SERMON It’s Okay to Be Ungrateful

A reading from the Gospel according to Luke, the 17th chapter.

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11–19 ESV)

Gratitude. We’re told to cultivate it. The Samaritan here has it, and in many ways, that cultivation of gratitude — give thanks to God for all God has done for you — is a central message of both the Bible and the Qur’an.

God has provided for you. Isn’t it better that you thank God for that provision?

So the Samaritan here, the foreigner, the nonbeliever, here is possessed of the right attitude. After all, Jesus commanded them all to go show themselves to the priest to do as commanded in Leviticus 14 when a leper (really, anyone suffering any kind of skin ailment) is finally cleansed. And it is likely the Samaritan had no priest nearby to resent himself to (though the Samaritan had a ritual of some kind based in Leviticus, since the Samaritans had the Torah; a different Torah, but a Torah). So it makes sense the Samaritan would turn back and thank Jesus.

He likely has no other easy option.

And yes, it is good to be grateful, to thank God, to remember that Christ himself wondered why the other nine healed lepers, likely all Judeans, did not come back to praise God and thank Jesus?

But note this — those other nine were still healed. They still walked away to do as the Torah commanded them (though we don’t know if that’s what they actually did). They did not thank Jesus or praise God. I’m guessing their faith did not make them well as it did with the Samaritan, or with the Centurion in Luke 7.

The most faithful and amazing responses to God’s unearned grace we will find among those we least expect it — foreigners, outcasts, occupiers, those we have rejected. Those who cannot rely on their patrimony as the People of Abraham, recipients of the promise, to show they are entitled to an inheritance, to the blessings of God.

However, it’s okay to be ungrateful too. For the sun rises and shines on the those who are good and those who are evil, and it rains on the just and the unjust alike. (Matthew 5:45) We should be grateful — it’s better when we are — but we are the recipients of God’s grace whether we know it or not and whether we pay it back with worship and gratitude.

Like the Samaritan, we worship because we have encountered Jesus and we know we have to do something — to grovel, to adore, to give even a little something of ourselves back to show we understand who we have met and what that means for us and for the entire world.

But we don’t have to. We don’t have to.

It is okay to walk away, to do — or not — only as much as the law requires. God is still at work, still healing, still teaching, still pronouncing forgiveness and healing to lost and broken world. Whether or not the world gives thanks, pays any attention, or even knows that God is in its midst.

The Lutheran Church in the Wilderness

Furthermore it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sins and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3[:21–26] and 4[:5]. Augsburg Confession, Article IV, German Version

Likewise, they teach that human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift [gratis] on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace [in gratiam recipi] and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction [satisfecit or made reparation] for our sins. God reckons this faith as righteousness. Augsburg Confession, Article IV, Latin Version

4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:4–8 ESV)

The Wilderness — the place where the angel of the Lord found Hagar and gave her water after Abraham expelled her from his household, also giving her hope and a promise of a blessing to her son Ishmael.

The Wilderness — the place where God led the Israelites after the terror and death of the Exodus, where Israel was given the teaching, where Israel whined and complained to God, where Israel was fed with manna, water from the rock, and where Israel made an idol of its creation, worshiping and dancing around that golden calf.

The Wilderness — where David fled from Saul and wandered, first alone and then followed by a small army of malcontents and misfits in the years before he became king of all Israel.

The Wilderness — where John the Baptist called for repentance, baptized in the river, and demanded to know of the crowds who made their way to him: “Who warned you of the wrath to come?”

The Wilderness — where Jesus fasted, was tempted by the Devil, and where he was with the wild animals and ministered to by angels. Where he fled to, again and again, ahead of the crowds clamoring and demanding to see, to hear, to touch him.

This is who we are, God’s people gathered in the wilderness, called out of sin, out of terror, out of suffering, out of slavery, into a new life by the grace of God in Christ. We are Christians because we believe we have met Jesus, been called by Jesus, to follow, to be healed and raised, to feed and tend sheep, to baptize and teach and make disciples. We are Lutherans because this work of calling, of forgiving, of redeeming, of raising, is God’s work alone, made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is ours in baptism, in faith, and in that calling to follow. The love of God is best shown not in sinless, pure, or even well-ordered lives; but in the lives, work, and love of people who know — truly know — that they have been forgiven and redeemed.

The Lutheran Church of the Wilderness is an unaffiliated Lutheran community based in Spokane, Washington, that seeks only to live out our calling — as individuals and as a community — to love our God with all our heart, our soul, our strength, and our mind; and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We believe in a God who calls and redeems sinners to preach, to teach, to lead, and to live this love, to make disciples, to baptize and proclaim grace because sinners are all God has.

We are the outgrowth of an online ministry to the most lost and vulnerable human beings in the world, and our commitment is grounded solidly in the knowledge that Jesus has come looking for us when we have been lost, vulnerable, alone, and abused. Even if no one else knew where we were, Jesus did. And Jesus does. He is still looking.

Because some are still lost.

Right now, The Lutheran Church in the Wilderness is not a 501(c)3 organization currently, and so we cannot yet take your contributions and allow you to take a tax deduction. That will change, hopefully soon, but right now, we need your prayers far more than your financial support (though we won’t say no to that either). Pray for us, as we settle in, look for work, a permanent place to live, and slowly start as a Bible study and worship service. Pray for those who come to worship with us, who seek sanctuary, the sheep of God’s fold who hear their masters voice. Pray for us as we continue this wonderful, amazing, incredible, heartbreaking calling of being the very human hands and heads and hearts who find and comfort God’s lost sheep.

7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:7–11 ESV)

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Jennifer and I worshiped at the Payne AME Church in Chatham this morning (Sunday, 01 November). It was wonderful, two amazing and spirit-filled hours or worship, prayer, and praise!

The Bible passage on offer for this morning’s worship was Psalm 100:

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
2 Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing!
3 Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
5 For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
(Psalms 100:1-5 ESV)

Except the translation being used was the New International Version (NIV), which rendered verse two this way:

Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.

What the translators of the ESV render as “serve” and the NIV translators as “worship” is that wonderful Hebrew word עבד ebed. There is a hint on compulsion in ebed — it’s what happens to Israel in Egypt when a Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” arose, and it’s what the God of Israel demands of his people when he ends their captivity in Egypt, swaddling the country in darkness, terror, and death before drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea. (I do not use the term “freedom” or “liberate” to describe what happens in Exodus because scripture itself does not.)

I find it interesting that slave and worshiper both arise from this simple word, עבד, with it’s hint of both compulsion and devotion. And in scripture, where God warns Israel against the worship of other gods, he speaks this word, ebed. To worship a god is to serve that god, to work for that god, to make that god your master and to put the wants and needs and commands of that god ahead of your own wants and needs.

We aren’t free, and we never will be. Freedom is not part of the promise of God. (It isn’t.) We serve someone. We serve something. We worship. We adore. We sacrifice. We praise. We labor. It is inescapable. If we are set anything remotely resembling free, it is to serve the living God, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who came to us, wrapped in flesh, as Jesus of Nazareth, who blessed and broke bread, who gave his life so that we may live. Who served us. Who sacrificed himself for us.

Christian Habits 

Rod Dreher notes something very interesting today over at The American Conservative as he contemplates something his priest, Father Matthew — who sounds like an amazing pastor based on what Dreher wrote about him in the Dante book — preached last Sunday:

Yesterday in church, Father Matthew in his sermon made a comment that struck me as highly relevant to a rationale for the Benedict Option. He was talking about the risks of evangelizing when we have not been properly discipled. Yes, we are called to share our faith with the world, he said, “But you can’t share what you don’t have.”

What he meant was that you can talk about the Christian faith all you want to, but if you don’t fully understand it, and haven’t been to some meaningful degree shaped by it, you should consider whether or not you’re really sharing the faith at all. He is an Orthodox priest talking to an Orthodox congregation, and what he specifically meant, I think, is that Orthodox Christianity can’t be reduced to a formula you can print on a pamphlet. It is not only a set of beliefs, but a set of practices. Becoming more deeply Orthodox is less a matter of accepting the right beliefs and deepening your understanding of them (which is important) and more about living the faith and allowing its regular practice to change your heart.

It’s this set of essential practices, I think, that the American church has forgotten, when it doesn’t — in my words — know what to do with converts.

Something I’ve concluded — American Christians do not really know how to welcome converts. None of them do. They do not know how to to do the work of showing people how to live as Christians. … the church is so tied to culture in this country, and it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too.

I think for too many American Christians, Christ is something one slips over an otherwise properly formed life, like a poncho. This following Jesus is an add-on for most, I think, a veneer or a sheen or an overlay that just is supposed to fit an otherwise well-adjusted and properly lived bourgeois life.

We’ve forgotten that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is supposed to form and shape us, and the historic practices of the church — daily prayer, a church calendar, liturgy, the life stories of Jesus told over and over and over again, along with the stories and laments and celebrations of Israel in which Christ’s life is so thoroughly embedded it cannot be comprehended without. Habits. Lives lived in, with, and under this story of an incarnate, suffering, crucified, and risen Lord.

Instead, we’ve boiled it all down to set of ideas that can allegedly be grasped and understood, and then held apart, in a bubble, as we go about our days habituated to things that aren’t Jesus and aren’t his church. Moderns are good at reducing things to mere ideas. It’s one of the hallmarks of modernity. But we forget that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:32 ESV) isn’t said about a fact, or a notion, but a person — God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ.

How we are supposed to live is the work of habits, of memorizing, of doing, repeatedly, over and over again. I’ve always appreciated that Orthodox worship has one liturgy (well, two, an ordinary form and a long one), so it is something that can be learned and repeated by memory. (By contrast, the latest ELCA hymnal has ten settings for holy communion — TEN! — and while it’s nice someone is thinking of the diversity in the church, our infatuation with novelty means no one can effectively memorize much of it.) This is why I love the simplicity of the Catholic mass. I always appreciated that everything Muslims did in worship — including the recitation of the Qur’an — was done by memory. It was a simplicity rich with the forming of habits. I hate worship bulletins and overhead projectors and wish our hymnals were as simple as my Swedish great-grandmother Sophia’s, a tiny, bound collection of words in which the tune name was printed at the end of hymn in lieu of musical notes. Because how many tunes were there, anyway?

(She also had her own hymnal, which she brought with her to church.)

I’m lousy at the habits part, and I lack the self-discipline to do that. I want to be good at cultivating habits, but I need a community of people encouraging me, disciplining me, discipling me. I was better as a Muslim, but then Muslims have preserved more of their habits — especially communal prayer that is supposed to break into and interrupt secular time. But even Muslims are losing their habits (when I was in Jeddah, I noticed that lots of Saudi men would just sit, not praying, during prayer times), their practices, and for many, Islam is the same kind of veneer affectation it is for many American Christians.

Or it is simply an ideology which promises all things and justifies all things.