Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 21st Sunday After Pentecost + October 9, 2016
My best friend, Shelly, and I — like a whole lot of people — have the constant problem of not seeing ourselves or what we do as good enough. This problem was probably made even worse during our time in divinity school, when we were always surrounded by perfectionists, brilliant thinkers, beautiful writers, world-changers, and big-hearted ministers. We were roommates for two of those years, and almost every Friday night we’d find ourselves lying on the floor and saying things like, “My paper topic is so boring, Sarah’s writing about something way more creative,” and “I will never be the kind of good listener that Matt is. He’s just perfect.” It was not a healthy way to look at ourselves and our community.
So finally we decided to take our negative point of view into our own hands and smother it with a more positive outlook. The first way we did this was to repurpose the phrase “Reality check!” Usually people use that phrase to remind others that world’s not always a great place to live, like: “Reality check: your student loans payments are coming due!” Sometimes we all need reality checks like that. But Shelly and I realized that what we really needed was to be reminded that the world was full of good things and that our lives were really pretty great. So we got into the habit of texting positive reality checks to each other throughout the day: “Reality check: coffee is amazing!” and “Reality check: puppies exist.” Eventually we hung a white board by our door, where we wrote a list of positive “reality checks” that we had to see every time we passed, and we started writing more personal things on it. “Reality Check: Shelly is rocking that Ph.D.-level theology class.”
The bad habit Shelly and I were working against — the habit of seeing ourselves and the world as not enough — is sometimes called looking at the world through a sense of scarcity, or even living in a culture of scarcity. One writer, Lynne Twist, described our culture of scarcity like this:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. We don’t have enough exercise. We don’t have enough work. We don’t have enough profits. We don’t have enough power. We don’t have enough wilderness. We don’t have enough weekends. Of course, we don’t have enough money – ever. We’re not thin enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough or fit enough or educated or successful enough, or rich enough – ever.
Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to the reverie of lack.
What begins as a simple expression of the hurried life, or even the challenged life, grows into the great justification for an unfulfilled life.
Our first reading for today tells the story of the Aramean commander Naaman, who traveled to Israel to be cleansed of his skin disease. When he arrived, the prophet Elisha sent a messenger to tell Naaman: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman’s first thought was: That’s not enough! The “great prophet” didn’t even come out to see me! I thought for sure he’d come out and do something big: wave his hand over me and cure me instantly. But he just wants me to wash in river? I could have washed in a better river back home!
His servants had to make him stop and question those scarcity-thoughts: But wait. Isn’t this enough? If he would have offered to do some crazy miracle, you would have gone for it; if he would have told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. But he’s just told you to do something easy: “Wash, and be clean.” Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that enough?
The opposite of a sense of scarcity is a sense of sufficiency: the point of view that there is enough, and that we are enough.
One way to help develop a sense of sufficiency is to practice gratitude. Researcher Brene Brown would emphasize: Not an “attitude of gratitude,” but a real practice of gratitude. The “reality checks” Shelly and I still try to do. Keeping a gratitude journal. Sharing things you are thankful for around the dinner table. Taking photographs of the parts of your life that bring you joy. Practicing gratitude not only helps to transform the culture of scarcity, it also helps encourage joy.
And it can do even more: For Naaman, turning away from a sense of scarcity, doing what the prophet said, and feeling gratitude for his small miracle helped him to see God at work. Naaman, the commander of a foreign army, said to the Elisha, a prophet of Israel: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
Especially in Christian circles, this concept of “sufficiency” goes by another name. When we see the world with the faith that there is enough; when we look at what we have and are filled with gratitude that it is enough; when we look at ourselves and try to believe that even with our weaknesses and our imperfections and our sins somehow we are enough…we call that grace. God’s grace to fill our world abundantly. God’s grace to love us and call us lovable even while we are yet sinners.
This is the biggest gift Jesus gives the 10 lepers he healed into today’s gospel reading. We can imagine that these people had been cast out from their own families and communities because of their highly-visible disease. Laws and social regulations kept them from approaching other people; we read that they kept their distance from Jesus, even while they asked him for mercy.
Maybe their lives were like those of modern-day lepers in India, who one woman described like this, in a memory from a childhood visit to India:
One morning, as my father was standing in line to buy tickets at a village train station, my little brother pointed to two figures sitting hunched in a corner. “What’s wrong with them?” he asked.
By then we’d been in India for two weeks, and I was accustomed to seeing beggars. Exhausted women with too-thin babies on their hips. Men who were blind or lame. Pot-bellied children who stared at my Western clothes. New to witnessing such relentless need, I spent my days digging in my father’s wallet or my mother’s purse, handing out every bill or coin they’d spare.
But these two figures were different. Though I guessed they needed help, too, I didn’t want to approach them. Their faces were distorted, eaten. Their fingers were half-missing, and their feet were scary, mottled stumps. “They’re sick,” my father answered after a quick, pitying glance in their direction. “They have leprosy.”
The train station was crowded that day, swarming with travelers, vendors, and beggars. But what struck me about those figures huddling in the shadows was how alone they were. It was otherworldly, profound and impenetrable in a way I could barely comprehend. It was as if some invisible barrier, solid as granite, separated them from the rest of humanity, rendering them wholly untouchable. Yes, their disease frightened me. But what frightened me much more was their isolation, their not-belonging.
If, from the outside, we can call another’s life a life of scarcity, those 10 lepers were living it. They were not “well enough” and did not look “good enough” for regular society. They probably did not have enough wealth or food to live comfortably. They were forced to live as separately as possible from the rest of the world, because they were not enough.
But Jesus gave them the gift not only of physical healing, but also of spiritual and social healing: the gift of a grace that echoes not only through one personal soul, but through their daily lives, their relationships, their possibilities. As the Indian-American writer quoted above describes this gospel story:
[Jesus] enables [the lepers’] return to all that makes us fully human—family, community, society, intimacy. In healing their withered skin and numbed limbs, he releases them to feel again—to embrace and be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease stole from them. Jesus enters a no-man’s-land—a land of no belonging—and hands out ten unblemished passports. He invites ten exiles home.3
So many things that we take for granted were given to them as a miracle.
And one of these lepers — a Samaritan, who had no doubt been raised to think of Jews like Jesus as from the “wrong religion,” — returns and falls at Jesus’s feet, because he realizes that God was there in that moment of grace.
How can we develop a habit of looking around for moments of God’s grace, for God’s gifts of acceptance and sufficiency in our own lives? How can we reject the culture of scarcity, the idea that we do not have enough or are not enough? And how can we help God’s sufficiency and grace reach others in all areas of their lives?