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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 13, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 19:9-15a and Matthew 14:22-33
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into my sermon, I need to say some things about what has transpired over the past 40 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As you know, a group of at least a thousand white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klanners gathered there, along with five to six thousand counter-protestors.[1]  It did not take long for things to turn violent, but then the mere rallying of white nationalists is in and of itself violent for people of color.  According to the LA Times, the violence started within the white supremacist rally.[2]  The violence peaked when a car was driven at high speed into a crowd of counter-protestors, apparently on purpose by a white supremacist,[3] killing one and injuring many others.

I suspect that the vast majority of the white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville consider themselves to be Christians.  But “supremacy” is the precise opposite of Jesus’ message.  Jesus calls us to love one another – even our enemies – and to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another.  The idea of ‘supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus.  Racism goes against everything that Jesus taught.  It promotes hatred, not love; anger, not compassion; vengeance, not mercy.  It is a sin.

“So,” as Father James Martin put it, “‘Christian white supremacist’ is an oxymoron.  Every time you shout ‘White Power!’ you might as well be shouting ‘Crucify him!’  And any time you lift your hand in a Nazi salute, you might as well be lifting your hand to nail Jesus to the Cross.  And lest you miss the point, your Savior is Jewish.”[4]

Now, I don’t think there are any who disagree with what I’ve said.  There may be some who are uncomfortable with the tone or the framing, but I’d be very surprised if any of you disagree with the substance.  So, why did I say it?  Because I needed to.  Week after week, I get up here in this pulpit to preach the gospel of Jesus and when something is happening in the world that violates the gospel, I need to say so.  To be silent is insufficient.  White silence is violence.  To be silent is to offer my consent.  And I do not consent to racism.

The events of the week, and especially of the last day and a half have left me wondering what else to say to you.  I usually have a good idea of where my sermon is going by Tuesday.  I typically have the main points figured out by Wednesday or Thursday.  All that changed for me yesterday as new from Charlottesville, Virginia – that had started showing up in the Twitter feed the night before – was reported on NPR and I started reading more online.  Yesterday afternoon, I pushed the work I had done on my sermon aside and started over.

And it wasn’t just Charlottesville.  The news of the dangerous posturing of the President of the United States and the ruler of North Korea tilled the soils of my heart and left me feeling a low-grade anxiety.  I can’t help but wonder about how those of you here and throughout our country – throughout our world – who deal with chronic conditions of anxiety and/or depression and/or post-traumatic stress are coping.  I pray that you are doing the self-care that you need and I hope that the rest of this sermon may even be a balm in some small way for you as writing it has been for me.

As I went back to the texts yesterday, I found some comfort in the reading from 1 Kings and the verses that come before it.  Elijah is depressed.  “Elijah has come to the wilderness to die, certain that he is the only faithful one left in Israel.  His orchestration of the upstaging of Baal – when, quite against the odds, the fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s water-soaked altar – caught the attention of Queen Jezebel, never one to suffer humiliation gladly.  Now he has a price on his head.  Exhausted, despondent, and somewhat resentful over this turn of events, Elijah sits ‘under a solitary broom tree’ and [turns to God in prayer and] asks to die (1 Kings 19:4).”[5]

Talbot Davis calls Elijah’s prayer “the worst prayer in the Bible.”  “[Elijah’s] trauma piles up, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all.  And although it is the worst prayer in the Bible, I’m really glad it’s here.  Because I know some of you have prayed it.  Or [maybe, even now,] you are praying it.”[6]  When hope is gone, when madness seems to surround you, when the pain is relentless, it can seem like there is only one prayer to pray, “Take my life.  Do it now.  Instantly.  Painlessly.  Fix it, take it, do it.  I’m tired of being responsible for it.”[7]

That is certainly where Elijah was.  But listen to God’s response.  “All at once an angel touched [Elijah] and said, ‘Get up and eat.’  [Elijah] looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.  He ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:5b-6).  “And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a:  ‘The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched [Elijah] and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank.’

“And the repetition is the key.  The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small:  bread, water, and a bed.  Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed.  [It is] As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involves small steps.”[8]

Davis points out that God puts a burden on Elijah.  It’s not a big burden.  It’s a manageable burden, but it’s on Elijah.  “God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it.  It’s not like the [angel] put an IV line in and Elijah will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not.  He had to act.  He had to own.  He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him.  Either kill him or make him all better in a snap.  But instead God gives a task, a massively small task:  Get up and eat.  I’m sending bread, water and a bed but you’ve gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing.”[9]

So, here’s my takeaway from this exchange (and I realize I haven’t gotten to the reading yet, but bear with me):  God won’t do for you want God wants to do with you.

Well, Elijah does get up and eats, and wanders the hills until he gets to Mount Horeb.  And he finds a cave there and spends the night.  And the word of Yahweh comes to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ve been faithful, but look at what they’re trying to do to me.  They’re trying to kill me!”

God does not say, “Dude, you were just asking me to kill you,” which I think is awfully nice of God.  Instead, God says, “Time for an object lesson.  Get out of the cave and stand on the mountain.”  Then there is a mighty wind, and an earthquake, and great fire.  Surely Elijah recognized these signs, just as Moses had when he was on the mountain.  “But this time, God is not in any of them.  God has changed languages – speaking now in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’”[10]

It is in the silence that Elijah realizes the presence of Yahweh.  In is in that profound stillness that Elijah realizes he is in the presence of God.  And he goes and stands at the entrance of the cave.  The voice comes to him again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been faithful, but the people of Israel have not.  I really think I’m the only faithful one left, and they are coming to hunt me down.”

And God says, “You’re not done.  I’ve got more for you to do.  Get going.”

And here’s take away number 2:  Even when we’re at our lowest, God has work for us to do.

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the reason Jesus went off into the wilderness was because King Herod had executed John the Baptist.  The principalities and powers of his day was doing their best to silence God’s truth and so they killed John.  Jesus, another proclaimer of God’s truth, knew he could be next and he went off to do a little self-care.  He went off to pray.  It didn’t happen.  The crowd followed him.  He fed them.  Jesus ordered the disciples to get in a boat and go away.  Then he dispersed the crowd.  And Jesus finally got some time to himself to pray.

The night falls and the boat is out there on the lake when a storm kicks up.  Waves batter the boat and even the wind is against them.

Even the wind is against them.  When things are bad, it really does seem like things can pile on.

In the midst of all this, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Laurel Dykstra notes that the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ response is striking in this passage.  “Although the boat is battered by waves and wind, the disciples are not ‘troubled’ (tarasso in Greek) until they see Jesus (Matthew 14:26).  Certainly they are afraid to see someone walking on water, but the only other place in Matthew this word appears is when Herod learns that Jesus is born (Matthew 2:3).”[11]  It seems to me that Jesus showing up in turbulent times is not necessarily comforting.  In fact, for those of us who would follow him – and even for those who oppose him – Jesus showing up can be upsetting, even troubling.

And then there’s what Jesus does.  Jesus doesn’t respond to the troubled disciples by stilling the storm.  Instead, he just says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  Dykstra points out that this echoes what the Israelites are told when they are backed up against the Red Sea and the Egyptian army is closing in on them. “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm,” Moses tells them (Exodus 14:13).[12]

“Do not be afraid.”  These words are so common to the biblical narrative that we almost don’t hear them.  The Israelites are told, “Do not be afraid,” as they are backed up against the sea.  Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields are all told, “Do not be afraid” leading up to and at the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, those words are part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to become a follower.  In a couple chapters from where we are today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will speak these words to the disciples who are with him at the Transfiguration.  And at the resurrection, the first thing the angel tells the women who come to the tomb is, “Do not be afraid.”

But of course I’m afraid, Jesus.  Have you been listening to what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have been saying this past week?  Have you heard the hate being spewed by the racist, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners in Virginia this weekend?  Of course I’m afraid.

But it’s not just that, Jesus.  I know that when you show up, you’re going to lay claim to me and ask me to do something risky.  Of course I’m afraid.

When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk toward you, of course he floundered – and not just because he took his eyes off you.  He floundered because he became afraid.  And, quite frankly, that fear was justified.  “It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person.  He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.”[13]  And so do I and so do the rest of the people here today.

Of course we have reason to be afraid.  “Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives,… of the direction of our country”[14] – you name it, there is a lot in our lives that gives us reason to be afraid.

So, of course Jesus needs to tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear is debilitating.  “It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence.  Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us …”[15]  I agree with David Lose:  When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I think it’s more of a lament than a rebuke.

“In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to [have] courage [nor does he] instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him.  Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple.  And so also with us!  Jesus will not let us go.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus will not give up on us.  Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us to where we can be of service.

“This the promise at the heart of this story, all of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed of our faith:  that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot.  And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear.  Transcend, not defeat.  Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness.  Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid.”[16]

So, in the face of the news, let me say this to you – and to me:  Do not be afraid.

Amen.

[1] Connie Larkman, “Charlottesville state of emergency ends ‘Unite the Right’ rally,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/news_charlottesville_state_of_emergency_ends_unite_the_right_rally_08122017 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[2] Matt Pearce, Robert Armengol, David S. Cloud, “Three dead, dozens hurt after Virginia white nationalist rally is dispersed; Trump blames ‘many sides,’” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-charlottesville-white-nationalists-rally-20170812-story.html (posted 12 August 2017; accessed 13 August 2017).

[3] Michael Edison Hayden, Adam Kelsey, and Lucien Bruggeman, “Man charged with murder for allegedly plowing into crowd in Charlottesville following white nationalist rally,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/car-hits-crowd-protesters-white-nationalist-rally-virginia/story (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[4] James Martin, SJ, Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/posts/10154669492056496 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[5] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Recognizing God’s Presence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/recognizing-gods-presence-0 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[6] Talbot Davis, “How God Answers the Worst Prayer in the Bible,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8345/how-god-answers-the-worst-prayer-in-the-bible (posted 10 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Verhulst, op. cit.

[11] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/here-comes-trouble?parent=51401 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Lose, “Pentecost 10 A: Something More,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/08/pentecost-10-a-something-more/ (posted 7 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 25, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: “Stanzas of the Soul” by John of the Cross and Psalm 42
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

You may think the annual Niles Flea Market is big, but every 500 years the church universal holds a rummage sale, and when that happens, watch out! You may remember Pastor Brenda or me talking about this before. I was introduced to the idea by Phyllis Tickle. Phyllis Tickle says she got the idea from Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer.[1] This is how Tickle explains it:

Phyllis Tickle

“[A]bout every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable … hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”

Around the year 500, the Christian world was thrown into chaos with the fall of the Roman Empire. Gregory the Great created a church run by monasteries and convents. About 500 years later, the Eastern and Western churches split in what is called “The Great Schism,” and a church that vested all power in the bishop of Rome (also known as the Pope), was created. About 500 years after that, in the 1500s, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others sought to reform the calcified Roman Catholic church and ended up starting Protestant churches. And 500 years after that – well, we’re living 500 years after that, and something new is beginning to emerge.

When these mighty upheavals have happened, Tickle says, “history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events. First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge”[2] – the monastic movement, the Roman Catholic church, the Protestant churches.

“Second, the organized expression of Christianity that up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.”[3] In other words, while a new movement is born, the old movement is (typically reluctantly) renewed.

Tickle also notes, “The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance. Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread – and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.  Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis. As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.”[4]

While Tickle is particularly excited by this third result, it is the second result, the renewal of the existing movement, that most interests me for today’s sermon.

St. John of the Cross

The man we now know as John of the Cross was born in the midst of the 1500s, in the midst of the last rummage sale. He was born in 1542 in Spain to a father who had been disowned by his merchant-class father (John’s grandfather) because John’s father married for love rather than social status. Thus, John grew up in poverty, a poverty made worse when his father died. He joined the Carmelite order friars in 1563, taking on the name John of St. Matthias.

In 1567, he met Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun who was trying to reform her order of women religious. She encouraged John to do the same among the friars, a task he undertook. It was at this time, undertaking his mission, that John changed his religious name to John of the Cross. His mission to reform his order encountered both support and resistance. He was kidnapped twice and imprisoned, including spending nine months in the monastery prison in Toledo.[5]

In this quick sketch of John’s life we see what Tickle talks about. As the calcified institution that was the Roman Catholic church was dealing with the Protestant Reformation, a movement within Catholicism was trying to reform as well. Eventually, John’s efforts took root, for in the 1700s John was named a Saint and in the 1900s he was named a “Doctor of the Church.”[6] But initially, as Tickle points out is typical, his attempts at reformation were met with resistance.

His imprisonment in Toledo is key to our sermon today. This is how Barbara Brown Taylor describes it:

Barbara Brown Taylor

“When John refused to renounce his work with Teresa, he was beaten and thrown into the monastery prison, where he survived on little more than bread and water. He was not allowed to bathe or change his clothes. He was not permitted to leave his cell, except for the ‘circular discipline’ of being flogged by other monks.

“After two months, John was placed in solitary confinement, where the only light he saw came through a slit in his prison wall. It was there that he began to compose his greatest works – first by memorizing the words in the dark and later, thanks to a kind jailer, by writing them down. When he escaped after nine months, he fled to the south of Spain, where the reformed Carmelites were freer from persecution. There he continued to write down what he learned in the dark.”[7]

His most famous work is called, The Dark Night of the Soul. Most people who hear the title “assume that it is a memoir of a survivor describing the worst period of his life. Because we have been programed to equate “dark” with evil and sinister, we expect this work to tell us about “how awful it was but how John got through it by hanging on to his faith in God no matter what happened to him.”[8] But the work starts with the poem we heard read, and that poem sure sounds to me like a love poem.[9] And it is. For out of John’s time of hardship came a gift: a deep, passionate love of God. Not an understanding about God, but a deep, passionate love of God.

John starts with that love poem, and then goes on to expound on the poem – for 100 pages. And it’s not easy reading. So I have relied much more on what others have written about what John wrote.

Taylor explains the challenges: “In the first place, John does not have much to say about religion. His language is passionate and speaks directly to the senses. For him, the dark night is a love story, full of the painful joy of seeking the most elusive lover of all. In the second place, he is no help at all to anyone seeking a better grip on God. One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped. In John’s native Spanish, his word for God is nada. God is no-thing. God is not a thing. And since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”[10]

The idea that God is nada is, at first, disturbing to me. God as no-thingness is awfully close to nothingness. And I tend to abhor a vacuum. Yet, somehow, the idea that God is nada seems also very accurate. When I started out my journey, I was carrying an image of God that was somehow a cross between an image Santa and an image of the Abraham Lincoln seated on the large chair, the throne of the Lincoln Memorial. And somewhere along the way, I let go of that baggage.

Other images have come and gone, and the one that I have left is perhaps more easy to describe by telling you want it isn’t than by telling you what it is. It isn’t a person; it isn’t a thing; it isn’t a being – or at least not a being separate from, or not a being only separate from, or … The one thing I know for sure is that my image isn’t complete.

“‘If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God,’ Saint Augustine said in the fourth century. Sixteen hundred years later, the Northern Irish theologian Peter Rollins says the same thing with equal force. God is an event, he says, ‘not a fact to be grasped but an incoming to be undergone.’”[11]

The dark night of the soul tends to come in the midst of crisis. Descriptions of the coming of the dark night have in common a sense of “the soul being tested, often to the point of losing faith, by circumstances beyond all control.”[12] When this crisis comes, it seems as if God is absent. If God is light, then God is gone. “There is no soft glowing space of safety in this dark night. There is no comforting sound coming out of it, reassuring the soul that all will be well.”[13]

For some people, when this dark night descends, it is really important to see a doctor. The dark night and a depression can seem very similar and can be easily confused. John “makes a distinction between tinieblas, the kind of darkness you would be wise to turn away from, and oscura, which simple means obscure, or difficult to see.… Like tinieblas, depression can take people apart without putting them back together again, while la noche oscura is for healing.… [W]hen depression passes, all is restored; when the dark night passes, all is transformed.”[14]

“God puts out our lights to keep us safe, John says, because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. This remains true even when we cannot discern God’s presence. The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.”[15]

Perhaps you can see why I picked this particular quote for the thought for quiet reflection printed in your bulletin. A fuller version goes like this:

Minnie Louise Haskins

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
“And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’
“So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”[16]

We started this series because both Pastor Brenda and I found Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, to be inspiring and because we thought that during this time when we are between buildings, we, as a church, are wandering. And for some, perhaps for many, this time may feel like we’re aren’t just wandering, but that we’re wandering in the dark. So, learning to walk in the dark seemed an apt task for this season.

This series has one more sermon that Pastor Brenda will offer in two weeks (we’ll both be on Study Leave next Sunday), so what I’m about to say isn’t the conclusion of the series. It’s only the conclusion of this sermon. That said, all of my sermons so far have been about finding some aspect of gift in the dark, about seeing not being able to see as a gift. That is certainly the case for the dark night of the soul – it is a gift. It is a gift that comes at great cost. One must wander through the valley of the shadow of the death of faith.

But that valley can be a teacher. It can teach us that everything we thought we knew, especially about God, isn’t … well, it’s not so much that everything we thought we knew about God is wrong, as it is completely incomplete. It is limited, and limiting. Therefore our faith is always incomplete, always limited, always limiting. And therefore, faith is really about the journey toward completeness, and not about completeness itself. The journey is the thing … or, perhaps, the no-thing.

“The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.”[17]

Amen.

[1] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/magazine/2008/08/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 24 January 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Don Mullan, The Little Book of St. John of the Cross (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2003), 7-9.

[6] Ibid, 10.

[7] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 136-137.

[8] Ibid, 137.

[9] See page 16 of The Dark Night of the Soul at http://www.basilica.org/pages/ebooks/St.%20John%20of%20the%20Cross-Dark%20night%20of%20the%20soul.pdf.

[10] Taylor, 137-138.

[11] Ibid, 144.

[12] Ibid, 133-134.

[13] Ibid, 134.

[14] Ibid, 136.

[15] Ibid, 146-147.

[16] From Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows,” quoted from “The Gate of the Year,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gate_of_the_Year (accessed 24 January 2015).

[17] Taylor, 147.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 17:11-19
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I can see myself sitting at the white, round table in the family room of my childhood home, a piece of paper in front of me, a writing implement (probably a pencil) in my hand, knowing that I had to write my aunt a thank you letter.  And I was dreading it.  I had no idea what to say, and my mom said I had to.

“Dear Dorli, thank you for the [whatever it was]. I like it a lot.”  “Mom, what do I say after that?”

My nephew, the pasta and pesto king of our family (he grows his own basil), had a birthday a couple weeks ago.  I got a thank you card from him his week:
“Dear Jeff[,]
Thank you for the REI gift card and the cook book[.]  I am really ex[c]ited to cook with you.  I have a grate memory of when I told you to put the cheese in the pesto and you put in the whole block and it splat[t]ed every where.
Love you a ton[,] Sam”

First of all, the cheese didn’t splat everywhere.  It banged around in the blender until he stopped me and told me to grate the cheese first.  Second, yes, the uncle who burns water when he makes tea got is nephew a cook book for his birthday and promised to do come cooking with him.  And third, it is really clear that he is related to me because (1) the note has plenty of spelling mistakes and that’s a Spencer characteristic, and (2) if it’s not a spelling mistake, it’s a really worthwhile pun that his cheese memory of me is g-r-a-t-e.

Of course, I wonder if his mother had to make my nephew write the note.  I think this is a fairly universal experience for parents, and yet when I ask kids to pray (and I’ve seen this consistently at camps over the decades), their prayers are almost always prayers of thanks.  In my experience, it’s only in adolescence, and often not until late adolescence that the prayers start to move toward intercession.  Offering thanks to God in spoken prayer is easy, it’s natural for kids to do.  But ask them to write a thank you note, and parents feel like they’re pulling teeth.  I suspect it’s the writing part that’s problematic.  Giving thanks is natural, but as soon as we ask the kid to put it to paper, it becomes a homework assignment.

About a year and a quarter ago, I gave myself a nightly homework assignment.  While I haven’t fulfilled this assignment every night, I’ve come pretty close.  The assignment has two parts:  Part one is to review the day – think about what happened and how God showed up in what happened.  Part two is to write a prayer of thanks and post it on Facebook.

This is actually part of an ancient spiritual practice called the Daily Examen.  More than 400 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola encouraged Christians to twice-daily prayerfully reflect on the day and offer God thanks.[1]  The Daily Examen is a bit more nuanced than that and includes other elements, but prayerfully reflecting and giving thanks is the core of the Examen.  I’ve taken this core component and added a piece of 21st century social media to the practice.

I started this assignment as a way to explore if Facebooking could be used for spiritual practice – at least by me – for a workshop I would later lead.  The answer is a profound, “Yes!” and so I have kept up the practice, long after the workshop.

I’ve found two things from doing this assignment for over a year.  To my surprise, I’ve found that there are people who look forward to my prayers and who connect with them – I really thought I was doing this practice for me and God alone, and putting the prayer on Facebook was just a way of saying the prayer aloud.

The other things I have found is in me: a shift, a spiritual shift.  The practicing of gratitude has created a feeling of gratitude in me; the feeling has followed the behavior.  Even on days when I have found it very difficult to be grateful, I have been able to be grateful that I can be honest with God about how difficult it is to be grateful some days.  I have found that it is easier for me to let go of the “small stuff” that can easily be an irritant.  And I have found that I’m not nearly as stressed out by our pending move as I think I would be without this practice of giving thanks.

“Ten Lepers Healed,” by Brian Kershisnik

During the daytime Women’s Fellowship meeting on Monday, we looked at the gospel lesson we heard today.  Jesus and the disciples are on their journey and they are crossing the border between Galilee and Samaria.  There, in that liminal territory, in that area that crosses between two spaces, they encounter a group of ten lepers.  Now, when we say “leper,” we’re not necessarily talking about people with Hansen’s disease, we’re not necessarily talking about people who need to go live on Molokai.  We might be, but not necessarily.

The ability to distinguish between one sort of skin disorder and another wasn’t as acute then as it is now.  Because it was clear that leprosy is contagious, people with all sorts of skin problems were banished from the community, made to live on the margins, and told that they couldn’t approach people who were “clean.”  The only way for a Jew to get back into the Jewish community was to be examined by a priest and declared “clean.”

So Jesus and the disciples meet up with this group of ten people who were labeled “lepers.”  The ten cry out to Jesus and Jesus tells them to act as if they are clean.  ‘Go show yourselves to a priest, go get the examination that will restore you to community.’  So off they go, and as they are going, they are made clean.  One of the ten comes back to Jesus and thanks him.  And Jesus points out that the one who came back is “a foreigner,” that is, a Samaritan.

You know, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.  (Think about it for a moment.)

We have incomplete data in the story, but the extrapolation is that the other nine were Jews.  Prior to their experience of Jesus, this group of ten had something in common.  They were all thrown out of their communities because of their skin conditions.  Labeled and thrown out, they created community for themselves by banding together, crossing barriers that otherwise would have kept them apart.  Now they have encountered Jesus, who sends them off to their priests to be restored to their original communities.  Would they remember the Jewish/Samaritan barrier-busting they had experienced when they were outcasts?  Or would they try to put the whole banishment experience behind them and work to fit back into the social norms?

I have a tendency to wag my finger at the nine who didn’t return to give Jesus thanks.  Jesus did this really cool thing for them, and they don’t even say “thank you.”  But I don’t think that’s fair.  They did exactly what Jesus told them to do.

Walter Wink points out that “Jesus does not use healing to bring others under the spell of his own charisma.  He merely sends these lepers on their way to the priest.  Their going, their trust, their acting on his command activates their healing.  He is not content merely to heal, but to restore their own sense of power: ‘Your faith has made you well.’”[2]

There may be an element in this story that is contrasting the difference between being cleansed and being whole.  All ten lepers were made clean (katharizo), but Jesus says something different to the leper who returns.  To him, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well (sozo).”  The word sozo isn’t just “to be made well.”  It also means “to be saved.”  By coming back and giving thanks, the Samaritan is transformed into wholeness.

There is something about the act of giving thanks that is transformative.

I would like to think that the other nine found a time and a place to give thanks to God.  Sadly, it is also possible that the other nine ended up thinking that they healed themselves.  I know it’s easy for me to think I’ve done something on my own.  That’s one of the reasons I find value in my daily practice of giving thanks.  It helps me realize that I don’t really do anything on my own and that realization brings me a greater sense of wholeness and connectedness – connectedness to God and to my neighbors.

Our discussion about this passage at Women’s Fellowship took an interesting turn at one point.  As we were talking about the power of giving thanks, about its power to transform, even to bring wholeness, one of the women asked if a practice of giving thanks can treat depression.  I am so thankful for the questions, and I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, let me share my answer to her question.

I can think of three types of depression.[3]  There is situational depression.  This is the depression that comes because of a situation, for example, the death of a loved one.  Like all types of depression, one who is situationally depressed will feel sadness and a lack of energy.  Often, with situational depression, helping others and giving thanks helps to alleviate the depression.

Clinical depression is a physical illness.  People with clinical depression typically have chemical imbalances in their brains that can be relieved with appropriate medication.  The causes of clinical depression can include genetics, situational depression that isn’t alleviated,[4] and (recent studies are suggesting) brain injuries like concussions.[5]  Because clinical depression is a physical illness, it needs to be treated medically.  Spiritual practices (like service and giving thanks) can help, but medical treatment is necessary.

The third type of depression I can think of is the depression that comes with bipolar disorder.  Like clinical depression, bipolar disorder is treated with appropriate medication – though different medication from that used to treat clinical depression because the brain chemistry issues are different.  I don’t know enough about bipolar disorder to know if spiritual practices (like service and giving thanks) can help alleviate some of the depressive symptoms that come with bipolar disorder – though it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.  What I do know for sure is that medical treatment works.

One reason I am so thankful for the question that was asked at Women’s Fellowship is that it opened the door to a really powerful discussion about depression.  I think just about everyone at the meeting had dealt with or had a family member who dealt with depression at some point in their lives.  Some were still dealing with it because their clinical depression was chronic.  This may have been the first time any of us talked about it openly.  And I don’t remember if I have ever spoken so clearly about depression in particular and mental illnesses in general in a sermon before.  I’m doing it now because that question opened the door.  For that, I give thanks.

Since Monday, I’ve had three opportunities to talk about this sermon as it was coming together.  All three times, I mentioned that I planned to talk about depression.  All three times, that mention elicited sharing about ways depression had touched their lives.

This suggests to me that people want to talk about mental health and mental illness.  But we don’t.  It reminds me of how the word “cancer” was avoided in polite conversation in the 1960s and 70s, at least in my experience.  Mental illness still has a stigma in our culture.  People living with mental illness are the often pushed to the margins by our silence.  Maybe my mentioning depression today in this sermon will help chip away at that stigma and open a door to conversation.  So I give thanks today for a question about depression that came up in a Bible study.

And giving thanks really is the topic for today’s sermon.  A point I made earlier is that giving thanks is transformative.  I think this is because giving thanks requires us to interrupt our preoccupations and to turn in our tracks toward the source of life and newness.  On this thanksgiving week, let us make it a practice to interrupt our preoccupations and to turn toward God and give thanks.

Amen.

[1] A simple overview of the Daily Examen can be found at http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/

[2] Walter Wink, “Divine Source, Human Means,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/divine-source-human-means-0 (accessed 17 November 2014).

[3] During coffee hour after worship, a church member suggested that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADs) might be a fourth type of depression.

[4] See http://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/depression/situational-depression/ for more on situational depression and clinical depression.

[5] See, for instance, “Teen Concussions Increase Risk of Depression,” Center for Advancing Health, http://www.cfah.org/hbns/2014/teen-concussions-increase-risk-for-depression (posted 9 January 2014; accessed 22 November 2014).

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