal again. Naturally, they raced off to find what they had been praying for for so long.

But one of them stopped and let the others keep running. His heart wasn’t drawn to Jerusalem, where the priests could look him over and send him on his way. He was a Samaritan, which means that he didn’t belong in the holy city along with the others. He could have gone to find a Samaritan priest at Mount Gerizim, his people’s holy site, but that didn’t feel right either. Instead, his heart belonged somewhere else. So he turned around and started running back to Jesus. Exhausted, out of breath, he collapsed onto the ground at Jesus’ feet and cried out, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Even more powerful than the desire to resume the life he so desperately wanted was the desire to express the gratitude of his heart and to give it where it belonged—at the feet of the one who had healed him.

Then, Jesus looked at him and said something as surprising as the man’s return: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?...Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Wasn’t he already healed? What did Jesus mean? What did this man get that the others missed out on? The word translated for us as “has made you well” can also be translated “has saved you.” In response to the man’s soul-filled gratitude, Jesus looked at him and said, “Now, you are truly healed. Now, you are saved.”

Gratitude has the power to change everything. It is the foundation upon which faith is laid. It is the avenue through which God’s power can work. It is how we present ourselves to God and say, “Here I am, Lord. What will you do with me?” It all starts with gratitude. That is the lesson I have been learning these last few weeks. Like ground tilled and made ready for new plantings, my heart has been turned over by gratitude, and I sense that something new is about to grow.

What about you? What is gratitude doing in your life? What doors to new opportunities might thankfulness open for you? The other day, as I walked into the cafeteria at my son’s school to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving lunch, again, as I joined the line, I started to cry. I don’t know why, but the experience I had in Mississippi is still with me. And I believe that it’s just the beginning of something. When you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal today, will you weep with gratitude for all that God is giving you? Will you return to him and throw yourself down at his feet? Don’t let this day go by without making the connection between the blessings you enjoy and gratitude for the one who bestows them. Be thankful and, through your thanksgiving, give God a piece of your heart and invite him to take it and use so that you might never be the same. Amen.

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