By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 6:25-33
We are all, I imagine, familiar with the Dr. Seuss story How the Grinch Stole Christmas! In the story, the Grinch wrongly assumes that the joy of Christmas depends upon having stuff – good toys and games, holiday decorations and festive food. But he discovers, of course, that the Who’s in Whoville don’t need stuff to have joy on Christmas morning. Now, while the Grinch was unsuccessful at stealing Christmas, there is an even more threatening culprit seeking to steal Thanksgiving.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
I know that some of you have heard me speak before about the puppy Britt and I fostered while we were living in Dayton, Ohio. It is that little puppy who always comes to mind when I read the story in this morning’s gospel.
It was an unusually warm and sunny February day. Britt and I were at United Seminary in Dayton. We were driving around to the back parking lot to meet a professor to go to lunch when there – in the middle of the road – was a puppy. The little guy had collapsed in the road. His head was slumped over a dead leaf. Britt stopped the van and walked toward the puppy. He was a pitiful sight. He was so undernourished that his skeletal frame was visible all over. He was deformed – swayback, flat feet and misshapen legs. He was filthy and his smell made me sick to my stomach. Nevertheless, he was so pathetic that I loaded him into my Explorer and headed to the local no-kill shelter. Even the shelter volunteers cringed when I entered the door with the little guy. They examined him announcing that he was dehydrated and severely malnourished and very close to death. They gave him subcutaneous fluids and then proceeded to explain that there was no room at their facility for this puppy. I had two options, I could take him to one of several shelters in the area which would give him a limited time for adoption and then euthanize or Britt and I could become his foster parents until he recovered enough to be put up for adoption. Well, this pup was no likely candidate for immediate adoption. So home we went with worming medication and instructions to feed him a ¼ c. of dog food every three hours or so for the next three or four days. Before his meal, he received a bath. The shelter had emphasized that, because of his young age, some of his deformities could be corrected with nutrition and exercise. That weekend life revolved around that weak little puppy. His crate was in the basement. Every three hours, we released him from the crate and put him in the backyard to do his business. We stood and waited while he wobbled around the back yard. When he finally did business, he was greatly praised then we headed inside for food and water. The flight of stairs to the main floor was encouraged for exercise. But it could take up to five minutes of coaxing to get him up those stairs. Once he made it to the top of the stairs there was, again, a great deal of praise and a dish of food and water waiting in the kitchen. After he ate and drank, he stumbled back down the stairs to his crate where he fell into an exhausted heap and slept until we awakened him three hours later to repeat the whole procedure.
Now the shelter had told me that the little guy could not be adopted until he was neutered and recovered and he couldn’t even be neutered until he was strong enough for surgery. So, we now knew, this pup would be with us for at least two months. So, we named him. That sorrowful little puppy became Elos from the Greek word eleos which means “mercy.” We had known, and the shelter had confirmed, that Elos would not have survived much longer. Without our intervention, Elos would have likely been dead within a day or two. Only mercy had saved him. He looked horrible, he smelled terrible and he was too weak to demonstrate any regard for anyone or anything. Elos needed mercy and mercy is what he got; mercy in the form of a warm house, a soft blanket, nutritious food, clean water, affection, training and exercise. All were his for the next two months and Elos thrived on them. His weight almost doubled. His bones and muscles strengthened and some of those deformities corrected themselves. And he was, by far, the happiest puppy you could ever see. He had a zest for life and was full of orneriness. His wobbling turned into bouncing. Elos seemed to bounce with glee wherever he went. He rolled around on the floor with our Doberman puppy – who was 3 times his size – but Elos didn’t seem to notice. He would drag throw rugs and other items – also three times his size – around the house. And, his greatest delight was up-dumping water dishes – the fuller, the better. Little Elos was a puppy much in need of mercy and mercy is what he got. Mercy made him whole. Mercy saved him. And mercy bore the fruit of joy and delight.
Mercy is an important theme in the Gospel of Luke. In this morning’s story, Jesus enters a village and is approached by ten lepers who cry out to him for mercy. They’re keeping their distance because, by law, their disease rendered them unclean. They were required to keep their distance. So these lepers, separated from their community without any viable means of supporting themselves, were dependent for survival upon the mercy of others. They needed alms and, perhaps, that’s all they hoped to get from Jesus. Perhaps… And yet, they address him as “Master” – the only time in Luke’s Gospel that anyone other than the disciples call Jesus “Master.” And so, maybe, just maybe, they do have insight into the fact that Jesus has more to offer them than a piece of bread or a couple coins.
In response to their plea for mercy, Jesus instructs them to go show themselves to the priest. Now, that implies healing because if someone’s “leprous” condition were to go away, they could rejoin society only after the priest gave them a clean bill of health.
But, before Jesus gives them these instructions the gospel writer tells us that Jesus saw them. And that little word “saw” is a big and important word in the gospel of Luke. Seeing is something that connects us to one another and to God. To see is to acknowledge. To see is to comprehend. Jesus saw the lepers and he responded with mercy to what he saw. Even before they reach the priests, the lepers receive healing. It is discernible to them – simply by seeing – seeing from the condition of their skin that their disease is gone. And so, we’re told, that one of them – when he saw that he had been made clean – returned to Jesus to praise him and thank him. Nine go merrily on their way. But one sees and offers thanks for that which he sees. His sight yields insight which leads to gratitude and joy. He receives more than physical healing. He receives salvation. What he sees is what he gets. The other nine apparently don’t see what this one Samaritan leper saw.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan – also in Luke – Jesus tells a story of another Samaritan who sees. In that story, a man traveling down a notorious stretch of road from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and beaten and left for dead. Two religious folk happen upon the man – a priest and a Levite. Each of them makes visual contact with the man. But, when they do, they pass by on the other side of the road. They see – and yet they fail to see. A third man happens by and this man is a Samaritan. He, too, sees the victim. But, when he sees, he seems to comprehend the man’s suffering. Because he sees, he is moved with compassion; he sees an opportunity to show mercy.
People of God: there is physical sight and then there is spiritual sight; our ability to see the saving mercy of Jesus at work in our lives; and the ability to see those places of opportunity to offer God’s mercy to others. After all, three men were traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and all caught sight of that miserable, beaten up guy lying at the side of the road. All three saw with their eyes, but only one could see the opportunity to show mercy.
Likewise, only one of the 10 cleansed lepers truly sees and responds to God’s mercy bringing healing and salvation into his life. That one cleansed leper responds with thanksgiving; grateful because he has seen. He receives far more than the other nine because of what he sees. What you see IS what you get.
So, what do we see on a day to day basis? Do we see and then go merrily on our way? Or do we truly see the many ways in which the saving presence of Jesus can and does intersect with our lives and, through us, with the lives of others? Do we recognize God’s mercy? God’s grace is freely and abundantly offered. But it’s hard to receive it if we don’t see it.
This is a week of thanksgiving and next week we’ll talk in greater detail about the gift of gratitude. Gratitude is a spiritual gift. It involves a purposeful decision to see things differently. To focus our vision NOT on what we are lacking but to see how much we have and how blessed we are. I think much of the strife in our world today – a rejection of equal rights for those who are different, efforts to deport or keep out refugees, condemnation toward those battling addiction – has to do with how well we see. When we see shortage; when we see others as competition; when we see others as threatening to our own well-being, we have – to a large degree – made a decision to see the grace of Jesus as something small and limited and in short supply. But when we choose to see Jesus’ grace as amazing and abundant; prolific and indiscriminate, then we have compassion for our own weaknesses and we’re better able to show generous mercy toward others. Sometimes it’s hard to see; but friends, God’s mercy and grace are all around us. We’re no different than those lepers in Luke’s gospel. What you see is what you get.
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