Sunday, October 9: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Sermon preached by Deborah L. Goodwin, Ph.D.
When Carolyn and Katie invited me to preach, they noted that this is the last week of the Season of Creation and the eve of Indigenous People’s Day. A good time for a message from Earth Care. At first glance, today’s readings seemed less than promising: two miracles involving leprosy? When I read them more closely, though, I realized that the miraculous healings aren’t their most important feature.
I’d like to start with a line from our psalm, however: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding.” Phrases like “the fear of the Lord” make some people uncomfortable. If God is love, why or how should fearing God lead to wisdom? The answer lies in appreciating the biblical view of the right order of things. Or, as our bishop might say, appreciating that “God is God and I am not.”
When I taught college classes, I struggled to persuade my students that the biblical view of freedom had merit. They chafed at the idea that obedience was the highest and best use of human liberty. To me, one of the beauties of the Hebrew Bible is its vision of order and seemliness. From the opening chapter of Genesis, it celebrates the wholeness and integrity of creation, its interconnected unfolding, each piece indispensable to the others.
The one disruptive element in this pattern is…us. Genesis shows us the struggle between what humans are capable of – basically, anything – and what should be useful boundaries to our freedom. The biblical scholar Ellen Davis writes, “As far as we know, we are the only creatures who are made to be fully spiritual … and at the same time fully material…. Truly accepting that unique status is the condition for our full humanity, as the Bible understands it….[she concludes:] We are challenged to recognize ourselves as the only earthly creature who must consciously accept its place, and the only one who can knowingly violate it.” (Ellen F. Davis, “The Agrarian Perspective of the Bible,” Word and World 29 (2009): 2). Constantly tempted to reach beyond our limits, we disregard our relationship to the material, finite world.
That disregard has had grievous consequences, of course. The Bible records the causes and results of human overreach. The beginning of wisdom — its middle and its end, too — is recognizing and accepting our limitations, particularly our will to be more independent than we really are. Ellen Davis has helped to pioneer an “agrarian” reading of the Hebrew Bible. When the Torah prohibits people from harvesting to the edges of their fields, or eating fruit in the first year of a tree’s bearing, or destroying an enemy’s vineyards, it is teaching humans restraint, to ensure a sustainable harvest for years to come. These practices also embody the “fear of the Lord,” properly understood.
Such fear is synonymous with reverence and respect for the generative power that leads to the extraordinary variety and intricacy of the natural world. The awe-struck statutes that command obedience in the Hebrew Bible are guidelines for sustainability and resilience. If we obey, we will survive – that’s what an agricultural people, scrabbling for existence in a semi-arid climate, learned. Their wisdom was grounded in reverence, and expressed over and over again in words of joy and gratitude.
Ah…gratitude. Finally a connection to the stories of Naaman and the ten lepers of Luke. First, Naaman. He’s a military leader whose conquests yield human bounty: an enslaved young Israelite. He suffers from a skin ailment (probably not leprosy, which was largely unknown in the ancient Middle East). The young woman suggests he write to the King of Israel, seeking a prophet with healing powers. The King is not enthused, but Elisha sees an opportunity. He prescribes seven immersions in the Jordan for a cure. Naaman resents this. He’s a Very Important Person. He deserves a Very Important Cure. Once again, a servant sets him straight. He may grumble as he heads to the river, but Naaman returns transformed, in more ways than one. He’s set aside his self-importance, and gratefully accepts that there is no other God than the God of Israel.
Like Naaman, the man who returns to thank Jesus may not have been afflicted with leprosy. Any condition that resulted in broken skin or open sores rendered a person “unclean” in ritual terms, and placed them outside the social order in ancient Israel. But one could recover from such a condition. Leviticus deals with that contingency. A priest at the Temple in Jerusalem would verify the recovery, and the person would be reintegrated. Jesus had sent the men away, without first telling them they’ve been healed. Their healing is implied by his directive to “show yourselves to the priests.” Only one of them grasps his intent, only one notices the results of Jesus’ intervention, and that one returns to thank him.
Some commentators make a lot of this “seeing” on the Samaritan’s part; others emphasize that this person is a Samaritan, an outsider; others stress this is a story about faith. Despite these enriching possibilities, I choose to focus simply on the man’s gratitude. He praises God, throws himself at Jesus’ feet, and thanks him.
The man knows he’s in the presence of something more powerful than anything he’s encountered before. He knows that this encounter has restored him to wholeness and returned him to the social order. His submissive posture might trouble us, just as “the fear of the Lord” does. But for him, as for Naaman, the healing grace of God shows that God is God and we are not. Being restored to our place in the order of things is something to be grateful for. The beginning of wisdom is something to be grateful for.
A while ago, a comment by Benedictine writer Joan Chittister caught my attention: she said, “Gratitude is not a reaction: it is a state of mind. When we go through life cultivating the ability to be grateful…we [become] rich enough inside to sustain whatever we might lose around us.” She stresses that gratitude is shown in actions: we repay in kind what has been done for us. (Beverly Lanzetta, ed. Forty-Day Journey with Joan Chittister. Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2007, 37)
My cultivation of gratitude has taken some hits lately. The pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the persistent, manufactured division in our own country… my state of mind has curdled. But Chittister’s insistence on action gives me hope. After all, how much change we can think ourselves into? But the wisdom of the body can teach the mind a lot. So I’ve gotten to the point that I’d rather weed, than read.
I have found helpful support for this spiritual practice from botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Potawatomi Nation, whose ancestral lands once covered much of the central Midwest. After spending a week in the woods with her students, building a classroom from cattails and saplings, she wrote: “The circle of ecological compassion we feel is enlarged by direct experience of the living world, and shrunken by its lack. Had [the students and I] not waded waist deep in the swamp, had we not followed muskrat trails and rubbed ourselves with soothing slime, or eaten cattail pancakes, would they even be debating about what gifts they could offer in return? In learning reciprocity, the hands can lead the heart.” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013, 239)
The soothing slime that she mentions is found in cattail stems. It has both antibiotic and anesthetic properties. If Naaman or Luke’s lepers had had cattails handy, they might not have needed miraculous cures. But: is the presence of those properties in nature any less of a miracle? Is it any less of a demonstration of God’s gracious providence? If Jesus is god-made-human, the sacrament of divine presence, and is also the Word, the ordering principle through whom all things were made, then is God any less encounterable in the natural world than in the scriptures? Could our Eucharist – Greek for gratitude – be offered in a marsh among cattails? Yes, God is here… And God is there.
Is a convergence possible? Of religious belief, of “Traditional Indigenous Knowledge,” of science? Scientists now know that the universe is not static, that the material world is not just inert stuff. They know now that the smell of soil, and maternal love, release the same endorphins in our brains. That we share 95% of our DNA with animals, and 35% with plants. Scientists even acknowledge that trees communicate with each other. Robin Kimmerer’s ancestors knew all these things – knowledge for which they were derided, and deprived of their land, language, their freedom, health, and their children.
Embodied gratitude, the hands leading the heart, can give rise to awe, reverence, holy fear. It is the beginning of wisdom. Let us learn from it, rejoice in it, act on it, and sing of it, in an unending hymn of thanks. Amen.