October 13, 2019
18th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
This is the banner that was given to Gloria Dei by the congregation of Kalingapasi in the Iringa Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania.
Two weeks ago, seven of us arrived for church in this village about an hour from Iringa, which is in the middle of Tanzania. It was early. The first service, which would last 2.5 hours began at 7 a.m. Even before the sun came up, women from the congregation had started the fires and were cooking food in large pots behind the church. It would be our lunch that day. This was the second day in a row of extravagant welcome.
On Saturday, as we neared the village, members of the congregation met us on the road, waving branches, holding welcome signs. They escorted us on motorcycles to one of the congregation’s preaching points out in the country, where they greeted us with more cheering, dancing, and singing. In the afternoon, we were invited to a wedding as honored guests, seated in the front row. They fed us three times on Saturday, and twice on Sunday. They cheered when we said our names. They couldn’t find enough beds in the village to house us, so they put us up in a new guest house down the street, an extravagant expense for this village community.
We brought gifts, too, but somehow in the face of such overwhelming joy and affection, they seemed paltry, hardly enough to be reciprocal. Even the possibility of joining them in partnership, when we might give something back, seemed inadequate to the joy and hospitality they provided. I couldn’t help but think that if some of them visited here, we would spend so much more money but provide only a fraction of the enthusiasm. Most of us would think we were too busy to show up and spend a Saturday afternoon with them.
At one point, I realized that the only thing I could do in that moment was to take in this welcome; to receive it, to allow it to enlarge my own poverty of spirit.
It’s really hard for us to receive such extravagant grace. Gratitude in our culture is often a transaction. When someone offers to pay for lunch, we say, “Well, okay, but I’ll get it next time,” and we put a little chit in our brain to remember that we owe something in return. We get a Christmas card, and we make sure the person gets added to our list for next year. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with these kind of social interactions. Social scientists say they bind us together–gratitude and obligation creating a kind of social grease that keeps us from killing each other.
But the grace of God is another matter. It comes without condition, without cost, without exception. It comes when we’re as sick as the leper, and it comes when our bodies are well. It comes whether we stop to acknowledge it or not, whether we’re aware of it or so focused on doing what’s expected that we miss the moment; to those who have great faith and those who wish they had more. The only thing you can do with the grace of God is receive it.
When the one leper goes back and falls at the feet of Jesus, Luke tells us that he’s made well. Clearly, being healed isn’t the same as being well. All ten were healed. One is made well. The Greek word for being made well is the same word as being saved.
The Samaritan–which, by the way, is the person you don’t expect to come back or be aware at all of the presence of God–comes back and places himself at the feet of Jesus. In offering his thanks, his heart grows. It makes him bigger, more human, more real. It saves him.
We tend to think of salvation as getting into heaven, or, at least, into the good graces of God. The writers of the four gospels didn’t think of salvation that way. They thought of it as having a sense of shalom: peace, wholeness, wellbeing, abundance, depth. It’s entirely possible from a Biblical perspective to be saved well before you arrive at the pearly gates.
Salvation is that moment, or moments, when our heart grows large enough that it connects and fuses to the heart of God.
Maybe it was the forecast of snow that made me think of The Grinch.
And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say
That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!
And then the true meaning of Christmas came through,
And the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!
I played the song “Welcome Christmas” several times this week. “Fahoo Fores. Dahoo Dores. Welcome Christmas. Christmas Day.” One of the comments on the lyrics page was, “This song makes me cry because it puts me in a place in mind that I didn’t even know existed.”
Something happens to us when we place ourselves in the presence of God and simply say thank you. God’s love is always the same. It’s always there for us; always surrounding us. But something is transformed within us when we acknowledge that reality or carve out space to express gratitude or praise.
We’re in the middle of our annual fundraising appeal. We always get confused by this, thinking it works like the rest of the world. The church plans good ministry, and the congregation supports it. Sort of like the pledge drive on NPR. We muddy the waters sometimes by saying that a pledge helps us to plan our budget for the next year.
But I think we get it all wrong. Maybe we should move it all to a different time of year. Because the real goal of stewardship is to carve out space to be well with our money. To place what we have at the feet of Jesus, offering our thanks, allowing ourselves to be captured by the joy of what God can do through our hands and feet and money. And then to give until we understand salvation.
Generosity is a practice of the healed life. Yet generosity isn’t something you can just think about or pray about. You have to do it. In a culture of accumulation and a fear that there’s never going to be enough, it’s easy to just go with the other nine, to go with the flow, rather than stop, turn back, and decide to do it differently.
Gratitude, offering thanks, giving away, which we call Eucharist in the liturgy, begins to break the cycle of quid pro quo, the life that begins with me-myself-and-I. Worship, Gratitude, Generosity will change the world, if we’ll let it.
This table really isn’t much different from the table moved into the pastor’s living room in Kalingapasi, all of us packed tightly around in a small space, overwhelmed not by the actual food, but the size of the offering, the extravagance of love that has been set before us, a moment in time when something deep within has been healed—it’s not clear who is wealthy and who is poor–but together we’re saved, our hearts three sizes bigger, with the strength ten, plus two, which is 12, the whole church in one room.