This is the time of year for traditions. Traditions with family, traditions with foods we eat, traditions of games we play or games we watch on TV. One tradition that I just learned about a couple weeks ago was that for this Community Thanksgiving Service the new minister in town is the one who gives the message. This is a pretty good tradition to have because being the new minister I have no way of knowing whether or not this actually is a tradition and can’t really argue against it. But I’m glad to have the chance to share with you and look forward to getting to minister in this community. My wife and daughter and I have been here for about four months now and are enjoying getting to know the good folks of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. We were able to buy a house right by the church on Brownway Avenue just a block off of Madison and are enjoying settling into this community. I grew up a couple hours north of here in Bellefontaine and it feels good to be back in Ohio after being away for ten years or so with schooling and a couple years of volunteering in St. Louis with Habitat for Humanity.
There are two Good Samaritans in Luke’s Gospel. The first one has become a bit of a celebrity over the years. He’s the one who has hospitals and nonprofit organizations named after him. He appears in one of Jesus’ better known parables. Jesus had just been asked by a lawyer what was needed to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered by quoting two passages from the Torah, one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind: and your neighbor as yourself.” In one skilled interpretation of the law Jesus elevates love as the guiding principle of all that we think and do. To clarify just who he means by “neighbor” Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan who showed compassion toward a stranger that two religious folks had passed by.
This Good Samaritan is the embodiment of what it means to love God and love our neighbor. He reminds us that it’s impossible to say that we love God without serving those who are made in the image of God. Jews and Samaritans were not exactly the best of neighbors to each other, so for this Samaritan to show compassion toward a person that Jesus’ listeners would have assumed to be a Jew is all that more remarkable. This is Good Samaritan #1, the symbol of unconditional love.
There is a lesser known Samaritan in Luke’s gospel who might have just as much to teach us. In the passage that I read Jesus is en route to Jerusalem. Luke is careful to point out that Jesus is in the region between Samaria and Galilee, which means he would be in a region where Jews and Samaritans would have lived in close proximity to each other. And in this in between place, Jesus is confronted by ten lepers. Being aware of their own uncleanness, these lepers keep their distance from Jesus so as not to make him unclean by their touch. They had been trained to remain separate. A law in Leviticus commanded them to act in this way: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” The lepers in this story seem to have formed their own leper colony. But instead of shouting the traditional warning that they were unclean, unclean, they shout to Jesus to have mercy on them.
The healing that takes place in this passage is rather undramatic. Jesus simply tells them to go show themselves to the priests, who had the role of pronouncing them officially clean, and it says that they were made clean as they went. What does take center stage is the response of one of the ten. This person praised God and returned to express gratitude to Jesus. Only after Luke has gotten his readers to believe that this is a righteous person does he drop the surprise line. “And he was a Samaritan.” The only one who returns thanks to God turns out to be a foreigner, the lesser known Good Samaritan #2. By mentioning that this person is a Samaritan, Luke is essentially saying that it doesn’t matter what this person’s identity is, what their religious or cultural or racial background is, what matters is a grateful heart directed toward God.
It would be wonderful if we would learn to give as much importance to the second Good Samaritan as we have to the first. The symbol of unconditional love would do well to have a partner who is the symbol of gratitude. Gratitude, like love, is something that can be all pervasive, all encompassing, directed toward God with all our hearts and toward our neighbors. Also like love, gratitude goes far beyond an inner feeling: it has the potential to permeate all of our lives, affect all of our relationships, affect how we live, who we welcome into our life, how we show hospitality, how we share what we have.
One of my mentors is fond of saying that one of the greatest things in life is to be present with a person who is grateful. I have found this to be true. Grateful people have a way of being able to give and receive in ways that keep creating more and more gratitude from others. I’m struck by the many different ways gratitude shows itself in people. One of my friends expresses gratitude for life by giving blood every chance she has and growing her hair out to donate to be used as wigs for people who have undergone chemotherapy. One set of friends had an experience of receiving hospitality that inspired them so much that they have created a hospitality house where they live with others in community and offer hospitality to people in their neighborhood. These past couple years it has been refeshing for me to see my parents express their love for the earth by expanding their gardening and providing fresh produce to their kids and others in the community.
There are several instances in the gospels where we witness Jesus giving thanks. And I’m impressed with what this looks like. The commonly repeated phrase in the gospels has Jesus taking bread, giving thanks, breaking the bread, and sharing it with those around him. This happens during his last meal with his disciples and during that large picnic of hungry people in the wilderness that we often call the feeding of the 5000. Jesus expresses gratitude by breaking up what is available and passing it around. Another way of saying this would be that for Jesus giving thanks, Thanks giving, always involved both thanks and giving, gratitude followed by an immediate willingness to divide what he has and offer it to others.
There is an instant in the story of this second Good Samaritan that I think captures the essence of gratitude. It is not the instant that the Samaritan recognizes he is healed. All of the lepers experienced this. But it is the instant when the Samaritan recognizes that what he has been given is a pure gift from a power beyond himself. This is the birth of gratitude. Unlike the others, the Samaritan knows deeply that this thing he now has, this healing, is not his to grasp on to, but is his to release to God in thankfulness and to begin to share with others. The text says that he turned back. This turning back is a cycle that can happen again and again in our lives. Each time we come to know that some aspect of our lives is a gift, we experience this return. We return to the source of this gift and in our gratitude allow this gift to be something that is not just ours, but something that is God’s to be shared, broken open, and passed around.
The most wonderful gift I have received recently has been the birth or our daughter, Eve, a little less than a year ago. From the miracle of pregnancy on through the labor and birth process it was clear that this was a gift coming from far beyond ourselves. I have no idea how it all happened, but somehow she is here with us. To me, being grateful for her means that I have the pleasure of enjoying the gift that she is in our lives, while also realizing that she is much more than just mine or just ours. This Samaritan is teaching me to constantly return to the source of all good things with gratitude and an open spirit to share what I have been given.
Receiving a new child is one of the more joyous things one can experience in life. New birth, new life. So much to be thankful for. I’ve also found that people have a way of finding gratitude in some of the darker times in life. These times where death is near us also somehow have a way of bringing out the beauty of what we have been given. As we come to terms with letting go of the life of another, or our own life, of allowing that life to itself return to God, we find that there can be deep gratitude along with our grief.
The most recent publication of Sojourners magazine has an article written by James Loney who was one of the four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams kidnapped in Iraq in 2005. The Mennonite church is one of the supporters of these Christians Peacemaker Teams and this is a story that many of us followed closely last year as these members spent 118 days in captivity. Now, about six months after being released, James reflects about his experience and his inner journey through it. He notes that they each had to come to terms with death and that they began to experience each present moment of life in a deeper, more intense, more rich way. He says this at the end of his essay: “This, I think, is what I’ve learned, though I make no claims about successfully living it: We are born to be born, again and again, every day in every moment in every decision, big or small, regardless of where we are or what is happening to us. We were given birth to give birth, and every body is holy. The hardest birth of all is dying. The labor pains will seize us; we have no control over the time or place. Our job is to allow God to breathe us through, together, in the mystery of incarnation.”
These are wise words from a man who has undergone extreme hardship. They sound to me like the words of one who has glimpsed the face of God and learned a way of living in the spirit of gratitude. Like the Samaritan, he has returned to the source of life. Recognizing that each moment is a gift – not to be grasped on to, but to be cherished and let go of in order to fully receive the next moment. It has everything to do with death and resurrection. Letting go of life and then receiving it back as pure gift.
This season of Thanksgiving and Christmas present us with a wonderful opportunity to make new discoveries in gratitude. Underneath the busyness and commercialism of the season there is the ever present voice of God calling us to join our Samaritan brother and recognize that all good things flow from God and return to God. Every gift is a cause for gratitude, a cause for returning to God and opening our arms to others. Thank God for all of these gifts and Thank God for the other Good Samaritan.