Sunday, October 14, 2007

Two Points – A Sermon

Point one: Foreigners.

Point two: Gratitude.

One of the fascinating things about the scriptures is how much they have to do with foreigners. Jeremiah is writing t his compatriots who are in exile in Babylon. Paul is in Roman prison writing to Timothy in Ephesus – which is in modern Turkey. Jesus makes a point of noting that it is the Samaritan – the foreigner – who returns to praise God for being healed.

Why so much about foreigners? That's easy. In biblical days, it didn't take much to be a foreigner – just living a few towns down could suffice. Also, there was quite a lot of commerce between countries, kingdoms, and cultures. People were used to encountering others who spoke different languages and had different customs. In a way, they were much more sophisticated or open to diversity than we are today.

Yet they also had their periods where they cut themselves off from each other. Jeremiah is writing to a group of Jews who are in exile – but this is a group who not long before had tried to purge themselves of all foreign influence – the "purify" themselves. The irony is that now Jeremiah tells them to make themselves at home in the foreign land because they are not coming back.

In Jesus' time, Samaritans were outcasts in the eyes of Jews. They were foreigners in the same land, from the same lineage as the Jews but corrupted. Good Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid Samaritan towns or neighborhoods.

Throughout scripture, we not only see this portrayal of foreigners but we see them in a positive light. Timothy is no Israelite, yet he is Paul's trusted lieutenant. The Babylonians are the enemy, yet Jeremiah says to pray for their well-being. The Samaritan – well, we know, he is the one who shows great faith.

Throughout scripture, then, God points us to the eternal truth. There are no foreigners, only children of God. God knows us through our hearts, not our nationalities. Anyone who teaches otherwise has abandoned the path of Christ.

The second fascinating point we see in scripture is the idea of gratitude. We see it most clearly in this little story of the 10 men with leprosy – but you can find it, for example, in the story of Naaman in the Old Testament, the foreign general who is healed, and returns to Elisha to give praise to God. You can see it in Paul who, even though he's in prison and preparing to be executed, still gives thanks to God for all his blessings.

And of course, there is this Samaritan who, alone of the 10 lepers, comes back to Jesus and gives thanks. Now, why is that so important? Is Jesus really so petty that he needs people to tell him thank you every time he performs a miracle? No. Rather, he is teaching. When the Samaritan returns, Jesus asks, Were there not 10 who were healed? Where are the nine? Could no one be found to give glory to God except this foreigner? We have the foreigner issue, of course, but you might ask "Where ARE the nine?" Presumably they're off at the temple showing the priest – which is what the law requires. They're obeying Jesus.

What they are NOT doing is recognizing what has happened. They are not recognizing that it is God at work here, that the goodness in their lives come from God's grace and mercy. They may not even have thought about how they were healed or what it meant. You can imagine that some of them wandered away from the temple muttering, "It's about time. I should never have been made sick in the first place."

When that Samaritan returns to thank Jesus, notice what else Jesus says, "Your faith has made you well." Another translation says, "Your faith has saved you." Jesus equates giving thanks to God, praising God, with faith. And that is what saves us.

I don't want this point to get lost because it's important. GRATITUDE IS KEY TO YOUR FAITH. Someone else wrote, "Gratitude may be the purest measure of one's character and spiritual condition." In other words, those who can look around them and see God's loving hand at work – and give thanks – are closest to the heart of God.

The Samaritan leper saw what God had done and praised God. Do we see? Do we see what God does in our lives that is good and wonderful and beautiful? Look around. The very fact that any of us can take a breath is a miracle. The fact that we can sit inside with heat on a chilly morning is tremendous. Or that we could get to church even when separated by miles. As we leave today, look at those gorgeous trees, just beginning to turn – isn't that worth looking up and saying, "Thanks." Or Wow.

It's Fall, so you know we're entering pledge time. But this year, I want to look around and be truly thankful. So many folks have volunteered to write letters. So many have said, "I want to be a part of this." So many are looking around their church and saying, "God blesses me in this place, and I am more full because of it."

The funny thing about gratitude is that it's not for God's sake that we say thank you. It's for ours. When we live lives of thanks, we are happier, more complete, closer to God. When we live as if everything we have is ours, and we deserve it, we make ourselves less. Remember that book, "The Great Divorce"? When we live lives of thanks, then we are like those who get on the bus to heaven and find it beautiful and welcoming. Those who cannot look around them at any given moment and say, "Thank You" are like those who prefer to stay in hell to complain.

Two points occupy most of today's lessons. Get comfortable around the foreigners because they are God's children even as you are. And live your life filled with thanks – because it is that thanksgiving that will save you.