Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Luke 17:11-19
Let’s sing the prayer.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me…Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
It’s good to be back. Pullen still feels like home to me. This is the place where I began my ministry in 1969. So, being here today feels like coming full circle. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s poem:
We shall not cease from exploring
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(“Little Gidding” in Four Quartets)
I arrived at Pullen way back when—back before the war. Which war?, you may ask. That was before the end of the Vietnam War. I got here when Bill Finlator was preaching fiery anti-war sermons from this pulpit. He was a ragtag prophet for peace and racial reconciliation, for the rights of workers, and for the abolition of the death penalty. I learned a lot from Bill; and where he has led, I have done my best to follow.
When I arrived here, Geraldine Cate, the Director of Music, heard that I could sing, and she ordered me (Note the verb.) to sing Evangelist in “St. Matthew Passion.” She ordered me to sing Bernstein, Britten, and Bach. And you could not say “No” to Miss Cate. She wouldn’t allow it. As Bill Finlator said, “Miss Cate has executive tendencies.” She also was a person with a fervent social conscience.
During my ten years at Pullen, I learned then that if you’re going to be a part of this church, get ready to anchor your faith in prayer and protest, in music and mission. It’s clear to me that the Spirit has anointed Pullen to challenge us to put our faith into action. If you don’t intend to be a Christian, to follow Jesus, you probably shouldn’t join this church. But if you want to help build the Beloved Community, this is a place to get your marching orders. This is a church that nurtures spiritual activists, but I prefer the word “agitators.” Spiritual agitators.
I come today to give thanks for Pullen and for all the agitators here. I also want to reflect with you about what it takes to be a spiritual agitator.
After these many years reflecting on the Pullen tradition, I’ve found myself drawn to E.B White’s words: “I arise in the morning torn between two desires—- the desire to savor the world and the desire to save the world. That makes it difficult to plan the day.”
To savor means to bask in the goodness, to enjoy, appreciate, take delight in. Savoring is the goal of Sabbath, one day in seven set aside for appreciation, wonder, and gratitude. Let’s sing it. I’ll sing first, and you repeat it: “This is the day…that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. This is the day….”
Speaking of Sabbath and savoring:
When I was here, dear Sr. Evelyn Mattern took me to a little monastery in Oxford, NC. I know now that she was planting a seed for my future. Now, for the past 18 years I’ve been going for annual visits to a monastery, New Camaldoli Hermitage in California. It’s a place of stillness and rugged beauty, a place where prayer is palpable. There I’ve been granted permission to live inside the cloister, in a cell like the monks, to know their life from the inside. It’s a life of solitude and community, a balance of silence and 4 services each day, singing the Psalms with the monks, basking in their lovely rituals and velvet silence. For me the monastery provides a place and a time for savoring.
Concerning the monastery, I’ve described my experience there with my Pullen friend Mary Ann Brittain. The funeral for Mary Ann’s husband, Bill, was held here on Friday. We paid tribute to Bill, who was a remarkable man. He lived a life of extraordinary generosity and service. A few years ago when I told Mary Ann about these visits to the monastery, she turned and responded with some of her trademark petulance, “But Mel, if everybody goes to a monastery, who’s gonna run the world?” My response: Monasteries hold the world together; that’s why we need them.
All of us have an inner monastery, an inner hermitage, to which we can enter any time for quiet savoring and praying. Thomas Merton wrote to Martin Luther King at the time of the civil rights marches, saying “I wish I could be with you, but I’m in this monastery praying for you.” King wrote back, saying “You’re doing exactly what we need—praying for us.”
I arise in the morning torn between two desires—- the desire to savor the world and the desire to save the world. From Pullen’s long tradition, you know about savoring—beauty, art, music, prayer, poetry.
And you know the challenges involved in trying to save the world. Speaking of that desire to save the world: I’m also a child of the 1960’s, and while serving here, I learned that work in the world is part of Pullen’s DNA. The mission of peace and reconciliation, social justice, is part of our calling, our mission, our heart. I’ve long loved what Rabbi Heschel said about the civil rights marches. He said, “We are praying with our feet. Our calling is to alleviate the suffering in the wider community. As I’ve often said to my congregation in Durham, “The church exists for the sake of those people who are not in it.” Pullen believes that.
I arise in the morning torn between two desires—the desire to savor the world and the desire to save the world. That makes it difficult to plan the day.
How do we live in this in-between space, in this gap between savoring and saving? We know that we’re called to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” But how do we find the energy, the stamina? (Did you hear the story of the Episcopalian lady who said, “I always wanted to be a Baptist, but I just didn’t have the energy.”) How do we deal with our flagging energies—- our personal issues: anxieties, pain, health, family, and our limitations—-and how do we still find a balance between savoring and saving?
The Scriptures for today have been sent to help us. Naaman was a high-ranking army officer who contracted leprosy, the dreaded skin disease that made people shun him and keep him at a distance. Elisha the prophet sends a message for Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times. He resists, gets angry, but finally goes and washes in the river. He’s healed, and he comes back to thank Elisha. “I now know that there is one God in Israel.” He’s filled with gratitude. Gratitude—what’s the connection to savoring and saving?
Ten lepers come to Jesus. They’re outcasts, shunned, not only because of the leprosy, but they are also Samaritans, considered inferior, a despised class. As usual, Jesus crosses these boundaries; he heals all ten, but only one of them returns to give thanks. Jesus said, “Where are the other nine?”
I hope the story is not implying that only one out of ten of us is grateful for being healed. It seems clear that the focus is on the response of the one who returns to give thanks. Gratitude. I can only imagine that Naaman and the 10 lepers must have been first surprised at their healing. Surprise, you’re healed! Surprise may be the first step toward gratitude. They received a great gift, a surprise gift, and gratitude is the only proper response to a gift. Both of these stores lift up gratitude as a central response to the gift of healing.
And that has caused me to wonder: Could it be that gratitude is the key that can help us live in the gap between savoring and saving?
Let’s ponder it. All of life is a gift. Every day is a gift. We’ve all experienced some kind of healing in our lives; maybe we are still in the process of being healed—from our hurts, our health crises, our disappointments, our aching grief.
Rather than resisting, struggling against these painful life-events, can we welcome them? I’ve been working on that notion of welcoming everything. There are some things we don’t like welcoming—illness, disability, the death of loved ones, disappointments in relationships, or frustrations at our workplace. But these difficulties are so often our teachers. There is something called “necessary suffering” that opens up new space for learning. Hardship and heartbreak can be great teachers. The spiritual life, someone said, is all about falling down and getting up again. “We fall and then we recover,” Julian of Norwich wrote. “Both are the mercy of God.” (Rohr, p. 58) Richard Rohr spends a whole book, summarizing this theme, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.”
I was a young 26 year old when I came to be a staff minister at this church. I was married and went through a painful divorce here. It was 1971. I was scared. Back then I didn’t know any ministers who were divorced. I felt odd, awkward, like a failure. But this church and Bill Finlator responded with care and support. He said, “We value your ministry; your position here is secure.” This community showed me amazing grace. I found healing here, and I felt an enormous surge of gratitude. That gratitude remains in my heart today! Thank God for Pullen! We fall, and we get up. Both are the mercy of God—-sent through God’s people.
Our stumbles, our disappointments, our griefs, by the grace of God, get healed; our pain softened. Over time we may even, as Hemingway said, grow strong at the broken places.
The only proper response to healing is gratitude.
And I submit that gratitude is the basis, the wellspring, for both savoring and saving. I’ve been fortunate to serve in three maverick, social justice congregations. I’ve learned from each of them that mission begins in gratitude. Mission—- feeding the hungry, overcoming racial or economic injustice, breaking down barriers of race, poverty, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. All of these works of mercy and justice are not done out of grim duty; but out of gratitude.
Gratitude is the soil out of which the work of social justice emerges. Out of gratitude you give your financial support to this church’s ministry and mission. Out of gratitude we stand with the least privileged people among us, especially in this time when our government is assaulting the poor.
Speaking of least privileged, let’s go back to the Ten Lepers: So—-Were the other nine ungrateful? The story doesn’t tell us. I hope they went back and, out of gratitude, started a movement to bring other lepers out of exile and into community. The essence of all religion is belonging. The lepers were isolated, exiled; they didn’t belong. But as usual, Jesus widened the circle and gave them not only healing but belonging. Community. But only one came back to say “Thank you.”
What about the other nine? I have trouble believing that they were ungrateful. In their shock and surprise, I suspect they were just preoccupied. We can imagine: One of them was full of surprise and euphoria; he ran off in a whirling dervish daze. Another was in shock and ran immediately to tell his family. Another one was so filled with adrenaline that he rushed down to the local pub and grabbed a bottle of Holy Land Moonshine and got drunk. Another fell into a spasm of tears and laughter and started dancing, and he couldn’t stop till he fell down in total exhaustion. Another was forgetful about everything, and he drifted off into his dreamy forgetfulness. Another never learned to say thank you at his mother’s knee; he was just clueless. You can imagine the different personal circumstances, clumsy reasons they didn’t return to give thanks.
But after their euphoria, adrenaline, surprise and stupor wore off, I think they each said, “I’m a lucky guy. I was sick and now I’m healed. “I once was lost and now I’m found.” I was isolated, and now I belong to this community. Thank God!
They finally “got it.” They grasped the astounding reality of grace. Unmerited favor. Unearned love and healing. The only response to grace is gratitude. They may not have called it grace, but they knew they received a huge gift—a surprise gift.
Brother David Steindl-Rast wrote a book that has been a long-time guide for me: Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer. In that book Brother David says: gratefulness leads to fullness of life. “Gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness.” (p. 12) Gratefulness shows us that we are dependent on the giver. When we say “thank you,” we are acknowledging that both giver and receiver belong to each other; we are united in a connection, a tie that binds. Gratefulness can bring us back to life. (See the website: gratefulness.org)
During my years here there was a member whose name was Betty Roach. She was shy, modest. She had an illness—Marphan’s Syndrome, which resulted in her thin, gaunt appearance. She received extensive medical treatment; and as a result of her illness and treatment, she changed. Her personality changed. She was no longer withdrawn and shy. She was enormously grateful, and she expressed that gratitude by becoming the leading celebrator of birthdays. She became the birthday person at Pullen. If she knew you and knew it was your birthday, get ready. Betty would come with balloons and cake and a spontaneous little surprise party would erupt out in the hallway. Her gratitude led her to action, to mission—- making much over people at their birthdays. She was an agitator for birthday love and delight. Somebody said we should treat everybody as if every day is their birthday. Betty did that; she savored, took delight in showering people with love and praise. Out of gratitude. That’s the Pullen spirit.
Out of gratitude, we cast our lot with this community of faith. My hope is that all who come here will savor this accepting community, savor belonging to this life-giving, healing fellowship. For what purpose?
There is a story about a general who came to inspect a division of paratroopers, the soldiers who make those parachute jumps out of big airplanes. The general came to one paratrooper and asked him, “How many jumps have you made?” “Over fifty, sir,” the soldier said. “Do you enjoy it?” the general asked. “Yes sir,” he said. The general went down the line asking each soldier these same questions. Then he came to another man, small, swallowed up by his uniform. “How about you?” asked the general. “How many jumps have you made?” “Twenty-nine, sir.” “Do you enjoy it?” “Oh no, sir, I hate it, sir. It scares me to death every time I jump.” And the general asked him, “Man, why did you ever join the paratroopers?” The little man swallowed and said, “Because I like to be associated with people who are not afraid to jump, sir.”
Pullen people are not afraid to jump into the middle of human need—poverty, injustice, pain. And you do it with gratitude, courage, compassion.
Through the long-standing influence of Pullen, I’m now glad to give my energies to the work of End Poverty Durham, an interfaith coalition working to reduce the unacceptable 27% child poverty rate in Durham.
It’s a daunting challenge, but I learned from Pullen that challenges can quickly become our calling.
I arise in the morning torn between two desires: the desire to savor the world and the desire to save the world. We live all along the lines of this savoring/saving continuum. How can we live in this space? We do it with gratitude. Grateful for the gifts—- grateful for the justice and peace challenges before us. Grateful for that inch of toothpaste we squeeze every morning, grateful for the autumn leaves, the sunset, the cardinal on the bird feeder, the silence that restores us; grateful for friends and family who stick with us through thick and thin. Grateful for this faith community where you can BE exactly who you are and proudly say, “I belong here. It’s good to BE here, with all the challenges and callings, with all the Pullen agitators for justice and compassion—-and the singers and poets and free spirits who are always ready to celebrate your birthday.
It’s all grace! Healing grace. And the only proper response is gratitude.
So may it be. Amen.