“’Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?”
This morning, I’m going to preach two homilies. First, I want to speak to today’s Gospel text, and then I want to say a word about the Blessing of the Animals that we are about to do.
We preachers can easily turn this morning’s gospel – the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers – into a pedantic reminder of the importance of saying “thank you.” When we do, our homilies often come across as lengthier, maybe slightly more refined, versions of what our mother told us when we were kids: “Remember to say ‘Thank you.’” More creative preachers might point out that the leper was a Samaritan – an outcast – and say something about Luke’s concern for the marginalized.
I have preached both of those sermons, and I want to do something different this morning.
What I’d like to do – without negating the importance of saying “thank you” or setting aside Luke’s concern for the marginalized – is to add an additional lens through which we might see this morning’s gospel. The “lens” that I want to add is something that, if we’ve not yet experienced it, we will, for it is something that affects all of us. Sometimes it is small, sometimes it is large. Sometimes it is barely noticeable, at other times it is all we can see. Sometimes it feels sharp and acute, at other times it feels dull. Sometimes it last only briefly, sometimes it lingers for years. The “it” of which I speak is grief.
Grief is the process of our hearts moving through loss. We experience grief when somebody dies, but also when we lose a job, or a relationship, or a home, a neighborhood, our pet, our health, a physical ability, or – pertinent to us in our newly-merged parish – a familiar parish community. As I look out at our world, I see millions of people who are surely experiencing grief: the residents of Aleppo, the people of Haiti, the families of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, refugees streaming into Europe, couples going through divorce. And I suspect many of us here are right now experiencing grief. Maybe we’ve lost someone dear to us, maybe our marriage is not what we wanted it to be, maybe out kids didn’t turn out the way we had hoped, maybe we didn’t get and may never get that job or that home, or maybe we’ve just been diagnosed with an illness. If we’re older, maybe we’re losing our hearing or agility or strength. If we’re younger, maybe we’re discovering we’re not the athlete, the scholar, or the professional we thought we were. If we have not yet, all of us will experience grief. Grief is part of being human.
The lepers in this morning’s gospel lesson surely knew grief. Imagine them awakening to discover that they had leprosy. Immediately they became outcasts. Immediately they were driven from their family, their home, their friends, their neighbors to live outside the town. In an instant, their world was upended, all that was familiar was taken away, and they were thrust into a new home and a new community, not of their choosing, outside the city. Imagine their sense of loss and grief.
I don’t know about you, but in my experience there is an acute phase of grief in which I can see nothing except the loss; the loss eclipses all else. This acute phase is a time to give myself permission to feel whatever I need to feel, and for as long as I need to feel it. If you are in this acute phase of grief right now, I encourage you to give yourself permission to feel whatever you need to feel, for as long as you need to feel it.
What I’m about to say is for those who have moved through the acute phase. And we know we’ve moved through the acute phase because we begin to see beyond the loss. The “clouds” begin to break and we experience intermittent “sunshine;” we begin to reclaim our energy, and if we have withdrawn, we begin to reengage. In this phase, something that seems to help the heart move through the remainder of the grief is gratitude, to notice what I do have, rather than focusing on what I don’t.
Again, what I’m saying is for those who have passed through the acute phase. Again, in the acute phase, it is important to give ourselves permission to feel whatever it is we need to feel, for as long as we need to feel it.
Gratitude is the oil that un-seizes the engine of our prayer. Even though we have recently experienced loss, if we can express gratitude for what we do have rather than focusing on what we don’t, then we possess a balm to help us work through the remainder of the pain, the anger, the denial, the bargaining – all the familiar stages of grief – and come to a place of acceptance. Gratitude will not exempt us from working through the remainder of our grief; but gratitude can help us come to a place of acceptance. For gratitude, when it follows on grief, is especially effective in prying open the tight, paint-can lid of our hearts to let God in. Gratitude, when it follows on grief, fertilizes the heart’s soil, irrigates it from deep wells, gives it warm breezes and ample sunshine to create a fertile place where something new can take root and begin to grow.
God is able to help us move through grief because He, too, knows grief; He, too, has experienced loss. In Christ, God knows grief’s anger and pain and sense of helplessness (and bargaining and denial)… Jesus has been there.
Given that Jesus knew the grief that the lepers were experiencing, and given that He knew, too, that one of the best ways to come to a place of acceptance is gratitude, I wonder if Jesus asked, “But the other nine, where are they?” because He wanted the men to truly be healed. Jesus wanted them not to hold on to their loss – their time of separation and stigma – He wanted them not be bitter or angry about the months, even years, lived apart. He wanted them to be fully healed. Maybe that’s why Jesus asked, “But the other nine, where are they?”
As He wanted for the lepers, Jesus wants us to be fully healed and fully alive, too. Which is why He gives us Eucharist. So that we might remember His experience of grief and loss; so that we might know that He has been there and is there with us; that we might know that all our loss – our suffering and grief – has the possibility of being redeemed; so that we might in this bread and wine, His body and blood, begin to find a freedom to move forward and claim new life.
I realize it is something of a stark transition, to go from grief to Labrador retrievers and miniature dachshunds, but… here they are! And isn’t the carrying within us of two extremes something we Christians do all the time, carrying within us Jesus’ death and resurrection? So, on to Labradors and dachshunds….
This past Tuesday, October 4, was the Feast of St. Francis, and it has been our custom to do a Blessing of the Animals on the first Sunday following October 4. As I’ve said, I didn’t used to like the Blessing of the Animals. Blessing animals is kind of “cute,” and “cute” doesn’t normally make for good liturgy. But I’ve had a change of heart because so many have told me how they’ve experienced something of God in animals.
I suspect those of us who are pet owners each have stories about seeing something of God in our pets. For me, I am reminded of God when my dog looks at me – just looks, returning my gaze with no sense of fear or inhibition. Which is just how the Psalmist says our souls look to God:
To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters,
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy. (Ps 123)
I hope that the Blessing of Animals this morning will help us not only to see God in God’s created things, but also to “lift up our eyes, to Him enthroned in the heavens,” to adopt a stance of prayer, of receiving, of hope, to Him whose power can work in us new life – who can help us to be fully alive even after we have experienced loss – in extraordinary, surprising, astonishing and unforeseen ways.