As a child we did not celebrate Thanksgiving. Instead, we had harvest festivals, times where we would share from the bounty we had, gathering food to give away. I loved getting the old shoe box each year and covering it with brown paper, decorating the box, one year ever writing a little poem on that brown paper, a tricky task as I had already covered the box and was writing at a strange angle! The then careful choosing apples from our trees that looked least likely to contain a maggot or two, digging up potatoes from my grandfathers patch and brushing the dirt from them, and setting everything with great care in the shoebox. I would get a green sprig from the bush, heavy with red berries, and use it as decoration. The tricky part was carrying it on the bus to church, trying to keep everything safe, and then each child would parade up the aisle carrying their offering, all the shoe boxes creating a great display of abundance! As a child, I never knew what happened to these baskets, but when I was a teen I was invited to help deliver them, and we set off to the homebound members of the congregation, tea and biscuits served at each stop as we delivered a little piece of love. While there were no gathering or meals involved, it felt like a fine way to give thanks for what we had grown, and I remember the gratitude I felt as I hand picked those apples and polished them with a cloth before placing them in the basket, that was felt even more abundantly when I visited those people who I did not know, bringing them joy and love. It was an easy, generous gratitude that flowed forward.
This story of the ten lepers is one that is familiar to us, and reminds us how easy it can be to miss this feeling of generous gratitude! . As I read it this time, I noticed things that I had not before. First, the lepers called out from a distance and yelled at Jesus to heal them. They asked for his help. They knew who he was. They believed he could help them. And so, keeping their distance, they called out to Jesus to heal them. As their belief led them to ask, it was perhaps this same belief that kept them from expressing gratitude. They knew Jesus had the capacity to heal them, so it can’t have been a big deal to him, right? it can’t have really taken any effort on his part. So why turn around in surprise that he did what they asked and thank him. The one person who did offer thanks was the Samaritan, the outsider, the probable non believer in the group. His surprise and awe at the healing he saw and felt happening in him was so great that he fell at Jesus’ feet to thank him. A full bodied expression of gratitude…. A body now free from the excruciating pain that leprosy brings with it, a body now free to express fully the relief. While the nine others who had been healed used this freedom from pain to get the next thing done… the priestly blessing that would declare them members of society again…., the outsider used it to bless the one who had healed him, the source of the miracle he was experiencing.
This leads me to ponder about showing gratitude, or giving thanks. Do I only give gratitude for those things that are unexpected? Or do I swing the other way and give gratitude for only the expected things? And how can I become more generous with my gratitude like that young girl polishing the maggot free apples to give away?
A friend of mine was the church organist at a church in Texas before she retired. She became friends with the maintenance man there, and describes him as one of those all around great people… and a man of generous gratitude…. Roger not only kept the church clean, but fixed things before others knew they needed fixing. He would set up the sound system and take care of the church and congregation in many ways that others did not see. And he was always smiling, generous, kindhearted. Bev, my friend, also offered private piano lessons to children, and every six months or so, she would hold a piano recital at the church for her students to perform. Roger would set up for the recital, make sure the sound was good, and even asked if he could record the recital, making cd’s for all her students in his own time and at his own cost. Yet Roger’s life wasn’t an easy one. He has a wife with a degenerative illness who is close to being confined to a wheelchair, a son with cerebral palsy, and two other young teenagers, one of who is on the autism spectrum. But he always appeared to be happy and kind, that smile never far from his eyes.
Roger and his family were struck by CoVid recently, and he was soon hospitalized. He was on a ventilator, and seemed to be doing a little better. But then, like Covid often does, he took a turn for the worse, and his life last week. All through this, the church and other friends have been reaching out to offer help…. Meals, gifts for the kids at Christmas, even offers of cash to help them out. And his wife, also recovering from CoVid, has been blown away by the offers. But this week she made a statement. Roger was a veteran, and his family knew how hard it is for families to be apart during the holidays, so she asked for people to donate to a local charity that gets gifts for the families of someone serving in the military. She wrote, “thank you all for your kind words and generous spirits. At this time we have all we need, we know God is blessing us and walking with us through our pain. I know that this is where Roger’s heart would be… to take care of those families and children separated from their loved ones who are serving our country. We have one another, and we know God is with us… but some of these families don’t and are really struggling. So thank you for helping them know God’s love for them through your gifts.”
That in the midst of her grief, in the midst of her new life, Debbie was able to turn around to thank Jesus for his presence and ask for his love to be made visible to the world, is a miracle and a testament to Roger. It’s also a testament to the generous gratitude Roger practiced in every day life, and a value that his family continues to live out in the world, even after he is no longer in it, and even with all the struggles they continue to live with on top of their grief.
I think this is a question pertinent to us all…. How do we practice generous gratitude in these times that are not what we thought they would be. In the weeks ahead when the family we maybe thought we were going to spend holidays with are not sitting at our table, when ones we love are sick, when our favorite restaurants have shut their dining rooms, when even this church building is shut. In these days when the number off folks we know personally who have CoVid are rising, when we are wisely reluctant to enter stores to do our Christmas shopping, when masks cover smiles and singing in public is frowned upon. In the midst of this, how can we be like Debbie and practice generous gratitude?
I think the answer to this is to become more and more aware of the Divine showing up in our lives. To notice the small things that show God’s presence in the midst of our days…. Even when that day is a struggle. To be like David, the Psalmist, who wrote, in the midst of struggling with the injustices of the world,
I will thank God with all my heart
In the meeting of the just and their assembly
Great are the works of God
To be pondered by all who love them.
Majestic and glorious God’s works
God’s justice stands firm forever
God makes us remember the wonders
And is full of compassion and love.
Indeed, God stands firm forever. In these times that are shaky, when our foundations seem to quiver beneath us, when the things we have taken for granted, like gathering with family or friends for holidays, or that church doors will be open on a Sunday morning, are no longer givens… we need to remember that God’s justice stands firm forever. That God is full of compassion and love, even when things look different. That wonders are all around us when we open our hearts to ponder them.
One of the things that Christ left for us to experience these words, this reality in the midst of the reality we are surrounded by, is this feast. For at the time he most needed to remember God’s compassion and love, at the time when he and his disciples were gathered together celebrating the Seder meal, a large meal with elaborate preparation and a long liturgy to remember how the people had been freed from slavery, in the midst of a gathering that was tinged with forbearing of what was about to take place, Jesus knew that he had to be generous with his gratitude. To be generous with this gift that he could leave behind. Be generous with the most simple of the things on the table, the ones people would have easy assess to, the things that would most likely be something that would stand firm as a symbol of God’s great works through the ages. And so, in the midst of a table covered with elaborate dishes that symbolized tears and sweat and sweetness and bitterness…. In the midst of the table where people were together with him for the last time, in the midst of all the feelings that were swirling around… his own included, Jesus took the most simple, basic, everyday elements and gave thanks. For for the bread, and then for the cup. With all there was on that table to choose from, he chose the two most common. A loaf of bread. A cup of wine.
He was making the statement that these simple things are generous. These everyday things are how we can share gratitude. These things we take for example are the foundation of sharing love and hope and gratitude and thanksgiving with the world. It doesn’t take much. It takes the least. It takes the simple. It takes what’s available. And it turns it into a great feast of thanksgiving, filled with generous inclusive expansive welcome, filled with deep, heart centered love, filled with thanksgiving that surpasses our understanding.
So, if you find yourself struggling to be thankful, struggling to feel gratitude, struggling to find hope, turn back to God, rest in God’s presence, seek out God’s wonders and the majestic and glorious works of God… both in creation, in the small things you notice, in ways of healing and connection that may surprise you. Try to be generous with your gratitude, looking beyond just your needs and seeing how you can bless others with simple, everyday things. And know that we are in this together, even if we cannot be physically together with one another. That God’s love continues to bind us and connect us.
And, as we prepare to be apart for a season, we connect with God and one another through this feast, this this simple meal where we remember God in our midst and give thanks from the depths of our hearts!
I waiver between being perplexed by this passage from Matthew and annoyed by it for two main reasons. First, this is Jesus speaking, and those with do not share with those who have run out of oil for their lamps. When does Jesus not advocate for us to share? In every other story he tells where there are those who do not have enough, he commands us to share. In fact at the end of this very chapter is the When I was hungry passage that we all know and respect. So this different element upsets me. Then, these 10 women who are waiting for their one bridegroom to show up is a sign of the times they were living in where women needed to be taken care of, and were the unimportant ones in this story, the ones waiting to be rescued. And even when we see this as the parable it was meant to be, with the bridegroom being God, it still raises my hackles a little. For my theology says that God does not reject anyone, but would take all who were waiting, would lead them and love them and honor them until they changed enough to be ready. God doesn’t leave half the folk knocking at the door, refusing to recognize them.
In his younger days, John Wesley was of the belief that you had to be one of the chosen ones to get into heaven. He had a huge fear of death and dying and thought that you had to work hard, to be good, to lead a life of holiness to be in that limited number. But through an experience of nearly dying while aboard a ship in a storm, he saw something different. The ship was filled with Moravians, and while others were panicking in as the boat was being tossed about, the Moravians were sitting quietly praying. John began to have long conversations with these faith filled men and woman, and started to understand a different reality. Later he had his Aldersgate experience where his heart was strangely warmed during a bible study, again at a time when he was really struggling with faith… a storm in its own way…and from these stormy times where he began to feel his faith rather than intellectualize it, he formed his theology of grace that we, in the United Methodist Church, still hold as truth today.
Wesley put forth that there are three stages of grace: The first prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the grace of God that surrounds all, and is at work in all, even before we know or care about it. It is a grace which is always there, inviting us to move deeper into our faith journey. It is present before we choose to be people of faith, and, in fact, enables and empowers us to make this choice. There is no limit to this grace, all are included.
Next comes justifying grace. Justifying grace is the assurance of forgiveness and a turning toward God's gracious gift of new life. So it is a grace where we are active in choosing God and allowing forgiveness to flood our beings. Again, it is available to all who choose it, and can be offered over and over again as we learn to live as people of God, preparing us, in a way, for the work of Sanctifying grace.
Sanctifying grace is the place where we practice what it is to live as Christians, where we work toward perfection in love…. A state that none reach, but all should strive for daily. The Book of Discipline states: "We hold that the wonder of God's acceptance and pardon do not end God's saving work, which continues to nurture our growth in grace. Sanctifying grace continuously forms us in the likeness of Christ and sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts, our actions and our relationships.
I believe that, when we stand in these tenets of grace where are all included, where the bridegroom would not leave anyone behind no matter how little light they had, then the question this story asks is not about being wise or being foolish, but rather how do we keep our lights shining…. Not so we are chosen but BECUASE we are chosen.
And I think this is where the Matthew reading comes in to focus for me. The 10 bridesmaids were waiting, but only 5 were ready when the time came. The others had run out of steam, out of power, out of hope. The ‘oil’ the five who were ready had been prepared in advance, so that when the time came they still had enough.
This ‘oil’ for us, I believe, is prayer. Prayer gives us the energy and strength to keep going, to be ready when the time is right, to step up to the task when it is asked of us. I know many people who do good work that don’t have any kind of ongoing spiritual practice, and most of them work hard for a while and are then totally burn out. There is nothing left for them to draw on. I know others who put prayer at the forefront of their work who can continue for years, sometimes against seemingly impossible odds.
I found this out the hard way when I was in seminary. In the summer between my first and second year I went to Angola for 7 weeks with the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. It was a life changing experience, filled with grace and hope and prayer as we worked in a small village. As we traveled home I saw a tv for the first time in nearly two months at the airport, and there were scenes from New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had just struck. I decided there and then that I should try to figure out how to do part of my internship in New Orleans, and did a week long trip down to the devastated area about 6 weeks later. I began to set up a semester long internship, with two other short trips, and the next fall I headed down for 3 1/2 months. I was based in a United Methodist community center on the edge of the French Quarter, both setting up the community center to accommodate teams coming down for a week, and working with community leaders to find people whose homes needed work done on them. I was also mentoring with a teen girls program that served African American young women in the community center, the only community program that taking place. The days were long, the stories were heart breaking, the trauma that people had and still were experiencing was intense…. And remember this was over a year after the hurricane had come. Many of those we served had been living in homes that had been flooded, mold on the walls, or families of 7 or more in small one bedroom mobile homes that had hastily been set up. A lot of people I met were determined to try to stay in the city as that’s were their jobs were, where they community and churches were, where their family were, and were living in terrible conditions. Each day, it seemed, I heard new stories of horror… teens that had waded through hip deep water carrying younger siblings as high as they could and trying to distract them from the dead bodies floating in the water; stories of schools without resources trying to to stay open; stories of tensions running high as families were living so cramped together. And for the first few weeks I was running without pause, putting on the kind of super hero cape that thought I could save everyone. Pretty soon, the oil had run out. I was exhausted, but had trouble sleeping, my body ached from the tension I was carrying in it and I didn’t know how I was going to keep going until the semester was over.
A group from my church and the seminary from California had arranged to come down as the first volunteer group we were hosting at the center, and it included two wise women I knew. That week felt like a breath of fresh air to me as I hosted and worked along side them, gutting houses, trying to save little things we found in the possessions that were left, listening to stories. And as I spoke to these women, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I wondered what was different about that week, and noticed that I had more of a balance. I would get up and prepare and eat breakfast with the team, then we had a time of devotionals before we went out, which included a lectio practice. We worked hard, broke for lunch, and then carried on. The afternoon was more physical work, and then we would pray for and with the homeowners before coming back and cleaning up. After dinner we had another time of prayer, a debrief and returned to the lectio from the morning. Then we had evening prayers before bed. These times of prayer, along with the company of friends was what had been missing. I had been in the mind and body set of go, go, go. But I saw and felt the need to balance this out. The lectio practices, in particular, had been restoring and deep, reminding me of what God was telling me was MY part to do…. Not to save the whole world, but to do the thing in front of me that day. I began to incorporate this practice of lectio into my life, and the rest of the semester, while tiring, was not that deep spirit exhaustion that it had been before.
We are in times right now that feel traumatic, that are tossing us about like a storm. Many of us have stories to tell of friends or loved ones who have lost their lives to CoVid, or become part of the long haulers… those who have been sick for weeks or months. We know people who have lost their jobs and small business owners who are struggling to make it. All of us have been impacted in some way as we try to keep one another as safe as possible. And we have felt the tensions around the elections and wonder what is going to happen as we live into the next four years. And this is not even counting the multitude of other issues we face. And we need ways to fill our lamps so we can shine brightly into the world around us.
So I want to offer you the practice of lectio divina: Divine Reading as one way you can pray as we work our way through these times. There will also be a link to an audio recording of the practice posted on the website each week that you can use at home. This will be a shorter version of the prayer practice, so know at home you can do a short version or spend as long as you need with the last portion of the process.
This is a slow reading of scripture, one where the same short passage is read several times. The first time it’s read in its’ entirety just so you can hear it; the second time you listen for a word or phrase that sticks out for you, that captures your attention, that glimmers for you. Then, using this word or phrase to listen with, it’s read a third time. As you sit with it, see what feeling or image or memory arises within you. You sit with this for a few minutes before the final reading. After this final reading, you listen for how God is speaking to you through the passage, how God is inviting you to act or be or do something, if God is asking you to think about things in a new way. The silence after the last reading can be as long as you like, and you may want to journal, do something artistic, go for a walk as you listen, or just sit and with God in the silence.
Right now we will just do the first part, to give you an idea of this prayer practice, but I encourage you to try it later at home to see if it feels like a good way to replenish your oil!
'Lord, lord, open to us.'
But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.'
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Listen to the passage.
Listen for a word or phrase that captures you in some way.
See what feeling image memory thought arises
As you go about your day, bring all this to mind and see how God may be inviting you into a new awareness, into an action, into a closer relationship.
This week, find those things that fill you. Try the practice of lectio divine at home and incorporate it into your prayer life. If lectio is not the prayer practice for you, find a way to pray that does work. For when God calls us, our task is to be ready so we can respond with a hearty yes! Then the banquet will be ours to enjoy!