Faith & gratitude
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 9 October 2022 [Proper 23/C]:
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-9
Last week (as I am sure you all remember!), I preached about how faith can be expressed through forgiveness. In this week’s gospel, the focus is on that same issue of faith (that is, of “trusting” God and the God-life), but in this lesson about the healing of the ten lepers, faith is seen to be demonstrated in and through gratitude. And to make my point, I need to tell you a personal story about “gratitude” -- “thanksgiving”. It is a story that in retrospect I have come to realize was a turning point in my life and, in fact, one that has a lot to do with me being here with you today.
Like many of us, going to college was my first experience of being on my own. Among many other things, college was the crucial time when I not only truly began to learn how to learn; but it was also a time in which I made that vital transition of confirming (or not) the values of my family. A good example of this learning and transition had to do with church. As a freshman, five hundred miles away from my parents and home and living in a new culture and region of the country, amazingly enough I got up on Sunday mornings, walked a mile across a hauntingly quiet campus, and went to church. But by the time I was a sophomore, that practice had stopped. I was prototypically a “sophomore” – a highly telling word that means “wise fool”: a word that describes an uncountable number of 19-year-olds who know just enough to be asinine without realizing it. (As it turns out, being sophomoric is not age specific. Some people make a life’s work at it.). At any rate, in my “foolish wisdom”, I reckoned that I had outgrown church. So, I stopped going.
Fast forward a year or so later, my daily trek to classes always took me by the Episcopal Church, which was at the edge of the University’s grounds. I had known from the start that my parents had been married in the parish’s chapel, the one built by slaves in the mid-19th century. In a typical, post- World War II veteran’s driven attempt to catch up on life after tasting death so frequently, Roman Catholic Dad (a University student) and Protestant Mom arranged to marry on the “middle ground” of the Episcopal Church. This decision had very little to do with theological insights. Rather, it was a compassionate move to get on with life. So, with the priest and two witnesses, my parents entered their next phase with my father remaining at the University to graduate in three years, while working forty hours a week and my mother returning to New York City as a Wall Street secretary. Not the way most of us would want to start a married life together, but the sacrifice and separation were part of the necessary deal. It gives me pause to think of what it took for my father to drive north on Route 1 for a rare reunion visit.
The point being that each time I walked past the old chapel, a tug pulled at me. At the time, I thought it was just the gravitational pull of emotional family history: Me, for instance, the eldest son following in some of my father’s footsteps. Yet, on one late, October evening, the tugging became more personal than historic.
In college, I associated with a group of guys who had fun but also took their studies seriously. Learning from their example, I quickly established a routine of having dinner, watching Walter Cronkite give the news, and then trekking off to the library to study and do my homework. Walking back and forth from home to campus, I passed the chapel about eight times a day. On one occasion, at about this time of year, I was returning home from a night’s work in the library, when in an unplanned move I suddenly chose to stop and go into the chapel. Not being raised in the Episcopal Church, I think my decision to enter the chapel was more from curiosity, but nonetheless I found myself alone in a profoundly quiet place. Sitting in the most rear pew to the right of the door, I was unaware that I was already showing some basic qualities of being a real Episcopalian: namely, don’t ever sit up front! And if possible, sit as close to the door as you can!
All this aside, I can still hear the creaking quiet of the old chapel’s wooden features and the smell of aged hospitality and witness. It was very dark, save for one small-watt light bulb that shone from behind the altar cross. I sat in my little, back, chapel pew and looked around, breathed, and wondered if I should leave. But in spying a small, chapel-sized, red Book of Common Prayer in the pew rack at my knees, it seemed reasonable to pick it up and open it. At first sight its content was indecipherable to me. Quickly thumbing through the book, it flopped open to what must have been a well-creased page. I looked at the page, which was a part of something called “Evening Prayer” and noticed the bold typed title of a prayer, called, “The General Thanksgiving”. In the dim light, I began to read the prayer to myself:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. (Remember: this was 1970, and the church’s prayers were expressed in the Elizabethan form and culture.)
I kept reading. I found myself attracted not only to the meaty content of the prayer but also to its lyrical expression.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and the hope of glory.
I was hooked. There was no stopping now. I went on.
And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise not only with our lips, but in our lives…
As you know, there is more to the prayer, but at this point of reading the words (and here I will switch to the contemporary version of the prayer) – the part that asked for “such an awareness of all your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives…” – at that, sitting in the quiet dark, I suddenly felt a thump in my chest.
Just one noticeable thump. What in the world was that about, I wondered?! I hadn’t a clue, not a clue, but somehow, I couldn’t avoid sensing that it mattered. And it did!
I closed the prayer book and went home, most likely joining my friends in a “good night” beer – or two -- before going to bed. Slowly and carefully thereafter, I started intermittently attending Sunday services at the church, occasionally meeting a date there. (Hey, work with what you got!) Fast forwarding once more to three years later, that parish sponsored me for ordination and that young rector, who became the Bishop of Virginia and who (by the way, died this past July), sent his first of many individuals to seminary. And that was me.
In retrospect and after many, many years of working on trying to live that prayer in my life, I now know that that moment in the chapel was a “God thing”; and for those who know anything about me, you know that I don’t say such things frivolously. In fact, I am quite protective of such experiences, for they are as sacred as they are personal -- pearls not to be stepped on.
There was nothing more to this isolated “thumping” moment -- no voices calling to me; no dramatic, life-changing encounters, no great conversion experience – just a “thump” -- one “thump”. In retrospect, that unpretentious “thump”, in the slave-built chapel in which my parents were married, produced an indelible line in my soul, a permanent marker that remains to this day as a guide to my experience of faith. An experience of faith (both in its trials and its grace-filled blessings) that continuously moves between an ongoing “awareness of all [God’s] mercies” and a stumbling to express that faithful experience with thanksgiving.
The thing about “thanksgiving” and life with God’s Christ is that being as fickle in faith as I can be, to be grateful, one must be “aware” and open to the many forms “thumping” can and does take. At some point of “awareness”, we begin to have the urge to say, “thank you” and to learn Who it is we offer such a sentiment and the reason for gratitude.
“Those to whom much is given, much is required.” These are Jesus’ words as recorded in Luke’s gospel [12:48]. At which point, we may be able to appreciate more deeply the significance of the Samaritan leper’s healing and his returning to give thanks to God.
So it is that with that redeemed leper, we give thanks be to God for all the Holy One’s merciful “thumps”. merciful “thumps”. Amen.