Luke 17:11-19 Oct 13-13
This past Thursday morning Canada woke up and took notice as one of our own was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Whether you count yourself as an appreciator of Alice Munroe’s short stories or not the buzz was hard to miss. A columnist in the Globe and Mail wrote yesterday: “The Nobel Prize for literature is known for refusing to bow to the most popular genres or national literatures… In venerating short stories…, it is taking a stance, defiantly promoting the obscure, the regional and the specialized.”
The obscure, regional and specialized is a rather accurate way to describe the work of Munroe. Her stories are predominantly located in the small towns around Lake Huron: places, even for those who live in godforsaken Ontario, of little significance. Munro herself has no sense of self importance. She once wrote:
I did not “choose” to write short stories. I hoped to write novels. When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time….you’re better to stick with something you can keep in mind and hope to do in a few weeks, or a couple of months at most. I know that there are lots of women who have written novels in the midst of domestic challenges… That’s why I thought I could do it too, but I couldn’t. I took to writing in frantic spurts, juggling my life around until I could get a story done, then catching up on other responsibilities.
That’s the woman who rose this week to be honoured by Nobel: arguably the epitome of academic establishment. The irony is intriguing.
I like to think that Jesus had a tendency to promote the obscure, regional and specialised. Luke tells us that Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem by way of ‘the region between Samaria and Galilee:’ a claim that pretty much defies geography. You can’t get there from there. Talk about obscure. The setting is not meant to be accurate but symbolic: it’s meant to describe a route through a land of outsiders, a place where the disenfranchised ones lived. This is where Jesus encounters the lepers, people who were ostracized from the main stream. Lepers were both physically and ritually unclean, their disfiguring disease making them people easily set aside. They had to live in groups for their own safety and they had to beg but in such a way as to not come in contact with ‘clean people’. So it is these ‘forgotten’ and ‘marginalized’ people, in this symbolic ‘foreign’ territory that Jesus encounters.
He enters a village and is approached by the lepers, respectfully keeping their distance. It’s a village – there are people around: people who will see; people who will hear. The lepers call out to Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” People who are not welcome, in a land beyond the boundaries of acceptable community, call to Jesus to heal them. This is the gospel in microcosm. Jesus does what he is well-known to do; what people in authority criticize him for. He heals them. Well, not exactly. He tells them to “Go” – “Go show yourselves to the priests”. The irony is unmistakable: Jesus healing these outcasts – against the status quo of orthodoxy – and in so doing instructing them to go the priests. Go and get healed, you outcasts, by the people of the dominant institution.
In this moment of irony, something most astonishing happens. One of the ten comes back to Jesus and throws himself at Jesus’ feet in thankfulness. Only one. That makes some sense in the context. It was a risky moment: the nine got right out of town, not wanting to be seen in the company of the radical healer. The one, the Samaritan, the outsider, maybe he didn’t really understand the risk. All he had within him was healing – he needed to say something, to act, to express what must have been so deep, deep within him. He overflows in gratitude at the feet of the healer. And this is the crux of the story, as far as I can see: the tenth leper, the only leper to come back and say thanks: noticed that he was healed. He noticed and from his noticing the gratitude poured out.
There’s something that happens when we notice, something that shifts our focus and enables us to see that which was hidden before. In Margaret Visser’s book The Gift of Thanks she writes about how the word give implies the potential of a response, explaining that you “don’t give a pot to the kitchen counter. One merely sets it down there.” Giving, only becomes meaningful through active receiving. “It is the receiver’s acceptance-his response-that converts a mere thing, however generously handed over, into a gift. Merely saying yes to a gift is already to enter into the action, where the giver, gift and receiver are parts of one performance-which could be the first in a series of such events.” So when Jesus exclaims: “But the other nine, where are they?” he is not chastising the fleeing lepers for not minding their manners. He is crying out at the lost potential, the lost opportunity for the mutual dance of relationship that is always born from taking notice of what has been gifted.
This orientation to noticing has room to hold our brokenness and our very real struggles. It is not about saying thank you because you ought to. It’s about noticing what is. Any one of us who has found ourselves in the most challenging places of our lives knows that even there, especially there we can notice gift. I would argue that it is almost easier to be open to gift when we know our diagnosis or that of our loved one is terminal, easier to be open to gift when our hearts are broken and our defenses down. Those are the times, when there is nothing to lose, that we run back to the giver and say thank you and our hearts are broken open to the powerful transformation of grace.
The more challenging task is to take notice when all is status quo. When the gift is a burst of humour in hospital room, gratitude is easy. When the gift is the subtle changing of the colour of the leaves, another day of waking to the usual morning routine or found on the same old commute to work, it is harder to recognise. When our lives are playing out in the ordinary the challenge to open our eyes and recognize gift in our midst becomes more difficult. Those nine lepers missed an opportunity to offer gratitude and the beautiful blessing that would have come but we all miss the moment sometimes. Presumably they were healed anyway: they went to the priests and were declared clean, they weren’t punished for missing a moment. So too when we forget to notice the utter blessing in our midst: there is no punishment and a continual open invitation to notice next time.
Refusing to give or to be grateful is not immoral, as being unjust is immoral; it is rather a limitation, a closure against other people and a desire for nothing new, a failure to grow, a resolution against transcendence. Giving and gratitude on the other hand, are the beginning and the stuff of transcendence: a free response in love to another person, to the group to which one belongs, to all groups in society including one’s own, to humankind as a whole, to the earth, to the universe and-both finally and first- to God.
What do you notice? In the rhythm of your daily life, what is offered to you as gift that you are called to pay attention to? What calls out to you offering healing and hope and light and grace? Are there moments in your every day that are gift? We teach children young and early to say thank you but perhaps the greater life skill is to teach noticing, To take notice of the intricate beauty of the changing seasons, to take notice of the small ways others show us care, to take notice of the moments we are offered a helping hand or an open heart, to take notice of those in our communities you extend compassion: the simple act of noticing leaves us overflowing with gratitude.
One commentator says:
Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself. Maybe, just maybe, gratitude… frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we’d ever imagined. Even to return to a Jewish rabbi to pay homage when you are a Samaritan because you’ve realized that you are more than a Samaritan, or a leper, or even a healed leper; you are a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as you are.
I’ve noticed about you that you come to this place of worship not to get something out of it but to be open to what comes. I’ve noticed you show deep care for one another and for stranger. I’ve noticed your commitment to help one another evolve spiritually. I’ve noticed the ways you celebrate the sacred mystery of life. I’ve noticed. What do you notice?
Alice Munroe once said:
A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.
The house, the story, the life always contains more than you saw the first time. Taking notice is not a one-time opportunity, rather an invitation to visit the house again, to continually look with new eyes, observant eyes, eyes that are not looking for anything new but are simply looking: ready to notice the rich landscape…the abundant gifts that touch us each and every day of our living. As we nurture the skill of noticing, before long our hearts and our very being will overflow with gratitude. And that’s the place where the giving will really begin.