Sunday, December 7/20
28th Sunday after Pentecost. Tone three.
At that time, when Jesus entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”
Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Two friends met each other on the street one day. One looked hopeless, on the verge of tears. His friend asked, “What has the world done to you, my friend?” The sad fellow said, “Let me tell you: three weeks ago, my uncle died and left me ten thousand dollars.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“But you see, two weeks ago, a cousin I never even knew died, and left me eighty thousand dollars.”
“Sounds to me that you’ve been very blessed.”
“You don’t understand!” he interrupted. “Last week I won the lottery – a million dollars, free and clear!”
Now the man’s friend was really confused. “Then, why do you look so glum?”
“This week — nothing!”
From this morning’s Gospel on the ten lepers, we usually hear a sermon on thankfulness. If we’re lucky, it won’t be entitled “An Attitude of Gratitude.” So corny. By and large these sermons are sentimental encouragement to remember to be thankful in both good and bad times, and they aim to make you agree that, yes, it is good to be thankful and we ought to do more of it.
I hate that kind of sermon.
I learned many years ago to start planning a sermon by identifying the one thing I want folks to know and the one thing I want them to do when they get home.
Today I would like us to recognize a destructive sin we are likely hurting ourselves with, and I’d like us to take up a tool — a weapon — that can transform our life.
If I asked you to name the sins that our culture is especially prone to, you might name greed, colonialism, racism, fornication, pride. Ingratitude might not make the list.
There are sins of commission – things we do. Like consumerism and acquisitiveness: The Apostle writes that the love of money is a root for all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10).
And there are sins of omission: Things we ought to have done, and have not. “For I was hungry, and ye gave me no food: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in.” (Matthew 25:31ff) In this category we need to include giving of thanks, and note that ingratitude likewise is “a root of all kinds of evil” while thankfulness can become for us a root and a fountain of all kinds of grace and virtue.
Is ingratitude really a sin?
Saint Paul commands the Ephesians, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore be ye not unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is excess; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:15-21)
And to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)
Paul doesn’t put thankfulness on its own, but expects it to be an organic part of the Christian life. He practices this himself: In this morning’s Epistle, we heard him say, “We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you… that ye may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has vouchsafed us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Col 1:3,1-12)
You notice that Paul doesn’t just say “Thank you, Jesus.” He knows and repeats and celebrates the goodness and mercy and righteous acts of the Lord.
Now, when we gather in the Church’s act of worship, we call it the Eucharist – which literally means The Giving of Thanks. In a fulfillment of the shadow seen in the Old Testament, members of the parish have baked bread, and made or bought wine, which is brought to the Holy Altar to become a thank offering to God: A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise. Soon the priest will pray that God make this bread the body of Christ, and in return for our little fellowship offering of bread and wine, he will give us the living, glorified, deified, life-giving, resurrected body of Christ.
In a prayer leading up to the consecration of the Holy Gifts, the priest prays on behalf of the faithful, “For all these things we give thanks to thee, to thine only-begotten Son, and to thy Holy Spirit, for all the things of which we know, and of which we know not; for the benefits both manifest and hidden which have come upon us.”
But I find it interesting that when we receive the inexpressible gift of the body of the living Christ, we seldom ever ask God, “Why me?” When a business deal goes our way, or a new friend comes into our life, do we look into the heavens and say, “Why, God?” No, when happy and welcome things come to us we might know they’re undeserved, but we are happy to accept them.
Then, it’s when a stone falls on our life, that we look up and complain, “Why me, Lord?” “Where is God when I am in pain?”
Well, of course he is beside you, closer than your breath, present in the pain. This is Jesus; the God who embraced suffering on the cross. He didn’t come to deliver us from suffering in this life – no, he’s the one who promised, “In the world you will have tribulation! But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The biblical prophet Job astounds me. After God permits the loss of his livelihood and his family, Job sits mourning, and his wife has lost hope: “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?” She rages, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9)
And Job, mourning but not without hope, answers, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and not accept adversity?” (v.1)
Job doesn’t expect anything from God, certainly not in this life. He trusted God.
The three young men in the furnace answered the idolatrous king: “O King, we have no need to answer you in this matter. Our God, whom we serve, is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us. BUT IF NOT, let it be known to you that we still will never worship your stupid idol!” (Daniel 3:16-18, my paraphrase.) They didn’t say, “Our faith is that our God will save us from the fire.” They didn’t step out in faith THAT God was going to do something for them. They believed IN God. They trusted him. As Job believed in God, not in what God would do for him.
When we are children we trust everyone. I’ve been in many of your homes and met your children for the first time, and many will run into my arms because everyone knows a Man In Black is one of the good guys. Later as we grow, we are hurt or bullied or betrayed, and now everyone has to earn our trust. Some of us are so wounded that we feel like we’ll never trust anyone again. But our Lord is in the business of earning our trust. “O taste and see that the Lord is Good.” Jesus says, “Come and see.” And when we begin to experience the faithfulness of God, he starts healing in us the ability to trust again. Give him time.
The thing to know about thankfulness is, it is in you.
What does that mean?
We talk about the unconditional love of God. Love that doesn’t depend on the object of love; God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the same rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45) So the Lord commands us to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (v.44)
God’s love does not depend on whether you deserve it or not: How small must God be, to love only the good and worthy! No, the love of God is a thing that God IS, and the action of love is active toward everyone because God can’t be diminished.
It’s the same when we give alms: There are no deserving or undeserving people; we don’t give because the one asking is worthy on our personal scale of judgment. We give because almsgiving is something we have undertaken to do, and here is an opportunity.
And so it is with thanksgiving. Have we decided to take up the scriptural command to give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever? Then don’t withhold your thanks when you don’t get your way. God will not be bullied; he will keep on doing and permitting what you need for your salvation. But you can make yourself miserable by complaining about it.
And here is the sin I talked about, that may be hurting and sabotaging and destroying you from within.
We testify daily to ourselves and to our neighbors that we serve a bad God. We serve a Creator who hates us and has a terrible plan for our life.
We do this when we talk about Murphy’s Law. This was a saying that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” And our actions and words prove that we believe it. I just washed my car, and sure enough it rained. Always happens! You switch lines at the grocery because your lane is slow – and now your new lane stops. Man, doesn’t that always happen? You put jelly on your toast and drop it? Jelly side down, every time, right?
We need to watch when some complaint like this is about to pass our lips, and cut it off. It’s a complaint and a testimony that our life is ruled by a cruel God who loves to watch us slip on banana peels so he can point and laugh at us.
We slander the Lord when we offer backhanded praise, too. “The sun came out. Finally! The plumber came on time, for a change! Hey McDonald’s drive thru did NOT mess up my order! Ha, that’s never happened before! I fed my child and he didn’t throw up on me, the way he usually does, oh I know, I hate that…”
Watch your words. Honor God. Give thanks for every good thing, and then stop without complaining about all the times you didn’t get your way.
And then, read again where Paul instructs us to “give thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:20) When you’re at your third or fourth red light in a row, give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endures forever. When the kids interrupt your Zoom meeting, then thank him for you are fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. (Psalm 139:14)
When you lose your job, then “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to Thy Name, O Most High; to declare Thy steadfast love in the morning, and Thy faithfulness by night.” (Ps 92:1)
An abbot in Egypt taught: “Try to attain the full measure of this Name [of Jesus], and you will find it on your mouth and in the mouths of your children. When you make high festival and when you rejoice, cry Jesus. When anxious and in pain, cry Jesus. When little boys and girls are laughing, let them cry Jesus. And those who go down to the Nile [to work], cry Jesus. And those who see wild beasts and sights of terror, cry Jesus. Those who are taken off to prison, cry Jesus. And those whose trial has been corrupted and who receive injustice, cry the name of Jesus.” — Shenoute of Atripe, 5th century
“For all things,” says the apostle, “are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God… And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” (2 Corinthians 4:15; Colossians 3:17)
There’s a word in scripture that’s hard to translate: Philótimo. (cf. Romans 15:20; Thessalonians 4:11) Greeks describe this virtue as gratitude, showing kindness, honoring everyone. It is expressed through acts of generosity and sacrifice without expecting anything in return. Philotimo is to get more satisfaction from giving than from getting. A person who has philotimo is so aware that he’s received so much, that he can’t restrain himself from showing hospitality, mercy, uprightness, kindness, patience.
In this way confessing the goodness of God and giving thanks always for all things becomes a root from which all kinds of virtues can spring forth.
And more than that: Thanksgiving can be weaponized.
I am a person subject to the passions of dejection, self-pity, and judgment, which usually goes hand-in-hand with envy. How do the Fathers teach us to combat the passions? By cultivating the opposite virtue. If you suffer much from the passion of fornication and impure thoughts, practice fasting as your strength allows, pray at night and attend all the services you can, replacing both wasted time and wasted thoughts with what your soul lacks. If you suffer from acquisitiveness and love of comfort and beautiful things, then learn the virtue of almsgiving, always giving away your best and taking second-best. Skip the nicest slice of pie or the closest parking spot at the mall. When you catch yourself criticizing, comparing, judging another, ask yourself what you envy in them: in what way do you feel competed with, displaced, outshone? Give thanks for that. Put into practice the opposite of envy. Praise and thank God for the things or talents or privilege he has given to them. Find out what stresses or pains them, and intercede for them: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15) Make gratitude your tool and helper to conform you to the image of Christ.
If you suffer the passions of fear, hopelessness, dejection: Practice the virtue of gratitude. Don’t say, “Yes, I guess really ought to count my blessings.” That’s a passive, sentimental response. Instead, take up thanksgiving as a weapon.
“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:4,5)
If you suffer from the passions of envy, pride, judgment and comparing yourself to others, then pick up the sword and go to war.
“The saints shall rejoice in glory, let them exult on their beds. The high praise of God shall be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance among the nations, chastisement to all the peoples. To bind their kings with fetters, and their nobles with manacles of iron; to do among them the judgement that is written. This glory shall be to all his saints.” (Psalm 149)
While I am at it, most of you have a rule of prayer, and it may include some prescribed Bible reading. Allow me to make a suggestion: Pray the Psalms. The whole Bible is food for the soul, but the Psalms historically are the songbook of the Church. Monks read through the entire Psalter every week in the services, and then many also are assigned a kathisma – a big chunk of Psalms – every day. We’re not monks. But can we read a Psalm every day? They typically run half a page. I’ll bet you can.
What you will find in the Psalms is a little of everything in the Christian life: Victory, betrayal, repentance, praise, mourning… King David has no filter and God is not afraid of David’s honesty. Or yours.
François Fénelon wrote, “If God bores you, tell him that He bores you, that you prefer the vilest amusements to his presence, that you only feel at your ease when you are far from him.” In the Orthodox Faith we call that Confession, and the first step toward spiritual fullness is to be honest that your tank is empty.
If you lack the words to express thanks to God, especially at your lowest, read David. Take his words of prayer, praise, and spiritual wrestling: put them on your lips, so you lips can teach your mind. Because what you allow into your mind is what will shape your heart.
That’s why Saint Paul writes, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.