The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

We’ll start this morning by recalling the first part of today’s collect:

“Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works…”

What’s worth noticing about this and many of our collects—the prayers that collect our thoughts and intentions at the beginning of our worship—is that it implies a story. There’s a past: God, “the author and giver of all good things.” There’s a future: “the fruit of good works” which have yet to ripen. We’re in the middle of the story. And who we are, what we should do, what we can hope—all of that is determined by what story we’re in the middle of.

We’re in the middle of a story. We’re not at the beginning, so there’s no question of starting with a blank sheet of paper. And we’re not at the end, which is why despair is never an appropriate response.

The “author and giver of all good things” in our collect also points to a theme that runs through our readings: gratitude and its proper expression.

Today gratitude is seriously under-rated as a virtue; we may even think of it as a sign of weakness. Other times and places got it right: The Roman politician and philosopher Cicero claimed “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” The modern psychologist Abraham Maslow: “[The most fortunate are those who] have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.” And Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

The “author and giver of all good things.” If that’s who God is, if that’s what God has done, if that’s the story we’re in, then gratitude is the fitting response.

And, conversely, it’s the failure of gratitude that regularly gets us into so much trouble. Our first lesson, for instance: Israel had received so much from God: deliverance from slavery in Egypt, guidance through a trackless desert, a plentiful land. And Israel too often ignored it all, and set off to jury-rig their own story.

Creation invites us to gratitude. Many of our psalms give us words to express this. “All of them look to you / to give them their food in due season.” Or we can attend to the conversations in the hard sciences. It turns out that a good number of physical constants like the strength of gravity need pretty fine tuning for life to be possible. The fine tuning of our world is so improbable that to avoid thanking the Creator we have to postulate a virtually infinite number of universes, with us happily in the one that holds together. (Google “John Polkinghorne” and “anthropic principle.)”

Equally, as Christians God’s project of restoring all creation elicits our gratitude. From the First Family on, God has responded to our rebellion with ever more daring attempts at reconciliation, culminating in taking human flesh in Jesus.

The theme of gratitude runs just below the surface in our second reading from Hebrews. On the surface it’s about what worship is pleasing to God. If we think of worship as primarily what happens in the sanctuary, we’re surprised, because the text talks about what we do out there as worship: mutual love, hospitality to strangers, holding marriage in honor, contentment, sharing what we have. All this can sound rather much if we’ve forgotten what came before our reading: “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks!” Gratitude.

Our Gospel reading: the lectionary prescribed verses 1 and 7-14, eliminating the man with dropsy in vv.2-6. The Pharisees would have been happy to eliminate him; with apologies to the lectionary editors I’ve left him in.

Jesus has gotten an invitation to eat with some leading Pharisees on the Sabbath. And “just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.” Today we use ‘edema’ rather than ‘dropsy’, swelling caused by the retention of fluid. There’s a predictable argument about what work is lawful on the Sabbath, and Jesus heals the man. Jesus then shifts the conversation to what he’s watched the Pharisees doing and starts giving them some unwelcome advice: don’t keep jockeying for the places of honor, stop limiting your invitations to those who can reciprocate. God’s in the business of humbling those who exalt themselves and of exalting those who humble themselves.

So we’ve got a healing and Jesus admonishing the Pharisees. Outside of it all happening at the same meal, is there anything else that holds it together? Turns out there is, for in that culture edema—various parts of the body all puffed up with extra water combined with an insatiable thirst—served as a metaphor for greed, the sort of behavior the Pharisees are exhibiting, the antithesis of gratitude.

Most groups have a pecking order: who defers to whom. We all learned this on the playground. As we get older, negotiating that pecking order gets more subtle, but rarely disappears. In 1st Century culture, meals were prime opportunities to display the pecking order: who’s closest to the host? Who’s at the head table? So, predictably, a lot of jockeying takes place. Likewise, lunch and dinner invitations are a prime opportunity to cement and maybe even augment one’s rank. It’s very easy for it to become a form of greed, not for food or for money, but for status.

As you may have noticed, the man with edema is introduced abruptly: “Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.” It’s surprising, and commentators wonder about how he got there. Well, once we realize that the Pharisees are suffering from their own form of edema, we can see that the surprise is intentional: we don’t expect someone who’s ritually unclean in the home of a leading Pharisee;
we don’t expect the Pharisees, spiritual athletes every one, to be so afflicted with greed for status. But there we have it.

The text as Luke’s given it to us is a gem. It turns out to be about what Jesus can heal easily and not-so-easily. Jesus can easily heal the man with the physical edema; he finds it harder to heal the Pharisees’ greed for status—they don’t think they’re sick. It turns out to be about what sorts of work are appropriate for the Sabbath. Healing, just like pulling a child or even an ox from a pit, is appropriate for the Sabbath; the work of jockeying for status is not.

The text is a gem, but there’s also a sharp pointy end to notice: “He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” We usually think of gratitude as a sort of reciprocity: we receive something from someone; we reciprocate. Here Jesus breaks it open: don’t confine your generosity to those who can pay you back: include those who can’t pay you back.

That’s where Jesus’ vision of God’s generosity has been heading. God gives generously to us, but not to set up another closed circle! Recall Isaiah from a few weeks back: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (1:11). God gives generously to us so that our gratitude is expressed in giving to others.

What we’ve got here is the logic implicit in Jesus’ joining of the two commandments to make the Great Commandment. “Love the Lord your God” alone can be—well, is often—misunderstood as setting up a closed circle: just me and Jesus. “And your neighbor as yourself” reminds us that loving this God is about creating open, ever-expanding circles.

So, to try to pull all this together! The story we find ourselves in has as its center a breathtakingly generous God, to which our proper response is gratitude. Because strong currents in our culture discourage gratitude, we often need to be intentional in nurturing gratitude. But—here’s the sharp pointy end—we’re not talking about generic gratitude, which can settle into a comfortable closed circle, but a gratitude expressed in generosity toward those who are currently in no position to reciprocate. As we prayed in this morning’s collect “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” Amen.

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