Proper 23C Sermon (2022)

Proper 23 (October 9-15)
Texts: Luke 17:11-19;
2 Kings: 5:1-3, 7-15c

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I begin with a story from Diana Butler Bass’s book titled Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks:

On November 22, 2015, Pastor Jason Micheli stood in the pulpit at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and preached a sermon on gratitude. It was right before Thanksgiving, and it was the church’s stewardship season, a time when congregations are urged to consider gifts and generosity. In the autumn, a gratitude sermon was nothing out of the ordinary.

But this was not an ordinary day. Jason, a forty-something father with young children, was preaching for the first time in nearly a year — since being diagnosed with and treated for a rare and incurable form of cancer. He was better, and the cancer was “controlled,” but, as the congregation knew, he would have to do chemo every two months for the rest of his life. He stood in the pulpit, barely out of treatment, to preach a thanksgiving sermon for his community.

He began: “You all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with us. You’ve helped us with my medical bills, and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch me when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car.”

But, he said, as much as he appreciated it, he actually hated all that help. “I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts,” he admitted, “I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. . . . I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.”

But he learned something: Gratitude is not about repayment of debts. It is about relationships. Through his cancer, Jason discovered that courage and hope could not be summoned magically; rather, strength and healing came through community. He spoke of the church’s greatest gift to his family in crisis: “We can endure all things because you’ve been with us. You’re with us. More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.”

With no dry eye in the congregation, he continued, “It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry, in my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer — our cancer — yours too. Thank you,” he finished, “for being with me.”

Gratitude is social. It is about, as Pastor Jason learned, “presence, participation, and partnership.” It is about being with one another, in life together.1

As I met with folks this summer — and my sense after becoming your pastor over this past year — is that this kind of life together is what you cherish here at Bethlehem. You are grateful for a life of mutually caring for one another. You’ve even been through a similar experience with Pastor Ron, as with Pastor Jason in the story, accompanying your pastor and his family as he first battled and then succumbed of cancer. You care for one another here at Bethlehem, and you give thanks for this above all other things.

So here’s the question: how do we invite more people into this life of thanksgiving here at Bethlehem? How do we help people to know that there’s a beautiful alternative to the kind of life we’re offered in most corners of our culture right now?

Here’s what I mean. A life of thanksgiving comes from seeing our lives as gift. How much of that is present in the way much of our society teaches us to see things? In many ways, it’s the opposite. Right? We live in a meritocracy: namely, everyone gets what they deserve. It’s not about gift and thanksgiving. It’s about working to get what you deserve. When giving gifts is part of this meritocracy, it becomes an exchange that adds to our obligations. Pastor Jason had to confess this, that he had to get used to receiving help without feeling indebted. If someone gives you a gift, then you’re expected to give a gift in turn.

And all of this living by merit and exchange rarely leads to a deep sense of thanksgiving. Instead, we generally have our eyes on the people ahead of us in this game of getting what we deserve with a rising sense of resentment that they have more than us. Do they really deserve more? We want to know. Feelings of thanks most often happen from looking at the people ‘behind us,’ who have less than us. We’re grateful that at least we have more than them.

Right now, our media — our news media and the explosion of social media on our phones and computers — fan the flames of a worldview that comes with the meritocracy. We are shown those with less than us in order that we might have some sense of thanks, but it is often part of motivating us to want more. And how much of the media we consume show us folks with less in order to instill fear of those folks — fear that they want to take away what we have without deserving it. And those elites who have more than us: they just want to keep us in our places. They are our enemies, too. How much of our media right now stoke the fires of this kind of fear and resentment which leads us to the brink of the kind of political violence that this country hasn’t seen since its bloody Civil War?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we truly can offer an alternative to our neighbors, family, and friends. We can offer a life truly built on gift and thanksgiving, not just on merit. Prior to anyone deserving anything, our gracious Creator God has given us all an abundant Creation full of life. Life itself is the most precious gift of all — not because we have done something to deserve it, but because we have a loving God. Family, and friends, and neighbors are gifts with whom to enjoy this beautiful world together. In fact, every person in this world hasn’t been put here by the creator in order to be our rivals in a meritorious zero-sum game of everyone getting what we deserve. All of God’s creatures are here to assist us in the grace of living not as zero-sum, but as the sum of all of us together, needing one another to take this journey of finding and sharing the abundance God has given us. God is the giver of all gifts to all of God’s deserving children, and so we live with a sense of gift and gratitude, taking care of one another. The deepest truth of our existence is what we’ve been singing together during this stewardship season:

We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.

Don’t you see how this is truly a gift we have to share others here at Bethlehem? We have a gracious alternative to share with our neighbors from the world of merit and exchange that thrives mostly on fear and resentment. We have been gifted with a community of friends in Christ with whom to live out a sense of gift and thanksgiving through mutual care of one another. It isn’t just a theology or worldview we have to share; and it’s not just feelings of love and gratefulness rather than fear and resentment which we have to share, but a whole way of life, a way of being human based on giving and thanksgiving.

There were ten men with leprosy who were healed by Jesus but only one — the Samaritan, the outsider — returned to give thanks to the healer. It was the Samaritan who didn’t just feel grateful but sprang into action to do something to put his gratitude into practice. He turned around, came back, and fell at Jesus’s feet in an act of worship to express his thanks.

Worship. In addition to the mutual care we spoke of at the beginning, worship is the bare-bones of what we do here at Bethlehem. After coming through the challenge of the pandemic, we are mostly about this foundational practice of giving thanks to God each week in our worship. Every other week, we are invited to the table of Holy Communion, which is sometimes called the Eucharist, based on the Greek word for giving thanks, the same word behind what the Samaritan does in today’s Gospel Reading.

So how do we build on this base once again in inviting our neighbors to the alternative world of gift and gratitude? How do we put our gratefulness into action, like the Samaritan? It begins by building on what we have and do each Sunday. There are sign-up sheets on the bulletin board in the Fellowship Hall downstairs. (Some of our confirmation students are learning to record the service this morning.)

To be different than the world we live in the rest of the week, we can’t just be consumers of worship when it suits us. We need to be participants in this most action of our thanksgiving faith. We need more people to be readers and recorders and hosts of the coffee hour, the Friendly Moments afterwards in which we renew the bonds of love that keep us together as a fellowship of mutual care.

And here’s finally the basic stewardship pitch, though hopefully it now arrives in a full context of our life together.2 We need all of us to participate in the offerings that help fund this ministry we share. What can your family share in support of this radical alternative, this life of worship? When we bring up the offering plates to the altar with your offerings each week, it is not just paying our dues as members. It is an act like that of the Samaritan who returns to give thanks to the giver of all gifts. “We give thee but thine own.”

Where do we go from here? We have a confirmation class of six students on which to build a ministry of families coming to church to learn a new, more gracious way of being human. We have acts of service to dream and enact together. What are the ways in which we can serve our community and God’s good creation?

But let’s end this morning by emphasizing what we do on Sunday mornings as our strong base for everything. It is the Samaritan healed of his leprosy returning to give thanks. It is a bold and radical act of giving thanks to the giver of all good gifts. In a world that seeks to feed us a worldview all week based on merit and exchange, fueled by fear and resentment, what we do here on Sundays is like the one who turns around from all that to put into practice the true nature of things — namely, a God who gives us life itself and an abundant creation to live in, not as something we deserve because we’ve somehow earned it, but as something we deserve because we are God’s children. We come to be fed with a worldview of radical grace, fueled by gratefulness and love. It is a time together that is not only essential for our souls, for our growing into the human beings God created us to be. But this way to be human based on being grateful is also what and who the world needs more of. Fed each Sunday, we are sent out to make a difference. To be different. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, October 9, 2022

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1. Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (HarperOne, 2018), pp. 98-99. Butler Bass gives an endnote, p. 209, citing the following sources for this story: Jason Micheli, “Primed for God: Gratitude,” Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Alexandria, VA, November 22, 2015, Jason tells his story in Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016).

2. In 2022 this sermon for Proper 23C was the fourth in a series of stewardship sermons. The first three were Proper 20C, Proper 21C, and Proper 26C (the third in the series displacing Proper 22C for a better stewardship theme, especially since in our Lutheran practice Proper 26C was to be displaced by Reformation Sunday).


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