Friday, October 18, 2013

Beyond the Smile

Sermon preached October 13, 2013

Texts: Luke 17:11-19

            I am backsliding.  Just a couple of weeks after I said I would look for sermon examples from more contemporary culture, here I am reaching back, back before my time.
            Accentuate The Positive:
            That’s Bing Crosby from the 1940s.  Bing was still around when I was a boy, he even sang a duet with David Bowie.  Of course, David Bowie is no longer a young man.  So for those of you who are younger, you might be wondering what kind of name is “Bing,” just like some who are older may be asking what kind of name is “Kayne.”  I figured I better get something from this century into this part of the sermon.
            Accentuate the positive.  That is a popular message in much of our culture, and it has been for some time.  The Power of Positive Thinking was an enormous best-seller for many years.  More recently, popular speakers like Loretta Laroche offer advice like:
Squeeze the juice out of every moment of every day. Let it be filled with delight, joy, love, and good humor.
            Many of us have heard this story, I am guessing.  Once there were five-year-old twin boys, one a pessimist and the other an optimist.  Wondering how two boys who seemed so alike could be so different, their parents took them to a psychiatrist.  The psychiatrist took the pessimist to a room piled high with new toys, expecting the boy to be thrilled. But instead he burst into tears. Puzzled, the psychiatrist asked, "don't you want to play with these toys?" "Yes," the little boy bawled, "but if I did I'd only break them."  Next the psychiatrist took the optimist to a room piled high with horse manure. The boy yelped with delight, clambered to the top of the pile, and joyfully dug out scoop after scoop, tossing the manure into the air with glee. "What on earth are you doing?" the psychiatrist asked.  "Well,” said the boy, beaming “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!"
            Such stories and sayings are often summarized on bumper stickers about having an attitude of gratitude.
            You may notice that I smile a lot.  It comes easy.  One time I heard that it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown.  I guess I enjoy doing what’s easier.
            So, is smiling a lot, is encouragement to have an attitude of gratitude, is looking for a pony in the piles of manure, is positive thinking the heart of biblical, Christian, faith-rooted gratitude?  Does God just want us to put on a happy face, or is there more beyond and behind the smile that we need to dig into?
            There is little question that today’s story about Jesus is also about gratitude.  Ten lepers approach Jesus, though keeping their distance, asking for mercy.  He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests.  As they go, following Jesus’ instructions, they are made clean, cured of their condition.  One of them, filled with astonishing joy, does not continue on the journey to the priests.  We guess that the others might do that, and it would make sense.  Don’t you need to follow through on the task?  What if the healing disappears if they do not follow through?  Nevertheless one of them, a Samaritan, runs back to Jesus, praising God and thanking Jesus.  Jesus wonders about the other nine, and then says to the Samaritan, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”
            There are a lot of angles to this story.  Perhaps the Samaritan discontinued to travel with the others and returned to Jesus, in part, because he knew he might not be welcomed by the priests.  Samaritans were considered religious outliers.  Yet the Samaritan becomes the “hero” of the story.  And what do we make of Jesus’ final saying?  Was the cleanliness of the other nine rescinded?  There is no indication of that in the story.  They remained “healed.”  What then of this Samaritan who is told, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”  This suggests some kind of deeper healing.
            Gratitude, biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude has something to do with a deeper healing.  Beyond the smile, there is more going on.
            Sometimes in our popular culture when it focuses on an attitude of gratitude, on accentuating the positive, sometimes we are even encouraged to be grateful for the negative.  Some popular culture understandings even argue that we bring the negative on ourselves, attract it.  If so, it must be what we need and so we should be grateful for it.
            I want to suggest here, and then elaborate for a few moments on the idea that biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude is not simply giving thanks for the good times, or when things are going well, though it includes that; and it is also more complex than simply saying thank you for all the bad things in our lives.
            Not long ago I read an essay by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski entitled, “Is God Happy?” In the essay, Kolakowski argues this: Even if we are able to experience physical and spiritual pleasure and moments beyond time, in the ‘eternal present’ of love, we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition.  We participate in the suffering of others; we cannot eliminate the anticipation of death or the sorrows of life. (Is God Happy?, 214)  So you may not want to invite this man to a dinner party.
            What I appreciate about Kolakowski is that he pushes me to think about gratitude in deeper and richer ways.  Somehow gratitude cannot be simply looking for a pony in a pile of manure, because sometimes the manure of life keeps getting dumped.  It cannot be simply accentuating the positive, when some of the negatives are so significant.  Biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude has to grapple with the significance and seriousness of human suffering.  It has to get beyond the easy smile.  The Samaritan who comes to know deep healing still remains a Samaritan, unwelcome in the broader Jewish community of the time, though welcome in the Jesus community.
            So what does biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude, grappling with the significance and seriousness of human suffering look like?
            It is certainly gratitude for good things.  The Samaritan, a leper, is a leper no longer.  Wild joy and gratitude are appropriate, even if they cause the man to stray from Jesus’ instructions.  Joan Chittister, in her book Happiness, writes about faith-rooted gratitude.  To protect ourselves from becoming constantly negative about the little irritations of life until they become burdens rather than simply passing aggravations, it’s important to remind ourselves of the little gifts of our lives that live on in us yet, that punctuate our every day, and, far too often, that go totally unnoticed. (123)
            There is truth in the popular culture stuff about an attitude of gratitude.  We do need to look for all those places in our lives where there are gifts, many simply there – the sunrise or sunset, the sound of the waves or the trees when the breeze blows gently.  There are gifts of friendship that we have both worked on and yet come beyond our work.  There is music and art and literature.  There is the pleasure of physical exertion and activity.  Ironically, while one part of our culture encourages an attitude of gratitude, another part is constantly nagging at us that our lives are incomplete.  What is advertising but a constant message that you are not who, what or where you should be, but you can be if you purchase the right product.
            Faith-rooted gratitude is gratitude for life’s goodness, and an encouragement to pay attention to life’s goodness, not take it for granted.  Yet paying attention to life means we also see what is not so good.  Anne Lamott in her book on prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow, writes: It is easy to thank God for life when things are going well.  But life is much bigger than we give it credit for, and much of the time it’s harder than we would like.  It’s a package deal….  We and life are spectacularly flawed and complex. (44-45)
            Trying to hold that complex reality together as we consider gratitude leads us to the heart of biblical, Christian faith-based gratitude.  It leads us to God, for it is gratitude to God that is at the heart of biblical, Christian faith-based gratitude.  The Samaritan “turned back, praising God with a loud voice.”  He was grateful to God.  When we give thanks for the good gifts of life, we are grateful for friends, for creative souls who create art, for meaningful work in a job created by people and an economic system.  But as Christians we assert that in the midst of all these goodnesses there is the goodness of God.  God has something to do with all the good we know and enjoy.
            Monday I was at a meeting of our Board of Ordained Ministry, and the opening devotion asked the question, “Where have you seen God?”  Where have you seen God.  To pay attention to the good gifts of life is to begin to answer the question of where we have seen God.  Where there is goodness and beauty, there is God.
            And gratitude is possible when life is difficult, when things are not going the way we desire, when we are aware of evil and suffering and that we all will die, gratitude is possible because this God who is goodness and beauty is always at work, even in the most difficult moments of life.  Patricia Farmer puts it well: Beauty cannot be drowned.  It cannot be swept away.  It will not give up or give in.  And in the ruins of tragedy, God never stops luring, creating, transforming, redeeming, and loving things back into life and wholeness. (Embracing a Beautiful God, 41)  God, in the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, God works with “the tender elements of the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Process and Reality, first edition, 520).
            Biblical, Christian faith-rooted gratitude is God centered.  We give thanks for the good gifts of life, many of which are gifts of sheer grace, because we trust that God works to create such goodness and beauty.  We don’t lose gratitude because we trust that in even the most difficult and dire circumstances, God remains at work luring, creating, transforming, redeeming, and loving things back into life and wholeness.  We don’t have slap on a silly smile and say thanks for the difficulties and dreaded circumstances.  Beyond and behind the smile, in the tears, we can be grateful that God never leaves us or forsakes us, and is always working toward healing and wholeness.  In the long run we may even embrace the tough times.  Henri Nouwen once wrote, “It is a difficult discipline to constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way in which God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future” (quoted in Melanie Svoboda, Traits of a Healthy Spirituality, 102).

            Gratitude heals deeply because gratitude helps us see goodness and beauty we may miss in the busyness of our lives.  Gratitude heals deeply because when we are grateful we feel that our lives are o.k., that we can make it through tough times, and even grow through them.  Beyond the smile, gratitude heals, and we can always find some seed of gratitude because God is always finding us in love, embracing us and moving us toward healing and wholeness and toward the healing and wholeness of the world.  Amen. 

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