Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Uncommon Gratitude" - Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

Uncommon Gratitude
Thanksgiving Eve
November 21, 2018
Bethlehem, Mankato, MN
Luke 17.11-19

Ten lepers beg for mercy from Jesus, somehow knowing and trusting that Jesus can help them. Maybe his reputation had preceded him; we don’t know. Regardless, they call out to him. Ten lepers, with and unknown skin disease and who are cut off from precious community, plead their case to Jesus. Though this leprosy is not what we normally think of as such, it was deadly in another sense. Ten lepers, are outcasts from society, but are commanded nonetheless to show themselves to the priests. All ten lepers instantly obey. On their way, all ten lepers are healed by Jesus’ powerful word, a word that both enters and disrupts their current reality. Yet only one leper thinks to return to Jesus to thank him, praising God for this remarkable grace. This uncommon show of gratitude becomes even more singular because he hear that he was a Samaritan, mortal enemies of the Jews.

Expressing gratitude for the blessings of God are all too uncommon in today’s world. I find myself reacting to the current cultural, societal and political reality with snark and cynicism rather than gratitude. I assume that I am not alone. When I find this happening, I not only limit my time on Facebook, more importantly I turn to Sr. Joan Chittister’s book, Uncommon Gratitude for re-centering and help. It is co-authored by Rev. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the world-wide Anglican community. Sr. Joan is a Roman Catholic nun in the Order of St. Benedict and who writes exceedingly well on spirituality. This book is not a screed decrying the lack of gratitude in the world. Just the opposite for it carries the subtitle: Alleluia for All that Is. Instead, Sr. Joan invites us to look for alleluias, voices of gratitude, in unlikeliest of places.

John was a classmate of mine at seminary and we quickly became friends. He and his wife, Sue were in a similar situation to Cindy and me: we were both second-career, we both uprooted our families to come to seminary, and we both had young children, us two girls and them three boys. During seminary, John and Sue became unexpectedly pregnant, which understandably created an additional layer of difficulty in the midst of an already difficult situation.

(A side note: Since they already had three boys, some of us asked if we should pray for a girl. Someone else noted that it was a bit late for that, which resulted in a spirited discussion about how God works through and apart from all time. Geeky theology followed.)

Rather belatedly, John went in for a vasectomy and when he did the doctor found a lump on his testicle. Tests confirmed that it was testicular cancer, yet at an early and treatable stage. John noted that, had he and Sue not become pregnant, the cancer might not have been discovered until later, perhaps too late. As it was it was treatable and John has been cancer free over 25 years. John and Sue found uncommon gratitude and sang alleluia for the unexpected pregnancy and even gratitude through the cancer, which has enabled John to understand more deeply what his parishioners experience as they go through similar times. Oh, and they had a girl by the way.

To express uncommon gratitude and sing alleluia does not mean ignoring the painful areas of life that threaten to overwhelm us. It does not mean a Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” rose-colored glasses kind of living. As Sr. Joan says, uncommon gratitude is not a substitute for reality; it’s an awareness of another whole kind of reality. Alleluia for all that is means to deal with moments that don’t feel like alleluia moments by learning to look for the face of God hidden among these darkest moments because that is where God chooses to dwell.

In one of the most poignant chapters, Sr. Joan talks about her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and subsequent death. When discovered, her mother soon became a stranger to her, someone with whom she had been incredibly close. Her mother ended up living 28 years with the disease, and so did Sr. Joan. As the title of the chapter indicates, it was a time of darkness. Even so, Sr. Joan discovered this was a time for alleluias, because the darkness forces us to look at life all over again. Darkness, she notes, is a time of new beginning, insisting that we become new, “even to ourselves.” She states further, “Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we understand that not all growth takes place in the sunlight.” It’s where we “come to understand that God is at work in our lives when we believe that nothing whatsoever is going on.”

That, my brothers and sisters, is nothing more and nothing less than the message of the cross. As Jesus shows us with the ten lepers, God enters the brokenness, darkness and messiness of our lives, bringing alleluias in the most unlikely places, for which we express uncommon gratitude. This is word of grace, not guilt, an invitation to see God’s presence and recognize the alleluia in the midst of our broken, dark and messy lives. Happy Thanksgiving! May you be graced with seeing what the Samaritan leper did and praise God for all that is. Amen.

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