Monday, October 1, 2007

Lectionary Ramblings

The readings appointed for this Sunday in The Episcopal Church are...

So yes, it's one more week of tough readings. After reading these, I confess that I'm glad we're using the propers for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, for our annual Blessing of the Animals, rather than these. I'm having a hard time seeing the common thread among these this week, but I think I'm going to go with...


The Habakkuk reading and the psalm both seem to be standard fare, at least for Christians who are familiar with the gospel. Both of these emphasize the topsy-turvy, upside-down nature of God's kingdom, much as we heard in last week's lessons, where the poor are rewarded and the indolent wealthy are not. Of course, to someone living in the time of Jesus, this was an absolutely scandalous message. As the congregation I worship with was reminded yesterday, in these times, the belief was that earthly wealth was an outward and visible sign of God's favour; the rich were rich because they were godly, and so God blessed them with wealth. But a careful reading of the Old Testament prophets - or even a fairly quick skim through them - shows that every single one of them preached this same message at one time or another: God will lift up the poor, and God will tear down those who abuse, take advantage of, or even blindly ignore the poor.

I'll confess that stated so broadly, this gives me some qualms. Not all of the rich are wicked. Nor are all of the poor righteous. And I find it really difficult to believe in the God who punishes us for the human fallibility and brokenness we were born with. Yes, we need to put forth an effort, and we need to care for the poor, and we need to hold up each other. But a poor person can be every bit as loathsome as a rich one. So does the righteous rich person get condemned while the wicked poor person is exalted? That hardly seems right.

This gospel lesson is frankly confusing. To try to make heads or tails of it, I read it in a larger context. The very next story in this passage is one of gratitude. Jesus heals ten men at their request, and only one comes back to say thank you... and that man is an icky, filthy, cootie-ridden Samaritan, but Jesus says he was made clean. So what about this short passage for Sunday - is it related? In my mind, the word that relates them is thank - but the problem is, it almost sounds like in this week's reading, Jesus is telling us not to thank people for the work they do for us. My sense, though, is that Jesus is telling us the opposite. I can just hear the irony in his voice. "And do you thank your slaves for doing your bidding? Of course not! It's what they're for. Slaves are there purely for your benefit, and they should be thankful to you for taking care of them!" Um, yeah, right.


What is singing from this chapter of Luke for me is how rarely we encounter true gratitude - or, to back up into the first four verses, true forgiveness - and how precious these really are. And yet, while forgiveness is often very hard work, gratitude is so easy to give away. How hard is it to thank someone? A stranger, a spouse, a sibling, a child. A boss, a co-worker. An acolyte. A choir director. A priest. Thank you is quite a powerful pair of words, and when said with any sincerity at all, can touch us very deeply.

I remember when I was growing up, my parents would order my sister or me to do something, and we would obey. That's how it went. When I had children, I decided I wanted to do things a little differently. I wanted to be respected not because I had power over their lives, but because my children knew I respected them. So I tried not to give orders unless it was a matter of safety. Instead, I would request, and I would say please. And no matter whether the task one of my children undertook was a special favor for me or was a regular daily chore, I would make a point of thanking him or her. Because while it is everyone's job in a household to support and care for the home, I did very much appreciate the things they did to support the family and the household. I think they realized that I value them, not just for their garbage-taking-outing or litter-box-scooping or table-clearing or dish-washing skills, but for who they are.

I also remember one day, about eight years ago. I was having a terrible morning at the office, and even though I'd packed my lunch, I desperately needed some space. So I got in my car, and drove up to a Wendy's, and went through the drive-through to pick up some lunch to take back to my desk. And I could tell that the poor woman in the drive-through was having a terrible morning, too. The man in front of me had yelled at her through the speaker, and I heard him yelling at her again at the window, while she was trying to take my order. Of course, I was so busy seething over my lousy-rotten-stinking-crappy morning, that this barely registered. When I got to the window and held out my change, I saw her shoulders slump and her eyes drop, and I felt a surge of sympathy for this woman who was sharing my crapulent day. And when she handed me my change, I looked straight at her, and we made eye contact. I smiled, as sincerely as I could muster, and I said, thank you. And her face lit up. Her body straightened, and the barest hint of a sparkle returned to her eyes. She smiled back at me, and wished me a nice day, and for a moment, I believed she meant it. And as I pulled forward to leave the parking lot, I realized that I was now smiling broadly and genuinely. It had become a nice day, just by sharing a smile and a thank-you.

Now, this woman was not my slave, not by any means. But she was in a position where I got to give an order, and she was expected to obey it. And that's what the man in the car ahead of me was yelling about. He saw her as a worthless slave, when she was really a beautiful and unique and beloved child of God. And that is, as Paul says in the closing sentence of our reading from 2 Timothy, the good treasure entrusted to us. The treasure is God's love for us, our love for each other. And the wonderful thing about this particular treasure is that the more we give it away, the more we pour it out for others, the more we are filled with it in return. God's love was never meant to be squirreled away or saved for later. It is a lavish, extravagant gift, and it is meant for sharing, giving, reaching, pouring, extending. And when we recognize this treasure within ourselves or within those around us, we have a choice of how to respond. We can be like the other nine lepers in the next section of Luke's gospel, and just keep on going. Or we can be like the icky nasty Samaritan, the one who recognizes the treasure that Jesus has poured out into his hands, the one who stops, just for a moment, just long enough to say thank you.

My wish for you this week is that you can find gratitude the size of a mustard seed. My prayer is that you will find the good treasure entrusted to you, and that you respond to God's great gift and treasure with gratitude and love. And I hope that maybe you'll remember my words, and that you will show gratitude to the people in your life, whether they seem deserving or not. We are all worthless slaves, but somehow, we have all been entrusted with the good treasure. Thanks be to God!